Jeff Bursey reviews Glass by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press, 2011, 223 pages, $15.00 (US), $16.50 (CAN)
One sees a thing while one is feeling a certain way, and then later, when one has a different feeling, it can look quite otherwise. It can change right in front of your eyes, like something in a magic show. On my down days, when I absolutely have to get out of the apartment, and finally do get out of it, I feel that I am stepping out onto a different planet from the planet of my good days; even the leaves on the trees are of another color. On the bad days I don’t say ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ to the lady in the market, and I cannot look at her either, she seems so hateful. (52)
Sam Savage (b. 1940) is the author of three previous books of fiction: The Criminal Life of Effie O. (2005; a novel in verse), Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife (2006), and The Cry of the Sloth (2009). In 2013, Coffee House Press will release Way of the Dog, about a former painter who re-examines his life following the death of his chief friend and adversary. Firmin is narrated by a rat that can read; Sloth features an unsuccessful writer sending letters to various people; and Glass has an intelligent, eccentric, bitter widow named Edna, once married to a writer, Clarence Morton, tell something of her life.
Certain elements recur in Savage’s books: articulate central characters who find writing important and, at times, profound; their conflict with the outside world; and the whittling away of their self-worth, relationships and joy until what remains is the stub of who they now are and perhaps always were. On the stylistic level the sentences, even when they contain alarming statements, have a certain reserve: the phrasing is well-balanced, and look like what we might hope to say in a philosophically articulate moment. That Savage’s career includes studying philosophy isn’t a surprise, and should not be interpreted as meaning his books are merely mind exercises. They are filled with warmth for his human (and otherwise) inventions and regard for their unsatisfactory positions in the world.
Edna is, at times, exact, especially when it comes to language. “And I ought not to have said that the doorbell rang suddenly. After all, how else could it ring? Unless it were outfitted with some sort of crescendoing device that would let it gradually work its way up from a tinkle.” (27) She permits little to go by in the way of language use, but Edna cannot squarely see, in a way that encourages change, obvious things about her own state. Her apartment becomes increasingly untidy, with piles of papers everywhere, dust taking over, and plants dying from lack of care. What we see of her mind is, allegedly, the pages we read, but as Edna indicates, the gaps in typing can indicate an interval of moments or days. Occasionally she recaps that time, but we still only view her partially (in more than one respect). As we read, although we see her in “a certain way… [she] can look quite otherwise,” and the fluid nature of her identity is something she recognizes about herself. Despite warnings, we may find ourselves lulled into believing we know Edna through the typed pages that end up spilled on the floor and which, significantly, she carelessly gathers together, their order unimportant. If she has no interest in setting the record out neatly, we can’t expect to find easily her essential nature.
Edna is an on-again, off-again typist, but we rarely hear of what she typed in the time before the document we’re reading. The very act of typing, as with OCD rituals, calms her and spurs her to type more. A short conversation she had at a party is revealing. Asked if she was a writer she replied, “‘No. I type.’” (110) When she was sent to a writer’s retreat her typewriter was, at first, kept from her, but when she regained it she was at a loss for words. “I could not think of anything to type at Potopotawoc. Sometimes I copied things out of magazines, I typed an entire issue of the New Yorker, including the ads” (212; an unwitting example of what we could now call uncreative writing). Further: “And when I would refuse to stop typing, after he had been calling to me for a while, Clarence would come to the bottom of the stairs and shout, ‘Are you out of your mind, Edna?’ It was not a question” (213). She seeks peace and order in this activity, maybe to prevent the escape of an “exploding thought” (168). Like her mother, Edna rips things up, and Glass is filled with papers and books strewn everywhere, paper balled up and thrown, as well as glasses and typewriters, and there is a telling reference to her parents’ unhappy marriage when her mother states she wanted to fill her husband “full of bullets” (68). As a child Edna often had screaming fits. The violence that comes out is in keeping with the haphazard reminiscing that carries a reader along.
