In Lucy Corin’s The Swank Hotel, there are moments of pure clarity. In its explorations of corporate America, of familial loss and grief, and of 2008 recession-era life, the novel shines. But in its interstitial space, darting from one narrator to another in the tangled web of love, relationships, and confusion, the novel puzzles. This is not a book to read in an afternoon, but one to chew and digest over time. And when given this space, we still may not understand.
The Swank Hotel is about madness; by madness I do not mean clinical mental illness, although that features strongly in the novel as an anchoring theme. Em, a corporate employee in a marketing firm, is haunted by her sister’s disappearance. Her sister, Ad, has battled mental illness for much of her life, and her disappearances are nothing new. It is this weight that Em carries through much of the novel: through her job, her lonely personal life, and the obsessive relationship she cultivates with her manager, Frank. What changes in the scope of the novel is Em’s understanding of madness itself, from how she copes with Ad’s eventual return to feelings of isolation while surrounded by family and friends. Em herself grapples with her own madness, her discontent, and her inability to find peace in the world around her.
On corporate life, Corin nails the crafted persona such an environment craves, showing us that there is an inherent madness in our day to day lives:
Meanwhile, Em was better all the time at keeping her head down, increasingly able to see things from other people’s perspectives, buying into anything, who cares, asking the question other people were afraid would make them seem dumb. She worked independently, but popped in to say hi just because. She was fine saying ‘I could get by with something basic,’ meaning cheaper, when it came to creating her charts and grafts out of data.
More madness comes in the way of the other characters, as their narratives begin to filter into the novel. When Em learns of her manager Frank’s longtime love affair with a married man, Jack, she immerses herself in the matter to such a degree that it borders on obsession. Frank and Jack themselves are entrenched in their own madness that spans years, decades even. Em’s parents process grief and longing in their own ways, and project the madness of their own upbringing onto their children. And of course there is the madness of the age, our recent history as it continues to the present, all of which Corin captures in offhand lines:
People on the radio in California were occupying places. People on the street on the radio really used the word solidarity. They said they were being in it. Em wondered about feeling versus being…She joked to herself about whether or not she bought it, this strategic fleck of language, imagining activists.
It is in these moments that the novel comes together, but in its inclusion of the surreal, things fly off the rails. Strange dreams permeate the minds of Em, Frank, and other characters. A sewn-up mouth jars the reader, but what it adds up to remains to be seen. Sexuality and horror, in the form of extended pornography scenes and pages of dead baby jokes achieve a tone of aversion, but read as accessories to the main throughlines.
The novel, with its shifting point of view and frequent flashbacks, is anything but linear. While some digressions, such as the My Strange Addiction episode summary on urine drinking, contribute to the characters’ struggles with madness, others feel like dangling threads without resolution. The structure of the work veers from novel to collection of isolated vignettes, reminiscent of Corin’s earlier work One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. But in this work the vignettes are abandoned and return to the main story and its central players, leaving the reader wondering what their ultimate significance really was.
The novel is far from comfortable, its ideas and prose are densely packed. Corin’s skill as a prose stylist cannot be discounted, she demonstrates over and over a deep understanding of her characters and literary ideas. But how these ideas come through on the page is wholly uneven. The novel begs for rumination in between periods of confusion. Such is the nature of madness.
The Swank Hotel
by Lucy Corin
Published October 5th, 2021
Malavika Praseed is a writer, book reviewer, and genetic counselor. Her fiction has been published in Plain China, Cuckoo Quarterly, Re:Visions, and others. Her podcast, YOUR FAVORITE BOOK, is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and various other platforms