She has been here before. It’s the south of France and it’s hot: “the foyer sags with humidity, unleavened by the indoor trees[...] Fronds dust-patinated to rust.” There is a ritual to perform with the man behind the desk, with credit cards and passports – he disinterested, she impatient. It might be a familiar hotel, but the man is different – or is he? It scarcely matters. “Framed in keys, who is he to me, this arbiter of rooms?” The key – not a swipe card but an actual key – doesn’t work on first try in the “scratched, dull lock”. It must be coaxed.
This is the opening of Eimear McBride’s third novel Strange Hotel. It’s also indicative of much of the rest of it. A woman moves from hotel room to hotel room across the world, travelling alone. In each place, we learn she has been there before. She does what might be described as “hotel things”. She drinks. She thinks. She stands on balconies and looks out of windows. She watches pornography and masturbates. She conducts one-night stands with strange men, or thinks about doing so.
Of course, none of these “hotel things” couldn’t also be done at home, but hotels have particular advantages: quiet, privacy, anonymity, a bar down the hall and a well-stocked fridge in the room, an unfamiliar view to look at. The result is that these mundane and even seedy activities are given emphasis in a hotel setting, perhaps because the self is isolated from its usual surroundings and contact, and free to self-examine, self-reflect, self-obsess – all those selfish things. “Tonight I am in a strange hotel and, therefore, an ulterior me,” the narrator observes, later on. Ulterior – on the further side, beyond, remote. Or strange?
It’s the last in that list of hotel things – the one-night stands – that the hotel makes dramatically easier compared to home. Besides anonymity and privacy, there’s a ready supply of strangers, all of whom are experiencing the same freeing anonymity and privacy, and there are congenial shared surroundings in which to get to know them. Afterwards, there’s the hygienic purge of check-out and disappearance.
This makes for a libidinal, even permissive, atmosphere, with altered social boundaries. Very few individuals – a tiny percentage – really do hop into each other’s rooms, but the knowledge that that kind of diversion might be available if desired influences the mood of the whole. In his collected food criticism, The Unbearable Lightness of Being a Prawn Cracker, the author Will Self reflects on the “curiously interior public space” of the hotel breakfast room, where the hush of the patrons conveys a sense “that we have trespassed on each other’s dreams”. “It’s intimate,” writes Self, “this breakfasting so close to where we’ve all slept, and so we avoid one another’s eyes, for fear of rupturing more barriers normally only breached by coitus.”
Even as we evade each other’s eyes, the intimacy of the hotel invites us to speculate about the people sat across from us in the bar or restaurant: their origins; why they are here; where they will go next. And as we do so, the anonymity of the space gives us licence to reflect on our own stories; perhaps to edit and embroider them, or else to pretend something entirely new. We can briefly amuse ourselves by acting the spy or the incognito millionaire. And because we know that we are free to play in this way, we naturally project a degree of imposture onto others. Who is to say that they are not faking as well? No one. The hotel is the natural home of the trickster and the con artist.
This makes a hotel the perfect environment for the kind of interior depiction of a life that McBride provides in Strange Hotel, one that conceals far, far more than it gives away. Her inner monologue plays a game of cat and mouse with the truth that forms the main narrative impulse of the novel. The other characters, such as they are – the passing men, the past man – are never more than ciphers. That’s the nature of the hotel. There’s no past or future in a hotel room. “Never to be less or more, better or worse,” writes McBride. “Just this crystallised extending version of self. Liberated from the scourge of accountability as well as hope of reprieve. But no... not exempt reality. Still moving forward. Still on the inside of time.”
Strange Hotel is more or less plotless, but that is of limited importance. “In a sense, [a hotel setting] relieves the scriptwriter of the obligation of inventing a plot,” Rem Koolhaas observes in his 1978 “retroactive manifesto”, Delirious New York. “A Hotel is a plot – a cybernetic universe with its own laws generating random but fortuitous collisions between human beings who would never have met elsewhere. It offers a fertile cross section through the population, a richly textured interface between social castes, a field for the comedy of clashing manners and a neutral background of routine operations to give every incident dramatic relief.”
A hotel, especially a large hotel, thus operates as a vast generator of coincidences, as well as providing an unobtrusive canvas for reflection. That’s very useful for the writer, as chance meetings and coincidences are the very stuff of plot, its whizzing, popping core. But even if you don’t need a plot – and McBride doesn’t – the hotel provides a stable background in which something else can unfold, freed from the expectations of routine and the accumulative experience of the everyday. In the hotel, everything is continually wiped back to zero. The other part of Koolhaas’s formula is just as important: the hotel is a universe with its own laws, with “a neutral background of routine operations”. Even though the most rigid internal hierarchies are solidly built into its fabric, from the cupboard-like single to the penthouse suite, it is a perversely levelling environment: in a hotel, nobody is at home.
“Opportunities for increased billing and superfluities aside, she will not, cannot deny that, once distilled all hotel rooms are essentially alike, if not exactly the same,” McBride writes. “A place built for people living in a time out of time – out of their own time anyway.” In a hotel, we’re alone. Even if we’re staying in them with people we know and possibly even love, they are associated with alone- ness if not loneliness. They’re a favourite destination for couples, but it’s the alone-ness that is part of the appeal – being alone together.
