Rising Up, Rising Down
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.