The Glister, by John Burnside, Anchor Books, 2009
“. . . They should pull everything down and start over, maybe in shacks or mud huts, so that people could learn how to live again, instead of just watching TV all the time and letting their kids run wild. They should move people farther along the coast and teach them to fish, give them little plots of land to look after, little allotments, and some tools and a few bags of seed, and they should leave them for a generation, learning how to live, and how to teach their children. It wouldn’t take any more than that. In one generation they would have new homes, new skills, new stories. They could start moving out from there, a few at a time, moving out into the world to teach others, beautiful nomads, moving from place to place, making it good to be alive again.” (p 213)
You’re in a strange place, maybe on a business trip, maybe a vacation. You stop at a yard sale or a small antique shop, and you find a box. It’s a nice box, sleek, compact. Maybe there is a fancy etching on the top, or perhaps the plain polished wood is satiny smooth under your fingertips. Inside, you find a set of components, nestled into velvet the color of cognac. The components are all different shapes, made from different materials. Some look like blown glass and shimmer with all the shades of the rainbow. Others gleam with brass and copper. Some look like carved ancient wood, or bone, and some glow like gemstones.
You’ve found boxes like these before and you love assembling the components into the larger shape they comprise. You buy this one and carry it home. As soon as you have some time, you remove the pieces one by one and try to fit them together. Some pieces have grooves, others tongues. Some have tabs, some notches. They ought to fit together. With other boxes, the pieces have fit together, forming a larger sculpture or device; clockwork, or glass, utilitarian or fanciful. Try as you might, though, you can’t get these pieces to connect. You check the box, sure that there’s a piece missing, but there isn’t. You even pry up the velvet lining in the hope that there will be instructions, or a key, something, but there is nothing.
After a while, you reluctantly conclude that these elements do not connect to each other, they do not merge into a bigger coherent shape. They look nice in their velvet nests, but they are not part of a greater whole.
This is what reading The Glister, by John Burnside, is like.
Burnside is a master stylist. It is completely intentional that the title makes you think simultaneously of “glisten” and “blister.” Open the book almost anywhere, at random, and you will fall headfirst into rich, vivid prose, whether it is the description of the poison wood, of the morally compromised constable’s garden of atonement, or of the kitchen in the house where Leonard, a bitter fifteen year old boy, lives. Burnside’s concept of the “chemical plant” that has blighted the land is exquisitely rendered. The voices of Leonard and the constable, Morrison, are pitch-perfect.
Burnside has a strange and wonderful idea here, and when he is merely exploring that; describing the ruins of the chemical plant, cataloguing the many symptoms; physical, psychological, and spiritual, that the townspeople face; and even inventing the strangely mutated (or perhaps alien?) animals that inhabit the poison wood, the book is compelling. It is the plot elements that trip him up. He sets up a fine horror mystery with the death of a teenaged boy in the opening pages, and tells us that every two years or so another boy—a boy about Leonard’s age—goes missing. Missing is not the same as dead, and one overarching mystery about the book is why people do not leave this poisoned town and its poisoned land. There is a hint that they can’t. Are the boys, then, finding a way out? Or is it more sinister than that?
Perhaps there is a mortal agent taking the boys. Perhaps there is a supernatural element at work. Perhaps it’s both. Instead of sprinkling the breadcrumbs for the reader to follow, Burnside prefers to explore the tainted lives of other people in the village of Innertown (the wealthy homes on the hill, presumably above the poison, are called Outertown. Great economy.). The book crackles with energy when Leonard reminisces about his loved/hated mother, who left them when his father got sick, or when he gets entangled with one of the local gangs of kids, or when he visits the old plant by himself. It is bland when we are forced to spend time in the head of Morrison’s mentally ill wife, for example.
Burnside drifts from one plot element to another; the disappearances, the deterioration of Leonard’s dad; the gang; and then brings everything back to the plant and wraps it up with a series of explanations and a dramatic, if ambiguous, ending. Plainly he had some idea where he was headed the whole time, but he does not connect his ending to the previous events in the novel. Plots points are dropped or just fade away. There is an act of violence against the town loner. Where are the consequences of that act? How does it tie into Leonard’s final realization and his visit to the heart of the plant? How does what happens to Morrison provide balance for what we’ve known about him from the first pages? And what does it mean for Alice, his wife? Where did Elspeth go? Was she killed? Did she hitch-hike out of town? The connections in the book are dream-connections; the connections of image and theme, very much in the literary tradition, and they make, ultimately, for disappointing story-telling.
After I finished the novel, I made a guess that John Burnside was a poet and a new novelist. I was half right. He is an award winning poet, and that side of him shows here. He has published two other novels. He seems to approach a novel the way a master cabinet-maker might decide to build a house. Cabinet makers work with wood better than anyone; they understand seams and joins. They don’t always understand load-bearing walls, the importance of a foundation, or cutting a roof.
I am drawn by the dark, frightening and seductive concept of the “the Glister.” This idea might have played out better as a series of connected short stories.