on 29 June 2008
This is the first book I have read by John Burnside and was impressed.
The story is set in the bubble-like post-industrial 'Innertown' from which no one leaves and very few enter. Burnside writes beautifully and is a very good story teller. The descriptions of the disused chemical plant and the blackened country around it evoke a fantasy landscape of secret groves and mysterious (deformed) animals, with poison and darkness bubbling below the surface.
This poison below the surface is not only preavalent in the landscape, but is present within the characters and the story throughout. The violence and sex of a mostly apathetic youth are both casual and amoral, but nonetheless shocking in their effect.
Burnside seems to be writing to imply that we are all complicit in the casual human and environmental violence that we see around us, but do nothing about.
However, the final couple of chapters of the book don't sit too well with the rest of the story. Maybe I was missing something, but it appears that the message that Burnside was trying to get accross is lost in too much moral relativism and nihilism, with no real hope for change.
on 19 June 2008
In his novel Living Nowhere John Burnside managed to find great beauty in the new town of Corby (or perhaps more accurately he manage to write with great beauty). His ability to find wonder in the mundane made his tale of violence in an industrial town a fascinating read. His next setting was Coldhaven, a coastal landscape with history and legend, and with the same beautiful prose he created a modern folktale with violence again at its heart in The Devil's Footprints. With his latest novel Burnside has managed to combine the strongest elements from those two books and in doing so has created his most unsettling work since his debut The Dumb House.
We are in an industrial landscape once again and Innertown, '...now nothing more than a ghetto for poisoned, cast-off workers', where an abandoned chemical plant is slowly decaying, is a landscape poisoned and dying . For its inhabitants 'the ghosts and ruffians of Innertown' it is a living hell; strange illnesses, aggressive cancers and rumours of mutant animals are just the beginning for those unfortunate enough to be close to the plant. Burnside creates an eerie atmosphere; this a place that nobody ever seems to leave, like a sinister version of The Truman Show. It has a fable like quality, the name Innertown (with the salubrious Outertown that surrounds it) the 'poisoned wood' where children dare not play and mysterious characters that hover around the edges. Layered on top of this is the terror that everyone is trying to ignore. For the last few years boys have been disappearing. The authorities claim that they have simply run away but no one knows for sure where they are or whether they are alive or not. Although that isn't strictly true. The town's one permanent policeman, Morrison, does know something, but it is a secret he's forced into keeping.
For the children there is little to do but amuse themselves with casual acts of violence and sex. Tooled up with improvised weapons they hunt the rubbish strewn landscape for prey, always under the heavy cloak of fear that they may be the next one to disappear. Amongst them is Leonard, marked out as different by his intelligence and sensitivity and in no small part by his avid reading of the classics of literature. On the back of a friendship with his librarian he seems to have covered them all from Moby Dick to Anna Karenina (he is currently working his way through Proust) and whilst this is far from impossible there is something that doesn't quite ring true. There is no definite time setting in the novel but with some modern references Leonard's choices of Elizabeth Taylor and Dorothy Lamour when describing beautiful or glamorous women show the author's age and character coming through a little to clearly. But this is a minor quibble, Leonard is a beautifully realised character, his near silent relationship with his ill father encouraging first his friendship with the librarian and then the Moth Man, a visiting ecologist who offers Leonard conversation, confidence and a hallucinogenic tea and who, with his fairytale name, will become an increasingly important presence in his life.
There is so much I could say about this extraordinary novel but I don't want to spoil it for you, I want you to read it. In her novel The Secret History Donna Tartt, quoting the Greeks, said 'Beauty is terror. Whatever we call beautiful, we quiver before it.' In this book Burnside creates an atmosphere of such unease that I felt terrified in a way I haven't been by a book since reading House of Leaves. If you have already come across Burnside then hopefully you too have been impressed in some way by his writing. If you haven't then you are in for a treat. Burnside is a writer at the height of his powers. A total writer who, with a poet's skill, fills every page with a striking image, an arresting phrase, something that might just take your breath away.
"I'd always felt something out at the chemical plant, no matter where I went. You could call it a spirit, or a genius loci - why not? ...It was there pointing to something I should know about, something I should have seen beyond the things I was seeing but it wasn't concerned with what you could say in words. You get a huge moon in an indigo sky, floating over the dusty water by the docks, over the rusty cranes and the old boat eaten away by rust, you get that big moon over the harbour and you can hear owls calling from the woods above - what words are you going to have for that?...Sometimes the whole world points to something you can't see...sometimes, it's just that things are beautiful, only what you mean by beautiful is different from what people usually mean when they say that word.. It's beautiful and it's terrible too. It takes your breath away, but you don't know if that comes from awe or terror."
The Glister is set in the decaying, post-industrial town of Innertown. The land and the inhabitants are poisoned by the legacy of the now-closed chemical factory. Many people die from cancers and other illnesses and there is little hope of escape for the youth of the town. Adding to the misery are a series of mysterious disappearances of young males.
We meet a series of characters including Morrison, the town policeman who keeps a melancholic secret and Leonard, a young male whose father is dying from exposure to the chemicals. In all, the book has elements of a horror story. The tale opens well and builds in an interesting manner. It is atmospheric and there is a pervading sense of unease and gloom. However, the book crept into the realms of the bizarre and fantastic as it moved towards the climax. It lost grip with reality and left me feeling quite bemused. I can see many plaudits coming in the direction of this book due to its oblique nature and interesting structure. However, I found it a little pretentious and unsatisfying.
on 10 July 2008
The main reason the novel succeeds is due to the setting. Burnside takes his time conveying the nightmarish angles of the chemical plant and the damned inhabitants of the nearby town. It casts such a huge shadow that it becomes more important than the narrative.
There is no clear ending to the story, it's whole world is probably a metaphor for something but I couldn't tell you what. In my eyes none of the characters are redeemed by the end of the story, so everyone stays in hell. But when hell is painted as vividly as this, I'm not about to complain.
Corby and Fife - is it Fife, east coast of Scotland anyway? - are somehow recognisable here, but Burnside has taken his work in a more allegorical direction. 'Dark' doesn't really go there, but this is a world that is oddly enticing as well as sometimes atavistic or self-centred, partly because Glister is beautifully written, frequently poetic. Perhaps this is Burnside's finest book to date.
on 4 September 2009
A darkly ambiguous opening soons leads to a fascinating and eerie modern fantasy involving Innertown, an imaginary, Eastern Scottish coastal town, seemingly poisoned by a vast disuded chemical plant. Seen through the eyes of a Holden Caulfield-like disenchanted teenager this book sometimes reads like Iain Banks' Wasp Factory, though when describing the haunting environment of the chemical plant Burnside casts it as a character in itself, reminiscent of JG Ballard's dystopian industrial badlands. The storyline kicks off with Innertown's only policeman and the sorry tale of his ruinous life- which soon leads to the central theme of a succession of young teenage boys who have disappeared. Burnside skillfully sets progressively darkening backdrop after backdrop until the reader is genuinely unnerved- the final chapter left me chilled in a way standard horror genre hasnt done since i was 12, though i wouldnt classify Glister as horror- its a book that transcends genre. The ultimate pay off may explain little and leave some readers feeling a little cheated, but Burnside ultimately succeeds in exploring morality, religeon, teenage disillusionment and human frailty whilst still maintaining gripping suspense in this modern-gothic stunner of a novel.