I fear the praise I want to give Paul Cohen’s debut novel The Glamshack might end up hurting its sales. To say The Glamshack is unlike any novel I’ve read in a long time is not the kind of compliment that causes a book to shoot up bestseller lists. To say it challenges the reader at every turn, as it follows the messy final days of a doomed affair, is not the kind of tagline that gets readers to plunk down credit cards. And to say the author bends language with an almost Joycean inventiveness is sheer kryptonite for Amazon sales rankings. Yet those are all true of this fascinating book.
Fashion journalist Henry Folsom is in love. Not just any kind of love, though. Henry’s love is the kind of all-consuming emotion that can push a man to the brink of insanity, the kind of love that makes stability a laughable dream. And it is, by definition, almost certainly doomed to failure. Over time, we learn that Henry might not have been the most stable of men to begin with, due to a childhood interlude wherein he was stalked through a forest (possibly in his imagination) by a madman, an experience that ended in arson. The madman still haunts his dreams. But this recent relationship is what has finally pushed Henry over the edge.
The object of Henry’s outsized affection is an unnamed woman who is referred to throughout the book with the capitalized pronouns She and Her—an admittedly off-putting conceit, though one that quickly becomes normalized as the pages turn and one realizes that Henry’s regard for Her borders on the divine.
She has left Henry for a twelve-day trip to New Orleans to visit her fiancé, “just to be sure” she’s making the right decision to leave him for Henry. Henry, meanwhile, has been left alone in the Silicon Valley pool house where he crashes rent-free—the titular Glamshack. Waiting for Her to return, Henry has nothing to do but reminisce on their relationship and fret about what will happen. If this plot sounds Bridges of Madison County-ish (a slight that would, counter-intuitively, help it sell more books) Cohen handily points out where the difference between that book and his lies—namely, in the realization that love is not, in fact, a romance or even romantic, but rather something more akin to an illness that borders on obsession. Henry’s “compulsion to inhabit the whole sensation is the thing that makes what looks a lot like a farce actually a story from the Book of Revelations. As in: somewhere deep in the kiss is the mute magic we know as god.” Or, as he states more pithily later on, “Love is a hangnail.”
By far the greatest feat Cohen manages to pull off in this book is his use of language. Nearly every page has multiple linguistic Easter eggs tucked away to surprise and delight the reader. Take, for example, this description of the sudden onset of sunset: “She catches Herself holding Her breath, waiting for the absolute. Dark. It spreads fast, like a parachute popping on her funnycar thoughts.” Or this simple line, buried so deeply in a paragraph it makes me wonder if the author even realized its sonic beauty: “At this hour, the streets speak of the rev up to revelry.” These hidden gems have their own propulsive quality about them, luring the reader onward with the promise of undiscovered goodness nestled in the next line, next paragraph, next page.
And then there are passages where Cohen cuts loose, and he’s writing like he’s riding bareback on a comet headed straight toward the earth’s atmosphere, nakedly willing to either burn to a crisp upon entry or smash to the ground in a glorious mushroom cloud. I had to stop and re-read the following sentence three or four times before shaking my head and muttering, Wow, under my breath before moving on: “He hangs up the phone, walks to the porch door, turns the knob and steps into the air and…and it’s furred, and inside the evening sky lolls the dawn’s blue tongue, and the moon’s curve is a hip-curve and the redwood needles feather spiderfine and the muskywet picnic table and the laughing cherubs and the lovingly husbanded gardens of faith and the belltower lit like a city on the hill and beyond the tower, beyond the city, the sea.” Cohen is creating new language, finding surprising combinations that are both familiar and wonder-inducing.
According to the press clippings, before The Glamshack found publication at upstart 7.13 Books, it was nominated for a Pushcart Press Editor’s Award. I’m no publishing insider, but near as I can tell what that basically means is some editor at a big publishing house thought this was the greatest book he or she had read all year, went to bat for it in some corporate boardroom, perhaps even beat the table with a shoe or rent garments and gnashed teeth in support of this book, only to have it declined because the people wearing the suits in said corporate boardroom were unable or unwilling to take a risk on a novel that so clearly does not check the boxes on their bestseller checklist. That’s a sad story. Fortunately, The Glamshack did find a publisher, one that was a little less concerned with selling books and a lot more concerned with publishing great literature. And we are all the richer for it.
The Glamshack, by Paul Cohen. Brooklyn, New York: 7.13 Books, June 2017. 222 pages. $14.99, paper.
Giano Cromley is the author of the novel The Last Good Halloween, which was a finalist for the High Plains Book Award, and the forthcoming story collection What We Build Upon the Ruins. He has previously published reviews with The Oyster Review, and is the chair of the Communications Department at Kennedy-King College in Chicago.