Reviewed by Paul Fishman
Why Glass? And, for that matter, why glass? Well, first there’s the protagonist, or hero of sorts, Günther Glass. (Yes, it’s a play on words and a literary reference to the author of The Tin Drum, etc.; Christofi dearly loves a pun.) Then there’s Glass’s fascination with glass, not just its character and properties, but the way it fits with his sense of purity, which he yearns for, and the brittleness of things, which he fears. This provides something of a theme, though don’t think this novel is all wistful reflection and symbolism, because it is not. It’s a mildly eccentric, likeable and interesting not-quite romp—what the narrator calls ‘my own brand of picaresque’.
The second paragraph reads:
I have come to wonder whether I [Günther Glass] will make it through my twenty-third year. In the nine months since my mother died, I started a new job, which led me to meet a number of new people, one of whom I killed in a misunderstanding. But other things happened in the first twenty-two years that I should explain first.
It’s a good opening and lays the table for what’s to come nicely. But just who the narrator is, and how the narrative works, is another question. Although the effect is simple seeming and readable, requiring no special effort from the reader, the set-up is quite sophisticated. In the brief foreword, it’s made clear that Dean Angela Winterbottom, fictional and indeed a minor character in Glass, is the narrator, ‘telling the story that he [Glass] now cannot’. This is because—warning: this is not a plot spoiler, we are told early—Glass will die in the course of the book. But the narrative is still in the first person, as if Glass were telling it, and it’s written as if Winterbottom knew everything he did, feelings and all.
Does all this trickery mean anything? Well, yes. There’s the old unreliable narrator business, complicating our understanding and sometimes dissociating the author from what is being said, and then there’s how it broadens the story and helps give different perspectives. One of the obvious ways it does this is through regular footnotes. The Dean comments on, explains and corrects her/Günther’s narrative. The footnotes also add apt Biblical quotations, facts and bon mots. Generally this works well, but at times you suspect that the footnotes are there to deliver Cristofi’s keenly worded apercus or bits of Christofi-pedia—Glass loves Wikipedia and his creator also seems to love odd bits of knowledge and be keen to share them.
Overall, the narrative is one of the strongest parts of Glass. I especially admired the way that Günther’s deaf brother’s use of sign language was employed to tell the story from another angle—in particular how, say, Günther might comment on or explain in sign what was happening or being said by other characters to his brother; this was also used for humour, of course, because it’s intended to be a funny–melancholy story. On top of this there’s a maddish writer character called the Steppenwolf, fragments of whose writings and speech are used to comment on the narrative and, indeed, life. The way this is done is a little uneven and perhaps underexploited, and the underlying characterisation isn’t always quite convincing, but it’s ambitious, especially in a debut novel, and well conceived. And while the first part doesn’t seem so purposeful, the narrative also knits together neatly and with gathering pace in the later parts of the story.
What about the story, then, and who is Glass? Glass is a fat, short-sighted, quixotic twenty-two-year-old from Salisbury, inexperienced with girls and generally naive. He’s also a thinker and confident of his views, rightly and wrongly. Having been made redundant as a milkman, he becomes a window-cleaner, following his love for glass; freakishly, he then becomes something of a minor local celebrity, and things take off from there—to London, and glory of a sort, as well as trouble and death. It works, Glass works, and it’s refreshing to see something new and a little different.
Christofi’s publisher probably hasn’t done him a favour by describing Glass as “Huckleberry Finn meets Candide”. Unsurprisingly, his dialogue doesn’t have the sureness of touch and earthy poetry, that sense of a complete dialect, that you see in Huckleberry Finn; in fact, for working-class characters in particular, it isn’t always wholly convincing. His satire can also seem a little bloodless and generic, despite being directed in many deserving areas; he isn’t yet Voltaire. But that’s by the by. I’m looking forward to seeing what he does in the future, as he has an interesting and engaging perspective, lots of narrative ambition and isn’t scared of big ideas. Look out for him, I’d say.
Paul is a freelance hack and flim-flam merchant; his website/blog is at fishmandeville.com.
Alex Christofi, Glass (Serpent’s Tail: London, 2015). 9781846689673, 240 pp., hardback.