You know going in that The Glister, by John Burnside, will take you to some extremely dark places. The very setting tells you this: a dying town, the Innertown, gradually fading over time after the local chemical plant was shut down. Even years after the shutdown, people in the town end up sick with strange diseases, and the residue of the chemicals has poisoned the air, the land, and the nearby forest. Even if there are plans afoot to rejuvenate the place, headed by one of the residents of the more prosperous Outertown (a man who always finds ways to profit from even the nastiest circumstances), no one really believes there will be improvements.
And so the Innertown residents just keep going through the motions, waiting for their inevitable illnesses, waiting for nothing to happen. The inertia sits on their souls like a heavy, dusty blanket.
And that’s just the setting for the story. Add to this the even darker, more sinister fact that five high school boys have disappeared one by one in recent years, the townspeople maintaining the fiction that the boys have just skipped town unexpectedly, and you anticipate a lot of gloom, and probably even horror.
Which is why you root so hard for Leonard, the high school boy at the centre of the story. He seems so aware, so determined to figure things out. You really believe that he will both solve the mystery of the murders (because everyone knows those disappearances were murders) and will even manage to escape this grim town and make a real future for himself. He is the one who thinks about what’s really at stake, unlike his nymphomaniac girlfriend, who doesn’t think about much at all, despite her own inner unease that leads her constantly to seek the comfort of sex.
But even when Leonard does seem to find a way to escape, it’s not a happy thing, and it never lifts the dark burden from your shoulders. There are so many questions left unanswered, and it’s hard to tell if that was author Burnside’s intention, or if he believed he actually was providing some type of answer.
If it’s the latter, then the reader needs to do some heavy lifting to discover what it is. Is it that there probably is no real hope, in the end? Or that the only way to shake people out of hopeless inertia is to do something outright evil? Can committing specific terrible acts ever atone for or cleanse the sin of not acting at all?
Or is the final answer a variation on the Buddhist doctrine that the only way to escape suffering is to abandon all attachments to loved ones, to the world, and even to life? Wasn’t that what the townspeople had already done? An answer that risks circling us right back to the “there is no real hope” answer.
Or could it possibly be that the nympho girlfriend, in her endless search for sex, which could be interpreted as a quest for something life-affirming, will actually be the one to crack the inertia and finally achieve something positive?
Or is the whole thing really metaphorical, with “Innertown” and “Outertown” perhaps meant to link a shiny-but-fake outer life with the deadness of one’s inner life?
It’s probably a good sign that I want to reread the book, just to try to get a better handle on the possible answers (if there are any) and what Burnside was getting at. (**)
If it does nothing else, The Glister will certainly prompt you to think — hard — about what constitutes evil, not to mention whether there are ever any genuine solutions to it. That may have been Burnside’s ultimate goal in writing his book.
(** There may in fact be an answer to my own questions about the answer, in the suggested Reader’s Guide that the publisher, Doubleday, provides for reading groups.)