Lens Shift: Laura van den Berg Interviewed by Mike Scalise

The author of The Third Hotel on existential noir, travel psychology, and what horror film theory can reveal about the human condition.

Laura Nyc

Photo by Paul Yoon.

I’ve never felt as imbalanced by a book as I did hours after reading Laura van den Berg’s latest novel, The Third Hotel (FSG). Minutes after I finished, I found myself coming awake to the fact that I was filling my water bottle with milk. Later, while on a hike, I found I’d taken a wrong turn on a path I’d walked daily for weeks, lost in a set of deep redwoods I thought I’d come to know well. Like the novel’s protagonist, Clare, I was locked in the existential parentheses of travel, weeks into a trip far from my home, my life transported to somewhere both new and newly-accustomed. I was both myself and not myself, which is the same tricky, vulnerable space in which The Third Hotel dwells for a swift two-hundred pages that follows Clare, a newly grieving widow who, while in Cuba to attend the horror film festival her now-dead husband can’t, sees that very husband there, in Havana, alive or something like it. What comes after is the playful, genre-inspired fiction that readers of van den Berg’s previous work have come to know. But now it’s laced with a strange, potent balance of surrealism and incisive, surprising takes on marriage, grief, travel, elevators, and horror film theory that, by the book’s end, converged into something that knocked me off my axis so powerfully that I became lost on a familiar path, drinking water that tasted like milk.

So I thought I’d ask Laura how she did all that.  

Mike Scalise I love this interview you did with Lincoln Michel a few years back, where you both riffed on the concept of “existential noir” and the power of perpetual mystery. I’m imagining The Third Hotel, which has been described as that, was in its early stages then. Has writing this book changed or deepened your idea of what existential noir is, or can be?

Laura van den Berg I think working on this book expanded my understanding of what existential noir can be, for sure. To my mind, existential noir uses the traits of noir (detectives, missing persons and/or mysterious deaths, etc.) as an entryway into the unanswerable, the questions for which there is no resolution. The Third Hotel starts on recognizable noir-ish ground, with the hit and run murder of Clare’s husband, but pretty soon that ground starts to give way and a different, more bewildering landscape of questioning opens up, or at least that was my ambition. The immediate question of who killed her husband is displaced by far stranger happenings. I think noir, existential or otherwise, is also so much about looking: who is watching, who is being watched, and how that interplay evolves over the course of the narrative. I’m thinking stakeouts, surveillance, and the like. I was super interested in weaving that through-line of looking into the world of film and travel. How the vantage of the director is a huge part of what makes a cinematic world. How our camera lenses can arrange and rearrange a place. How the eye of the visitor differs from that of the resident. And so on.

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MS I thought about that shifting lens so much while reading it. At times it leads to these wonderfully complex moments, with Clare so hyper-located as a visitor in Havana yet “dislocated” internally, or vice versa. It’s a fluid use of setting that departs from the tendency in American noir for locale to emerge as a blunt super-antagonist that undoes all who test it. Clare definitely unravels—not a spoiler—but Havana’s hand in that seems far more dimensioned and nuanced. How would you characterize that city’s attunement with Clare and what she’s experiencing?

LVDB I very much wanted to veer away from locale as “blunt super-antagonist”—i.e., American travels to a foreign country, where they do something imprudent and then intense misfortune follows. Nothing “bad” happens to Clare in Havana; the destabilizing weather system she arrives with was brewing well before she boarded the plane. Yet Havana as a place came to be very important to the book for a few different reasons. The book is set in 2015, a year that saw a major influx in American tourists. I was interested in the way Havana, suddenly the toast of every travel magazine it seemed, was being marketed. Perhaps this is because I’m from Orlando, a place that has been powerfully molded by tourism and is almost always marketed in ways that flatten deep complexity; Havana and Orlando are of course radically different contexts but this was an initial point of entry. I spent a lot of time thinking about the language of tourism, and the particular kinds of desires that travel marketing ignites, the promises made (and how those promises change or disappear altogether depending on who you are). Clare is a child of the hospitality industry (she was raised by innkeeper parents in North Florida), so she’s naturally attuned to how people move through spaces, the desires and promises they appear to be harboring. Then, at a certain point in my research, I realized so much of the critical work on tourism used similar language to that of cinematic scholarship—the idea of the lens as the eye, for example, which evolved into the lens as a kind of governing concept in the book: people are watching the city; Clare is watching people watching the city; someone has been watching her (maybe); everyone is watching films at the film festival; some people are making/watching films in secret. And memory, of course, is another type of lens, another type of watching. A quick story—travel complicates watching generally because we (or many of us anyway) tend to project onto the places we’re visiting while we’re there. On my first trip to Havana, I was stopped by a woman, who turned out to be a Canadian tour guide and who had mistaken me for a woman who had been part of one of her tour groups. I told her this was my first time in Havana and I wasn’t even Canadian and in a moment her confusion passed—but for a second there, she was so convinced. What do we hope to be convinced or unconvinced of when we travel? That is a question I’ve wondered a lot about.

