SAVAGE LOVE (Goose Lane), the new story collection from expat Canadian Douglas Glover, is a compact gallery, flint-eyed and snaggle-toothed, of wolfish behavior; it’s also a casebook study in narrative design. From these artistic cross-currents of cut-glass form and lurid content, the book achieves a distinctive balance: the stories smolder and luminesce with vitiated heat, modulated light. The new title arrives almost 10 years to the month since Glover’s novel Elle (Goose Lane) won the Governor General’s Award, Canada’s highest literary honor, in 2003. In the interval, Glover hasn’t been idle. After letting the field lie fallow for a while, he has sporadically leaked the odd craft essay, the stray story, to top-shelf North American journals, appearing twice in the Best Canadian Stories series (2009, 2012). While he keeps his day job on the faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts, he also anchors the masthead for the online magazine and literary collective Numéro Cinq (to which I contribute occasionally). In 2012, he published a collection of essays old and new, Attack of the Copula Spiders (Biblioasis), which features scalpel-sharp criticism, divulges literary trade secrets and waxes splenetic on the state of the art in the “post-literate age.” But only now, when the time is round, has he released his follow-up performance to the prize-winning Elle. For all its antic form and interpersonal dysfunction, Savage Love remains somehow low key: a quietly virtuosic, artistically backward-looking story collection. Both eclectic and obsessive, abrasive and majestic, it might also be the best novel written anywhere this year.
Savage Love is Glover’s fifth collection of short stories, and it confirms his longstanding mastery of the genre. As the title indicates, Eros and Thanatos are the proprietary gods of this textual cosmos, the psychic demons flagellating the characters, and the stories veer between these extremes, chronicling homicidal rampages, ravaging libidinal entanglements or, by far the worst possibility, some mutant hybrid of both pathologies (at least one story could be accurately described as an orgy of death). In concrete terms, this book contains both the most gruesome encounter with deliquescing corpses and the most exquisitely literary orgasm (male) likely to be experienced for the foreseeable future. Such a menagerie will come as no surprise to readers familiar with Glover’s fiction, because this is vintage Glover, and if you haven’t yet tuned in, Savage Love affords an excellent chance to get up to speed and find out what you’ve been missing.
Desire has long been the touchstone of Glover’s work — as one story in Savage Love frames it, “the inhuman endlessness of desire, our inability to contain it, the dark tide on which we ride unwitting and unprepared” — and in the new book, infidelity is the signature calamity befalling the protagonists. One narrator invites us to pin this artistic fixation on the national character, citing “the documented Canadian penchant for secretive, hypocritical, adulterous, compulsively polymorphous sex congress”; Glover’s aim, however, is to root out, philosophically, the “subterranean essence of love,” a state in which the terms perversion and affection seem to trade polarities. In the book’s steady procession of love’s travesties and miscarriages, there might be something salutary and a potential to grow to full term. What’s more, despite all the obsessive repetition of the characters’ predicaments, this collection flaunts a wild array of narrative voices and compositional modes that reflect the prodigious range of Glover’s craftsmanship.
“Tristiana,” one of two stories with a historical bent, begins as a spirited homage to Cormac McCarthy and his Blood Meridian: an ex-Confederate sharpshooter and his unlikely companion — a mute girl maimed by frostbite — survive a murderous winter on the Idaho frontier and embark on a killing spree of their own, dispatching without clear purpose or evident malice almost everyone they encounter. The sentences in this section are all coordinate action and crackling verbs; the very landscape seethes with destructive energy: “Upriver, the land was scabbed and scotched with abandoned hydraulic mining works, dammed creeks, banks and hillsides scoured of trees and water-blasted, with gullies and fans of silt destroying the graceful curves of the old channel.”
From this raw encounter with existential fundamentals, the couple progresses toward the creature comforts of domesticity, an arc that reads like an allegory, as if the former carnage lies, chillingly, at the heart of the latter civility. To cinch the transition between worlds, the story abruptly shifts styles for its ending, in which we find the pair running a boarding house in industrializing (and tartly named) Sellwood, Oregon. After the fever-dream pitch of events on the frontier, this last section adopts an expository voice, cluttered with homely clauses, and more distant from the protagonist’s consciousness: “They lived now in a two-storey clapboard house on Umatilla Street within sight of the Willamette River, rented two rooms on the second floor to lodgers, kept a garden, laying hens and a cow, and were known for their exceptional aloofness.” The style itself conveys the inertia and urbanity, the characters’ fall from a hellish grace and their immersion into civil society, the world of language, not action. But their residence here is short-lived as the story ends in flames — a scene of pointedly pointless death — with the prose recovering its macho swagger.
