“I would gladly be Stathis, hang around Stathis, sleep with Stathis – after all, reading his story, I feel I’ve lived with him through thick and thin, and known him as intimately as if he truly exists.” – Auguste Corteau reviews, and falls hard for, Ioannis Pappos’ debut novel, HOTEL LIVING
Stathis Rakis, born and raised in a small Greek island, finds himself, by his mid-twenties, caught up in a world of overwhelming pressure, cosmopolitanism, and excess: from the Dot Com Bubble’s last days of glory to a drifting life of preparing and working for the post-9/11 economy, as a witness – and accessory – to the criminal decadence and splendor that will plunge the new century into its first economic crisis – and throughout this journey, as often happily soaring as spiraling uncontrollably, he will live a passionate, on-again, off-again love affair with a New England journalist raised with a golden spoon and as mercurial and demanding as his own upbringing and passage through life has made him.
Amazingly enough, this gem of a novel – recalling The Wolf of Wall Street but with a lighter touch and much more humanity – is in fact the first literary brainchild of Greek writer Ioannis Pappos, himself a child of the frenzied, dog-eat-dog generation and world of high-stake business his protagonist inhabits.
Reading Hotel Living, I came to regard each and every character, as they were reflected in their relationship with Stathis and his view and treatment of them, as if they were real people, who deserved, and provoked, real emotional responses. I fell for Erik, Stathis’ object of affection, and gradually came to resent him as much as I once did someone who never loved me back – or even saw me for what I really was – because he behaved in the exact same unforgivable way to our lovesick narrator. Andrea, the blue-chip white collar manipulator, and her artificial, alien cosmos, which in many ways swallowed up Stathis, I loathed with all my heart, while Alkis and Justin seemed to me like the bewildered, emotionally stunted youths who populate the modern world, filled with the terror of the ignorance they hide behind their swagger. As for Tati and her bruised yet miraculously loving heart, she was the safe haven I fervently wished Stathis would at some point find – and this despite the vortex of self-obliteration she drags him into.
However, reader’s empathy aside, it takes authorial cojones to pen a story at once so fluid and readable and yet focusing on a protagonist who leads a life of deceptively mobile stagnancy. Hotel Living is that rare beast which resembles humanity’s cul-de-sac in that it manages to create an illusion of constant change and evolution when in truth the human condition flounders in a bog of stubborn, almost primitive immutability. Like Madam Bovary, in which Emma yearns for adventure while remaining perfectly, obstinately unchangeable in her outrageous indecision, Hotel Living presents us with a narrator who is literally cast into the eye of the storm: the world around him seems thrown in constant havoc, but he remains helplessly immobile. Yet this is the epitome of storytelling: creating the illusion of a thrilling adventure while in fact describing a life that is, for all its arduousness and ardor, going nowhere.
And what makes this accomplishment even more amazing is the undeniable fact of the gaping chasm separating us both as writers and people who actively partake – or at least try to – in their homelands’ and literatures’ Zeitgeist. The world that Stathis inhabits – both as a professional and as a person seeking love in all the wrong places – couldn’t be more alien and essentially incomprehensible to me if I were a visitor from Andromeda on his first days on this planet. Workaholic obsessiveness, exercising, “trading up” – these are concepts near-unthinkable to me. As to the treatment of the narrator’s sexuality, it’s painfully revealing of the differences in our approach to storytelling: Pappos’ is the light, quicksilver touch of the New World, never convoluted or heavy-handed even when describing love at its most complicated manifestations, whereas, me as a writer, I’m firmly rooted in, and weighed down by, the crushing, guilt-ridden heaviness of the Old World, with its myriad of neurotic side effects through which Stathis sails as smoothly and playfully their boat upon the waters of Bequia (Stathis’s parallel universe to his Greek homeland). I envy Pappos’ astounding facility, and the way in which it liberates the reader – let alone the titillation factor, which, to queer me, and I use the word in the gutsiest way, was at times almost tyrannical. I mean, all this no-strings-attached, no-fixed-roles-required shagging! Even at his most needy or lovelorn, Stathis is as far removed from the sexual obtuseness of Europe as he is from his backwards homeland. To use one of the words so casually thrown around in his neck of the woods, his whole life is so sexy, one can’t help craving a life like his for oneself. So, there you have it: a quasi-surgical precision in the treatment of your protagonist’s love life and its legion of disillusionments, combined with a tangibly believable – for all its excesses – professional existence which holds the reader spellbound no matter what his or her origins and tastes. A penetrating sweetness even in the description of the most bitter regret, and a handling of Greekness reminiscent of Eugenides in Middlesex: something at once looming at arm’s length and painfully unattainable. Hotel Living is nothing short of a masterpiece. It moved me and will continue to do so in more ways than I could imagine possible for a story told with such disarming clarity and plainness.
Hotel Living is out in June 23 by HarperCollinsPublishers. Pre-order your copy here at a discounted price off the retail price.