High above Russia, a billionaire mogul launches a series of satellites that reflect the sun, sending its rays down onto a small town where nighttime no longer exists. The denizens of the town work at the largest greenhouse ever built, a massive structure that protects millions of plants, all conditioned to survive in the never-ending day. The seasons are diminished, so are typical workweeks, and soon enough everyone works shift after shift in a world where notions of rest and vacation have long disappeared. The town is a strange, worrisome place, and it provides the setting for Josh Weil’s debut novel, The Great Glass Sea.
Weil’s epic tale follows the paths of twin brothers Yarik and Dima as the greenhouse expands around them, irrevocably changing the landscape of their youth. Now in their 30s, the brothers find themselves at odds: Dima begins to challenge the “progress” the satellites have brought and yearns for the past, while Yarik starts a career for himself, befriending the strange billionaire who is responsible for swift changes in their lives. As they move (and are pushed) further apart, Dima and Yarik pull the entire population of the town into their conflict, creating unrest, and, eventually, violence. Yet, while others capitalize on the brothers’ split, their underlying bond remains.
Feuding brothers have been a staple of storytelling for thousands of years, and Weil does manage to get some dramatic moments out of Yarik and Dima’s interactions, but he’s lost the forest for the sake of each tree. At its most compelling, The Great Glass Sea shows how the two’s fundamental differences of what makes a good life spill out into the greater consciousness of their community. Watching those reverberations gives a better sense of the strange, dynamic world Weil creates. Unfortunately, he’s more interested in exploring the twins’ psychological struggles with each other—and with themselves. The characters are well drawn, and motivated enough, but neither really changes his mind, making them static over the book’s many pages.
The myopic focus on the brothers is frustrating, considering Weil seems to want to make some larger social commentary on the nature of employment, self-worth, and family. While the story takes place in an alternate version of modern-day Russia, the ideologies Yarik and Dima espouse aren’t tied to any geographical location. Dima’s nostalgia tracks a very real streak throughout the industrial world, as machinery continues to subsume nature. Likewise, Yarik’s pragmatic focus feels very timely, considering how many people are just glad to have jobs post-recession.
While Weil sets up resonance between his work and the modern world, he doesn’t really go anywhere with it. The reader is left feeling like some larger point about the conflict was lost in the book’s epic sprawl. Instead, Weil decides to forgo any conclusions, giving The Great Glass Sea a muddled political aim, and, even worse, and muddled ending.