That sense of collective alone-ness is not unique to couples – it extends to the rest of the clientele. Although every hotel presents itself as a Fort Knox of discretion and privacy, it also contains a subtler and more transgressive world of performance, surveillance and voyeurism. A hotel room is a standard blank template awaiting the imprint of a personality and a hotel is an environment to be read. In 1981, the artist Sophie Calle did just that in The Hotel, an uncomfortable masterpiece of surveillance-as-art. While working as a room attendant, Calle took meticulous notes about the absent occupants of the rooms she cleaned, analysing every detail of their possessions and the traces of their activities in order to construct a biographical portrait of them, even reading their diaries. The intrusion involved is shocking but at the same time routine – she is finding what has been left out to find and the delving goes only a little further than the private speculations that anyone might make in the same situation. Her greatest transgression is to explode the nonsensical but necessary social fiction of the room attendant as invisible, silent, sightless and without inner life.
Calle could easily have acted the secret policeman, compiling dossiers for judgement and prosecution, but her room-portraits are more poignant and intimate than that. “I shall miss him,” she writes after one of her studies checks out. Nevertheless, there’s another word for this voyeurism, and many of the other qualities of the hotel and its rooms: creepy. Or, to be a little less judgemental, eerie. Or strange?
No wonder there’s such a long tradition of ghost and horror stories set in hotels, from Wilkie Collins’s The Haunted Hotel to Stephen King’s The Shining – and even my own novel, The Way Inn. This tradition is a study for another place, but it’s telling that regardless of whether the setting is traditional (ancient inns, creaking floorboards) or modern (the purpose-built Overlook), the hotel offers distinctive possibilities for eeriness not really found in the house but native to an environment of duplicated, unfamiliar, mostly closed rooms.
The duplication found in hotels is a powerful source of unease. Their whole model depends on cloning, replicating the same or similar rooms over and over again. “The clone remains a touchstone of the uncanny,” Joshua Comaroff and Ong Ker-Shing write in Horror in Architecture. “Ghastly multiplication” was one of Freud’s sources of the unheimlich, Comaroff and Ong note, and he “shivered at the notion of endlessly re-encountering the same individuals and places, of stumbling, after Warhol and Nietzsche, through an ‘eternal recurrence of the same’”. Cloned environments hint at cloned occupants, suggesting “a mode of reproduction that is fundamentally in- or post-human, as does the undifferentiated character of its offspring”.
A hotel is obliged to propagate this cloning, toning down any excess of character that might be off-putting and doing all it can to remove any suggestion that anyone was in the room before you. We might bemoan the place’s impersonality, but the last thing we want is any trace of the individual who was in that space before: the toenail in the bedsheets, the false eyelash on the mirror, or worse. Now that’s horror. So hotels must maintain, at least as a pretence, an atmosphere of sterility.
Strange Hotel has an echo of O. Henry’s story ‘The Furnished Room’, in which a young man pursues a lost love through the cheap, generic rented rooms she has been in before. He finds, in the squalid traces left in these under- maintained rooms, hints of what befell her. But in Strange Hotel, the narrator is pursuing herself and traces matter less – it is memories that count here. You can’t step in the same river twice, Heraclitus said, and so it is with the hotel. Which of course makes it the ideal metaphor for the uninhabitable past. And you mustn’t spend too long looking at yourself – for yourself – in the hotel mirror, even if hotels often go in for mirrors in a big way. The bathroom has a well-lit acre of reflection, of course, sometimes in a triptych, so if you catch the angle right you see many versions of you at different angles. The lifts sometimes have mirrored interiors, making them boxes of twilit infinity. And there are mirrors in the lift lobby that we can pose or preen in while we wait, distracted by vanity from the passing of time.
A hotel releases its guest from many of the obligations that bind them but only so long as they stay put. Linger for too long, however, and the self corrodes. Because of the fundamental sameness of hotels, skidding from one to another is little better. For McBride’s narrator, the rot appears to have set in – or could it be that such a peripatetic lifestyle appeals to those whose selfhood is somehow impaired in the first place? To live in a hotel seems utopian at first glance, horrible on deeper consideration – the purgatory experienced by damaged characters from Howard Hughes to Alan Partridge.
Strange Hotel recalls Joanna Walsh’s Hotel, a contribution to The Atlantic and Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series of essays about “the hidden lives of ordinary things”. Hotel is a profoundly digressive study of the hotel as a typology, digging deep into Freud and other thinkers; but it is also really a kind of memoir in which Walsh recalls being a hotel reviewer, purposefully spending as much time as possible away from home as her marriage collapsed. “[Heidegger] meant we do not dwell in our environments,” Walsh writes. “Our thoughts dwell also elsewhere. Our environments always allude to something else.”
Introspective? Sure. Strange Hotel is a massively interior novel, a story enclosed – almost crushed – by rooms and the walls of the skull. You’re trapped in a small space on a hot day and the unpleasant thoughts are grinding away. That’s not for everyone – I’m not even entirely sure it’s for me – but as a way of drilling into a self, it’s effective. Introspective, it might be called, or even self-indulgent, but that’s to miss the point, spectacularly. That’s what the hotel is for.