THE PINK HOTEL
By Liska Jacobs
318 pages. MCD/Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $27
One strange element of human behavior is that much of what we call “vacation” involves endless tinkering with our body temperatures. Think of the beach. You lie on a towel, grow hot, dip in the ocean to cool down, get out, reheat yourself, dip, cool down, repeat. The joy of recreation can’t be reduced to the fact that it’s really fun to swivel between hot and cold, but signature vacation moments often involve just that: snuggling up to a campfire on a cold night, plunging into a frigid lake on a sweltering afternoon, coming in from the snow to warm up with cocoa.
The more luxurious the vacation, the more extreme the temperatures. In Liska Jacobs’s new novel, “The Pink Hotel,” characters at a posh Beverly Hills establishment bake themselves in triple-digit sunshine before heading indoors to air-conditioned rooms; then, shivering, slip into fluffy robes and walk across heated marble floors to fetch chilled champagne from an ice bucket. All day long they regulate their personal thermostats.
At the center of this dazed book is a pair of newlyweds, Keith and Kit Collins, who have flown south from Sacramento on their honeymoon. The Pink Hotel is a slightly fictionalized version of the Beverly Hills Hotel, with banana-leaf wallpaper, poolside cabanas and a famous soufflé. Keith, 27 years old, is curly of hair, suave of manner and employed as the general manager of a Michelin-starred restaurant in “the boonies” (located in a town literally called Boonville). Kit is four years younger, pretty and docile, and employed as a part-time waitress at the same spot.
Kit believes the couple has traveled to Los Angeles to kick off their marriage — but for Keith, that’s only half the plan. The other half is to accomplish a bit of furtive networking. Two months earlier I met Mr. Beaumont, the Pink Hotel’s director of guest services, and now he’s auditioning for the role of protégé. A gig at the hotel — with its population of CEOs, oil barons, hedge fund managers, real estate tycoons and foreign aristocrats — would be a major step up.
The details of high-end hospitality are not glamorous. If you rolled Mr. Beaumont’s job title through a de-euphemizing machine, it would be revealed as a combination of fixer, babysitter, therapist, fall guy, animal control specialist and janitor. This is especially true at the moment Keith and Kit visit. It is summer in Los Angeles, and the spooky arid weather has made guests restless. Fires break out beyond the hotel’s borders, and the sky is a haze of brown smoke. Particles of city grit are borne on fierce winds over lush lawns. When Kit raises safety concerns with Mr. Beaumont, he reassures her that the hotel is “invulnerable” to catastrophe, sounding a lot like a shipping executive bragging about a certain vessel’s unsinkability circa 1912.
While Keith embeds with staff, Kit wanders the hotel in awe. She observes a circus of sinning, with all seven of the cardinal ones represented. Guests complain about their servants, encrust their manicures and teeth with diamonds and feed each other gold-flaked chocolate truffles. They nap and rut and gossip. Kit and Keith, initially cowed by the excess, quickly find themselves adapting to it.
Meanwhile unrest continues to sweep the city. Freeways close and domestic violence skyrockets. Riot police fire tear gas into crowds of protesters. Storefronts on Rodeo Drive are incinerated. Jacobs doesn’t dwell on the identity of these protesters or the nature of their demands, but tells us that they shout “EAT THE RICH” and erect a guillotine in front of a Saks store. News of the outside world trickles into the hotel in the form of footage flashing across a bar TV or glimpsed on a cellphone between glasses of rosé.
Jacobs is the author of two previous novels, “The Worst Kind of Want” and “Catalina.” Both are swift, insightful and raw. “The Pink Hotel” is comparatively plodding and repetitive. This comes down to a perspectival choice: Jacobs moves fluidly among characters, briefly alighting in one person’s inner monologue before moving to the next. To do so with clarity is a technical achievement, but it presents a narrative conundrum. If the reader is aware of each character’s intentions at all times, opportunities for uncertainty or deception — for suspense and revelation — become scarce.
Being trapped in the minds of the couple and the hotel guests also means that we exist in a nonstop stream of ditziness. Jacobs is talented at conjuring outrageous images — there’s a memorable pet monkey named Norma who wears a sequined harness and defecates liberally across hotel grounds — but the examples lose their punch as they pile up. Neither Kit nor Keith experiences what could be called an idea. They merely exist as avatars of complacency and ignorance.
To hammer home the couple’s naïveté, Jacobs uses and reuses the metaphor of childhood. Kit sucks her thumb, accepts candy from strangers and kicks her legs “like a kid in a soda shop.” Twice she is compared to “a child with a fever.” Keith is “an unsure boy” and a “schoolboy.” Zoological allusions are also rampant. People swarm, screech, howl, hoot, act like “pack animals” or have “an animal vibe” or make “animal sounds” or behave as “animals sizing up other animals.” Everyone is a baby and everyone is an animal. The comparisons are vivid but slightly confusing. After all, the helplessness of a baby isn’t a failure of conduct, and animals aren’t hedonists.
What’s missing in the book is a fresh, revelatory target. Vulgar materialism, climate change denialism, status anxiety and the solipsism of the rich are all implicitly denounced, as is misogyny. (When the couple arrives at the hotel, a bunch of men compliment Keith on his choice of bride, as though Kit were in a sedan.) As the story proceeds, we wait for the couple to collide with their delusions in a grand reckoning. Eventually they do, but Jacobs hasn’t given them the depth to earn our sympathy.