Josh Weil’s “The Great Glass Sea” is the most unexpected second book by a writer of note to appear in years. His 2010 debut collection, “The New Valley,” was a dark, lyrical work that felt like the kind of thing John Cheever could have written had he packed up from upscale, suburban Ossining, N.Y., and decamped to a cabin in Appalachia.
“The Great Glass Sea,” however, is a grand fable set in a 21st-century Russian town called Petroplavilsk. A billionaire oligarch, grown rich on land speculation, has constructed a series of gargantuan mirrors that keep the lake and field below them in a state of perpetual light.
Over the course of the novel, which moves with the patient, fabulist lumber of a large woodland creature, twin brothers, Yarik and Dima, are slowly torn apart by the prospects of working with — or against — the opportunities this project represents.
As a tale of brothers and their bond, “The Great Glass Sea” spins an asborbing and touching tale. Weil describes how young Yarik and Dima once lay side-by-side in their fishing boat, passing the night telling each other stories until rocked to sleep by a gentle sea.
The world they were born into — post-Soviet, pre-oligarch Russia — is grim, shadowed by folkore, but rich in communal meaning, a kind of Eden. Fathers farmed, mothers cooked, and while this kind of work didn’t put a flat-screen TV on the wall, it provided pride and food, and the lack of envy ensured that love was not complicated by comparison.
It would be easy to make Baz, the billionaire, the lone destroyer of this world, but Weil wisely shows how he merely exploits fractures created by time itself. Yarik is born moments before Dima, and therefore their mother spoils him. When the twins’ father dies, taking his connections with him, only Yarik knows that the depth of their mother’s grief has mostly to do with the diminishment in her son’s prospects.
As a villain who is merely an opportunist, Baz aptly encapsulates the perversity of Russian hypercapitalism. To some degree, his mirrors work. Fish yields explode; ecosystems regenerate. Baz is such an efficiency wonk he logs the forest around the mansion in which he lives, planting new growth trees in their place. Like the brothers, he grew up with very little; unlike them, he responds by wanting more.
The texture of Weil’s futurism strongly recalls Yevgeny Zamyatin’s great 1921 novel, “We,” which unfolds in an urban dystopia made entirely of glass. In that book, the glass creates a series of mirrors that, reflecting on all citizens, creates a panopticon effect and drives them to constant productivity. It’s a scary, strange book, far more successful than Weil’s at creating a believable future world.
Few young writers appreciate landscape, the way it shapes and diminishes people who live off it, quite like Weil. “The New Valley” meditated powerfully on what happens to men’s dignity when work disappears. Weil’s descriptions of jobs in “The Great Glass Sea,” however, are oddly opaque. Yarik is an engineer, as is his brother, but their actual activities feel vague and disembodied. The mirrors themselves are so strange and uncanny a concept, it’s a shame that Weil doesn’t entirely bring their physical presence to life.
These are minor weaknesses, however, because “The Great Glass Sea” is such an engrossing story of brotherly division. The scope of betrayal that opens between Yarik and Dima begins with the former’s marriage and continues through Yarik’s decision to throw in with Baz’s project. He needs to provide for his family, while Dima joins an underground movement dedicated to protecting people’s ability to not work, to think of time as their own.
The book actually owes the most to John Steinbeck’s “East of Eden.” Following Yarik and Dima as they drift apart, and then begin — possibly — to come together again, one cannot help but recall Caleb and Aron and how they diverge in 1920s Salinas — one drawn to money, one to pride, the landscape a kind of backdrop for both ambitions.
In this strange and unexpected novel, Weil reminds how little has changed a century later. Men will always exploit the land; money cannot buy pride; and it most certainly cannot buy back that thing so precious it should never be thought of as a commodity or a resource, or property, even in a world that moves fast: time.John Freeman is the author of “How to Read a Novelist.”