“I’m at church,” I said to my husband as he walked back into the kitchen to rinse his egg plate. I was muted, and later I turned off my camera, too, to minimize problems with Zoom on my phone. Life is so virtual now. It was an excellent reflection (we don’t have sermons), reminding us that compassion teaches better than shame. I do think that’s true. I learn more, and am more open to learning, when not shamed into it. My phone was propped up against the glass jar holding our gummy vitamins, which I used with a glass of water for our bloodless, bodiless communion.
I finished The Glass Hotel, by Emily St. John Mandel. Picture it, a hotel of glass on a remote, wooded island. A main character who is for a time a bartender at the hotel is a woman named Vincent. I was thinking, just like Edna St. Vincent Millay, and, sure enough, it turns out the character’s mother named her after the poet!
As I read further, I encountered another coincidence: container ships off the coast of Malaysia! I know these ships! And then a character named Miranda, who is drawing! I realize she must be drawing scenes that will end up in her comic book, “Station Eleven,” from the St. John Mandel novel I read previously, Station Eleven! It’s not just a Random Coinciday! It’s intentional, and neato!
The Glass Hotel is a compelling book about “counterlives,” somewhere between the parallel lives supposedly possible in physics and lives imagined from wishful thinking, perhaps tangled in memory and dream. It’s a book about ghosts, what we are haunted by—regret, guilt, shame, people we loved and lost, people we harmed. It’s a book about shadow countries, the country of money, the country of the cheated. It asks interesting questions: What would you do for enough money? What won’t you do? It’s a book about denial, asking, Is it possible to both know and not know something at the same time?
By chance, while I was reading this, we watched the documentary After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, which shows the harm that can be done by sending untruths out in the world and also how “fake news” is used as a weapon by those who should know better. I finally found out exactly what happened with “pizzagate,” a conspiracy theory weaponized to discredit Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign season. (She had nothing to do with it, of course.) I now have great admiration for the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor staff and customers, so brave, so generous! And compassion for the gun-carrying fellow who was misled by fake news. Once he realized he was acting on false information, he readily gave himself up to police.
We need truth, we need transparency. Back to The Glass Hotel. The plot involves a Ponzi scheme, like the one that Bernie Madoff devised and went to jail for. “People believe in all kinds of things. Just because it’s a delusion doesn’t mean it can’t make real money for people. You want to talk about mass delusions, I know a lot of guys who got rich off of subprime mortgages.” That’s a character justifying his own lies, just as Jack Burkman justifies using fake news to try to get what he wants in After Truth.
I don’t quite believe in parallel lives. I think they exist in the math and the mind, not in reality. “What is reality?” someone will ask, and/or use to confuse or mislead me. What might I answer? Comet Ping Pong.