Thursday, October 15, 2020

Glimmering by Elizabeth Hand

Earlier this year, halfway through Last Summer at Mars Hill, her first short story collection, I realized that Elizabeth Hand is my favorite living writer. Glimmering just confirmed that. It is her Dhalgren, her House of Leaves, her Palimpsest, her Dead Astronauts; her big sprawling novel that is as much an experience as an artifact. It is an elegy to the 20th Century in all its madness, to the victims of the AIDS epidemic and to civilization or even humankind both of which seem to be closing in on their demise in the book. It’s not a mainstream literary novel, nor is it exactly science fiction, fantasy or horror. It is a glorious mixture of those techniques and moods. It is apocalyptic in tone, as bleak in points as Cormac McCarthy, but like the way more recent Dead Astronauts or the poetry of Robinson Jeffers, it sees the cruel beauty of the ebbing of humanity’s tide (to paraphrase Jeffers) and it’s characters are capable of moments of joy. 

The book begins with a couple page rundown, news report style, of a weird confluence, in the late 1990’s, of an epochal methane explosion with the onset of persistent solar flares. The world is permanently changed. There is a worldwide cloud cover with an eerie nearly permanent northern lights like display, the titular glimmering. Electrical power is intermittent, as is phone service. Large corporations still operate, and life ekes along for everyone else. Jack Finegan, scion of a department store fortune that was already fading before the glimmering, and owner/editor of a minor New Yorker competitor has gone into full blown AIDS as the glimmering begins. Trip Marlowe is a young Xian (a group of christians who have co-opted the pagan name for their religion) singer who has risen to prominence just as the glimmering begins. His final song, an apocalyptic number, becomes a hit despite the lack of world infrastructure. Their lives intersect eventually, of course, but their story is the foreground to a world which has irrevocably changed and a civilization that is crumbling. Finegan’s friend Leonard Thrope, whose mori photography (pictures of the dead and dying) prefigure Hand’s noir character Cass Neary, is a bit of a trickster figure, a nihilist of sorts; a distant, postmodern, queer cousin to McCarthy’s Judge. I’ve heard some people describe this as cyberpunk or postcyberpunk, and it does have aspects of that mood, particularly in the fashions and visual palette of the piece. But it is no more dominant than the other genres at play. 

In his wanderings, Trip Marlowe ends up for a while in the Mars Hill Spiritualist community and meets a couple of characters who were in the title story of the collection Last Summer at Mars Hill. You could enjoy the novel without reading the story, but reading the shorter work first would deepen the significance of the actions of one character in particular.

It’s not going to be for everyone; Publisher’s Weekly gave it a starred review, and Kirkus called it depressing and pointless. The latter is unfair and missed the point. It is bleak in some ways, but is beautiful. Given the themes of societal and environmental collapse and epidemics of multiple diseases, there is a heaviness to the material. But given those givens, the book does not despair. It is a powerful work, among Hand’s best. I’m certain to return to it.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 77/75

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