Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Great Glass Sea

Here's another book from an author that was one of Buzzfeed's "20 Under 40 Debut Writers You Need to Be Reading," the same list that gave me Land of Love and Drowning.  I suppose it's coincidence, but this book, by Josh Weil, also has elements of blood relatives being far too close to each other.  In this case, it's identical twins and there's no incest.  But still.  

There are chapters here that are truly fantastic.  You just fall into them.  And the book improves the closer you get to the end.  But also worsens.  I am still trying to put my finger on exactly what bugs me so much.  I thought, initially, that the author was using the twin brothers to represent two sides of Russia.  The pragmatic Yarik and the dreamer Dima.  But the book does not seem to follow through with that vision.  The brothers at the end remain diametrically opposed.  

Another issue I have is that neither brother does much by choice, but this is especially true of Dima.  They are pushed into action by others with more forceful ideas, except Yarik, near the end.   And then there's something better expressed by a Goodreads reviewer:  "I just got so sick of Dima."  I came to agree.  The dreamer brother is a half-insane dope who blows past trying to be noble and lands successfully on being an ass.

And if the brothers really are meant to reflect sides of Russia's soul, is that the message?  That the people who wish for the return of a past time of community and leisure are nutbag dolts who would let their dependent mother starve rather than face reality?  There is no compromise in this book, and neither brother changes their mind by the end, so maybe?

And that is the last problem.  The conflict between Western-style capitalism and an old school communal agriculturalism is incredibly exaggerated.  Both sides are taken to extremes, so no wonder compromise is not possible.  At the end, the brothers just get out of each other's way.

When I first read that Yarik and Dima work 12 hour days, with no weekends and only four holidays, I assumed that they must be living in an authoritarian, militarized society.  Work like a dog or die.  But no.  This is supposed to be a lifestyle people choose.  

The author tells us they work so hard because they want to buy things.  But these people have no time to consume the consumer goods that they're killing themselves to get.  Nobody has time to read, or watch television, or enjoy a nice dinner or a fancy car.  And apparently, Dima is philosophically opposed to "working" at anything other than selling his possessions occasionally and scavenging for rotten food unless he can obtain his impossible perfect dream of owning a farm with Yarik.  I don't understand the point of the exaggeration.

It seems like much of the book is a play on Pushkin's epic fairy tale poem Ruslan and Ludmilla.  I am not familiar with it at all, and while the author provides some context, it was not enough to make me truly understand.  My favorite part of the book, really, is the dialogue between Yarik and Basarov, who is just as crazy as Dima but more interesting.   

Final call:
The alternate-Russia with space mirrors is an intriguing premise.  Weil is terrific at painting scenes, giving us the feel of the Russian night.  But in the very best of books, you catch a few themes and you can't believe how intricately they echo forward and backward throughout the text.  I missed those reverberations here, because I am not sure what the message of the book is and so cannot trace it. 

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