Third Hotel is Unusual and Enigmatic

The Third Hotel  (2018)
By Laura Van Der Berg
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 209 pages.
★★★ ½

I generally don't pay too much attention to publisher PR, but whoever called The Third Hotel a "shape-shifting novel," nailed it. Early in the book our principal character and unreliable narrator Clare tells us, "I am experiencing a dislocation of reality." So you will the reader and, maybe that's as it should be.

Clare has a reason to feel dislocated; her husband Richard–a film studies professor specializing in horror films–has been struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver, but maybe that's not all that has knocked her out of sorts. Clare was an odd duck even before Richard's death. She's a sales rep for Thyssen-Krupp elevators and spent more time in the air and on the road than in the couple's home near Albany. When we hear Clare tell us that the first thing she does when she reaches still another hotel is turn off the TV, the lights, the air conditioner, and anything else making noise and sit naked in her room, we suspect that perhaps all the sky miles have taken their toll on her sanity.

Just before he died, Richard had been invited to be part of a conference panel on new Latin American cinema in Havana, as one of his research subjects, Yuniel Mata, was debuting his new film Revolución Zombi. Clare impulsively decides to attend the conference, carrying with her a box that belonged to Richard that she fears to open. Things get strange before she touches down, when she meets Arlo, who says he's a documentary filmmaker. But maybe he's a fraud. Or a leech. Or a pursuer. But that's not half as odd as when she spies Richard standing outside of the Museum of the Revolution. So what do we have here? An imposter? A ghost story? Is Richard a life-imitates-art zombie? What do we make of other odd occurrences such as a train derailment, a missing actress, surreal hotels, and encounters of the weird kind? By the time Clare hears Mata speak of new kinds of reality that distress us like eels under the skin, Clare already has a few wiggling beneath her epidermis.

The story unfolds in the present and in flashbacks. Is this a book in which all the characters are dead and don't know it? Or is Clare crazier than a March hare–perhaps a victim of paternal sexual abuse or violence at the hands of an old boyfriend? We certainly learn that her grief over Richard's death seems out of sorts from what she recalls of their marriage, but as I said, she's an unreliable narrator.

Then again, maybe it is a kind of zombie novel. Van der Berg blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, paranormal and temporal, invention and the authentic self, and grief and memory. As you can surmise, this is an unusual novel. It is probably the case that Van Der Berg is also an unreliable narrator who wants to induce Clare-like turmoil underneath our skins. All I can tell you for certain is that Ms. Van Der Berg is a very fine writer whose sentences sometimes feel like elegant philosophic rumination. She is, however, sometimes too oblique for her own good. I suspect she wanted readers to engage in independent intellectual speculation. If that's the case, it was a risky gambit as some readers are likely to want more resolution than she offers. I'm willing to cut her some slack as it's a short book and a bit of ambiguity seldom harms. The Third Hotel does, however, have the earmarks of a book written to impress other writers more than please a general readership. I recommend it, but whether it will satisfy depends entirely upon your own capacity for the ambiguous. I liken it in tone to the movie Pan's Labyrinth in that it's not entirely clear if the surfaces are meant to be taken literally or as parables.

Rob Weir


No comments: