Modern Russian fable superbly drawn
“The Great Glass Sea” (Grove Press), by Josh Weil
Twin brothers Yarik and Dima were virtual lookalikes as boys growing up in rural Russia. Their joys and dreams entwined. Often when one spoke, the other would finish his sentence.
Their innocent world of fantasy and mirrored lives began to change along with their country, however. As they reached adulthood, the Russia of collectivist Soviet solidarity gave way to the capitalist Wild West of the oligarchs, and Yarik and Dima became, in many ways, opposites.
This tale of the changeling Russian twins, told by Josh Weil in his captivating first novel, “The Great Glass Sea,” is a kind of sweeping historical fable. It is set in a fictional Russia in a future time, but it encompasses the former land of struggling Communist workers and apparatchiks and more recent billionaires full of “loot-fueled dreams.”
It also includes a youngish vagabond crowd — the alluring Vika and her motley cohorts, perhaps a rough Russian version of Yippies. They dream of a time before capitalists or Communists, even before the autocrats of old, a dream era when people “owned themselves, their work, their play, their time.”
The narrative is enlivened by an element of magical realism, Russian-style: The lives of Yarik and Dima and their countrymen are being overtaken by a billionaire’s futuristic scheme to build the world’s largest greenhouse. This tall, vast glass construction — the title of the novel refers to this barrier sea above the fields and populace — nurtures growth from the soil with clockwork light from space mirrors.
Called the Oranzheria, the great glass sea is expanding over bought-up farms and lost peasant homesteads with no end in sight, “creeping over the land like a glacier in reverse.”
The twins both land jobs there, but similarities will soon end.
Weil, who first visited Russia as a 14-year-old exchange student in 1991, shortly before the Soviet Union fell, depicts the land and its people with affection, fascination and an unsparing eye. Memorable scenes abound. In one, an unwilling Dima is treated to a steam bath by Communists, who believe he is a new leader, and they smack naked bodies with birch branches. In another, Yarik endures a feast — lamb, charred sturgeon, fried onions — as the billionaire behind the great glass sea consumes the food heartily and explains his lethal business.
While this is Weil’s first full-length novel, his highly regarded first book of fiction, “The New Valley,” published in 2009, was made up of three novellas. They were set in the hill country of Virginia and West Virginia.
But Russia became his consuming fictional subject after a return visit in 2010. He also drew the fine illustrations used throughout “The Great Glass Sea,” including a sea monster that appears to look out amid a scaled body of spired Russian domes as delicate as Faberge eggs.