¡Una posadilla! A review of The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg
For me, a stream of consciousness book should involve a mirage of writing. I want a dream-like associative word-bending that arises from deep in the author’s subconscious. I want language that exposes uncommon thoughts and feelings, as transmitted by the character(s). I want stunning connections on a syntactical level that spin upwards to both semantic and pragmatic levels. I words that build to unexpected beauty, or that throw punches and jolts my brain. I want language that ultimately makes me succumb to the author’s voice with the understanding that the voice will not be compromised. Woolf does this. Céline does this. At the very least, I want evidence of the author’s hyper-observation, the noticing of everything, a skill writer John Gardner in his book On Becoming a Novelist said was paramount. He wrote, “The good writer sees things sharply, vividly, accurately, and selectively…because he cares about seeing things clearly and getting them down effectively.”
I found The Third Hotel to have none of these qualities. Ninguno.
Readers of my reviews know that I am not a plot person and so the sort of no-plot found here didn’t matter to me. In fact, the set up is mildy interesting. Clare, the main character, travels to Cuba to a film festival primarily to meet Yuniel Mata (a fictional director). While in Havana she sees her dead husband. Sounds ok right? I thought so, for a while. Next nothing happens for a long while. Eventually Clare sees her husband again; she never goes up to him or speaks. She thinks of her father with dementia, she rambles on about this and that. I never got a clear sense of Clare, but this is partly her fault because she gives people fake names and it is partly the author’s fault in that Clare is poorly described. And, it is partly the writing that provides her with no apparent core. To illustrate, either Clare dislikes horror or suspense and consequently is able to read only a couple paragraphs of Patricia Highsmith at one time because the words fill her with dread, or she likes horror and suspense reading the papers her husband writes on horror films, over which she concentrates on every word of papers and often take hours to read. I suspect we are asked to forgive Clare for being this way because, perhaps, she suffers from a sort of “pressured speech” indicative of a mental illness like bipolar or hypomania. However, this is not made clear in what I read. Nevertheless, even granting this doesn’t allow me to forgive what I think is the author failing to uphold the author/reader contract for a decent novel.
To be emphatic, I found the language uncompromisingly lackluster, and this made for exhausting reading. Sentences are downright overwritten and questions about word order and choice continually arose. Take this passage in which Clare’s husband has not yet died,
“She was three days back from a trip when her husband was struck by the car and killed. Her flight landed in Albany at midnight, and when she returned to their condominium, she took a steaming hot shower and ate ice cubes in front of the TV.”
Why “a trip” indefinite article and why “the car” definite article? Why not “the trip” since it was the one she was on, and “a car” to emphasize the random aspect of a hit and run. I didn’t find any evidence the author considered such questions. Do you believe someone returns from a trip and eats ice cubes? I don’t. Either way, this is a detail I see as offering nothing. The best I could do was to speculate that the author was attempting to imitate Amy Hempel. In this though is a world of difference. Compare the start of Hempel’s brilliant story The Harvest:
“The year I began to say vahz instead of vase, a man I barely knew nearly accidentally killed me.
The man was not hurt when the other car hit ours. The man I had known for one week held me in the street in a way that meant I couldn’t see my legs. I remember knowing that I shouldn’t look, and knowing that I would look if it wasn’t that I couldn’t.
My blood was on the front of this man’s clothes.
He said, ‘You’ll be okay, but this sweater is ruined.’
I screamed from the fear of pain. But I did not feel any pain. In the hospital, after injections, I knew there was pain in the room — ‘I just didn’t know whose pain it was.’”
Hempel demonstrates writing that is sharp, surprising, and full of authority, it leaps forward with agility, and unpredictability.
Back to van den Berg’s writing, I had images of the author pusing diligently on the chest of the book, in an attempt to get the life again, but it was too late. The novel suffered from “catastrophic internal bleeding” to use her phrase. It’s life had bled out of sentence after sentence.
Furthermore, much of the writing in The Third Hotel is for me an excellent definition of purple prose, as in the following:
“She began to nibble at the ends with the scissors, right where her hair dusted her collarbone. She nibbled up to the edge of making a terrible mess. She put the scissors away, shoving aside a desire to keep going until the white basin had been transformed into the pelt of an animal.”
Scissors are nibbling? I had to read that multiple times to make sure it wasn’t a grammatical error. Hair dusts? She nibbled up to the edge…of what? The edge of her bangs, her hair, the edge of a collar bone? The edge of a mess? The noun is overburdened, and almost functioning as a zeugma. Do we need to know she put the scissors away or that she simply stopped? And true, she might have kept going until the sink was a pelt, or until her head was a skin-covered egg, or until the world was a crisp, fried by the sun that in turn was a massive yellow eye, that was the yolk of a gigantic ostrich egg. In other words, the metaphor is gratuitous.
Later on the same page:
“She has found, among his wristwatch and wallet and keys, a white cardboard box. It was the size of a small gift box, light in her hands. The edges were taped shut. She had brought it home and placed it on the kitchen table. Had he been on his way to see someone? Did the box contain a gift? She sat, stood, circled the table. She felt unable to open it. She could not imagine what might be inside…”
A little white cardboard box in a bag of items from the hospital or police is always the size of a small gift box. It is always light as it’s small. Questions about it are a cheap method. She felt things she felt, evidently. The dull thudding of of van der Berg’s chopping wood with words that resulted in stilted sentences really began to kill me by this point, a death by a thousand cuts. It was this combined with the continual inability of a fictional human to do what humans would normally do, an error found in many uncritical and jejune works of film and writing, that deactivated my interest. Maybe something was in the box, maybe Clare never looked. I. No. Longer. Cared. Let’s just call it Schrödinger’s ending.
¿Cómo se llama un hotel muy desagradable?
Yes this is a nightmare hotel inhabited by rotten writing. At the most basic level, a proofreader should have questioned many items. For example, the non specific phrase “good Samaritan” was written “Good Samaritan” as though talking about the biblical parable or a specific someone from the society, which was confusing; sometimes titles were in Spanish as seems appropriate as with Revolución Zombi, and other times not, as when the ICAIC is in English or she goes to the National Zoo; a Cuba Libre drink is not capitalized in the book.
I was going to say, you can skip chapter four. But then I realized, one can skip it all.
I found chapter four added nothing to the novel. I imagined that the author picked up city sites brochures and a city map from the hotel lobby and worked hard to ensure that Clare visit every site mentioned in them. She goes to an exhibition, she goes to the zoo. It reminded me of the old joke about the penguin. Eventually she sees her husband again, but she doesn’t try to meet him. Then a chapter opens, “Another evening at the festival lobby, another reception in the lobby.” Well, if Clare’s trip is that repetitive and dull for her, what about us the reader?
This was soon followed by the end of part 1.
For me it was the end of the line. I wasn’t going to force myself through any more.
The blurb on the book’s jacket said the novel was a:
“singular, propulsive, brilliantly shape-shifting novel,”
“simpler, repulsive, unresiliently, short-shrifting novel,”
it’s more accurate.
At the very start I had hope. You know how it goes, a beer is pretty nice when it first arrives. It looks good, it’s cold, it has a good head on it, and one is thirsty. After two or three or four or five it all becomes more piss-water. Finally, I’m mildly annoyed that one of the epigraphs is by Cortázar. This stomachache of a novel has nothing to do with Cortázar’s outstanding writing.