A fantasy about an alternate near-future Russia, Josh Weil’s “The Great Glass Sea” tells the moving and sensitive tale of two brothers caught up in cultural turmoil. The author’s first novel after his much-lauded collection, “The New Valley,” it often evokes the mythic feel of a contemporary classic like Mark Helprin’s “Winter’s Tale,” despite an occasional tendency toward self-indulgence and the overly whimsical.
Inseparable for years, Dima and Yarik are forever changed by the loss of their farmer father to drowning and their mother (temporarily) to grief. Moving to the city of Petroplavilsk, they become laborers at the epicenter of a new technology: Oranzheria, the “glass sea” of the novel’s title.
During this vague future “age of oligarchs,” Russia has lighted up its cities using satellites, “space mirrors,” and what the author describes as giant “greenhouses” like Oranzheria to create perpetual daylight. Weil is bad at visualizing his tech but eloquent when describing effects like pea shoots that “paused preflowering” and “No evening-ushered crime spike.”
One day, the brothers goof off in front of the Oranzheria’s owner, the eccentric billionaire Boris Bazarov. Dima is banished to the night shift and quits, but Yarik is promoted to foreman and eventually manager, creating a rift between the brothers. Jobless and drifting, Dima climbs a statue of Peter the Great on a whim and begins to recite lines from Alexander Pushkin’s “Ruslan and Lyudmila.” By the time the police make Dima come down, crowds have gathered and he’s a new symbol for the political opposition.
A woman named Vika entices Dima to a secret meeting in a rail yard, where he discovers she belongs to the “Leisurists,” a group that hates every other political faction in Russia. The Leisurists get Dima high on magic mushrooms and secretly film him. The resulting propaganda video of Dima pushing their post-anarchist agenda becomes an embarrassment to Yarik in his new position. When Dima is humiliated by Yarik’s men while swimming and forced to flee in his underwear, Yarik lets it happen — so far has their relationship deteriorated.
Although set in the near future, the novel often has a charmingly anachronistic feel. Lovely touches include Weil’s nuanced, timeless evocations of Yarik’s family, the slow dance that is Vika’s gentle courtship of Dima, and a magnificent “Golden Phoenix” rooster with “six-foot plumes” kept as a pet; it cannot crow for dawn because dawn does not exist in a world of perpetual light.
However, for long stretches, this approach also lulls us into the sense that we’re reading about a Russia long past. It’s almost as if Weil has unearthed and translated a lost pre-Soviet-era Russian science-fiction novel, one that’s a little inconsistent or inaccurate. For example, there’s nary a cellphone in sight until well into the novel; when we do encounter one, it’s jarring. At first too Weil’s dissidents come off as Keystone Kops silly, their attempts to convert Dima to their cause like something out of Mikhael Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” or Jaroslav Hašek’s “The Good Soldier Švejk.” The absurdism is entertaining but undermines the author’s attempts at realism elsewhere.
A lack of resonance because of real-life historical events creates a more serious clang. When a character is described as having served in Afghanistan, that single detail conjures up images like burned-out tanks that puncture Weil’s comparatively comfy glass-sea version of Russia. A short history of the transition from Gorbachev and glasnost to the present-day doesn’t help — it just reminds us of the effortless coexistence of the mythic and the real, the past and the future, in the novels of such interesting contemporary Russian writers as Ekaterina Sedia and Victor Pelevin.
Yet Weil’s earnest, deep commitment to a portrait of brothers in crisis means that these issues recede into the backdrop. There’s pathos and tension in how Yarik becomes trapped in his relationship with Bazarov. There’s breathtaking brilliance in Weil’s portrayal of Dima as an outcast estranged from society, especially in one astonishing scene in which Dima walks around in a reverie of dissolution.
“Now he haunted all of Petroplavilsk on foot,” Weil writes. “His beard blowing, his hair a tattered flag, his cheekbones hard and thin as the edges of a soup bowl, his eyes in the sun so blue.”
When Dima contributes to an accident at the Oranzheria that plunges the city into darkness, he suddenly becomes an active hindrance to Russia’s elites, and Yarik must somehow find his way out of a complicated maze of Bazarov-created allegiances. Where Weil takes the story, and how it curves back to the brothers’ past, reflects a disinterest in pat, easy conclusions.
If “The Great Glass Sea” suffers from a few excesses of ambition, then it is redeemed by Weil’s greatest gift to the reader: a deep understanding of family, personal loss and the abiding love between siblings.
VanderMeer’s latest novel is “Authority.”
The Great Glass Sea
Grove Press: 400 pp., $27