Book Review: a 500-pound fable that's glassy but opaque

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Josh Weil’s 500-page fable could use a map. Not simply because its titular sea is shoreless and sprawling, but because its heart beats in so many places – on an island in the middle of a lake; in the barn of a childhood farm; at a city square that serves as a place of protest; and, most passionately, in the intense fraternal bond between its twin protagonists, Dima and Yarik.

While this not-quite dystopian tale is clearly and cleverly set in an alt-Russia of a future so near it is now, even readers who count this as familiar territory are likely to feel lost among the novel’s shifting planes of metaphysics and metaphor.

Dima and Yarik are among the workers of Petroplavilsk, building the largest greenhouse in the world. This Siberian “Oranzheria” captures the eternal sunlight provided by the “zerkala” – cosmic mirrors that reflect eternal daylight into corners used to sunless winters.

The results of this experiment are mixed: bounteous crops, sleepless nights and deforested wilderness. Nonetheless, the ceaseless expansion of glass is a source of national pride for recovering Russia and massive wealth for the Consortium of oligarchs who own it. For Dima and Yarik, brothers whose closeness borders on the mystical, the Oranzheria proves to be a fateful wedge.

By Josh Weil
Grove Press ($27)

As the embodiment of an utopian plan more menacing than marvelous, the Oranzheria is, most recognizably, the progeny of Soviet satirist Evgeniy Zamyatin’s Green Wall, which trapped the proletarians of his 1924 novel “We” in regimented harmony. It is beyond the glass confines, in the spaces that have not yet been claimed by the Consortium, that freedom reigns.

Such is the truth revealed to Dima as he peers down from his post at the detritus of an old world being cleared for the new: “There, just below the reflection of his face, were rugs that had once lined a wall, small white feathers clinging to torn patches of screen, fork tines glinting, the bowl of a tobacco pipe.”

Like Mr. Zamyatin’s rogue worker nearly a century earlier, Dima’s rejection of a brave new world is fueled by a view of the past. But his childhood longings put him on a collision course with his brother’s own ambitions. And without his brother, there is no childhood to return to.

Mr. Weil, whose first encounter with Russia took place in the waning years of the Soviet Union, is well versed in that era’s preoccupation with the proletarian quandary. He is just as fluent in the trajectory of new Russia into Putinism. In “The Great Glass Sea,” he is wrestling with existential questions of both periods: political ideologies and personal freedoms; social obligations and family loyalty; activism, consumerism, criminality, passivity.

To do so he harnesses history into his storytelling, sometimes in thinly veiled references and sometimes in less elegant didactics. Bazarov, for example, is a deliciously drawn gangster, the boss of the Consortium and Yarik’s mentor. That there are dozens of real-life oligarchs who contribute to Bazarov’s character is a truth that does not need to be made by his own digressions on the errors of Putin-foe Khodorkovsky, the recent proliferation of coffee shops, of or even the origins of the statue of Ivan the Terrible that stands in the Moscow River.

This tendency – to burden a story that wants to be a parable with factual asides – is the novel’s only significant flaw. The writing is beautiful. The mood, shifting and evocative. The plot meanders just far enough from a well-trod path to leave us scanning the horizon for one of many metaphorical landmarks.

Mr. Weil is not just a fine storyteller; he is a talented artist whose pen and ink sketches adorn chapter heads of “The Great Glass Sea.” If he had provided an illustrated topography as well, he might have shown us where Petroplavilsk borders childhood and the Oranzheria crosses into legend.

Elizabeth Kiem is the author of “Dancer, Daughter, Traitor, Spy.”

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