Wandering Through the Uncanny Valley of Laura van den Berg’s Fictions
The Author of The Third Hotel Talks to Adrian Van Young
When Laura van den Berg was walking the streets of Havana researching her latest novel The Third Hotel, the leader of a tour-group approached her, convinced she was someone else. “She [thought] I had been on a tour she had overseen,” van den Berg told me by email, “and she wanted to know what I was doing back here. It only took a few seconds for her to clear up the confusion, for her to realize I was not the person she thought I was—but for a moment there, so she was so convinced and her conviction unsettled me.”
That this sounds like a scene from van den Berg’s fiction is no accident. For the last decade, van den Berg has been hollowing out a place for herself somewhere deep within the wonky inner ear of American fiction, blending the idiosyncratic tenderness and alienation of Joy Williams and Roberto Bolano with the unrepentant darkness of Patricia Highsmith. Van den Berg published the story collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth in 2009 and 2013, respectively; the latter title, a sparkling, dark gem of contemporary American story-writing, features a discombobulated newlywed who flees her honeymoon suite to gobble up sand on the beach, and an identical twin posing as her missing sister lost amidst the shady labyrinth of the life she’s left behind. 2015’s Find Me, a gothic addition to the post-apocalypse genre and van den Berg’s first novel, gives us Joy, one of the lone survivors of a lethal memory-plague who flees the confines of a sinister medical facility in Kansas in search of her mother, who abandoned her at birth.
The Third Hotel, published this month, follows Clare, an “elevator technologies” sales rep who spots her recently dead husband, Richard, in Havana “standing, inexplicably, outside the Museum of the Revolution.” That’s just the beginning but also, in some ways, all you really need to know. The rest of The Third Hotel, a playfully interior novel, tracks Clare’s grief-clouded perambulations through Havana on the trail of her maybe-dead, maybe-not husband in ways that subvert the book’s genres of reference: horror, noir, the marriage plot. The book’s many set-pieces collapse on each other, telescoping onto nowhere.
Brief as that moment of mistaken identity in Havana was for van den Berg, “super brief, like a few seconds,” “the slight uncanny-ness of it [magnified it] in her mind.” “[It] stuck,” van den Berg said, “given the nature of the world I was living in.” Van den Berg’s process as a writer is immersive; whatever she’s working on colors her life. “My dream life is definitely activated by my fiction [too],” van den Berg said. “I have the most regularly vivid dreams when I’m deep into a project, for sure, and I trust the part of my mind that exists beyond the realm of my conscious control will take me places that I need to go.”
Such moments of uncanny-ness and what van den Berg calls “terrifying dislocation” are all over her fiction. In The Third Hotel, Clare tracks her zombie-ghost of a husband into an otherworldly cave “guarded by long limestone stalagmites that cast shadows onto the rocks. [Clare] felt,” van den Berg writes, “like they were standing within a creature, in the soft tissue just behind the jaw.” The rest of The Third Hotel does nothing to dispel this thematic resonance; the novel is gleefully preoccupied with bizarre coincidences, eerie flaneuerism, the spectator dynamics of horror films, marital decay, the return of the dead to the world of the living.
Uncoincidentally, Clare’s husband Richard is a horror film scholar killed in a hit- and-run accident just a few weeks before the events of the novel take place, although The Third Hotel, like most all of van den Berg’s fiction, courts a fluid sense of time, cutting back and forth between Clare’s wanderings through Havana and Clare’s life before her husband’s death and subsequent resurrection—before “the gap between her inner reality and the world around her felt so enormous,” van den Berg writes, “she feared she was going to be swallowed up.” “Sometimes we talk about memory as though it’s firm and fixed,” van den Berg said, “but of course memory is highly fluid and subjective and thus highly subject to manipulation. And that’s where the deepest interest lies for me—how we manipulate our memories, both knowingly and unknowingly and often in the service of trying to access or recover realities and truths that never existed at all.”
Throughout The Third Hotel, van den Berg mixes horror scholarship and genre conventions to achieve decidedly non-horror ends. It’s as though John Carpenter had adapted a story by Alice Munro—or as though (ahem) Stanley Kubrick had adapted a Stephen King novel. Working alongside this clever subversion of horror tropes is van den Berg’s steady and purposeful critical intelligence, which manifests here in the conspicuous interpenetration of the meta-fictional and the actual, a technique van den Berg remembers being struck by in Yoko Tawada’s novel The Naked Eye, to which The Third Hotel is heavily indebted. “[Clare’s husband] had believed that once the theater went dark and the film began,” van den Berg writes, “the viewer was alone—even if they had arrived in the company of others. This solitude was needed to dissolve the logic and laws of the world they had come from, replacing those principles with the logic and laws of the screen… In this way you could descend into the theater with a person you knew intimately and then, once the lights returned, find yourself seated next to a stranger.”“I do not work well when I am in living in a cyclone of panic. I reject actively seeking out destabilization and suffering as a creative model.”
The horror of never really knowing another person, the horror of being defined by memories that are inaccurate at best, the horror of the traveler confronted with a sense of the world’s vast indifference infest the liminal spaces of van den Berg’s novel. And yet van den Berg writes about horror and horror films like one not only familiar with but appreciative of the genre; van den Berg is a “longtime fan.” George Romero, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Ana Lily Amirpour, Karyn Kusama, Jennifer Kent and, of course, Hitchcock are all horror auteurs van den Berg admires and felt compelled to revisit in the process of the writing The Third Hotel. “To my mind,” van den Berg said, “the best examples of the genre use extreme, terrifying dislocations from reality to uncover central human questions and truths.”
