The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

There’s an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” about counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are basically a reimagining of past events, an answer to “what if?” and all of the events that cascade from a different choice or circumstance.

The episode is specifically about counterfactual thinking in the wake of tragedy. The woman whose story they share talks about how just before she and her husband ascended the mountain on which he would be killed in an avalanche, he told her that he had a bad feeling about the day. Together they’d decided to continue with their plans. If nothing had happened, she might not even have remembered that conversation. But because something did happen, something very bad, she reviews that instant and imagines what would have happened if she had suggested that they just skip the trip.

The Third Hotel is essentially an account of Clare’s counterfactual. What if Richard hadn’t died? What if she’d acted on the signs she’d been noticing in him for months? What if they’d both been more open with each other from the beginning of their relationship? She takes the trip to Cuba they’d planned to take together, and she replays their relationship, digging into details she and he had never addressed during their life together, trying to put the pieces together into a narrative that makes sense, and trying to come to grips with the unknowable.

The woman in the podcast was seeking some locus of control, something she could have done to change the outcome, and she focused in on that moment before their trip that seemed like a crossroads. This led, to one degree or another, to a sense of responsibility for her husband’s death. Clare feels a similar sense of responsibility and blame but without a single moment to look at, she sees her husband’s death as an accumulation of poor choices and in some ways even a result of a flaw in her own character. She imagines not just that she could have stopped his death, but that she was the one who killed him, and neither she nor the reader can be certain that this isn’t the case.

In her blurb on the back cover, Lauren Groff writes that “you read [Laura van den Berg’s] work always a bit perturbed.” This was definitely my experience. The novel is dizzying, the line between reality and Clare’s imagination blurred. I oscillated between “I love this book!” and “Do I love this book?”

In addition to the main story, the novel addresses the three-way relationship between the author/artist/filmmaker, the story itself, and the audience. One character talks about the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the audience of a horror film, a genre of which Clare’s husband was a scholar. “The screaming was only pleasurable because the audience knew the terror had an end,” he asserts.

Throughout the book, Clare is trying to place her life with Richard and his death into a narrative, a story with boundaries to comfort her with the knowledge that “the terror has an end.” As she traces her marriage back to its beginnings, Clare sees that the decision to marry someone in the first place carries with it the knowledge that, either through death or divorce, that relationship will end. A beginning implies an ending.

I’ve been reading everything lately with an eye for how I can use it to develop character in myself. In applying that filter to The Third Hotel, I’ve identified a primary idea with character-building potential: We can’t run from ourselves.

Like in a horror film where the victim is running frantically from a killer who walks steadily, methodically behind, no matter how fast we move whatever truth or pain or past we’re trying to evade will eventually catch up with us. It’s difficult to escape our patterns of behavior, difficult to stop running, but it happens whether we do it by choice or let it happen on its own. Sometimes (most times?) it boils down to being there in our relationships, with those we love and who love us, holding their hand, looking them in the eye, making physical contact while they cry, and allowing them to do these things for us. Our culture doesn’t encourage this simple but profound connection. It promotes independence and transactional relationships and solving problems by buying things rather than through the cultivation of family and community relationships. When it appears that our corporatocracy is encouraging us in these directions, take a closer look and you’ll generally find it’s actually an ad for a car or a credit card, an eyeliner or an app. It might look an awful lot like personal connection but peel back the veneer and it’s a ploy to get us to give away some aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, our preferences, our photos—that can be sold for someone else’s profit. And along the way we become convinced that we’re the mere sum of our parts, a collection of likes, dislikes and moments curated for public consumption.

So my takeaway is to maintain constant vigilance, to be aware always of who’s offering a solution to my particular problem and of who’s defining the problem in the first place. What are they selling and who stands to profit if I buy it? Does it bring me closer to people I love, closer to people in my community, closer to myself, or does it just offer the illusion of closeness? If all it costs me is money, it’s guaranteed to be the latter.

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