It’s difficult to write a comprehensive yet succinct critique of a work by someone who understands storytelling from the bones outward, who writes unsentimentally about a place he loves and uses exquisite language while doing it. That’s my particular challenge with Josh Weil’s literary novel The Great Glass Sea.
I’m reviewing The Great Glass Sea for our Edge of the Universe column because the springboard for the story is an audacious SF what-if: What if orbiting space mirrors could provide 24 hours of light to an agricultural area on earth? What if endless acres of farmland could be sheltered from the elements of winter under huge greenhouses, a sea of glass, and crops could be grown year round? This is the starting point of Weil’s thoughtful, elegiac novel about Russia, his lyrical character study of two brothers, and how the Oranzheria, the “great glass sea” changes their lives.
The book opens with identical twins Yarislav and Dmitry —Yarik and Dima — ten years old, rowing out across the lake at night, to find and kill the Chudo-Yudo, the lake monster. The boys live with their uncle on a small farm collective, and grew up hearing the folk tales of the Chudo-Yudo. The brothers are so close they finish each other’s sentences. The book flashes forward to alternative-present Russia, where the zerkala, the space mirrors, create 24 hours of light.
It the last hour of nature’s light, as the planet rolled away from the sun, the zerkala rose off the eastern horizon, their refracted glow red as the sky in the west. People called it voskhod zerkala. Mirror rise.
The town of Petropavilsk and the surrounding area reap the bounty of this innovation because there is plenty of work building and maintaining the Oranzheria, the great sea of glass. Both brothers work on the greenhouse. Yarik works what is still called the “day shift,” is married and has children, while Dima, on the “night shift,” lives with their mother and cares for her.
In the first two chapters, contrasting the adventure on the lake with the adult lives of the twins, Weil shows us that there are already small cracks in the relationship between Dima and Yarik, cracks that Dima won’t let himself see. As the book progresses, each brother becomes, literally, a poster boy for one or more of the factions that are affected by the zerkala and the hectares of the mega-greenhouse that grow like “a reverse glacier.” Although the heart of the story is the two brothers, and Dima’s attempt to recreate the earlier time in their lives, Weil explores technology, capitalism, authoritarianism and nostalgia. He captures the vibrancy of a bygone lifestyle and moments of sheer joy; Cossack dancing, ice skating, a dinner with family.
Yarik is approached by Boris Romanovitch Bazarov, the oligarch who built the zerkala. Bazarov is a gleeful marauder, a “crazy Russian” who lightly veils his ruthlessness in a daredevil joviality. He uses a Pilates ball as a chair in his mansion; he drives a forklift into the side of a temporary building when he is visiting the Oranzheria, laughing as he does so. Bazarov sees Yarik as the face of the greenhouse project; the dedicated Russian everyman, promoting through hard work from laborer to foreman, foreman to manager, manager to a project director. At first, it seems that he wants more from Yarik, almost a father-son mentorship, but primarily he wants to be sure he has separated Yarik from his younger twin, the dreamer Dima.
Dima soon quits his job at the greenhouse. He wanders the city, finding things he used to do with his father who died on the lake; skating, fishing, reciting poetry. When he begins reciting Pushkin at a deserted park in town, and draws a crowd, he comes to the attention not only of the local police, but two groups who see a use for him. The elderly Communist Party members see him as their icon, but a stranger group, the “Leisurists,” who are forced to live in a compound euphemistically called The Dachas, also take an interest. The Leisurists don’t seem too sure of, or too worried about, labels:
… “But there are definitely some mutualists in the room, collectivists maybe — I’m not naming names — but even an anarcho-capitalist.”
“Who?” Vika demanded.
Fedya lifted his shoulders, held up his hands.
“I’m not an anarcho-capitalist,” she said. “I’m a post-anarchist.”
“Yesterday,” Fedya said, “You were an anarcho-feminist.”
“So today I’m a post-anarcho-feminist.”
Dima’s dreams are not ideological. He only wants to buy back his uncle’s farm and try to re-create the years he and his brother had there. He keeps discussing this with Yarik, and signaling it in disastrous ways, like buying a large Golden Pheasant rooster, supposedly a gift for his one-year-old niece. The rooster is a continuous presence throughout the book, a thing of wild beauty driven mad by the endless light (Dima hoods it during the “night” hours, so that it won’t crow constantly); a symbol for Dima himself.
The book is, in one sense, a spiral, circling inward, even as it spins downward for Dima. We learn more about the truth behind those years at the farm; the death of the twins’ father, their mother’s depression that left her in an asylum. The madcap Chudo-Yudo adventure takes on a tone of desperation in retrospect.
Weil couches this complex tale in prose that is lyrical, funny, sad, and often echoes folk-tale language. He clearly did a lot of research on the effect of daylight (and night) on an ecology, and weaves it deftly into the story. His descriptions are beautiful; the green-black oil-slick iridescence of the rooster’s tail, a scary, exhilarating ride using skateboards on railroad tracks; the tracery of ice on the glass of the Oranzheria during a sleet storm.
Weil is also a male writer who has noticed that women exist and are people. With the character of Zinaida, Yarik’s wife, Weil could have chosen an easy, one-note depiction of a woman who is jealous of her husband and threatened by Dima. Instead, he chose to make her a real person, a woman trying to take care of her family, who still has sympathy for her troubled brother-in-law and reaches out to him. Galina, the mother, mired in the quicksand of dementia, is a woman with strengths, faults, secrets and regrets.
I think The Great Glass Sea is a wonderful work, not a perfect novel. At times the story becomes episodic; beautiful set pieces rather than scenes that flow organically from one to the next. Weil is a master of the novella; this is his first attempt at a longer length, and I think this is simply an artifact of the writer learning the mechanics of a long work.
Weil spent time in Russia as an exchange student, and went back as an adult to research this book. Plainly he loves the country and the book has a sense of mourning for a way of life that is evaporating. Like many literary works, The Great Glass Sea tends to be sad. I was afraid that I knew where it was going, but Weil chooses a hopeful, though realistic, ending. I wanted to root for Dima and his sad, mad dream, and I did root for him; but my heart also ached for Yarik, struggling to help a troubled family member. The Great Glass Sea is filled with reflections and reflection. The Grove Atlantic edition I read had the artist’s artwork on each chapter heading, a grace note that made the book even more enjoyable.
The Great Glass Sea is a long, dense book. It will make you think and wonder. Sometimes it will make you laugh, and by the end, it will reward you.