Review of “The Great Glass Sea” by Josh Weil

Jerome Stenger


Go to Google Maps (not right now, later), click satellite view, type Spain.  Look to the southern coast, west of Almeria.  Turn off the labels.  What you’ll notice is a white patch, a salt flat.  A bleached desert maybe.  And as you plummet hundreds of miles like an anvil you’ll be amazed because what you’ll actually see are greenhouses – thousands of them, pressed together like grains of rice. Half of Europe’s vegetable crop is grown here. By most accounts, the place is something of a dystopia.

Now do Moscow (later) and this one is a little trickier.  Outside the blotch of city, look to the southwest to a solitary blue-gray form that resembles a moldy blini.  The Agrikomibinat Moskovsky contains 300 acres of growing space beneath Communist glass and provides fresh produce to 800 Moscow markets daily.  Growlights kick on at night and hopefully the workers sleeping nearby in housing units have effective window blinds.

In his debut novel (and second book), Josh Weil invents his own solar spectacle, the Oranzheria, which shares the scope of Almeria’s hothouses and the basic function of Moscow’s agri-city.  But Weil goes a few steps further – his Oranzheria is a glass roof structure that covers the entire Russian town of Petroplavilsk; “Vast hectares of panels stretching across an endless scaffolding of steel, it spread northward from the lakeshore, creeping over the land like a glacier in reverse.” The novel, set in an alternate present, is haunted by the zerkalas, orbital mirrors that hover above the city and redirect sunlight to produce “the first place on earth illuminated by the sun for every hour of every day for all the seasons of the year.”

Animals flee to the countryside, away from the nightless cycle.  Roosters stop crowing.  Indigenous flora shrivels.  The Oranzheria is devised and funded by The Consortium, whose research division develops GMOs to grow under extended photoperiods (think Monsanto).  The rusty town is revived – most citizens work on the Oranzheria, where shifts are long and arduous and pay is minimal, but at least they are working and the grocery stores are stocked again.  We follow two loving brothers, Yarik and Dima Zhuvoz, opposite in every way, who work on the Oranzheria and for the better part of four hundred pages are manipulated by various ideological factions until they become essentially unrecognizable to each other.

The story itself is a nod to Russian folklore and to the empire’s storytelling tradition.  Dima quotes Pushkin aloud in the town square and this public recitation eventually sows seeds of revolt.  At times, Weil goes straight Chekovian; “When he pulled the covers off, her whole body—so small! so shrunken!—tightened at the cold, her hands flapping for her nightgown’s hem.”  Weil splices the present with flashbacks to the brothers’ childhood with Dyadya (Uncle) Avya, a drunk storytelling farmer. The flashbacks serve not only to develop character but also to acknowledge and celebrate Russian cultural heritage.  The most significant memory, which opens the book and tremors throughout, involves young Yarik and Dima paddling out to sea on a dinghy at risk of being swallowed by the Chudo-Yudo, an heirloom sea monster.  Another interlaced memory involves their father’s suicide.

Most striking is the length Weil goes to cover his scientific bases.  His description of nature’s response to the mirror light, to the endless glass ceiling, is nothing short of fantastic.  “Far off the river, the egret rose towards the sky until its wings brushed the glass, then dipped again, skimming the water, and flew on, and tried again.  Sipping his tea, Dima watched it—its sudden rise, the shock and flutter, swooping down in frantic flight and panicked rise again—until the flicker of white disappeared into the small space between the distant river and the distant glass.”

Weil writes the brothers with tenderness.  Yarik is the family man, the realist.  Dima takes care of their senile mother and dreams of resettling the old family farm to live off the land, but they must save enough money to buy it back.  Yarik entertains Dima because he loves him and that’s really the only reason – but reason enough.  They have good hearts and virginal desires.

Prodding them are wacky Gilliamesque characters sans humor, who are responsible for raising most of the stakes.  One of them is Yarik’s Consortium boss Bazarov, nicknamed The She Bear, who ventures into Bond territory.  In one scene he makes a surprise entrance by crashing through the wall of a worksite trailer using a large earth-moving machine, like a kid on a plaything, almost killing people.  Another secondary character, Vika, serves as Dima’s love interest and is the pseudo-leader of an anti-Consortium guerilla group.  Her foulness, in language and appearance, is beyond Thunderdome.

The book is strongest in movements not harnessed to its plot, and once that kicks in, priority falls to sequence of events, away from richness of world.  Larger themes of runaway capitalism, corruption, agribusiness, work vs. leisure and environmental ownership are accurate and intriguing but stretch dialogue in the story’s interior.  The brothers, especially Dima, are often confused or cornered, creating expository loops of dialogue – “What do you want?” “Why do we have to want anything?”

Weil expertly establishes an eerie realism in the first quarter of the story.  The world of the great glass sea is foreboding and beautiful.  And as he channels the inflated nature of folklore, introducing villains so villainous, rebels so mutinous, actions so grand and symbolic, the realism grapples with a whimsical outrageousness.  That Weil lands on his feet is impressive.