Review: THE THIRD HOTEL by Laura van den Berg

by Helen Patterson

Set in 2015 Havana, Laura van den Berg’s new novel, The Third Hotel, draws on film theory and criticism, zombie folklore and film, and the clash of the past and the present. Clare, an elevator salesperson, goes to Havana because she and her recently deceased husband, Richard, a prominent horror film professor, had tickets to attend the Festival of New Latin American Cinema and meet Yuniel Mata, the director of Revolución Zombi, the first horror film made in Cuba. Before Richard was killed in a hit-and-run, Clare’s relationship with him was strained, and she sees this trip as a means to retroactively connect with him, to find out why he acted so strangely before his death. As Clare wanders through Havana and Cuba, she grows increasingly displaced from reality.

The title is a reference to Clare’s difficulty locating where she is supposed to be staying when she first arrives in Havana: she ends up at the wrong hotel twice before reaching the correct place, “the third hotel”. This sense of displacement and of being trapped in a liminal space resonates throughout the novel. Clare is constantly uneasy. She cannot stop thinking about Richard’s death, and she also cannot stop thinking about her father, who is slowly dying of dementia.

If the novel took place in America, Clare would already be displaced as a woman experiencing a mid-life crisis. But as this is all happening in a foreign country, Cuba, where Clare is a tourist and alone, adding a second layer of displacement. In addition, Cuba itself is rapidly modernizing, changing, and displacing the old with the new. This means that Clare is displaced and alienated a third time, trapped between two different versions of Cuba, the past and the future, colliding in her present. These layered displacements create a dreamlike atmosphere of unreality throughout the text.

Clare is not a stranger to traveling. In her former life as a salesperson, she spent over 200 days away from home a year. She “believed that if she just kept moving she could elude the most painful parts of life” (34). But Clare learns she cannot escape the memory of her husband. In Cuba, she sees Richard, alive and well—unless he is just a ghost, a zombie, or a figment of her imagination. The atmosphere of the uncanny that van den Berg builds never allows readers to quite make up their minds.

Relentless as a zombie herself, Clare follows Richard, even speaks to him. The question of whether Richard is an undead monster or some different, alternate version of himself, brought to life by her will and set loose into a different reality, is never fully resolved. The crucial thing is that Clare alters dramatically as she realizes that it was she, not Richard, who changed. Earlier she had interpreted Richard’s actions before his death as an inexplicable change that he instigated, but it turns out he was changing in response to her, to her strangeness.

Overwhelmed, Clare begins to witness reality itself as if she were Richard critiquing a film. The weight of an invisible camera lens, of a voyeuristic unseen other, makes Clare feel that she is both the subject/protagonist and the passive viewer of the film of her life.

Clare eventually returns to the States (minus her job), but she is so altered by her long immersion in a liminal state that it is doubtful she will ever again become the person she thought she was. Moreover, the last disturbing line of the novel, “That night the moon looked like it was going to kill them all” (209), pulls the whole world into Clare’s liminal nightmare, including the reader. The Third Hotel is a rich, disquieting novel, and highly recommended reading.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

Image: Laura van den Berg with Jeff Martin at Magic City Books on October 28th, 2018. 


In Praise of Beautiful Language

By John Coward

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

So begins Norman Maclean’s 1976 novella, A River Runs Through It, an opening sentence as crisp and intriguing as one can imagine. Maclean’s first paragraph continues, reeling in the reader with more hints of the story to come:

We lived at the junction of great trout streams in western Montana, and our father was a Presbyterian minister and a fly fisherman who tied his own flies and taught others. He taught us about Christ’s disciples being fishermen, and we were left to assume, as my brother and I did, that all first-class fishermen on the Sea of Galilee were fly fishermen and that John, the favorite, was a dry-fly fisherman.

To my ear, this is enchanting prose, words and ideas strung together so vividly and memorably that they capture the imagination in a flash of wonder and expectation.

