Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel: a review by Jacqui Reiko Teruya
When I teach my students Laura van den Berg’s “Where We Must Be”—a story about a woman who plays Bigfoot in the forest and is involved with a man who is dying—their faces pinch with confusion. But there is something about the descriptions of a rubber bigfoot mask, and throwing rotted pears, or the moon over a chilly lake that keeps them invested. I ask them what lives beneath the surface, how van den Berg’s movements help us see that. There is shuffling of paper as if flipping pages will make the truth crawl out of the margins. A student, one who is so afraid of being wrong but never really is, raises her hand. She thinks the story makes more questions than it answers. The room goes quiet. Heads nod.
Van den Berg’s second novel, The Third Hotel starts with a question: “What was she doing in Havana?” and questions seem to build from there. Clare, a young and recent widow, travels to Cuba for a film festival that her late husband had planned on attending. We get a crash course in horror films, what to expect, who survives, what we see and what remains in shadow. Van den Berg moves Clare from Havana into the past and back again, effortlessly grounding us in different space and time. This is van den Berg’s signature, the ability to use details, the mundane made strange: a roll of film hidden in a small box, a desire to sit naked in an empty hotel room, a fingernail tucked in a drawer. These details and moments exist in a time separate from the present through-line of the novel. They give a greater sense of Clare and of a world we are able to see and believe so fully that when Clare sees her late husband walking in the streets in Havana, the question: “What is he doing in Havana?” seems more important than “How is he alive?” We are never preoccupied with what has brought Richard back from the dead, the answers that we—and Clare—seek are more related to the life we are seeing in mere glimpses.
The loss of Clare’s husband is felt not only in her seeing his form moving throughout Havana, but is felt, too, perhaps to a greater degree, in the memory of both him and of a marriage that is revealed in all of its complexities and lonely splendor. While Clare searches for answers that present her late husband before her eyes she also acknowledges a fixation and disorientation within her grief. “Behind every death lay a set of questions. To move on was to agree to not disturb these questions, to let them settle with the body under the earth. Yet some questions so thoroughly dismantled the terms of your own life, turning away was gravitationally impossible. So she would not be moving on. She would keep disturbing and disturbing.”
Much of the novel is exactly this, a disruption and an exploration of grief, death, and what we see versus what we know or can know. It covers enough distance to allow for a different way of seeing; the ability to ask new questions. In one of my favorite moments, Clare is stuck in an elevator on a work trip at a doll factory in Indiana. The foreman, who is quite taken with doll heads, tells Clare he has witnessed her soul leaving her body. That night in her hotel room she weighs herself and finds she has lost three pounds. While doubt lingers, she finds herself moved in some way: “Who could say for sure that he was wrong, that the empty drift that gripped some people at certain moments in life was not in fact due to their souls—perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently—abandoning their bodies. No one that was who.”
The novel explores so many worlds, and while it takes elements of travel novels, horror, and grief narratives, it becomes something so neatly and purely its own. It explores that grey space that lingers at the corner of our eyes. What we see in a glimpse and think we know and then second guess again and again. It is a novel of questions, and as my student pointed out about van den Berg’s short fiction, it can feel that it leaves you with more questions than answers. That is what I look for—to “keep disturbing”—because answers, clear and concrete and on the surface are often just too easy.