I’m always surprised to read that readers find it easier to get into the head of a first person narrator. For me, there’s something about an essentially nameless character that is immensely disorienting and distancing. Second person is even worse, bringing with it the weird double-think that it does, and unnamed thirds are a lesson in nominative postponement, with a reader skimming forward through the text in search of a name so that they might settle properly into the text.
Pronouns in general disorient me, all of those unanchored “you” and “I” references that are crying out for anaphoric ties, but that so often don’t come through with the goods. Sometimes there’s a reason for the chaos, an author pointing out in Foucauldian style that a person without a name is someone who walks the fringes, unable to participate properly in the world. Sometimes it’s more that an author is lost in their own vagueness, that they’re still seeking to grasp and draw out their characters and their world from an inchoate cloud of theme and setting.
I suspect that both of these apply to some extent to Sarah Brill’s Glory, a slim, challenging title released this year from Melbourne’s Spinifex Press. In Glory, a young girl is in hospital recovering from an attempted suicide, or perhaps a desperate cry for help: she has irrevocably cleansed herself by drinking bleach after an incident whose details are only dimly alluded to. The girl is a “she” throughout the entire novel, save for when she is mentioned by other characters, when she becomes “Anne”, and so is fleetingly named and humanised. Her family, too, are a faceless blend of pronouns, mere circles and triangles on the genetic tree rather than actual people.
It’s only those beyond her family that are given names, but curiously, it doesn’t take much to earn one. A colleague, a boy at school, a guy met at a party, a girl introduced at hospital. Our protagonist is clearly desperate to find a point of connection with someone—anyone, it seems, so long as they’re not a part of her family. Perhaps tellingly, while she doesn’t name them, they don’t name her either. There’s potentially a huge degree of complexity in the family relationships set up here, with each family member reacting to our protagonist character’s increasing withdrawal from her family life, and mainstream life in general, in a different way. Everyone is at cross-purposes, and the results are quite devastating. Even though the book ends on a hopeful note, it’s very much a bittersweet one, one that is arguably less about growth than it is about resignation, and there’s a sense that the character’s journey is set to begin after the book’s last pages.
I’m in two minds about Glory, because I can see why it’s written the way that it is. It’s a book that deals with alienation, self-loathing, and a range of issues including disordered eating, drug use, and insinuated rape/sexual assault. The dreamlike, distant writing style offers a buffer for both the reader and the protagonist, and because it’s so unfettered by realism it positions itself as a universal story, one that any reader can identify with in some way. The experiences and uncertainties of the main character are left vague, and there’s a sense that those of the reader can be substituted, that they’re almost encouraged to be.
And yet at the same time, the distance between reader and narrative is so great that the reader is not only cushioned from its impact, but almost removed entirely from it. The book becomes less an everywoman story and more a no-woman story, with its removedness making it almost unrelatable. It’s a book that I suspect almost needs to be read with a group, with the “she” becoming an “us”, and with readers being able to negotiate a meaning and narrative of all that unfolds above and beyond what’s actually there in the text: it’s less a traditional novel than it is an open conversation with a reader, and I suspect that the onus to create meaning from it more on the reader than it is the writer.
It’s difficult, certainly, to have a satisfying conversation with someone who specialises in ambiguity and evasiveness, but then I expect that that’s exactly the point that the author is making about Anne and her parents. Glory is a book that imparts its themes through the very construction of its narrative, and though it’s not entirely successful, it’s certainly a memorable and challenging read.
Rating: (not bad)
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