John Burnside’s novels seem to emerge from an older tradition of folktale. Woven with supernatural possibilities, the towns and villages in which they are set are frequently already alive with vivid legends. Glister is no exception, having a poisoned wood, disappearing children, and a mysterious stranger whose intentions are ambiguous. At its centre is the possibility that this stranger (known only as the Moth Man – linking him to another popular legend) can transport people to another place using the Glister, a doorway in the town’s abandoned chemical plant.
The novel focuses on Leonard, a teenager from the decaying town of Innertown, a forlorn place since its main source of employment, the chemical factory, closed down:
“After more than a decade of dwindling hopes for their town and for their children, people have become fatalistic, trying to find, in indifference, the refuge they once sought in the modest and mostly rather vague expectation of ordinary happiness that they were brought up to expect.”
Not only has the town been sapped of hope, but the health of many of its inhabitants has been affected. We hear that Tom Brook’s wife, Anna, “had died from a huge, inexplicable growth in her brain that had eventually driven her insane.” Morrison, the local policeman’s wife, “had got sick in the head and, even now, nobody was able to say what was wrong with her.” Leonard’s father is equally debilitated, and largely cared for by his son. The town also suffers from a series of missing children – no trace of them is apparently ever found, though we quickly discover that Morrison found the first boy’s body hung up in the woods, and this was covered up.
A lack of care for children is one of the novel’s main themes. Not only has Leonard’s mother left him to look after his father, but other parents in the town seem to have little love for their children. When the first boy goes missing, his mother refuses to look away from the television screen as Morrison questions her. When Leonard’s girlfriend is asked about her parents, she replies, “Don’t got any folks.”
The characters of the teenagers, however, are strangely clichéd. Leonard is a loner – who has a girlfriend and joins a gang. He is a voracious reader of classics that most adults would be unlikely to tackle (Proust, anyone?), and a fan of arthouse films. His girlfriend, Elspeth, is a nymphomaniac, whose habitual greeting to members (literally) of the opposite sex seems to be to offer them a blow job. Jimmy, the local gang leader, seems to have walked straight out of Lord of the Flies, and hunting animals quickly develops into hunting people. The characters of the adults, particularly Morrison, are much more subtly drawn, though it has to be said that within the off kilter reality of the setting, the teenagers do make some kind of sense, and I quite happily accepted them while reading.
The novel has an unusual structure. It begins and ends in episodic form, with each chapter, although in the third person, focusing on the viewpoint of one character. The long, central section of the novel, however, is presented in the first person by the main character, Leonard. Leonard’s narrative also appears, more briefly, at the beginning and end, and in two other chapters. At first this seemed rather clumsy, particularly initially as the novel appeared to promise the reader a quick succession of varied narratives, only to become immersed in one. However, on reflection, it does echo the way in which we draw close to Leonard, only for him to become distant towards the end – both to the reader and other characters – as he approaches the Glister. The novel is also divided into two parts, ‘The Book of Job’ and ‘The Fire Sermon’. The first deals with the suffering of the inhabitants of Innertown, the second with Leonard’s liberation from that suffering. In Buddhist teaching the Fire Sermon is about freedom from suffering through detachment. It has also been linked with the Sermon on the Mount, which would give the novel an Old Testament / New Testament division.
The turning point between the two parts is the killing of Rivers, a harmless loner whom the gang blame for the disappearances. The scene is initially presented from Rivers point of view. We already know that Leonard is an unwilling participant who has sought to restrain the others, and when he attacks Rivers, Rivers thinks he is trying to save him:
“He‘s inflicting a smaller pain to avoid a greater.”
At the beginning of the second part, the narrative returns to Leonard:
“I couldn’t stop kicking him.”
It is Leonard who kills Rivers, kicking him to death. As well as altering our view of Leonard, this influences our interpretation of the novel’s conclusion – how would a murderer find himself in Heaven, as the final chapter is called?
The novel’s conclusion is very cleverly constructed. Having found evidence – a watch – that proves Morrison knows something about the boys’ disappearance, Leonard goes to the Moth Man. Throughout the Moth Man is presented as a father figure whom Leonard associates with happiness:
“That day, though, I’m happy pure and simple – because the Moth Man has come, and I like it when the Moth Man comes.”
Together they punish Morrison before the Moth Man takes Leonard to the Glister, a room full of light where all he can hear is the “calling of the gulls and the slow, insistent motion of the waters”. The final few pages demand rereading and a return to the opening chapter. As Leonard walks into the light, the novel too finds transcendence, though with a cold, unforgiving eye.