MS The lens also frequently shifts with regard to how the reader sees Clare. As you mentioned, she’s a travel expert, a hospitality expert, and an elevator expert. But thanks to years of engagement with Richard’s research, she’s also very savvy with horror film theory. I loved watching Clare wield it. Sometimes we get her thoughts on horror film theory in a way that links to subtext. Sometimes she uses that knowledge to blend in, like at the Festival of New Latin American Cinema. And once her husband Richard reappears in Havana, Clare often relies on horror film theory to consider why he reappears, or who (or what) he might be, keeping her always two steps ahead of the reader. Talk about what it took to fold real, you-can-look-it-up film theory into a swift-moving metaphysical mystery like this.

LVDB I definitely had a series of drafts where I had shoehorned in every neat thing I’d ever learned about horror films, so I made a deal with myself that anything horror-film related had to be one: generated by the current moment and two: connected somehow to the novel’s underlayers, to subtext. At a certain point in the draft stage, I noticed that the character was noticing in particular directions and then I had to ask questions about that noticing—Why does Clare look extra carefully at elevators? Why does she seem to know so much about hotels? I find that such questions can open some critical doors in characterization: maybe elevators are connected to her work and maybe she travels a lot for work and maybe she even grew up in the hotel world somehow. At a certain point, it’s not enough that these elements interest me; they have to be salient to the character as an individual. And that holds true for the film material: that vocabulary is a point of entry into the film festival, yes, but also a possible means for her to decode her husband; the language of horror film scholarship gives Clare a way to articulate ideas and feelings that she might not be able to otherwise. I also see the “rules” of horror as an aspect of world-building, a way to firm the narrative movement, the sense of reality. Also—horror is a very self-referential genre, so in that spirit it was fun to tuck in references to certain films and books and ideas.

MS There’s a passage about how Richard felt “the ideal film existed between consciousness and unconsciousness.” It’s hard not to consider that as part of the The Third Hotel’s mission, too. So much of the book, especially in the back half, is set to a dream rhythm I hadn’t encountered before as a reader. Maybe it’s how the real and unreal hover in the same space so matter-of-factly, but emerging from the book I felt very unbalanced in reality, much like waking from a vibrant dream. I could fully feel the destabilizing force of the book’s movement still working on me, yet was frustratingly unable to recall what, exactly, triggered that feeling. It lasted for hours. What went into conducting that kind of destabilization?

LVDB Early in the novel, a film director says that: “The foundation of horror is the dislocation of reality, a dislocation designed to reveal the reality that has been there all along.” For me, any compelling work of art creates some kind of dislocation, unsettles the air a bit. As a genre, the best horror poses central human questions: Who can you trust? What is the cost of our secrets? What is our relationship to history? What are we blind to? What evils are lurking under the smooth surface of the self?—through radical dislocations. My ambition for The Third Hotel was to pose human questions that matter to me through a radical dislocation in Clare’s perception. There is some ambiguity around what is happening to Clare, around what exactly she is experiencing, but the impact of this dislocation continues long after she has returned home; without giving too much away, this is because she is moving through one kind of grief and straight into another. She will be dislocated for a long time, I think. The film director I mentioned earlier also has a line about how he wants viewers to leave the theater with new truths “swimming like eels under the skin”—and I wanted the book to move in a way that would leave readers feeling those unsettling eels for a good while after they finished. And that goes for me too: working on this book was a very destabilizing process and I miss it and I’m glad to be free of it all at the same time.

Mike Scalise is the author of the memoir The Brand New Catastrophe, which received the Christopher Doheny Award from the Center for Fiction. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Indiewire, Agni, The Paris Review online, and a number of other places. Follow him on twitter at @mikescalise.

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