Is the internet killing the literary novel?
Last month, an essay by author Will Self ignited widespread debate among writers and critics about the troubled fate of long-form fiction. The serious literary novel “is indeed dying before our eyes,” Self wrote in the Guardian, blaming the decline on an “active resistance to difficulty” among modern audiences. Readers now seem to be too distracted by hyper-connected screens and digital gadgets to maintain the focus a knotty narrative requires. These days, who has time for Dostoyevsky?
But if complex literary novels really are done for, Josh Weil must’ve missed the text message. His formidable “The Great Glass Sea” knits together strands of traditional Slavic folklore and futuristic speculative fiction to create a passionate reflection on technology and personal happiness. Spanning almost 500 pages, the novel poses mind-bending questions about politics, ecology and the ambivalent closeness of siblings.
Proving Tolstoy’s maxim that every unhappy family is miserable in its own way, twin brothers Dima and Yarik sweat through 12-hour shifts building a city-sized Siberian greenhouse. In their near-future dystopian Russia, ruling oligarchs have launched zerkala, orbiting space mirrors that keep industrial Petroplavilsk bathed in uninterrupted sunlight — a boost for productivity, but a nightmare for laborers.
The brothers were once identical and inseparable, until ending up on opposite schedules in the glass hothouse. Tanned day laborer Yarik looks for chances to scale the corporate ladder, while pale Dima daydreams of simpler years before “mirror-rise” outsourced nature and obliterated leisure time.
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Weil anchors the sci-fi overtones with deep-rooted allusions to Russian fairy tales. In the hypnotic opening chapter, the 10-year-old twins steal a rowboat and set out to kill the fearsome Chudo-Yudo, a mythical sea serpent. Later, we learn that the boys’ father had named his boat Once Upon a Time; his proclivity for storytelling lives on in Dima, who delights in sharing tall tales of bucolic years on the family farm. Yarik, a realist with two kids to feed, criticizes Dima’s habit of spinning memories into fables while glossing over the ugly details of the past.
As in fairy tales, a chance encounter with a mysterious trickster changes the brothers’ luck forever. Baz, the eccentric billionaire who owns the greenhouse, summons Yarik (but not Dima) to his palace, a former outpost of Stalin’s. Yarik takes note of the sinister architecture, but nonetheless accepts a sort of Faustian bargain to become a foreman at work.
In one of the novel’s most unnerving scenes, Baz coerces Yarik into a tense kayak outing, daring him to dive to the muddy lake bottom to touch a sleeping sea monster. Which Yarik does, with startling results. Weil pulls off dazzling strokes of storytelling prestidigitation like this often, flashes that transform allegories into solid, slimy reality.
To Self’s earlier point about the Internet, the book’s melodious prose style may not mesh well with Facebook interruptions. Weil isn’t afraid of lavish sentences that stretch into full paragraphs: “Behind the clouds the zerkala were albescent creatures in a murky sea, and, on the glass, the workmen wore headlamps strapped around their hard hats, their small yellow cones of light sliding from job to job, a thousand of them drifting like some current-borne school spawned by the mirror above.” His distinctive voice obliges readers to slow down and swish certain passages around before swallowing.
When writing his 2009 collection, “The New Valley,” Weil moved back to his home state of Virginia, spending weeks alone in the Blue Ridge Mountains. “The Great Glass Sea” required a return voyage to Russia, where he’d lived two decades before as an exchange student.
When any outsider — especially an American — attempts to wrestle with a she-bear of a subject like Mother Russia, the endeavor had better be bold. Weil’s charismatic narrative style can sometimes trump plausibility (or comprehensibility), but the fumbles feel like afterthoughts compared to the novel’s merits. While keeping the sophisticated themes afloat (science vs. nature, the state vs. the individual, family obligation vs. ambition), almost every page flows with respect for the flawed, endearing heroes, Dima and Yarik. Pushing the envelope on literary artistry even further, each chapter begins with a pen-and-ink illustration by the author.
A genre-bending epic steeped in archetypal stories, “The Great Glass Sea,” rises above the usual Cain-and-Abel formula by way of sensitive, resourceful craftsmanship. Weil demonstrates a profound reverence for Russia’s culture, literature and thorny history. Never lacking credibility or rhetorical nuance, its specificity may send some readers adrift, searching online for refreshers on topics ranging from Cossack dancing to perestroika. Maybe those digital distractions aren’t such an enemy to serious literature after all.