The Goners, by Mark Gluth. Paris, France: Kiddiepunk, 2015. 80 pages. $14.67, paper.
I’ve always felt a fondness toward the aesthetic of gauzy realism. It seems apt, as far as literary terms go. The term was first used by critics describing the plays of Tennessee Williams, referring to scenes which fog the real with uncanny light. Williams believed that the significance of gauzy realism was in its effect of distilling sensations by blurring surroundings. When led to foggy spaces, viewers pause to carefully regard the people, thoughts, and momentary feelings they would typically ignore.
Mark Gluth’s most recent novel, The Goners, employs this gauzy reality to such an effect. His short narrative blurs through its exposition, infused with scenes of darkened alleys, icy rain, dilapidated structures, faded strip malls, shadowy hotels where time assumes a strange consistency. Through this surreal-real atmosphere, Gluth allows his readers to empathize with people they might otherwise perceive as fuck-ups. Though we know that these subjects are goners, all destined to die, we are given a beautiful glimpse of the joy, terror, and realization they feel. We experience each death as a briefly-lived instant of clarity, a momentary glimpse into some unnameable continuance.
Gluth builds toward these moments of passage by creating an uneasy transitory atmosphere, an atmosphere which is violently shaken by each death. One of the most compelling aspects of The Goners is Gluth’s decision to frame the main body of the text—a third-person narrative—with a second person prelude and a coda. Herein, Gluth’s narrator—who refers to itself from the I-space—addresses you, the person who is dying.
I thought the water tower was just a tower until you told me it was a machine to kill yourself with. I wished the woods I chased you through were infinite but the clearing they opened on was the meadow where your contrivance stood. It was dark, the thing and the ground beneath it, the clearing and the whole night … You jumped at this ladder until you had a grasp on it. My screams were begs … Sparks like stars shot my gaze … There was no line that could separate anything from anything else.
It’s an unsettling welcome, to say the least. Whoever you are, you are gone from the narrative’s outset. Nevertheless, your death is a spectacular moment, a sparkling blaze in a terrified darkness, a wood shadowed night. A window has been opened, suddenly, for you to pass through. You are one of The Goners. You are now among the dead.
This opening has the strange effect of simultaneously distancing and drawing you nearer to the book’s doomed characters. On one level, being one of them, you’re compelled to empathize, pan in more closely toward the details of their sensory experience. Gluth gives you plenty of details to focus on, from the dampness of their hair to the buzzing in their heads to the scraping of branches they see through the windows. On another level, having already experienced your own death—a moment of brightness that contrasts this hazy environment—you find yourself a bit on edge, observing. It feels inaccurate to call this an intellectual distance. It is sensory in its own way, like the hum of expectance you feel when watching a horror film. For example, in the book’s first scene of death that isn’t yours, you’re led to wonder, which of these kids is about to die? Herein, a group of three teenagers loiters and drinks in a dark alley. Gluth describes how they’re all wasted. Any one of them could be next.
Luc sat on the dumpster lid. When he cracked a beer he slurped foam. Andy reached out his hand. Luc said Dude. He stood up so that Andy would stop reaching for it. Dick sat on the dumpster speaking numbers as he tried to count how many beers he had had. Luc lit a cigarette and jammed beers into his pockets. He asked Dick if he could get Andy home. He went to turn then slipped on the slope of the lid. When he fell his head hit the dumpster then it hit the ground … The world pulsed and wrenched.
Gluth darts the reader’s focus from Andy to Dick to Luc. At different points within the same paragraph, Gluth indicates signs of all their possible deaths. Ultimately, Luc is the first to die, but the order of events is of no consequence. As Gluth indicates, all the other kids are soon to follow.
Luc, Andy, and Dick are not the only characters who meet their respective endings in The Goners. Their acquaintances—Andi, Luci, and Ande—suffer similar untimely deaths from ingestion of similar substances. Any characterization in this text only serves to illustrate these people are all the same person with the same drives.
Remarkably, Gluth does not simply dehumanize his characters by representing their sameness. He illuminates a continuity between them. He focuses in on the facts of their deaths, letting everything else become hazy and less real. Their humanity lies in small sensory details, things that stand in contrast to the overwhelming over-compassing of death. In the setting of his funeral, Andy seems more human than he felt in any previous description:
It smelled like flowers, it looked like another planet. The fuck it was him … No one spoke then Lucy did … Andy’s mother walked up to Lucy and asked if she was okay. Lucy asked her why they put makeup on his acne. She asked her why they cut his hair. The girl shouted. Her mom turned away and covered her mouth.
Andy’s humanity is assembled as an interruption to this otherworldliness, the smell of the flowers, the uncanny realization, the fuck it was him. It’s him, of course, but still, it isn’t. They make their words be him. He was his acne and his long hair and his imperfections.
Gluth demonstrates a profound understanding of grief, or at least grief as I’ve experienced it: this impossible yearning to reconcile the discontinuous with the continuous. Grief comes to you so suddenly and it just floors you because you spend so much time feeling so foggy. Your brain gets obsessed by these details, these strange facts you now know. This is what Lucy feels, lying in her room, perseverating over Andy’s death:
She thought about Andy, meaning she thought about him dying … A canoe was hidden and overturned until she saw it. It was the bench she sat on with Andy while they smoked. He gulped on his beer. She heard it. She heard something. What she heard was him falling forward. The only thing that could sound like Andy falling into the water was Andy falling into the water. That was something Lucy knew now.
Death takes you completely, which is to say, death takes the things that helped others see you as a person.
What was real of you becomes gauzy, replaced with the fact of your death. With the boat overturned, what remains is this knowledge, the sound that replays, falling into the water. Whatever you were that was real has drifted away.
Yet, even with this knowledge, people feel the need to see where you have gone. They revisit this instant, this fact, like they’ll find something frozen in time. And in a way, perhaps they do. Perhaps in that moment of death we’re more ourselves than in our lives, our human qualities highlighted by our passage into nothingness. Death draws a firm outline around your life. As Gluth explains in the book’s closing coda, sometimes these lines look like a window:
We sat beneath the window upstairs, watching out at the dark like the wind was something that didn’t sound but shone. Your pale fingers stretched at the pane. They stayed like they’d been frozen mid-fling. I pretended that what you pointed at was invisible behind the roof, the trees, the clouds, the stars and space. I just knew that it was something that was infinite and everywhere and to which there were endless entrances.
In the novel’s prelude, the narrator wishes the woods I chased you through were infinite. In the coda, this wish seems to come full-circle. Though the woods—your life—must end, it becomes part of something infinite and everywhere and to which there [are] endless entrances. In death, your life blends into other lives that ended and will end, becomes part of an infinite narration.
Meghan Lamb lives with her husband in St. Louis, Missouri. Her work can be found in The Collagist, Pank, Necessary Fiction, wigleaf, and other places.