BY NICO VREELAND
Author: Alexis M. Smith
2012, Tin House Books
Filed under: Literary
I have much more trouble reviewing a mediocre novel than reviewing a good or bad one. Glaciers is a mediocre novel. It clocks in at barely 100 pages, it’s six months old and already nearly forgotten, and I’m not going to spend more than 600 words on this review. And yet I’ve been wrestling with the following paragraphs for hours.
Well, here goes. Perhaps you’ll get a sense of why I’ve had such trouble.
This is a novel about longing. It’s well written, although not remarkably so. It’s quite short, and not much of anything happens. It has some good parts, one or two quite good parts, but no superb parts and also no really bad parts. There are glaciers in it, which are a metaphor for something—probably loneliness, but the glacier passages are vague enough that they could be a metaphor for almost anything.
The person who does most of the longing is a librarian named Isabel. She works in the basement of a library restoring books. She has a crush on an IT guy named Spoke, who got that nickname “in the war.”
Isabel longs for Spoke intensely, but does almost nothing about that longing. When she finally decides to ask him out, she calls a friend to ask, “‘How should I ask him? Like I know it’s a date, or more casual, like it’s just a thing we could do, as two friendly coworkers?'”
She’s almost thirty years old, and it’s sad enough she acts like a teenager who saw a cute boy at the mall. Even worse, though: she’s been “longing” for this dude for more than a year. Just sitting next to him, swooning every time he enters her sight-line, for fifty-odd weeks. If she asked him out and got rejected, that would be a different story. If she had a real disorder, I’d be on board. But Isabel is just a coward.
When she finally does ask him out, again after a full year, he says yes and they go out, and then he gets recalled to the war and she longs for him some more. That’s almost the entire story. Smith intercuts it with scenes from Isabel growing up in Alaska, and stories that Spoke tells her. Like this:
Her sister read that spiders have book lungs, which fold in and out over themselves like pages. This pleased Isabel immensely. When she learned later that humans do not also have book lungs, she was disappointed. Book lungs. It made complete sense to her. This way breath, this way life: through here.
That’s a good paragraph. But it’s not a great one. If Smith used this style to unfurl a great plot, I’d be completely on board. As it is, I found myself waiting for a second gear that never shifted in.
It’s likely that I’m not the audience for this book. For starters, I don’t have a whole lot of sympathy for characters who expound on loneliness while doing literally nothing about it. I prefer books with big plots, or at least books where the action is between characters, not submerged in metaphor. I agree with Michael Cunningham’s account of a Pulitzer criterion: “We would tend to favor the grand, flawed effort over the exquisitely crafted miniature.”
Glaciers tries to be an exquisitely crafted miniature, but “exquisite” is a reach. I would call it “finely” crafted, like a very nice plate. Whether it’s worth your time is a coin flip, so I’ll have to turn to a slightly different question, whether it’s worth your money. It’s not. If it sold for $3 as a Kindle Single, it would be worth that price, but at $10, I wish I’d saved my money for a grand, flawed effort.
Similar books: The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker; The Cove, by Ron Rash; We the Animals, by Justin Torres