Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Books: Glister in the sun.

Before we get on to the review proper, don't forget to enter the ANTSS Tales from the Captcha contest! A winner is picked on Friday, so get to enterin'.

It's easy and, if you win, your prize should arrive in plenty of time to re-gift it for your office secret Santa.

Won't Sandra in Accounts Payable just wet herself with joy when she receives the DVD of the entire first season of HBO's Tales from the Crypt? Won't Tony in the mailroom squeal with girlish delight when he sees that you given him Billy the Kid's Old Timey Oddities or The Cobbler's Monster? You bet they will.

But you got it be in it to win it, so do it! It's what Forrest J. Ackerman would have wanted.

Okay. On to today's review . . .

Here's a completely earnest theory about cultural evolution in the West.

Let's take it as given that prostitution is, in fact, the oldest profession in the world. That means that, in the primordial swamps of prehistory, anybody gainfully employed was a prostitute. Humans swapped sex for some small stash of non-perishable goods whose chief function was to buy more sex. It was an endless loop and all humans did was hump and starve and pray that somebody soon invented the career of farmer or hunter.

I'm going to posit that the second oldest profession is storyteller. First, the need to create narratives is a product of ancient hardwired routines in our grey matter and it's not a stretch to hypothesize that we were telling stories almost as soon as we were functionally human. Second, it's the only way to explain the "blurb": an artifact that could only have been produced by a culture that consisted almost entirely of storytellers and prostitutes.

Blurbs are essentially systematized favors: chits passed between writers, agents, and publishers in an endlessly rotating system of infinitely fungible loyalty and friendship that resembles the political intrigue surrounding a grade school BFF list update, only more petty and less rational. This is why every blurb pretty much sounds the same: like any currency in a free market, they tend towards efficient standardization.

This means, however, that their function as a medium of communication to the average consumer is pretty much negligible. In theory, I guess, the faith of the reading public props up this fiat money the way, in theory, our faith in the greenback keeps our folding money worth more than the cotton rag it's made out of. Though, in both cases, the system has really evolved beyond that. Its endurance is its own justification and I suspect that even if readers stopped paying attention to them, blurbs would continue until such time as we out-evolve our need for literature.

That said, I think there is a useful way to read blurbs. Call it the Oz Theory of Blurb Reading.

Blurbs are the prison currency of the mainstream publishing world. If blurbs indicate a swapped favor, then a collection of blurbs is record of debt transfers that reveals a social network. Russian gangsters have a term for this: "roof." Roof is an all-purpose power term meaning, at once, pull, juice, favor, protection, political alignment, responsibility, the shotgun marriage expediency of gangster capitalist loyalties, and moxie. You don't get a commercially published book without roof: the magic combo of chutzpah, access to a network of friendly agents, other authors who vouch for your performance in MFA programs, and editors ready to bank your stake. Authors are their roof. Blurbs are a snapshot of that roof.

Here's what you do. Don't read the copy; instead, make a mental web of the blurbbers names. You'll have a pretty good sense of where in the quality lit game an author exists.

If everybody dropping blurbs is some marquee name in a particular genre ghetto, then you know who you're dealing with. This cat stays in his corner of the lit biz exercise yard, surrounded by familiar faces. He never strays too far, never alienates his posse, and is probably going to come and go without ever making waves outside that corner. Maybe, by sheer dint of financial success and the will to survive, he'll develop King-grade roof and score some measure of mainstream success. But probably not. He doesn't have the roof to make the leap from the undercard to main event.

You pick up his book and you know what you're going to get: some clever, but essentially minor variation on the genre collective's central tenants, perhaps some new growth on one of the genre's various sub-branches. And that's fine. That's part of the reason people read genre lit, to watch the familiar patterns shift slightly and participate in the esoteric taxonomies that only the devoted can parse.

But if the roof is all over the place? Then you're dealing with some guy who pops up everywhere. He's all over the exercise yard, hangs in the infirmary scoring script off of trustees, and openly talks to the bulls. You've got to respect a guy like that. It takes a special kind of author to operate under such an idiosyncratic roof. But it also means that you're dealing with somebody who is unpredictable, who has dubious genre loyalties, who might not deliver on promises because he's had his own inscrutable agenda all along.

John Burnside, author of the upcoming genre mutant mystery/horror novel The Glister, has got wacky roof. His roof, as mapped on the cover of his latest, features horror stalwart Peter Straub, thinking man's airport lit writer Scott Smith, aging icon of freak-out transgressive lit Irvine Welsh, quality lit star and accidental atheist guru to the Jesus-freak set Jim Crace, fantasist Keith Donohue, and a slew of minor poets, social realists, and other strange bedfellows.

And, true to the Oz Theory of Blurb Reading, the book's a curious thing.

Featuring a cast of not so beautiful losers trying to make sense of a set of incomprehensible crimes in a post-industrial toxic wasteland of a declining company town, The Glister reaches towards being a murder mystery, a pulp thriller, a character study of small town angst, a social realist screed against the brutal costs of predatory big business, a serial killer thriller, or a neo-Lovecraftian tale of cosmic horror. But it isn't any of them, as Burnside undermines the genre conventions of each and every one of these familiar genres. It is something weirder.

