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Emily St. John Mandel Is Back, With a Ponzi Scheme Instead of a Pandemic


Emily St. John Mandel Is Back, With a Ponzi Scheme Instead of a Pandemic

By Emily St. John Mandel

The success of Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel “Station Eleven,” in which a band of artists travel a post-pandemic North American landscape (and which may merit a rereading after you’ve finished rewatching “Contagion”), inspired a lot of the usual talk about genre and literary fiction, and whether here was another shining example of the distinction’s decline. “The thing that makes ‘Station Eleven’ National Book Award material,” Joshua Rothman wrote in The New Yorker — in other words, the thing that makes it literary — “is that the survivors are artists.” As further evidence, Rothman cited the fact that the Travelling Symphony (as the group calls itself) performs Shakespeare rather than whatever will pass for pop culture after the apocalypse.

For me, the boundary has always come down to something different: the complexity of the feelings and ideas the work inspires; the labor that has gone into its voices; and, simply, how engaging it is. These criteria have less to do with what makes fiction genre vs. literary than, simply, what makes it good. For me, it isn’t enough that a book deploys Shakespeare, and even cites “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” fluently, as “Station Eleven” did. Rather, does it have anything interesting to say about Shakespeare? Or about pop culture, for that matter?

In this formulation, “genre” is a pejorative adjective for any kind of mediocre writing rather than a designation for nonliterary styles, and can easily refer to mediocre fiction that happens to carry “literary” markers. The postapocalyptic reality I fantasize about has done away with jacket copy, blurbs and bookstore shelf markings, and we all wander around in a happy daze, finding joy from the last things we expected.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Glass Hotel.” ]

This brings me back to Mandel, who has a new novel out, her fifth, “The Glass Hotel.” By the prevailing definitions, this is a literary novel without even a whiff of genre around it — it’s largely a description of events, public and personal, surrounding the exposure of a Ponzi scheme with close resemblance to Bernie Madoff’s. In the novel, Jonathan Alkaitis claims he acted alone, as did Madoff; there is an ignored Cassandra in the image of the Madoff whistle-blower Harry Markopolos; here, too, the S.E.C. mishandles an early investigation; and exactly five Alkaitis employees are involved.

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