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.


Cracks in the Rose-Colored Glasses


“A desert is a place without expecation” ~ Nadine Gordimer 

” . . . A Corner of the Mournful Kingdom of Sand” ~ Pierre Loti

I’m not really sure how to begin to describe the state in which I have found myself me these past few days, but I think, fear, that I am moving into a dry, unproductive period again, and it’s actually really pissing me off. I mean, here I am, all proud of myself for the discipline that I’ve been devoting to my writing in the last four, five months. Sitting here at this computer, opining on this, commenting on that, and the words flowing so freely that putting in my self-imposed two hours just seemed to be that—self-imposed and therefore needless. After all, I was spending much more time than that each day . . . doing what, exactly?


Practicing my craft? Is that what I’ve really been doing: honing my writing skills, amassing thoughts and passages that I could assimilate into that wonderful creation that would be . . . what?

I’ve been so enamored of my routine, something that I could never before master, that I had actually forgotten about the equally engrossing but far less proliferate phenomenon: writer’s block. As in, I can think of nothing to say. Nothing of substance, that is. Or to be more precise, I still have much to say, enough for eons actually, but I cannot make the words work. They are not connecting, as if some synapse somewhere in my recesses has shut down and is refusing to fire.

So this leaves me . . . patently pissed off, perplexed, panicked, and paranoid, even. After months and months of an endless flow, what has changed? Has something in me changed or has my ability to let my fingers wander freely over these keys been damaged by something else? Is it temporary? Days, perhaps weeks. Or will it be like the last time? Years before I could find my way back to words, lost in mile after mile of a  desert barren of creative invention.

Hence I am in a state of heightened anxiety, which, as any of you who create know, only exacerbates the problem. Do I call a time out? Do I say firmly to myself, “Step away from the keyboard until you can make it sing again,” or do I fumble my way through this.

I have two theories about my current state, neither of which are good:

The first, is that I have just been slowly weaned off my migraine medicine, which I had been on for several years. The number of bad side effects was beginning to counteract the very real benefit of migraine prevention, or at least slowdown. While on this medicine, I noticed that my ability to speak was being impaired, as in, I could not find words, could not articulate, could not remember the names of common items. As I said to my doctor, this loss of articulation, train of thought, is a kind of hell for someone who used to teach English.

In addition, I was losing hand-fulls of hair, which, even when you have as much hair as I do, can be quite worrisome. And, I always felt drained and tired. Malaise was a constant companion. Granted, the drained and tired may or may not be related to the medicine as I do have other conditions that could be causing the fatigue, but was the medicine actually making the fatigue worse? Or how about constant tingling in the wrists, which was not as I had assumed, carpal tunnel syndrome. (By the way, it just took me two minutes to remember the phrase carpal tunnel syndrome.)

Case in point. I asked Corey, quite seriously, if I have always been like this, to which he replied in the negative. He has been telling me for a while that I was having memory problems, but I have staunchly denied it. I thought that it was stress, told myself it was stress. As it turns out, this doping effect on short-term memory is but one of the more common side effects of taking this medication long-term.

After some more research and reflection on these and several other wonderful side effects versus the benefit of having fewer migraines of shorter duration, I did think that perhaps a change in my medication was due, hence, the withdrawal.

With the withdrawal of this medicine from my system, I do have more energy, and my hair is no longer coming out in my hands in the shower. However, I cannot write. To borrow from just a recent post of mine, those three words are like Brutus’s “unkindest cut of all.”

Unfortunately, this whole scenario reminds me of what happened many years ago when the doctors first put my on the cure-all Prozac to get me through my interminable grief: Yes, I wasn’t crying all of the time. However, I also wasn’t feeling anything—at all—nothing. If I had had to describe myself in one word at that time, I would have used the word cardboard. I told the doctor who I was seeing at that time that I would rather be crying and depressed than a zombie. The Prozac went away and thus began my long trial and error with the pharmacopoeia of antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds, a long and very crooked road that has brought me to this point in my post and to this post.

Am I no longer able to write because my chemical make-up has been altered so drastically by removing this one medicine to prevent migraines? And if so, just how powerful was that drug? And if the consequence of stopping that drug is that I cannot write, is it a price that I am willing to pay?

This introspection is more than mere navel-gazing; I assure you. If I cannot spend several hours a day writing, and I am not working any more, does my self-fulfilling prophesy about being on disability come true: that I will retire to my bedroom and become the hermit that I wrote about all those months ago?

What was the other theory? That I was never really able to write in the first place, and that, dear friends, is the slippery slope that many would-be writers, once they begin to ascend, often do not return from (end preposition acknowledged).

Navel-gazing is not for the faint of heart. More later? Peace.

A Referendum on Morality Seems Like an Oxymoron to Me

Proposition 8—The Musical


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Rainbow Brite

Okay, so I’m not a tremendous Jack Black fan, but I do think the guy is funny. But when I saw his latest role, it almost made Pepsi come out of my nose. I know that the clip has already gone viral, but it’s worth talking about just because of the actors who gave time to participate in it. “Proposition 8—The Musical” is a star-studded video that was written by Marc Shaiman, Tony-award winner of “Hairspray” and directed by Adam Shankman, and the actors play supporters and foes of Prop 8.

