Monday, July 7, 2014

"The Great Glass Sea"

Josh Weil was awarded the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for his debut collection, The New Valley. A National Book Award "Five Under Thirty-Five" author, he has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, Columbia University, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Sewanee. His fiction has appeared in Granta, Esquire, One Story, and Agni.

Weil applied the Page 69 Test to his debut novel, The Great Glass Sea, and reported the following:
Well, first of all, I’m gonna cheat. Because, in a book that’s a chock-full 470 pages, page 69 happens to be mostly blank. It’s the end of a paragraph at the end of a chapter, so I’m gonna back up to a bit before that paragraph begins.

The moment we’re dropping into is just after one of the major shifts in the plot: the heart of the novel is about twin brothers who, having grown up extremely close, find their bond threatened by the pressures of adult life, and the expectations of a society that pushes the importance of work over all else. Here, one of the twin brothers, Yarik, has just been brought in a limousine to a mansion way out in the woods—the home of a billionaire oligarch, Boris Bazarov, who controls the city the two brothers live in. While there, he was given a promotion—but he’s smart enough to know that the meeting was less about the job than about the Oligarch sizing him up; he just doesn’t know why. Still, he’s seeing a path opening up before him that could lift his family and his life out of the blue collar drudgery he’s stuck in. What will it take to navigate that path? Does he have it in him? And will his brother, Dima, go with him, or hold him back? Those are the questions thrumming through this chapter, and they’re central to the scene here, too.

But where we cut in is in a memory: way back when Yarik and Dima were working together on the fishing boat that they had inherited when their father died, suddenly, the year they turned nine. Yarik is in the limousine, returning from the meeting with Bazarov, remembering the moment when, on the boat, he had told his brother Yarik’s wife was pregnant and, in order to earn enough, he wanted to sell the boat and sign up to work on the new industry in their city: an enormous greenhouse that a billionaire from Moscow (Bazarov) was building over the surrounding fields. There’s a lot woven through this novel that includes an alternative present where space mirrors strip away nighttime from the city; the history of the brothers’ life together living with their uncle, Dyadya Avya, on his collective farm after the loss of their father; the brothers’ desperate attempt to buy back some of their uncle’s land and live together farming on it again; and this scene taps into all of that—then leaps back out into the present, the limousine, and Yarik’s determination to move ahead on his new path.

Here’s the excerpt:
Dima shut his eyes. “What will we do with Papa’s boat?”

“Sell it,” Yarik said.

And then Dima’s hair was gone from his hand and his brother was lowering himself unsteadily to the deck. At Yarik’s feet, Dima lay down, his back on the boards. Yarik stood above, watching him. Then he crossed to the engine house. “I need to get an apartment,” he said, before ducking his head inside. From in there he shouted, “And you need to buy a baby gift.” He cut the motor, ducked back out. “A really big one.” He came back, crouched down in front of Dima, held his gaze. “A hundred hectares big.” Lying down beside his brother, he had lain it out: how much more quickly they could buy the land, live on it there together, with wives, children...

“A dog,” Dima had said. “Named Ivan.”

“The Second.”

“The Terrible.”

“No,” Dima had told him, smiling at last, “that will be your baby.”

Out there, in the becalmed boat in the middle of the lake, beneath the sky that would have long ago been night, they had lain quietly side by side, the boat rocking their bodies together and away, together and away.

“Yarik,” Dima had said, “do you remember?”

Yes, he thought in the stillness of the car’s smooth speed, he did. All these years later. That night, all those years ago. But this—this leather seat, this road unfurling beneath him—was now. And his brother was wrong. What had risen between them wasn’t anything more than simply time, the steady drip of years, the way life was. Lifting the gloves off his face, he went to shove them in his jacket pocket, felt the cellophane-wrapped cigarette pack, and drew the Troikas out. He could still see the steadiness of Bazarov’s hand, the pistol motionless, as if soldered to the side of the man’s head. Where, he wondered, had Dyadya Avya’s old gun gone? Had Dima taken it from the izba after the farmhouse was sold, buried it with all the other remnants in their uncle’s trunk? Yarik shook free a cigarette. Soon, he would go look. In their mother’s apartment, in the chest she kept in her room. And if he found the pistol he would bring it home, hide it somewhere safe. No one would know. He stuck the smoke between his lips. Until—he lit a match—the day he’d mount it on his desk.
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--Marshal Zeringue