While in the very acute stages of grieving for a friend, I read Laura Van Den Berg’s dazzling new novel, The Third Hotel (FSG, August 2018). It is dazzling in the way that very clean, well-lighted spaces can be both dazzling and mysterious, for how such spaces, new and shining, still contain darkness.
My friend that I’d been grieving, another South Asian woman, slightly older and someone I’d idealized without knowing I had, had just betrayed me in a way that I realized—only in retrospect—I should have imagined, and should have predicted. In the end, what struck me and stays with me about the grief is the profound bewilderment. I do not understand why the end came. Or maybe I just cannot accept it.
Thanks to The Third Hotel, I can imagine seeing a woman—first from a distance, then up close—who looks exactly like the woman I once believed to be my friend. I can see myself smiling at her in passing without quickening my gait, yet heading to some destination the woman, now a stranger, cannot know.
The Third Hotel opens with a deliciously unsettled mood, reminiscent of Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49, with a similarly bewitching and close third-person narrative. There is an underlying, unexplained sense of searching by Clare, the film scholar heroine. She is in Havana to attend a film festival and write about a particular film that in turn reminds her of others with which her absent husband is obsessed. Only toward the end of the first chapter do we learn that her sense of displacement, alienation, and mystery have a driving reason: intense and bewildering grief. Her husband has recently died in a car accident. She is searching for something but knows not what.
With compactness and lucidity, Van Den Berg creates this mood of melancholy searching in what becomes a genuinely suspenseful story, kicked off when Clare sees her husband (in a thrilling scene that brings to mind a young Che Guevera) riding through Havana on a motorbike.
In a highly original and satisfyingly feminist way— the novel’s heroine retained a right of refusal to “follow the script” of immediately chasing after her lord/husband—Van Den Berg frames the rest of the novel as a quest. However, the quest is not necessarily for Clare to be reunited with her husband, alive as he may be. Rather, the quest is independent and self-driven. What she should do having seen him on the motorbike remains an open question, one Clare claims autonomy over even by the act of raising it.
There are moments of whimsy in the book: why not try the zoo?…she imagined the tiger implanting ideas into her mind while she slept. Also, lovely, intriguing juxtapositions with a feminist inflection. The blood of a bird being killed by crocodiles at the zoo segues to a moment of violent-looking blood on sheets when Clare is surprised by menstrual blood. I particularly enjoyed the skillful weaving of pop culture references with an original, fable-like language, for example Van Den Berg’s evocative discussion of zombies and zombie movies, the surprises of which I won’t spoil by quoting here, and also a passage that references Stephen King and ancient magicians that occurs as Clare follows her husband down the Havana streets:
For a block, there was no one between them. She could see the shapes of his legs moving inside his pants. She wondered if she had become telekinetic, like in Carrie, if her grief was so overwhelming she had acquired the ability to conjure her husband whenever she wished to see him, though if that were true it seemed like she should be able to conjure him right into stillness.
Some of the moments of power in early passages come from Van Den Berg’s ability to transmute pop references into something enduring; for example, zombies conveying the numbness of grief in the same way one feels “like a zombie” when wrenched out of a relationship. Van Den Berg gives loveliness to the gruesome while opening up the novel’s world to all kinds of ghosts. The real emotional power of the novel, however, beyond the elegance of its language and the precision and momentum of its telling, builds from what ends up being a brutal moment of confrontation. The scene brought tears to my eyes when I read it.
The story acquires a trace of noir as we learn how Richard reportedly died and a detail about the way Clare drives takes on a suspicious cast. But it’s really Clare’s probing of the interplay of her husband’s presence and absence, all against the backdrop of the marriage’s troubled history, that adds depth to a novel that could otherwise float on whimsy, vivid turns of phrase, and eerie ambience. The reader shares Clare’s frustration and rising determination to understand, and this frustration keeps the pages turning.