In that staggered trail of memories much is made of Clarence’s lack of talent, according to Edna, and, as far as she allows us to see, that of the literary world. Harsh remarks about him range from literary criticism or envy—“Even in the fullness of his power, Clarence was not an imaginative writer. When he became wildly inventive it was usually in a dishonest way…” (184)—to the personal:
The deprivations of his childhood made what he wrote seem authentic and significant, but they also made him narrow-minded and intolerant of my life, because he thought that if one had not suffered in a crude and obvious and really external way, in the way he had suffered, and his family had suffered for generations, then one had not truly suffered at all and was just acting up or pretending. (149)
These thoughts come to the surface because Edna has been asked by Clarence’s publisher to write a preface to a 40th anniversary edition of her dead husband’s only successful book, The Forest at Night. “I thought for a moment that I would write back and remind [Angelina Grossman] of one or two painful things, painful to me still, I planned to say, and I trusted also painful to them, the people at Webster and Davis, now that they have had time to reflect.” (25) She rips up their letter, then tapes it back together because it “occurred to me that if I refused they might ask Lily [the woman Clarence left Edna for] to do it, ask her out of spite, because of the unpleasant things I said about them at the time.” (25) For the first time in years she removes her typewriter from a closet. She quits her job, suddenly and without explanation, but reading between the lines a reader can assume that she has been disturbed by the request.
Edna’s typing brings past and present together, along with murky thoughts about the future. She has removed herself from the working world, and the roadway outside her apartment building, “the Connector” (37), cannot keep her tethered to others. She begins a spiral into inanition:
I take breakfast here because the windows face east and I can be sitting in front of them with my cup of coffee when the sun comes up. It comes shining up over the ice cream factory, the light streams in through the big windows, and I take a first small sipâ€¦ The sun comes up, the ice cream factory roars, and sometimes I imagine the roar is the sound of the rising sun, as in the Kipling poem I loved as a child, where the dawn comes up like thunder out of China across the bay. (10-11)
A scant few lines after that reverie she says: “If Rudyard Kipling could see the sun come up out of the ice cream factory across the street, he would be disappointed, I am sure. There are other days when the clouds are so thick I am not certain where the sun is exactly, and on those days I have a feeling of such oppression I find it hard to see the point of going on…” (11)
It’s not the clouds alone that obscure the sunshine. The memories Edna has of her childhood and the oddities of her parents, as well as the troubled relationship with Clarence, as well as her own ceaseless thinking—“I think a lot. I think too much Clarence liked to say, when I objected to some of the piffle he would come out with, especially when he had knocked back a few” (9)—bring her to the point where her resources are dwindling. Savage has created a powerful metaphor for her condition:
I don’t know why I am suddenly bothered by the windows, since they have been getting dirtier for a long time now, a little dirtier each day, I imagine, molecule by molecule, for years, plus the fact that I have covered so much of them with paper. Window washers are beyond my means. I am referring to the people, of course, not the instruments, which are really just a bucket, a squeegee, and a couple of rags, as far as I can tell… I expect the windows will go on getting dirtier, while the world, the building across the street, and the sun, become blurred, vague, and less cheerful… People will look up at my windows and see a shape moving on the other side of the glass, and they will not be able to tell if it is a man or a woman.” (147-148)
Like the fish she neglects; like the rat she feebly cares for, and is angered at due to its noises and the gaze she imagines coming from it—like these things, Edna is captured, for us and by herself, in a small glass enclosure. No one, and nothing, looks to be able to help her as her savings dwindle, periods of dizziness occur, noise overwhelms her, and her mental state continues to be depressed.
Like the figures in Firmin and Sloth, Edna looks to be completely on her own. One of the many accomplishments in this fine novel, saved for the last pages of Glass, and carefully led up to, is to make a reader come close to understanding the deadening sadness of her life, and potential fate, and, finally, feel sympathy for a character whose ways can be off-putting and obscure. One wonders if Sam Savage is indicating that we live in a Godless universe, with Edna just one more creature in a glass cage, unloved and not made to last. If so, then this is a chilling picture of old age and contemporary society.
Jeff Bursey is the author of Verbatim: A Novel (2010), and his short fiction has appeared in Riptides: New Island Fiction (2012), as well as print and online journals. He writes literary criticism for American Book Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and The Winnipeg Review, among other places. He contributes to the group blog Big Other.