Dark Reading in the Bright Light of Day


Cover of The Glister (U.S.)

Mood and Malice: Sacrifice and Grace in The Glister

After two days of perfect sunshine, a front moved in early this morning, and we now have dark skies and thunderstorms. A few funnel clouds have been spotted across the water on the Peninsula, but nothing here yet.

I went out in between storms and sprayed my lounge cushion and my canvas chair with a cleaner that the rain can wash off. A few years ago I was fortunate to pick up one of those reclining canvas chairs for only $25 at the end of the season. Normally, they sell for $70 to $80 dollars. It is a wonderfully comfortable chair, especially for reading.

Since the weather is so gloomy, I thought that it would be the perfect day to write about the book that I finished yesterday. It’s called The Glister (Glister in Europe, which is far better as the definite article before Glister doesn’t really fit the story as well). The book, which is by poet and novelist John Burnside, has been classified as a mystery, thriller, and horror. 

I’ve actually had the book since its U.S. release, but it had become buried in my stack of books to be read, and I didn’t find it until a few days ago. Glister is a great read for so many reasons.

Probing the Mysteries of The Glister: Structure

The Glister is told in second and first person, which can sometimes be very awkward if the author is not very adept; however, Burnside moves between the two quite well. The story is divided into two sections that encompass only 228 pages, but Burnside fills those pages with enough character, symbolism and narrative to flesh out a complexly-woven story of sin, redemption, life, death, love, apathy, good, evil, mysticism, and morality.

The pace is both prolonged and transitory. As one character describes it, “a page turner”: a page that is “so good, you can’t bear to leave it behind.” The setting is somewhere in the headlands of Scotland, and the time is ephermal: References are made to Dorothy Lamour and Matthew Modine, Dr. Kildare and the Internet. The deliberate vagueness in place and time assist in make the story a generalized, figurative post-apocalyptic tale.

Burnside’s complex sentences have a wonderful rhythm.  His prose has the resonance of a poet, particularly in the more evocative descriptive passages of even the most seemingly inconsequential things as seen through the main character, Leonard’s eyes:

It would have been immense once, that boat; now it’s just a broken hull, the decks rusting, the lower levels a mass of rotting stairs and gangways, dangerous and unsteady under my feet, leading down to a reddish darkness, were the vast, stagnant tanks lie heavy with salt and nickel. This was where everything led to once: the road, the train tracks, the walkways—their only purpose had been to fill huge boats like this with unimaginable quantities of poison and fertilizer and dark, oily liquors that would travel halfway around the world in the sealed hull while great oceans raged around them.

“Just on the point of being seen”

The story moves immediately into the character of John Morrison, the town’s policeman. It only takes a few pages for the reader to realize that Morrison has no business being a policeman. He is too timid and wants only to be left alone to tend his garden, and when the town’s teenage boys begin to disappear, Morrison’s inadequacies become all too apparent.

Morrison find the body of the first boy who disappears, Mark Wilkinson, and because the policeman is overwhelmed by the situation, he becomes complicit in a cover up, one that allows for four more boys to be taken. Oddly, the adults in Innertown accept these disappearances; the parents make inquiries at first, but eventually, everyone buys into the line that the boys have run away, left for the big city. Only the children speculate as to what has really happened to their schoolmates.

"Trees in the Mist," by magikeith*

However, Morrison’s character is actually a map of the character of almost all of the adults in Headland, which has been divided into “Innertown,” where the working class live, and “Outertown,” where the big houses are.

Most of the adults in Headland are depicted as impotent, powerless to do anything with their lives which have been ruined in every way by the chemical plant, the place that at first was the salvation of the town, and then later, became the source of the town’s demise.

Everything in Headland is poisoned by the runoff from the chemical plant; the people suffer from unexplained diseases and mysterious psychological problems.  Mutant sea creatures have been brought up from the waters, and the trees in the forest are even referred to as “poisoned.” References to hell abound:

That’s what makes it hell. Some random principles wanders through the world, choosing people for no good reason and plunging them into hell. Grief for a child. Horrifying sickness. Noises and faces coming from nowhere, punctuated by terrible minutes of lucidity, just long enough to take stock of where you are. And you are in hell.

The overwhelming ennui that cloaks the town and its people is stifling. While the adults spend their time either glued to televisions or lying in bed awaiting death, the young people of the town run wild, like feral cats. The teenagers spend their time committing pointless acts of violence, having sex with multiple partners, foraging in dumps for animals to torture, and exploring the skeleton of the remains of the plant.

