Magic Realism or Horror? The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg’s haunting new novel, The Third Hotel, defies classification.  Is it magic realism?  Is it horror?  It doesn’t quite matter:  this poetic, genre-crossing novel is eerily gorgeous. And it is more sophisticated than her  first book, Find Me, a beautifully-written dystopian novel about a plague of forgetfulness (which I wrote about here).

In The Third Hotel, the heroine, Clare, a widow, no longer understands the meaning of her life. She has been numb for some time, and is now mourning the loss of  her husband.  In December, she flies to Havana for the Festival of New Latin American Cinema he’d planned to attend.  Cuba is not her kind of place:  she is an elevator sales rep whose favorite state is Nebraska, because of the blandness and flatness. But her husband, Richard, killed in a hit-and-run accident in New York, was a scholar of horror films, and she wants to meet the director of the first horror film made in Cuba, Revolución Zombie.

Cuba is gorgeous, hot and disturbing:  dazed by beauty and unmarked streets, Clare keeps getting lost.  She calls her hotel the “Third Hotel,” because she had to ask concierges of two other hotels for directions before she found it.  Clare travels often for work and is usually at home in hotels, but she has seen some bizarre things. Once she found a human fingernail in a drawer–and that haunts her.

Van den Berg researched horror films exhaustively, and her analyses of the meaning of such films is enlightening.  Clare attends screenings, parties, and a panel discussion on a “zombie school.”  And then suddenly she catches sight of her husband, or thinks she does.  But what is she seeing?  It is easier for her to see it as a film through Richard’s eyes than to stop and wonder.

Screens were vehicles for the subjective, he had once written. No eye was objective and thus no lens could be either. In turn, the viewer’s response to the images became the third subjective eye, an invisible revelatory force. Screens and images revealed the viewer as much as they revealed to the viewer.

We’re not sure if he is the real Richard, a ghost, or a zombie.  As she follows him through the steamy streets, we feel that we are watching a film, and indeed she takes pictures with a camera.  Their eventual meetings are puzzling yet at the same time provide closure for Clare and the reader.  Van den Berg is a brilliant writer, and I admired this novel.  Supernatural meetings?  Maybe.  A lyrical, offbeat book.

Are You Reading New Books? and What I’m Reading

Too many old books?

Too many classics?

My husband and  I have switched genres.  For years we both read the classics.  We met in a classics class.

Then I switched to new books. (It was partly for my job.) He continued to read the classics.

Now he has switched to new books.  I’m back to the classics.

Recently he read the latest Erdrich and The Collected Stories of Barry Hannah. I’m dying to read the Erdrich.  Still, I have a bone to pick.  My wacky theory is that if you’re reading mostly books reviewed in The New Yorker (which I’ve often done), you’re not really reading “new” books.  When  you’re guided by the essays of James Wood, Hilton Als, or Alexandra Schwartz, you’re reading such a tiny percentage of what’s published that it is not “new” but  “New Yorker.” (I’m hoping I’ve deconstructed “new.”)  Every intellectual from coast to coast will read Ferrante, Rachel Cusk, and Katie Kaitamura.  We love Ferrante, but I am quite sure  you need to browse sometimes and try something strange.  Though maybe if I were guided by The New Yorker, I’d strike out less often.

My cousin recently put a hold on my library card (supposedly for fines) but actually because she was sick of my ordering “The Complete Books of Tedious Windbags” through interlibrary loan, as she said.

“Read something new!”

I adore Turgenev and Tolstoy (their names must begin with T), but  even I must take a break from “translatese.”   And I love James, but can’t always be ecstatic over his beautiful use of participles.

So what new books am I reading?

laura-van-den-berg-find-me1. Laura van den Berg’s Find Me.  This literary dystopian novel, published in 2015, is eerie and gorgeous.  A plague of forgetfulness has descended on the U.S. and wiped out much of the population, but the narrator, Joy, is immune, a survivor among empty streets and overflowing garbage.  She has no one:  she grew up in foster homes and group homes , and worked in a convenience store, taking Robitussin for highs.  One day a doctor approaches her and takes her with several survivors to a hospital in Kansas. They are locked in and can’t commune with the outside world, while the doctor and nurse supposedly work on a cure for the outside world.  But eventually Joy escapes, in search of her mother, whom she has googled on the internet.

Van den Berg is s stunning writer, and this is much, much better than most of the dystopian novels that have hit the market in recent years.

ann-hood-book-that-matters-most-268895212. Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most.  Ann Hood is a  “middlebrow” writer, and I very much enjoy her novels.  Her style is simple and clear, which I wish I could say for every writer.  A few years ago I loved The Obituary Writer, which I wrote about here. Recently, looking for a light read, I picked up a copy of her new novel, The Book That Matters Most.

Is it a light read?  Well, not so much.  It intertwines the stories of a mother and a daughter: Ava, a French professor, is grieving for her beloved husband, who has left her for an exhibitionist knitter who puts sweaters and mufflers on local statues and is often on the TV news. Ava joins an elite book group, run by her friend, for distraction, while her daughter Maggie, who has had many problems, is living in Paris as a kind of junkie hostage of an art dealer who supplies her with drugs.  Her mother thinks she’s in Florence.  She thinks Maggie is doing well.

It is a very odd, uneven book, and so I am stuck.  Why?  Because Ava doesn’t read the books for her book group.  When they read Pride and Prejudice, and she watches the movie, I am disappointed.  Will she eventually read one of the books?  And I am not that interested in Maggie’s story.

It is a bit rocky so far, but I will continue.  Hood will bring it together, I’m sure.

ARE YOU READING SOMETHING NEW?  And who or what is your guide?