On a namely stretch of U.K. coastline, stands a dying town split into three distinct regions. First, there's Outertown: a posh suburban community of isolate elites still fat of store built up in happier times. Further down the peninsula stands Innertown, a decaying and poisoned working-class ghetto ailing under financial woes and a Pandora's box-load of undiagnosable co-morbities that are the pension plan of the town's former industry: agricultural chemicals. Finally, at the town's dead core stands the sprawling wreck of factories and processing plants that were the town's livelihood: a ghost town of toxic spills and dangerously unstable industrial architectures. The setting isn't unfamiliar. We've seen these same cancerous and cash-strapped burgs in Langan's The Seeker and Harvey's The Town the Forgot How to Breath. Though it has a long way to go before they overtake semi-rural small towns as ground zero for our literary nightmares, these busted rustbelt Superfund sites are rapidly gaining.

We open on John Morrison, the local constable. Morrison is one of those sad sacks who, despite having every reason to self-shuffle from this mortal coil, keeps plugging along, more out of lack of imagination than will. His marriage is a wreck: His wife went from low-grade alcoholic to full-blown mental case on him. Her lucid moments are worse because that's when she can clearly see what a schlub Morrison is. As a cop, he's a bust. He mainly got there because Brian Smith, the corrupt financial and political center of this town, detected the right mix of incurious malleability in him. Because the biggest crime in the town – it's slow murder by industrial poisoning and subsequent malign neglect – is above Morrison's pay grade, he mostly gets by harassing the occasion kid and writing up the accidents and "natural" deaths. But there was one time when Morrison needed to stand up and play police – and he folded.

On Halloween night, a young boy named Mark wandered off into the woods around the abandoned factory complexes as part of a folk children's game meant to summon the Devil. He never returned. When Morrison found him, he was brutally murdered and hung up in a ritualistic satire of the crucifixion. Out of his league, Morrison called his boss. Smith, eager to avoid outside attention that might cast light on he's misused environmental clean-up and community aid funds, has Morrison cover it up. The boy's butchered body is disposed of. The disappearance is written up as a runaway. Officially, Mark left town looking for a better life.

But the other kids aren't satisfied with the official story, especially the wonderfully drawn character of Leonard, a bitter autodidact underachiever who mixes snark and Proust references with profound ignorance and unaware egomania in a way that only a small town boy who has read more than he's done can pull off. Reading Leonard's first person narration – with its unearned and lightly worn nihilism – is almost painful to me because I know I was exactly that sort of little jerkwad.

As the "missing" count mounts and claims Leonard's only true friend, the narrator joins up with a quasi-feral group of teenage grotesques whose idea of a good time is conducting semi-ritualized pack hunts for mutated fauna in a contaminated landfill near the old factories. Determined to stem these disappearances, Leonard and the gang decide to forcibly interrogate a local man – a isolated, possibly mentally retarded shut-in. Focusing their aimless hate and hopeless frustrations into a single brutal act of retribution, the gang's interrogation turns into a murder. In a rage, Leonard kicks the innocent man to death.

While this bloody miscarriage of justice plays out, the real murderer returns. A relentless presence with links to the town's poisoned past, and driven by a messianic vision of purifying Innertown that could have come out of the pages of Lovecraft, the real murderer wants Leonard next.

Mysteries without answers, supernatural links that may or may not exists, a town so tainted by its past that it might as well be haunted, Burnside evokes genre trappings just to leaves them tauntingly and tantalizing unfulfilled. Glister is a cruel joke, beautifully played. Burnside, a poet with some 11 collections to his credit, knows how to manipulate language to get the most out an image, but he knows the difference between a poetic turn of phrase and a poem. Glister often advances its plot through overlapping character portraits, but the reader never gets the sense that Burnside has lost sight of where his novel is headed or chased his own style down a rabbit hole. For all its genre sabotage, the author is determined to deliver the genre goods. And Glister does deliver the goods.

For readers on this side of the pond, Doubleday's American edition of The Glister has a March 10, '09 street date. Compared to juggernauts like Drood, The Glister is a slender little number: only 240 pages. It'll run you about 23 Washingtons, Canadians add $3 more.


Anonymous said...

Does it violate some standard or disclosure agreement to ship reviewer or preview book seller copies out as prizes for your contest ?

Anonymous said...

(side notes, link to contest is bad -- has the same "post-edit.cgi" part in it http://www.blogger.com/post-edit.g?blogID=34993991&postID=4992734304412988800)

Meant to actually comment on the content of the entry as well.. Reminds me of the Keeper, and Empire Falls (not a horror story).. Does it rise above the Keeper ? (I didn't get to the sequel of the story.. Should get around to reading that one too..)

Today's CAPTCHA: Rablenti, an over-abundance of Jewish spiritual leaders.

Use it: The local Synagogue is suffering from a rablenti, they hired too too many Yeshiva graduates.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

Sorry about that. The link should work now.

As for the book, I'm not a real reviewer so I don't get any official paperwork or nothing. If there's some agreement, I've never seen it. And honestly, even if there was, used bookstores like The Strand have entire sections of nothing but review copies - so any agreement that might exist isn't being held up by the reviewers.

spacejack said...

Don't joke - the re-gifting would actually go over pretty well in my office; I work with a horror comic writer and a bunch of guys who collect Avengers hardcovers and debate the relative merits of World War Hulk or Silent Hill the movie vs the games.

Author Tony Peters said...

I don't generally read horror books, but this one definately sounds like one that I will have to look into further. Great review.

Tony Peters
Author of, Kids on a Case: The Case of the Ten Grand Kidnapping

sexy said...
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