Opening with a stylistic bang is good prose technique, of course. In journalism, the first sentence in a story—known in newsrooms as the “lede”—is considered the most important sentence in the story because its job is to hook the reader and create interest in the story.

Maclean, a long-time English professor at the University of Chicago, knew this perfectly well and practiced it in his writing. In another story, Maclean opened with this magnificent sentence: “I was young and I thought I was tough and I knew I was not beautiful and I was a little bit crazy but I hadn’t noticed it yet.” (The story is “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook and a Hole in the Sky,” one of three stories in A River Runs Through It.)

Vladimir Nabokov also knew the value of a strong beginning. He opened his novel Lolita with this astonishing first paragraph:

Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.

Nabokov, a native Russian writing in an adopted language, mastered an English prose style so lyrical that it almost sings on the page. More than that, this opening paragraph suggests a passion—or, more accurately, a lust—that drives this controversial story forward. Despite its unsavory theme—a middle-aged professor’s obsession with a twelve-year-old girl—many readers were enchanted by Nabokov’s elegant prose.

Another writer who mastered the lyricism of English was James Agee, the Tennessee native perhaps best known for his book on Depression-era poverty in rural Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Although Famous Men is a notoriously difficult book in many places, Agee was capable of extraordinarily evocative prose. In “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a short passage that opens his novel, A Death in the Family, Agree recalls his family lounging on blankets on their lawn after dinner. He begins, “We are talking now of summer evenings in Knoxville, Tennessee, in the time I lived there so successfully disguised to myself as a child.”

Agee goes on to expand this particular evening on the lawn in language as beautiful and evocative as any ever written by an American writer:

We all lie there, my mother, my father, my uncle, my aunt, and I too am lying there. First we were sitting up, then one of us lay down, and then we all lay down, on our stomachs, or on our sides, or on our backs, and they have kept on talking. They are not talking much, and the talk is quiet, of nothing in particular, of nothing at all in particular, of nothing at all. The stars are wide and alive, they seem each like a smile of great sweetness, and they seem very near. All my people are larger bodies than mine, quiet, with voices gentle and meaningless like the voices of sleeping birds. One is an artist, he is living at home. One is a musician, she is living at home. One is my mother who is good to me. One is my father who is good to me. By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrow of being on this earth, lying, on quilts, on the grass, in a summer evening, among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away. After a little I am taken in and put to bed. Sleep, soft smiling, draws me unto her: and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well-beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.

As I said, Agee’s language is sublime. Indeed, the music in this passage has not been lost on Agee’s readers, one of whom was the composer Samuel Barber, who adapted Agee’s prose into a 1947 rhapsody for voice and orchestra, a piece also known as “Knoxville: Summer of 1915.”

For me, these words, these musical sentences and paragraphs are an enduring literary gift, openings to a greater world of the human imagination.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

The Worst That Can Happen: Trevor’s Promise of High Drama in “Events at Drimaghleen”

by Adrienne Perry

Scary farmhouse

As a writer who often and unexpectedly unveils the most shocking elements of my stories in their final pages, I was caught by the first sentence of William Trevor’s short story “Events at Drimaghleen”: “Nothing as appalling had happened before at Drimaghleen; its people had never been as shocked.” What was Trevor up to, suggesting such drama at the story’s start? Not only what was Trevor up to, but how would he manage the tension roused by this sentence?

Trevor’s slow release of the story’s dramatic events counterbalances the high stakes introduced at its beginning. Trevor’s tone, pacing, narrative distance, and emphasis also moderate the action, revealing the high drama in a manner that eventually guided me to see its role in the narrative beyond the triggering event.

