The Glacier by Jeff Wood. Columbus, Ohio: Two Dollar Radio, September 2015. 162 pages. $15.95, paper.
The blend between novels and other mediums is not new. Prose poems, poetic novels, fictional histories … there is constant flux to reach the boundaries of the novel, to escape and run rampant in the minds of their readers. Jeff Wood’s The Glacier continues, and in many ways builds off, that tradition by recreating the sense of time and place, of playing the illusion the best authors tend to do. One could flip through the pages and see a script for a movie, and one would be mistaken to do so; this is more. There is a sense of authority here that readers rarely see. In a story set on the outskirts of expansion, the continuing tidal wave of boredom Americana rips through the serene countryside. Characters survive the pre-apocalypse the way we expect characters to survive a nuclear war. Places come and go, relics of the past, and wrecks of the future. The Glacier is altogether new and incredibly familiar at the same time. It’s the story of what was and what can be, simultaneously.
This script format that Wood uses may be initially disruptive but incredibly necessary. We are painted scenes, characters, moments. Our feelings for them are neutral. We are not being swayed intentionally like a street side card dealer; we are shown the ways things are from a more powerful and narratively pleasing point of view. In this way, Wood really presses the boundaries of narrator and author relationship. The novel begins with the surveying of a new development, planning the dreams and futures of hypothetical families. Three characters, Jonah, Sue, and Gunner, are doing their part in creating a new world, one with “condominiums, duplexes, and house after house, lined up like tombstones across the countryside.” There is the mysterious and alluring Mr. Stevens, who is a joker among wild cards, someone who’s pulling the strings of everyone around him, and those around him almost completely unaware. There is Simone and Robert and Samson, survivors of the daily life that many can sympathize with. But this book is about Jonah, about his dreams, about what he thinks is a prophecy. This novel is about Mr. Stevens, about the Event Horizon, about the future. At the same time, it’s about the symptoms one develops as they continue forward their vision of what they think the American Dream should be: “Chronic boredom. A pervading sense of uselessness. Loneliness, isolation, malaise. Textbook depression. Anxiety. General physical nervousness. Circadian inversion characterized diametrically by compulsive napping and insomnia. Regret. Remorse… Repressed anger resulting in self-deprecation, passive aggression.” A significant piece of this novel is about dealing with the lull between large events, whether we think them as such or not.
Wood excels in creating space, in creating tension among the ordinary. This is a novel that doesn’t shy away from form. It may turn off readers simply because of that; however, it would be foolish to do so. Early on, Jonah has a vision, or at least we initially think it is a vision of the beginning of the end: “The windshields of cars shatter like fine crystal as the shock wave rolls down the highway, an aria of glass exploding across the legion of commuter cars. / On the side of the road, Jonah watches the sonic wave rolling toward him. / And he is consumed.” Suddenly, he asks for it to stop, and “the Apocalypse pauses.” Jonah is a narrative mutation, the cause for action in ways many protagonists attempt to be, in a new and imaginative way. Mr. Stevens is an antithesis of this effort. He is mysterious in action and in intention, unlike the fairly forward Jonah. Whereas Jonah is exploring the world and his own character, Mr. Stevens has a set idea about it all. He has an answer for everything:
It just doesn’t matter. You see— Everything you’re feeling is an illusion. It’s just patterns, patterns and chemicals, coming and going. It feels like feelings, but it’s not. If we stay focused on the tasks at hand it all works itself out. We’re so much better off when we realize that there just isn’t anywhere else to go. This is it! Why cause ourselves more headache and heartache. And, from experience I can tell you, once you leave the ship you are really out there in deep space, all alone.
There is a sense of trickery about him, the way he molds thoughts and sentences, the way he can spin those around him. And the reader quickly understand the relationship between hope and despair, something that we can all empathize on very raw and powerful levels. They are characters, avatars of the future and of the past, a common undercurrent for the entire novel. Wood manages to hit this point in many ways, from character interactions to scene setting. But Mr. Stevens and Jonah are exactly what we need, they are the two trains driving at seventy mils an hour towards each other and the reader sits patiently waiting for the eventual impact.
The Glacier is the novel that asks the good questions. It seduces you slowly, the reader hypnotized from the first page, from the first rumblings of the great “could be.” Jonah and Mr. Stevens spar with the world in the balance. Late in the going, our mysterious joker and power player gives advice to one of those beneath him: “But it’s such good fiction, isn’t it? Otherwise what else is there? The good news is that if God is finally just a figment of the imagination, then anyone is free to play him.” Reality is what we make it, the good and the bad. The eventual and otherwise. We have the power ourselves to survive the beginning and the end, we have the power to better ourselves. The Glacier stays the course, it makes the reader work for its enjoyment. Like Jonah, the reader must learn and adapt. And it’s all worthwhile.
Nick Sweeney lives in Lindenhurst, New York. He is allergic to dogs and chocolate and yes, he knows how terrible it must be.