Glimmering, Elizabeth Hand (1997)
Review by Martin Lewis
This is not our world – not with roaming bands of fellahin and the Bronx a coyote haunted wasteland – but it is certainly something like the late-Nineties America we know. Then there is a true sundering: the glimmering.
In a brief two-page prologue (appropriately entitled ‘Rubic’), Hand lays out in dispassionate detail the steps that took us to this juncture. First, CFCs are replaced by seemingly benign bromotetrachlorides. Then an ocean floor avalanche releases huge quantities of methane into the atmosphere. This coincides with a massive solar storm. The confluence of all three permanently alters the Earth’s magnetic field, producing the aurora borealis on steroids that gives the book its title and re-configures society. Hand then moves from the omniscient to the personal and allows us to see the epoch-changing events of 26 March 1997 through the eyes of John Chanvers Finnegan.
Jack Finnegan is the publisher of a literary magazine and both are slowly dying: Finnegan from HIV, the magazine from a lack of interest in the written word. His appearance marks the start of the first section of three which make up the novel proper and makes it unfortunately clear that ‘Rubic’ will be our first and last moment of concision. My paperback is 413 pages of small type and Hand is in no hurry to reach her conclusion.
Finnegan lives in an ancestral pile called Lazyland. It is an appropriate name for an indolent setting; Finnegan wanders around aimlessly, exchanges the odd pleasantry with his grandmother and generally does very little. After an interminable amount of this, we are then introduced to our second protagonist, the implausibly named Trip Marlowe, in a long chapter with the shape of a novella but none of the heft. As with Finnegan, Hand is solely focused on mood and internal monologue but neither captured my imagination and I found it immensely tedious. Again, very little happens, although there is a bizarre scene in which the adult Marlowe loses his virginity to a barely pubescent girl in a planetarium. If you were being charitable, you could perhaps call the pace of these rambles dreamy but you might equally call it dreary. And, of course, there is nothing so boring as other people’s dreams.
The world-building has a dream-like quality but that means it is muddled, confusing and unable to withstand the light of day. At the headquarters of Golden Family International – a huge corporation which features prominently in the novel – Trip remarks that people are wearing clothes of “the kind you bought in LL Bean once upon a time” (p.50) That once upon time being a mere two years previously. Or is it? So much has changed that perhaps even before the glimmering this was a very different world to ours. There are new technologies and drugs which couldn’t possibly have been developed in the time since the glimmering began and the social landscape is radically different.
For example, the US depicted is more Christian than the real US (right down to having a national Christian motel network). Despite the libertine tone of Hand’s novel, the country seems correspondingly more prudish. Marlowe is the singer in a middle of the road Christian rock band but he is treated as a moral hazard on the scale of Elvis. God knows what they would make of Britney.
At the same time, the glimmering also left the world strangely unchanged. Hand paints a picture of a world with only intermittent electricity but gives no indication of how it could survive, never mind remain stable enough for Marlowe to put out hit records, receive rave reviews, go on a national tour and then be signed by a major label. (The answer? “Solar panels, some kind of plasma grid. Windmills. A champagne-effect reflexive waterfall. Supposedly they’ve got their own nuclear reactor, too.” (p.313) For the character being told this, the response is simply facetious; for the reader, it is outright insulting.) Only rarely does lack of power become anything more than a minor inconvenience:
They were stranded for a week. Power was disrupted across the entire northern hemisphere, knocking out computer networks, satellite links, airports from Greenland to Norfolk. (p.98)
What is surprising here is not the disruption but the fact air travel is still common, that computer networks still exist. Similarly, the scarcity of food is only casually acknowledged:
The electric range was covered with ancient outdoor gear dredged up from Lazyland’s sub-basements: a blackened Coleman stove and tiny white gas-driven heater that boiled water and scorched rice. The refrigerator was unplugged, the occult pantry with its folding doors and lazy Susans sadly underutilized. (p.164)
If any society is only three square meals away from revolution then America – not a country noticed for its abstinence and restraint – has magically avoided this fate. Instead it hangs in limbo. There is no anarchy but there is also no state; any sign of the government is noticeable in its absence. Of all literature’s apocalypses this must be the mildest. Where are we? When are we?
Part one starts with a flashback to Finnegan’s grandfather founding the family fortune with a canny investment a hundred years earlier in time when dreams were still lit by candles. It is a passage that initially seems to presage a move backwards into the pre-electric age. Instead Glimmering goes simultaneously backwards, forwards and sideways. It also sadly goes nowhere. Part one ends with Marlowe spending a whole chapter deciding whether or not to throw himself off a cliff. We are all relieved when he does.
By this point it has become clear that Glimmering isn’t really a science fiction novel, it is something more akin to slipstream. This is something that took a long time to dawn on me because, when the fantastic and the mimetic merge, it is rarely in a setting which purports to be the future.
When Marz, the mysterious girl who awakens Marlowe’s paedophile instincts at the beginning of the novel, improbably washes up at Lazyland, Finnegan’s grandmother greets her as a lunantishee. Is she literally a fairy? No, but at the same time she represents something very similar. Other figures start to appear; are they ghosts, holograms or hallucinations, literal or metaphorical? Whether this all makes you feel very strange or merely slightly bored is down to the reader. For me, it succumbs to the worse tendencies of slipstream, it becomes insubstantial and hence engenders ennui.
For the second section of the novel, not much (continues) to happen. For example, Hand spends pages 206 to 208 describing Finnegan opening a party invite. Marlowe washes up alive and is nursed back to health by another middle-aged recluse who is slowly succumbing to HIV and mental illness. This man, Martin Dionysos, not unreasonably wonders “if he had suffered brain damage in the wake of his accident, or even if he had been simpleminded to begin with.” (p.191) Marlowe may be intended to be a holy fool but he comes across as simply a fool. Nonetheless, Dionysos falls under his simpleton’s spell and they set sail for New York:
They saw strange things, journeying south… A creature like an immense brittle basket star, twice as large as the Wendameen, its central arms radiating outward like the sun before giving birth to an explosion of smaller arms, all writhing upon the surface of the sea as the omphalos turned slowly, counter-clockwise, and breathed forth a scent like apples. (p. 269)
We return to a blandly poetic sort of strangeness. Reading Hand’s ‘Cleopatra Brimston’, I suggested that “the prose splits between the acute and the purple”. Here the acute is crushed out by a weight of writing too bloodless to be purple. Hand has invented lilac prose.
In the third section, Hand finally realises that she is going to have to end the book at some point soon and therefore needs to come up with some plot sharpish. She does this by contriving to bring all the characters together in the same place for New Year’s Eve in Times Square. It almost seems that after so much whimpering, the end of the world will indeed end with a bang. But no, everyone returns to Lazyland and allows their malaise to carry them into the new millennium.
This review originally appeared on Everything is Nice.