FICTION: Two Russian brothers are driven apart by their individual passions and beliefs in an ambitious and richly imagined debut novel.
As a rule, debut novelists tend to dedicate their first novel to their supportive spouses. It is the long-suffering and cheerleading partner who fields the writer’s frustrations and channels those torrents of self-doubt into positive and productive streams of self-belief.
It may seem odd, then, that California-based writer Josh Weil has chosen to dedicate his first novel, “The Great Glass Sea,” to his brother, and not to the partner listed in his acknowledgments. Odd, that is, until we delve into the book and discover a tale about two brothers and their seemingly unshakable fraternal bond.
Weil’s highly original drama unfolds in a fittingly unique setting. Petroplavilsk is a Russian town that, thanks to a man-made glass sea and a series of orbiting space mirrors, has been turned into the largest greenhouse in the world — “a hothouse of output, a field of ceaseless yield.” Its citizens have work, but the downside is they have no night: “Dusk to dawn the city was eerie with a luminescence like a storm-smothered day with shadows sharp as noon.”
After the death of their father, twin brothers Dima and Yarik grow up on their uncle’s farm. “The Past Life” gives way to a Russia ruled by a sinister outfit called the Consortium, and the boys find themselves swapping toil in collective fields for work on the glass sea. Yarik, a family man, is promoted through the ranks from laborer to foreman to manager; unattached Dima is enticed by a vamp called Vika and her gang of radicals to set down tools and revolt. As the boys forge their own ways in opposite directions, their loyalty is tested, their mother’s health suffers and the brave new world they call home starts to come undone.
“The Great Glass Sea” showcases a dystopian society on a grand scale. Weil cunningly shifts between a reality that is starkly and identifiably familiar and one that is warped. Like that other glass book, Paul Auster’s “City of Glass,” the reader is given a clear reflection and a distorted and disorienting hall-of-mirrors replication. Comic absurdity abounds: A rooster proves as menacing as Moscow oligarchs; a billionaire named Boris Bazarov (“call me Baz”), who manages to be camp and tough at the same time, steals every scene he is in.
Weil’s only problem is the book’s length. Spinning a tale out over 400 pages is a mean feat, and there are several notable longueurs that feel like padding. Weil has a prodigious inventory of ideas, but on occasion he expects them to stand in for incident. Ideas in isolation waylay and dazzle us, but they lack the impetus to power the whole novel.
That said, there is much to admire here, from Weil’s characterization to his beautiful line drawings. “The Great Glass Sea” may sprawl, but better too much than too little.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.