As the specter of war looms large in Ukraine, the Middle East unravels, and the world feels about as unhinged as it's been in recent memory, I found escape from the mayhem recently in a strangely alluring new novel called The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil, published in July by Grove Press. I started reading the book for professional reasons--I was asked to interview the author at the Writer House in Charlottesville, Virginia as part of his book tour--but finished the novel, and read it a second time, for personal ones. For it offered me something in short supply these days: a vision of sanity in our insane times.
Admittedly, the book's conceit initially concerned me. The description on the back cover of the proofs, which I was given back in May, promised "an epic tragedy of brotherly love, a sui generis novel swathed in all the magic of Russian folklore and set against the dystopian backdrop of an all too real alternate present." Oh, I thought, another one of those high-concept literary experiments, which tend to be long on metaphor, short on meaning. As it so happens, the novel is surprisingly rich in both.
The author and his editor wisely removed the word "dystopian" from the book's description in the final version. And not, I suspect, merely to avoid alienating potential readers like me, who don't much enjoy dystopian literature. I figure that I get all the dystopia I need from the evening news, so why go searching for it in a book? To my pleasant surprise, Weil's novel isn't really a dystopia at all. This book replete with social dysfunction, human tragedy, and the sheer weirdness of present-day life in Russia, is, in the end, a drop-dead beautiful work of literature that transcends its otherwise tragic subject matter. It's as if Weil set out to describe dystopia, but ended up creating something bordering on utopia, in spite of himself.
The basic story line is straightforward. Two twin brothers, Yarik and Dima, remember their youth together on their uncle's farm, before the oligarchs took over and transformed Russian society into a whirlwind of nonstop industry. At the center of this brave new world is the so-called Oranzheria, an ever-expanding giant sea of glass erected over large swaths of northern Russian cropland and lit by space mirrors that carom light from the sun. It works like a humungous greenhouse, ensuring daylight 24/7 and constant work for the populations living under its seductive menace.
Like everyone else in the northern town of Petraplavilsk, the site of this ambitious industrial experiment, Yarik and Dima make their living working on the Oranzheria. Until, that is, Dima, unmarried and idealistic, doesn't want this workaholic life anymore, wants to save up just enough money so that he and his brother Dima can buy back their uncle's farm, and live there. The more level-headed and pragmatic Yarik, however, has a family to support and dreams of financial success. When he is taken under the wing of Bazarov, the billionaire owner of the Oranzheria, and quickly catapulted up the career ladder, Yarik becomes increasingly estranged from Dima. We watch as these two brothers drift apart, their deep fraternal love fracturing beneath the weight of a new economic value system and their very different life choices.
Alongside these two main characters we find a host of colorful secondary ones: the humorously dyspeptic "post-anarcho-feminist" Vika, who teaches the overly earnest, virgin Dima about the pleasures of shrooms and no-strings-attached sex; Yarik's practical wife Zina, who strives to keep her family afloat in a sea of uncertainty; Yarik's and Dima's widowed, mentally ill mother whose sewing obsession is her way of keeping her broken world stitched together.
Then there's the wonderful, original Bazarov, whose name and megalomania are clearly inspired by the hero of Turgenev's famous 1862 novel Fathers and Sons. But Bazarov is also a completely believable creature of present-day Russia, which is full of these charismatic, ruthless, workaholic biznesmeny with their own twisted codes of honor. That, combined with Bazarov's over-the-top quirkiness (he enters one scene by accidentally driving his company's fork lift into the side of a building), makes him one of the most enjoyable literary characters I've encountered in contemporary fiction.
All of this strange and tragic reality is swathed in a fantasy-like atmosphere redolent of Russian fairy tales. A rooster, that staple of Russian folklore, lives with Dima and his loopy mother. We see abandoned sailboats in winter that look "like the gangantuan bodies of some ancient beasts cut down by giants, their bare masts jutting into the sky like great spears that had slain them." And Dima recites Pushkin's narrative poem Ruslan and Lyudmila on the plinth of the statue of Peter the Great, as wistful onlookers from the town crowd around him, and "lean in as if to touch the fable as much as hear it."
Even the ceaseless light reflected from the space mirrors has its own seductive fairy-tale-like quality. And the luminous great glass sea itself--that very embodiment of runaway capitalism and modernization--happens to be the book's most gorgeous image. Apparently, light--in whatever form it may appear--strongly attracts this author, who, in a 2012 interview, described one of his beloved themes as "humankind's attempt, both metaphorically and actually, to increase the amount of light in the world." The great glass sea, it turns out, is the result of precisely that quest.
Every character in this book is a dreamer of one sort or another. Whether it be Dima, envisioning an impossible return to the Past Life, or Yarik, longing for a financially stable future, or their mother, trying to hold her imploding world together through sewing, or even a Bazarov, fired by a mad, visionary project like the Oranzheria, each of these characters strives toward the light in his or her own profoundly human way. So, too, Josh Weil, who brings this whole bizarre, beautiful universe to life on the page. I thank Weil for holding up not just a mirror, but a transformative lens, to contemporary life, and for reminding us that we're all a little bit utopian, after all, even in our dystopian times.