The only power that is displayed is in the character of Brian Smith, a thinly drawn character who is more of a caricature of the poison that infects everything in Headland. Smith pulls strings in the background, but other than one chapter, his presence is mostly referential, as is the absence of the Consortium, the former owners of the chemical plant who deserted the people of Headland when things began to sour.

But Smith’s character actually does not need more presence as the heart of the story is the best friend of one of the “lost boys.” Readers do not encounter the true narrator of the story until page 50, and even then, the reader does not learn his full name until almost 20 pages later. Leonard Wilson admittedly does not like kids, is called a misanthrope by his teacher, and spends most of his time alone, reading or exploring the old chemical plant.

Absorbed by the stories of Melville, Dostoevsky, Conrad, and Proust, Wilson is one of the few people in Innertown who seems to be aware of all that is happening to the town and its people. When forced to write an essay on philanthropists by the teacher who labels him a misanthrope, Leonard chooses to write about grace and for good measure, includes an extended metaphor about Innertown and how the citizens are “trapped, how they can’t imagine any other life . . . Innertown is a young settlement that grew old before it time, old and tired, the people bound to this soil . . . by inertia.”

Few people escape the Headland, and those who do, never look back. As Leonard says, “People from the Innertown don’t leave, not even to go on holiday or to visit relatives. They talk about leaving all of the time, of course, but they never actually get out. Leonard’s mother, though, escapes Innertown, abandoning her young son and her husband because she has “her whole life ahead of her.” Leonard understands his mother, but that does not stop him from hating her for leaving.

Cover of The Glister (UK)

“A hisory of pain and loneliness”

It would be easy to assume that the disappearance of the teenage boys is the main plot of the story, but it isn’t. Or it is, depending upon how you interpret the story. Contextually, being able to interpret Glister is undoubtedly the most overwhelming aspect of the story: readers who like their stories to unfold cleanly, without subtext and sub-subtext will not appreciate the many layers of this book.

Glister deals with the rape of the land and the consequences that ensue. It encompasses the mystery of the boys: Where do they go? Who is taking them? Why? The book also deals with the very real and complex issues facing the young: meaningless sex without love, helplessness, hopelessness, and acceptance, or the lack thereof.

The people who surround Leonard are all symbols of something far deeper: Elspeth, the girl who uses her body to try to find comfort, John the librarian, who on the surface appears to be one thing, but shows his true colors in his enthrallment with violence and death in the abstract, Leonard’s father, who doesn’t speak until the moments before his death, representing the lack of any parental guidance or love, Jimmy, who can spot weakness and has a penchant for senseless violence, and finally, the enigmatic Moth Man.

But ultimately, the biggest symbol is that of religion: the books two sections are The Story of Job and The Fire Sermon. Morrison, whose character serves as bookends to the story, builds a shrine to the lost boys, referring to it as a “sacred place.” Leonard refers to the chemical plant reverentially, seeing it as both destructive and beautiful. The “lost boys” are sacrificial lambs for a greater good. There are allusions to blessings, mercy, the “Angel of the Lord,” and “divine appointment.” There is even a warped attempt at resurrection after a particularly violent incident that results in the death of an innocent man.

Near the end, Morrison, the weak, pathetic man who did nothing to save the “lost boys,” has one of the biggest revelations:

The idea makes Morrison angry, and he wants to tell this man, this boy, that he’s wrong, that the soul is wet and dark, a creature that takes up residence in the human body like a parasite and feeds on it, a creature hungry for experience and power and possessed of an inhuman joy that cares nothing for its host, but lives, as it must live, in perpetual, disfigured longing.

In the end, Glister closes with a sacrifice, a revelation, and a transformation. Upon reflection, all of the clues are there, but I have to admit that after I first turned the last page I was at a loss. Just what had happened?  It took much mulling over, and several rereads of key passages before things began to become coherent for me, the pieces began to fit, and when they did, I, like Leonard, was amazed.

Glister is not an easy read even though it is a slim novel. It is easy to approach it as a typical mystery, but it is anything but. The ending has been described as too ambiguous by some, and it is not hard to understand the reasoning behind that declaration. That being said, if you are the type of reader who loves finely crafted sentences; rich, evocative scenery, and layers beneath layers, then you will appreciate this novel. Its beauty is like the beauty that Leonard sees in the chemical plant:

. . . always beautiful, even when it’s frightening, or when you can see how sad it is, when all of the little glimmers of what was here before—the woods, he firth, the beaches—show through and you realize it must have been amazing . . .

and then later:

“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.”

Read this book carefully, but do not analyze as you go. It is so much better to ponder the meanings after the last word of the last paragraph of the last page. The questions will come: some will be hard, and some will be obvious. And then, the easiest and hardest question of all: Why is it called Glister?

More later. Peace.