The Glister by John Burnside
At The Edge of the Universe, we review mainstream authors that incorporate elements of speculative fiction into their “literary” work. However you want to label them, we hope you’ll enjoy discussing these books with us.
Reading The Glister by John Burnside was like opening a perfectly crafted wooden box and finding inside a set of components, nested into cognac-colored velvet. Some components were made of finely worked gold and brass; some were polished wood; some were ethereal blown glass; some were made of jewels and bone. Usually, components like these fit together to form a whole: a telescope, a kaleidoscope or a theodolite. Try as I would, though, I could not get the components of The Glister to merge into one coherent whole. Each piece looked beautiful in its velvet nest, but they did not combine to create a larger form.
The Glister is a literary thriller, or perhaps literary horror novel, about an isolated Scottish town that has been poisoned on many levels by the toxic chemical plant that it grew up around. There is a paranormal aspect to the story, and, at ground level, so to speak, a mystery about teenaged boys that go missing, usually one every two years.
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 it — describing the ruins of the chemical plant, cataloguing the many physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms 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. Plot 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 hitchhike 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 storytelling.
John Burnside is an award-winning poet, and that side of him shows here. He seems to approach a novel the way a master cabinetmaker might decide to build a house. Cabinetmakers 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 got to my three-and-half-star rating by a strange route. I gave The Glister four and a half stars for language, and two and a half for plot. Then I averaged. 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.