In van den Berg’s eyes, trauma, grief, secrets, instability, the inevitable entropy of trust and intimacy between people, especially married people, can be generative. All the same, when I asked van den Berg whether she actively seeks out experiences of “terrifying dislocation” in the process of writing, she responded, “Ha, ha, ha, most definitely not! If anything I am avoiding the dislocation, trying hard to cultivate stability. Experience has taught me that the terrifying dislocations will find you in their own time, so there is no need to seek them out.”
Van den Berg, who is warm and direct, grew up in Orlando, and “never lived any place else” until she was 22. Many of her stories are set in Central Florida, and she describes her state of origin as a “peculiar, troubled, and wondrous place” that has shaped her sensibility as a writer. In van den Berg’s mind, “there [has been] no escaping place and the mark place has left on [her] whether [she’s] literally writing Florida or not.”
Now, van den Berg lives in Cambridge with her husband, the novelist Paul Yoon, and their dog, Oscar, where van den Berg is a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer in Fiction at Harvard. “Like many artists,” van den Berg said, “I have issues with anxiety and depression, so I try to live in a way that supports my mental health. I absolutely work better and harder and braver when I am feeling strong and stable and optimistic. I do not work well when I am in living in a cyclone of panic. I reject actively seeking out destabilization and suffering as a creative model.” When she isn’t teaching or writing, van den Berg’s days in Cambridge are filled with friends, boxing, readings, therapy. Equally restorative for van den Berg is her marriage to Paul Yoon, whom van den Berg described “as one of the greatest gifts of [her] life,” and with whom, in the company of Oscar, she takes long walks around Cambridge.
Given van den Berg’s exacting observational eye, the miniaturist detail and flaneurism that show up all over her work, that she is a habitual walker comes as no surprise. Van den Berg’s fiction stands as a menagerie of off-kilter vignettes that begins to exert what Lauren Groff calls “a strange pressure more felt than heard” on the worlds that contain them. “A young woman is on the porch in a nubby sweater and corduroy pants and rubber boots,” van den Berg writes in Find Me. “I appreciate the soft look of her clothing… There is something strange about her body, something misshapen, and it’s not until we reach the edge of the front yard that I see white angel wings hanging from her back… The woman’s name is Darcie. She has freckles on her eyelids. The tips of her front teeth are stained caramel.” Or, from The Third Hotel: “In Miramar, [Clare] went straight to the café, the small sea of midnight-blue umbrellas. Richard was there, reading the newspaper. She took note of the items arranged on the table: the silver pitcher of cream, the blue sugar bowl, the discarded sections of the paper.”
“As a reader,” van den Berg said, “I appreciate a world that feels unsettled and also visceral, inhabitable, so that’s a quality I try and bring to my own work. In this way, dislocation and precision make total sense to me as a unit.”
Just as van den Berg’s fictional worlds are composites of the visceral and the existential, so too are her protagonists of the personal and the imagined. Which isn’t to say they’re inconsistent. Indeed, there is a kind of formula for a Laura van den Berg protagonist, repetitive only to the degree to which she is guaranteed to act in unaccountable, surprising ways. A young woman, usually, running toward rather than away from a perilous circumstance; sensitive, spacey, damaged, perverse, strategic, and a little bit sketchy. Not to mention the fact that many of van den Berg’s protagonists are given to ingesting non-edible objects at moments of peak psychological unraveling. In The Isle of Youth’s marvelous opening story, “I Looked for You, I Called Your Name,” the narrator, unable to fathom returning to her honeymoon suite, “[opens her] mouth and [starts] packing it with fistfuls of damp sand.” In Find Me, Joy swallows, among other items, a molar “knocked loose” in a fight. While in The Third Hotel, Clare eats a note intended for her dead husband and, subsequently, one of her own molars, which she dislodges after repeatedly striking herself in the face.
When I asked van den Berg why her characters are so quick to spontaneously ingest non-food objects, she responded, “Perhaps I have taken inspiration from my dog, Oscar, who delights in eating unorthodox objects, food and non-food alike, off the street. [But] Oscar aside,” she continued, “If the consciousness can’t reckon with whatever’s happening, we find release through the body; there has to be an outlet and sometimes a physical expression is all that is available to us. All that said—I also see the eating of unusual stuff as a form of weirdness I’m not super interested in interrogating too much. It’s an impulse, strange as it may be, that makes psychological sense to me for the reasons detailed above, but at the same time some of the charge would be lost if I picked apart the psychology too much in the moment. The more you explain those kinds of moments on the page the less they make sense; they just have to live.”
And they do. Van den Berg crafts narratives of terrifying dislocation so singular in their expression they all but explain themselves. It’s this tension between singularity and abstraction, groundedness and placelessness that lends van den Berg’s fiction an otherworldly momentum, while at the same time allowing for an imagined universe in which these notions aren’t mutually exclusive, where they can coexist peaceably. She leads us astray from the places we know so we can journey back again to existences more knowable than we’d imagined. She locates us on maps where they are no locations; she allows us to feel comfortable being lost.
“In life, I want to seek [stability],” van den Berg said, “so I can weather the destabilization of writing fiction. And, even more so, weather the destabilization of being a person moving through time.”