Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Rising Up, Rising Down

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John Burnside’s latest novel, Glister, finds him looping back to territory he has already mapped. His last but one novel, Living Nowhere, was set in the Corby of his adolescence, dominated by the steel works and on the cusp of becoming post-industrial. It was clearly strongly autobiographical and he followed this with a stunning memoir, A Lie About My Father, which Burnside noted was “best treated as a work of fiction.” Now, with Glister, he revisits the same subjects – youth, family, small town isolation – as fabulation. Things are heightened and distorted, mirroring the hallucinogens which feature in all three books. Corby is transmuted into Innertown and Outertown and the steel works simply become the Plant. Equally notionally the book exists outside of time but, flashes of modernity notwithstanding, we are back in the Seventies in Burnside’s youth.

It is an oddly structured novel: a clutch of short third-person chapters give way to a novella-length first-person chapter which makes up the bulk of the book. This is narrated by Leonard, an incredibly precocious and disaffected fifteen year old “who is quietly disappearing from the world he used to know and has already stopped knowing, more or less on purpose.” (p4) Not only is he too big for the town but a series of boys his age have disappeared. A fiction is maintained that they have simply left home but no one believes this, the pull of the Innertown is too strong. No one escapes:

But he didn’t go away. Nobody goes away. The kids talk about it all the time but the truth is , none of us really know what’s out there, twenty, or fifty, or a hundred miles along the coast road, because nobody has ever gone that far. (p68)

Instead a serial killer seems to be at work. Death is not rare in Burnside’s work but this hint of a crime drama or even a thriller makes the novel stand out. It is misdirection though, there is no interest in a genre narrative. Burnside’s focus remains fixed and it is impossible to read Glister in isolation. Dan Hartland described the novel as “visionary and elusive” and in a way it is but it is also much less so than Living Nowhere or A Lie About My Father. Burnside is a poet but much of the prose falls flat and there is often only a slender gap between ambiguity and inarticulacy. Burnside is doing many clever things here but he failed to hold my interest and that is a pretty damning criticism.

Written by Martin

14 July 2009 at 20:02

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  1. Perhaps I need to read the memoirs; I might say, though, that when you suggest the book is set in the Seventies I think your familiarity with those older books betrays you. Glister might just as easily be set in a future like that predicted by David Simon (for instance here), in which areas of affluence exist outside of pockets of dystopian, practically post-apocalyptic, deprivation.

    I found the prose, meanwhile, largely spot-on: too poetic and it would have come across poorly given the subject matter and the characters; too plain and it could not have endowed Innertown with sufficient dignity and weird beauty. I know what you mean about the hair’s breadth between ambiguity and inarticulacy – when I first left the novel I wasn’t sure it hadn’t pulled the wool over my eyes – but the more I reflect on Glister the more I think it knows exactly what it’s doing. I stand by my quoted words, sir: I didn’t find it muddy or uncertain at all.

    But perhaps I need to read the memoirs.


    16 July 2009 at 00:30

  2. I thought it would be much more dystopian than it was. I was originally – prior to starting it – thinking of reviewing it for Strange Horizons but obviously that would have been inappropriate.

    It is undoubtably true that reading Burnside’s other books predisposes me to read Glister as being set in the Seventies. However, I think this is supported by the text as well. There is little mention of music (which is notable in itself) but other cultural references are suggestive: casual mentions of Ewa Krzyzewska in Ashes and Diamonds, libraries stocked with cowboy books. More generally it seems to exist in a timeslip: no mobiles or computers, the village bobby on his bike, etc. This could be history repeating itself but regardless of whether it is literally the Seventies it is taking us back to that decade to the towns where British industry died.

    With the prose we are getting into the most subjective territory imaginable so I’m not going to argue with you. I never found it muddy or uncertain, it did find that sometimes it was stating a commonplace when it was clearly seeking for more. There was little here that pierced me in the way of his previous writing. The quotes I marked down whilst reading it seemed remarkably banal when removed from context.

    Finally, I think it is wrong to talk of “the memoirs” as a seperate set of work. It is not so much that those works explicate this novel but that this novel forms part of an autobiographical triumvirate with them. I would certainly recommend reading A Lie About My Father regardless.


    16 July 2009 at 10:25

  3. I’ve ordered both A Lie About My Father and Living Nowhere from Amazon; I’ll get around to them and come back to thinking about Glister then. I agree that the book wouldn’t sit right with Strange Horizons, by the way, so to that extent we’re obviously on the same page re: dystopia: I like what it does with genre, but it is clearly not a genre book. Having said that, I’d also say it’s just as clearly not a book set in the proper 1970s, although I agree that it’s more proper to call it ‘out of time’ than a fully-fledged imagined future.

    On the prose front – what impressed me most was the overall control of the voice, rather than individual sentence. I can understand why you might have been disappointed in a search for honest-to-goodness saws.


    16 July 2009 at 11:02

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