A Noirish Narrative in Which the Self Is an Enigma, and So Is Everything Else

Laura van den Berg

By Laura van den Berg
224 pp. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $25.

“The Third Hotel,” Laura van den Berg’s enigmatic second novel, opens in Cuba, where its protagonist, an American sales representative for an elevator company, has come to attend a film festival. That protagonist, Clare, is something of a cipher to those around her — and, perhaps more significantly, to herself as well. “I am not who you think I am,” she imagines telling a hypothetical acquaintance on the book’s first page. “I am experiencing a dislocation of reality.”

Such questions of Clare’s identity and the nature of reality abound throughout this always vivid, occasionally languid and intermittently frustrating book, beginning with its central plot device: the appearance, outside Havana’s Museum of the Revolution, of her husband, Richard, a film studies professor who was killed in a hit-and-run incident five weeks before.

Is this Richard a ghost? An impostor? Is Clare hallucinating, or has she slipped into an alternate reality in which her husband is still alive? She follows him through the museum and back out into the courtyard, where he jumps onto a motorbike and disappears into traffic.

It was Richard who initially wanted to visit Havana, for research; he hoped to study a new Cuban horror film, “Revolución Zombi,” which is debuting at the festival. Clare attends in his stead, puzzles over the movie’s lead actress who has gone missing, and falls in with some friendly film critics. Through flashbacks, we learn that Clare and Richard’s marriage was distant, peculiar, perhaps in crisis; she spent most of her time traveling for work, and he took long, mysterious walks by himself. It was during one of these walks that Richard was killed. He was found to have been carrying a mysterious small white box, taped shut; Clare has brought it with her to Cuba, and still hasn’t opened it.

Clare, we learn, has a penchant for questions unanswered, spaces unfilled, silences unbroken. On business trips, her favorite activity is “to switch off every light and everything that made a sound — TV, phone, air-conditioner, faucets — and sit naked on the polyester comforter and count the breaths as they left her body.” She brings a Patricia Highsmith novel on her travels but never gets past the first few paragraphs; she shows up for a movie screening but never enters the theater. A woman mistakes her for someone else and Clare doesn’t correct the error; later she contemplates the “near-radical act” of marrying without the intent to have children. She longs to “be free of past and future, of memory and feeling.”


If Clare is obsessed with negation and absence, “The Third Hotel” is eager to abet her: The book enthusiastically (and, I presume, deliberately) derails itself again and again. Scenes begin with clear goals in mind, then are sidetracked; questions, pointedly asked, go unanswered. In a series of truncated flashbacks, Clare’s father says something “that left her unable to speak in anything but sentence fragments for days,” but we aren’t told what it is. She finds a small red notebook, opens it, “then closed it just as quickly, feeling like she had been slapped.” What was written in it? The novel won’t say. Clare is struck speechless by an envelope she receives from her father whose contents she does not reveal. When a phone rings in this book, you can be sure the resulting conversation will be cut short, if it happens at all; there’s usually a silence on the other end, or an inscrutable voice, or static.

What we get instead of narrative momentum is a richness of theme and an abundance of detail. Van den Berg’s previous work, her short stories in particular, are prized for their thoughtfulness and descriptive intensity, and this book seems to me a refinement and intensification of those skills. She portrays present-day Havana as a collision of past and present, of cultural influence and personal eccentricity, and the act of travel as a radical form of recontextualization and displacement. I found myself mildly vexed by the novel’s forays into travelogue, but there’s no denying the author’s skill at rendering this material; her sentences, at their best, are extraordinarily lucid, lodging places and people indelibly in memory. These descriptive passages may come off to some readers as clutter, but they serve to ground a story that sometimes feels elusive and vague.

The novel’s intellectual and philosophical excursions are less successful, to my mind, than its concrete descriptions. Although the themes themselves — the enigma of the self, the implications of framing in film, the gendered politics of intimacy — are compelling, the novel too frequently wears them on its sleeve. Van den Berg cites a great deal of research in her acknowledgments, and the reader feels that research acutely; excerpts from Richard’s film criticism neatly parallel Clare’s experiences (“Screens were vehicles for the subjective,” she recalls him having written), and characters often bluntly state the novel’s themes, like the random guy who tells her, “Our phones make sure we know too much and too little all at the same time,” or the eccentric professor who goofily intones, “The Big Questions ask us.” Passages like these take us outside the novel’s imaginative world and remind us that the author exists, and has something to tell us.

But perhaps this is a feature, not a bug. A counterargument might go like this: “The Third Hotel” is at its best when it makes no claim to psychological realism. It is in its weirdest passages that a reader is most likely to accept, even embrace, these instances of arch self-consciousness; at these times the book is thrilling, its own self-contained universe of metaphor and coincidence, and it makes its reader feel smart.

At other times, though, when the novel most resembles a police procedural, ghost story or other familiar form, it can seem withholding. On the one hand it wants to tantalize us with its open questions, but on the other there is no diegetic impediment to immediate answers. Most of the mysteries in “The Third Hotel” aren’t Clare’s to solve; she already knows what the envelope contains, or what her father said, or what is written in the notebook. She could open the white box anytime she wants. These narrative devices, designed to intrigue, risk annoying instead: The book conceals vital information for no clear reason other than to create gratuitous suspense.

Van den Berg appears to know this, and attempts to defend it from inside the fortress of the narrative: “Americans like straight answers,” Clare cheekily tells a new friend, and we feel a bit of authorial side-eye. “We like simple stories.” Well, sometimes we do. But van den Berg’s readers are looking not for simplicity but for a bit of clarity, and “The Third Hotel” doesn’t always deliver it.

It does, however, eventually bring its various plotlines to a close, and reveals much (though not all) of what it’s been hiding from us. I’ll abide by Richard’s injunction to “never give away the ending,” but I’ll say this: Whether these revelations satisfy depends heavily upon the reader’s expectations. My advice: Don’t take the bait when “The Third Hotel” starts voguing like a thriller. Instead, read it as the inscrutable future cult classic it probably is, and let yourself be carried along by its twisting, unsettling currents.

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