BY NICO VREELAND
Author: John Burnside
2009, Nan A. Talese
Best ebook deal: Barnes & Noble
The Glister begins with a contemplative rumination about the ravaged state of the world in which the story takes place. It’s a city near an old chemical plant where the land and people have “soured,” turning bizarre in creepy ways. The city’s divided into two parts: Innertown, the slums, and Outertown, where the rich people live.
The character whose perspective the narrative inhabits first is Innertown’s lone policeman, a sad, troubled man named Morrison. After setting the scene, Morrison slowly recounts the frightening story of a boy who went into the poison woods to find the devil and never came back. Since then, a total of five boys have disappeared.
Mentioning a crime to solve is slightly misleading; The Glister is more of an extension of that initial rumination than it is a plot-driven mystery, and it’s definitely not a Morrison-centric detective story. But Burnside, who’s written more poetry than prose, does his ruminations well, and he spends a lot of time on an interesting, if slightly disjointed, coming-of-age story involving an Innertown teenager.
It’s often compelling and interesting, and often beautifully written. The two halves—mystery and coming-of-age—don’t quite make a whole, but it’s still worth a read.
Burnside tells his story in long chapters that switch perspective between Morrison, his wife, his unofficial boss, a teenager named Leonard, and a couple others. The voices are more or less similar, tied together primarily by a predilection for lyrical, philosophical digressions. Such as:
What if, when you died, you didn’t move away into the ultimate loneliness, the ultimate separation, but instead you returned to some other state, a state you had known before? What if death wasn’t a solitary thing, after all, but a point where everyone who had ever been separated out, everyone who had wandered a lifetime, separate, but trying to connect in some way with someone or something else, returned to the shining, communal oneness from which they had all originated, tiny fragments of light and consciousness merging into the whole?
The bulk of the novel is devoted to Leonard, the Innertown teen, who was friends with one of the disappeared boys. In Leonard’s section, especially in the novel’s first half, Burnside isn’t concerned at all with the disappearances, and they become just another piece of the background.
Much of Leonard’s sections are devoted to his pursuit of various girls, his difficulty fitting in, and his figuring out whether he even wants to fit in. He’s also a voracious reader, so we get his opinions of many great novels, and a few films as well.
Essentially, the novel becomes a relatively pedestrian, but well-executed, coming-of-age story set against a gruesomely destitute chemical crater, where life isn’t valued as highly as it once was. The disappearances provide the impetus for a few episodes in Leonard’s life, but those episodes are more digressions than pieces of a larger narrative arc.
In the second half of the novel, the mystery, such as it is, is solved with a shrug. It’s never the point, though, and Burnside’s meandering, philosophical style gets a little tiresome when it becomes clear that his collection of thoughts has no real throughline.
The Glister has more than its share of insightfulness and good writing. But its organization and structure leave something to be desired as a novel. Burnside has a surrealist poet’s aesthetic and a philosopher’s frame of mind, but I’m not sure he’s got a novelist’s talent for constructing a coherent drama.
Similar books: Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell, is a great coming of age novel; The Caryatids, by Bruce Sterling is also about an environmentally ravaged dystopia; and The City & The City, by China Mieville, is a more traditional, if less satisfying, detective story about two cities