Alluding to a horrific scene near the story’s beginning sets a tone and raises expectations; I read on in anticipation of learning about these “dramatic occurrences.” Trevor layers the first paragraph of “Events at Drimaghleen” with words and circumstances to encourage that curiosity without fully contextualizing it. Distress is mentioned, in addition to three anecdotes from Drimaghleen’s history. One after the other, these vignettes mount in their degree of strangeness and violence: “[A] woman known as the Captain’s wife had run away with a hunchbacked peddler . . . there’d been resistance in the hills and fighting in Drimaghleen itself. During the Troubles a local man had been executed in a field by the Black and Tans.” Trevor’s readers glean that none of these scenarios will compare to the “horror of the tragedy” in Trevor’s story.

Whatever this horror, Trevor seems in no hurry to tell us about it. Spoiler Alert: Before showing readers the double homicide and suicide that constitute the most “appalling” event in Drimaghleen’s history, Trevor slows the pace; after his opening paragraph, he temporarily places our expectations for high drama on hold. We turn from an execution to an everyday farm couple approaching this life-changing “day as they always did”: dressing, bathing, starting chores, and their wasted attempts to rouse an often-sluggish daughter. The pacing mirrors the scene’s quiet, domestic nature, with its pulling on of boots and its teakettles. The urgency of the first paragraph and its potential for high drama still exist in this scene, but they are muted—a dampening that lends a sinister quality to the McDowds’ otherwise typical morning. We’ll get our horror, but without melodrama.

This measured approach to the release of information does not diminish the scene’s overall narrative energy. Trevor’s first scene at the McDowds’ brims with tension because its pacing toys with our expectations. By providing early insight into the story’s eventual tragedy, Trevor has ensured that our anticipation colors all we see—from milking cows to the McDowds’ morning meal. Trevor’s creation of tension in this farmhouse scene, alongside his cultivation of the reader’s suspicions, relies on a canny use of narrative distance. The amount of information Trevor shares does not suggest irony on the scale of a Greek tragedy, but the omniscience and larger Drimaghleen context established in the narrative’s first lines drive the reader’s response.

Outside of the narrator, we are the only other souls informed enough to anticipate the shock. Trevor’s readers look for menace in otherwise mundane details. As Mrs. McDowd pounds on Maureen’s door—“Come on now, Maureen!”—the reader’s mind races forward in an attempt to place information in a larger, mysterious puzzle. We wonder, is Maureen dead or sick? Where is she, if not behind that door? When Mr. McDowd is finally “jolted . . . into an awareness that what had been wrong was that Maureen’s bicycle had not been leaning against the kitchen window-sill,” we suspect his sense of “wrong” is only half of the truth. Trevor’s readers know more than the McDowds, but we cannot claim farsightedness. We have enough insight to gather from Trevor’s emphasis on the McDowds that this will ultimately be their tragedy and that Maureen—from the moment she is discovered missing—will be at its center. We have enough insight to think her parents ought to hurry their breakfast, or to wince as Mr. McDowd calls Maureen “the little bitch.” The McDowds “both felt the same, anxious and cross at the same time, not wanting to believe the apparent truth. Their daughter had ungratefully deceived them. . . .” Readers appreciate the McDowds’ concern and yet see a disparity between their sense of Maureen’s deception and the anticipation of tragedy the narrator has cultivated.

The McDowds’ relative “apparent truth” dissolves as soon as Trevor shows us “their daughter lying beside the pump.” For different reasons, this is a pivotal moment for the McDowds and the reader. Hereafter, as we enter further into the horrors Trevor promised, the reader’s privileged perspective on the narrative narrows, its field eventually no wider than that of the McDowds’.

Does this shift in narrative distance mean that Trevor has broken his contract with his readers? No. The narrative addresses the devastating events suggested in its beginning. The emphasis on the McDowds, and Maureen in particular, is not misplaced. And this shift in perspective confirms that “Events at Drimaghleen” will take on other dimensions. Trevor does not expect his readers to find the story’s meaning solely in its violent, triggering event. The violence only matches the psychological pain underscored by the story’s final scene, as Mrs. McDowd “sat at the blue-topped table with her lips drawn back from her teeth, one short, shrill scream following fast upon another.”

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.