Writers have long mined the suburbs for rich veins of ironically sunny ennui. The highways, big box stores, and mathematically precise grids of identical houses are easily made to stand for culture and ambition left at the wayside. The sprawl extends to the horizon, then swings back and plunges just as far into your soul.
In his screenplay-as-novel The Glacier, performer and writer Jeff Wood exaggerates this common anxiety to fantastical, end-of-the-universe proportions while managing to say surprisingly little.
Early on, we see a crew of three driving through the snowy landscape and taking measurements, chatting and arguing among themselves. But this is no ordinary survey crew, and something otherworldly is taking place beneath the surface of this nameless Ohio suburb.
A mushroom cloud appears in the distance, and “a wall of atomic fire rolls across the grid.” Jonah, the quietest of the surveyors, pauses the cloud, is vaporized, then reappears along with all else that has been destroyed.
We see other characters, all somehow affected by these stitches in reality, who eventually cross paths. There’s Robert, an old man who’s barely stopped himself from committing suicide with a shotgun to the head. Samson sells hot chocolate from an ice cream truck, but can offer more powerful substances to those who ask. Simone is a caterer for the polite but cold Mr. Stevens, and suffers from an unnamable fatigue.
While time keeps stuttering, they continue, faintly aware that something’s off. Strange things keep happening: the characters glimpse face-painted apparitions of themselves, something smells like it’s burning, and a flock of cardinals crashes into Robert’s house. All this is rendered in flawless, crystalline prose: “Red birds are piled like roses, circling the house.”
What’s happening? We keep on being reminded that it is getting closer, but never quite learn the nature of it. Instead we’re treated to pretty but vapid monologues, such as this one when Jonah reads aloud from his notebook:
It came like a great tide, sweeping them away. A continual, invisible explosion of white heat particles twinkling and glittering in the ether between entropy and determination. Suspended and informed somehow, and brutally awake. A throbbing nerve mode. Arced-mass breathing in the curvature of space as if released from its cage of flesh and skull in one precise flash. Titanium veins pounding incandescent armies of nano-teleology.
Toward the end, we witness the prologue to “it”—a grotesque mass suicide orchestrated by the catering boss Mr. Stevens. He gives some speeches of his own, marked by the same mix of philosophical and scientific terms name-dropped in a muddled frenzy, before the novel culminates in “a field of brilliant white light” and what appears to be another reset in time.
(Mr. Stevens makes some interesting Biblical allusions. He calls the mass suicide “the last supper,” and he sees himself as the snake in Eden, who he considers the hero of the story. These allusions raise intriguing questions. What’s so bad about knowledge of good and evil? What’s the relationship between the faithful and death? But they connect to nothing else in the novel. Throwing out ideas like this without developing them adds little to a work, like a brilliant philosopher’s quote presented without context or analysis in one of my high school essays.)
We learn nothing about the characters here, their origins or motivations, as they go their murky business. No themes develop either, though Wood constantly tells us how bleak everything is (“Rising light bleeds over skeletal treetops”), and that this is in the suburbs. Even during the climax, it’s about as coherent as one of the more hastily written episodes of Dr. Who.
Wood’s prose, as I’ve acknowledged, can be lovely, but imagery does not a novel make. Atmosphere may be able to carry a film by itself; on the page, it grows cloying. The Glacier is not as much a novel as a collection of vignettes that glitters, weightless and mundane, in the ether between entropy and determination.
The Glacier: A Cinematic Novel by Jeff Wood. Published in September by Two Dollar Radio. 214 pages. $24.99
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