Saturday, May 19, 2012

Glass

Sam Savage is a writer I might never have heard of had it not been for reading someone’s blog review of his brilliant Glass (2011)—I don’t remember who it was now, unfortunately. Savage’s first novel, Firmin (2008), stars a rat who may, I think, also be the narrator, which is the kind of thing that might be a little gimmicky except that now that I’ve read Glass I would be more than willing to see what Savage does with the conceit.

There is a rat in Glass as well, Nigel, the pet of the delightfully named neighbor Mrs. Potts. Early on in the novel, Edna, the narrator, is asked to take care of Mrs. Potts’s plants and fish, and she gets saddled with the rat as well much against her will. Edna is in the process of writing—or, I should say, typing, a distinction that would be important to her—a memoir, or perhaps an introduction to a reissue of her late husband’s novel, she doesn’t quite know. Edna is a lifelong typist with two dry spells, and her decision to write her book puts an end to the second, motivated by a publisher’s request for a forward to the reissue of the novel, which Edna believe to be not nearly enough space for what she would have to say. The book, then, is the record of her typing, memories of the past mixed up with events in the present and tangents that distract her from her main purpose.

Edna, it turns out, has a hard time organizing her thoughts, and her method of typing is to push out whatever thoughts she has at the moment she is motivated to write. She writes pages, or just a few lines, and then leaves off, with a blank line to indicate the break, and as pages come off the typewriter they go onto the table until the slowly wobble off onto the floor in a jumble. Because Edna can’t help but follow the train of associations, and keeps a list of issues she wants to get back to discussing at greater length, she is guaranteed to never finish her project.

The description of the book on its back cover does a little disservice to the actual story. The marketers play up the conflict between Edna and her late husband, asking readers to look for an answer to the question of whether Edna’s memoir is “homage” or “act of belated revenge” and if she or he was the victim in the relationship. This description makes the book sound like a distant cousin of Pale Fire, with a half-crazed narrator using textual commentary as personal attack, but that does not really capture what is happening here. Certainly Edna is unreliable in ways, and the text suggests some mental problems, some lifelong issues and others developments of late age. But despite her problems and those with her dead husband, neither of them come off as more than flawed people thrown together and left to complicate one another’s lives.

The rat, the plants, and the fish—all these things are thrown into Edna’s life and it is immediately easy to tell that they don’t stand a chance: the only thing to do is bet oneself which of the three will go first. Edna’s distraction from the pets and from her task mirror one another and indicate a more subtle plot to the novel as she becomes detached from the world and increasingly lonely, and it is this quieter narrative of Edna’s mental state in the current moment that most drives the novel forward to its climactic passages and uncertain end. The novel, finally, is a beautiful examination of memory and solitude, and it deserves to be more widely known.

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