John C. Reilly and Allison Janney lead the gay marriage foes, who all happen to be dressed in Sunday best dark clothes. The “gays,” who include Margaret Cho, Maya Rudolph, Andy Richter, and Nicole Parker, are dressed in bright colors and look more like hippie protesters. And then Jack Black drops in as Jesus.

Black’s Jesus points out the hypocrisy of picking and choosing certain parts of the Bible to follow, for example the outdated notion of stoning people for their sins. Neil Patrick Harris acts as a type of Greek Chorus for the anti-gays, pointing out the economic advantages to gay marriage: “Every time a gay or lesbian finds love at the parade, there’s money to be made.”

Shaiman said that he felt some guilt over the referendum, which prompted him to act:  “I had just been taught this terrible bitter lesson about being lazy, and it lit a fire under my fat ass.” Subsequently, he wrote the piece in one day, recorded it the next and shot it in a single day in another week. Shaiman’s, in commenting on his mini-musical, declared, “If I’m going to stand on the soap box, at least let me sing and dance.” As Shaiman said on Keith Olbermann, the passage of Proposition 8 was kind of a slap in the face: “Election night, America throws this great party, and the gays [were] left off the list.”  

Truth and Consequences

The video has been called a “viral picket sign.” Personally, I think that it’s one of the boldest and best statements to come out against Proposition 8. Yes, it’s very in your face, as it’s supposed to be, but it’s also funny. The fact that we’re still trying to legislate against gay marriage in this country truly distresses me. Marriage, like many other things, should be a personal, private choice. People do not choose to be gay; they are born that way. To condemn them for something over which they have no choice or control does not seem to me to be either loving or forgiving.

Living is hard enough under the best of circumstances. Who are we to make those circumstances harder for other people simply because they want to live life just like anyone else: a house, a mortgage, life insurance policies, health insurance, maybe some children? I’ve known a lot of straight people who had no business being married. Their relationships were completely dysfunctional. They treated each other like crap, and their children suffered greatly because of it. There is nothing that says a marriage between a man and a woman is going to be perfect or better than a marriage between two women or two men. I know two men who have been together for a very long time and are married in every way except legally. They own property together, make all major decisions together, have friends together, love each other, have arguments just like any other couple. Worry over finances and whose family they will visit over the holidays. What makes their union different, or worse, wrong?

Look them in the face and tell them that their love for each other isn’t good enough. That their life together doesn’t count. That what they have isn’t real. That one of them wouldn’t grieve over the death of the other.  You cannot do it because it simply isn’t true.

The far right fundamentalists have very rigid ideas about the Bible and heaven and hell and right and wrong, and that is certainly their right. That is what this country is based on: religious and individual freedom. Far be it for me to say that they do not have the right to believe in the things in which they believe. The Mormons in Utah who poured so much money into getting Proposition 8 passed in California have the right to believe what they wish to believe as well. But it troubles me that there was a definitive blurring of church and state in this case, especially over state lines in which the LDS from UTAH came into CALIFORNIA and worked fervently for the passage of Prop 8. It seems that there should be some ramifications for the LDS church if they did not set up a separate entity to cover those massive donations.

The Circles of Hell

Essentially, according to basic theology of fundamentalism, just about all of the rest of us are going to hell: Jews, Catholics, Muslims, those who have not been born again, gays, people like me who prefer to keep my beliefs personal and private, and pretty much anyone who hasn’t answered the call to be born again. It’s a big list. On the other hand, for Muslims, all of the infidels will be going to hell. For Catholics, I’m not sure who goes to hell. Methodists and Presbyterians are a little more open about it, I believe.  Buddhists don’t believe in hell. Episcopalians are pretty close to Catholics, so I don’t know how that works, but I think that there’s purgatory in there somewhere. Unsure about Judaism. I know that a lot of the gay community worship at Unitarian Churches, so maybe there are no stipulations about hell. I think with LDS you go to hell if you do something against the prophet, and Quakers, well they’re so peaceful, I’m not sure how they would end up in hell.

I don’t even want to ponder which parts of hell where we’ll all land. It’s much too complicated and sometimes tedious, but Dante’s was very meticulous in creating places for everyone, so trust me when I say that no one should feel left out.

My point is this: why are we so concerned with who is going to hell? Shouldn’t we be more concerned with our own paths? I mean, my path has been pretty rocky. I know that I haven’t been a saint, but neither have I been a great sinner. In living my life, I would think that judgment for others is the last thing that I have time on which to dwell. I’m still acutely aware that my journey is not even remotely over. Like Frost, I “took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”

If we’ve learned nothing in the past few months, then perhaps we need to go back a little bit farther in time. For example, let’s take a look at one man who spent 27 years in a prison cell unjustly and never gave up hope, who came out still believing in the goodness of people, in equality for all, and the possibility of change:

“Our single most important challenge is therefore to help establish a social order in

 which the freedom of the individual will truly mean the freedom of the individual.

We must construct that people-centered society of freedom in such a manner

that it guarantees the political liberties and the human rights of all our citizens.
Nelson Mandela

Speech at the opening of the South African parliament, Cape Town 25 May 1994.


More later. Peace.