The metaphysical western is only one of Glover’s many aesthetic modes, but the harsh, discordant shift in vocal signatures is typical of his stylistic ambition. To keep the narrative house in order, the stories in Savage Love are grouped into subsections: the book opens with a brittle prelude called “Dancers at the Dawn,” followed by five “Fugues” (stories that feature ludic repetitions of motifs), 10 “Intermezzo Microstories” (experiments in the elasticity of the form), and finally six pyrotechnic “Comedies,” most of which parody the marriage-ending typical of the genre. Viewed as discrete works, the collected stories are at times ungainly, even willfully abrasive (the word is rebarbative). Yet Savage Love contains a handful of stories as radiant and stirring as anything available in contemporary literature.
Where the collection falters, it does so from an excess, perhaps, of expertise. In Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover includes two essays titled audaciously “How to Write a Novel” and “How to Write a Short Story.” The essays itemize many of the very techniques that we see Glover plying in Savage Love — its orchestration of plot conflicts and image patterns, the interpolation of “thematic passages,” the role of memories and dreams, aerobic tips for dialogue. The essay on the short story even ends with an exercise in seven steps, like a recipe for modern literary fiction: “4) Write a thematic passage (3-5 sentences) in which your main character … speculates on what is happening in the story, the nature of the conflict between the two characters… Try using the device of the rhetorical question to get this revery going. Literally, you can ask the question ‘What is this story about?’ Include the words ‘love’ and ‘blood.’” Glover devised this exercise as a corrective to the narrative missteps and stylistic passive-aggression that he regularly observes in student writing, and he acknowledges that the script is a reductive simplification, the barest skeleton of the genre’s possibilities. Yet his own stories are least affecting when they hew most closely to the manual.
Take the fugal “Crown of Thorns,” for example. In the story, a young boy, Tobin Thorn, catches his father fondling the lunar breast of his beloved babysitter, pisses himself as his mother stands over him, and thus incurs an enduring psychic fracture that makes him persistently wet the bed, dig up the rose garden (scene of the tryst), alienate his parents and pursue bizarre erotic attachments, all of which obsessively recapitulates motifs derived from the primal voyeuristic scene (roses, thorns, breasts, and, by dint of metaphor, a kite on a string). Toward the end, the third-person narration spells out the compositional method, invoking “the absolute density of the moment from which all meaning emanated.” Elsewhere, we read, “Everything reminded Tobin of everything else, as if the world were made up of signs and omens that only referred to other signs and omens. He understood that his life was ruled by a principle of recursion.” In the passage, readers might recognize the nod to Nabokov’s famous “Signs and Symbols” and its psychotic character’s referential mania, but more broadly, “Crown” feels technically overdetermined, as if it’s a story turned inside out. We marvel at the seams and the stitching of the artifice, but miss the lovable exterior.
If an urge to curate sometimes eclipses Glover’s power to narrate these stories, this might, in fact, be the point: works like “Crown of Thorns” supply a dash of atonality within the symphony of the collection, showcasing the varied effects of the genre. The “Microstories,” too, serve a similar purpose, and they contain some nice moments: in “Wolven,” a woman appears to be aroused by her bedmate’s lycanthropy. “Splash” conceals hidden depths while lightly fanning the “Internet rumour” that a mermaid corpse, preserved in a glass jar, can be found in the Royal Ontario Museum basement (I heard it was a minotaur fetus). In “Buddy,” a female narrator offers a rapid expository sketch of her stymied existence as a single-mother, the banal style mirroring the death-in-life of her conventional predicament. Yet the impact of each is low-yield. If literature is an “axe for the frozen sea within,” as Kafka has it, these are the curling stones rasping across the surface: fun, but little friction.
Even the collection’s finest stories can read like solutions to self-imposed compositional problems. “Uncle Boris Up in a Tree” features a family of eight children caught up in a game of erotic telephone (A loves B, but B loves C), their lives subject, moreover, to wild swings in fortune and fame; with this frenetic material, Glover appears to be testing the outer limits of the genre and its ability to accommodate multiple subplots (one child is a budding serial killer). For this reason, Savage Love is best viewed not just as an anatomy of desire, which festers ubiquitously in the text, but as an anatomy of story: an amalgam of masterful experiments in the genre. It’s a cerebral, artisanal compilation, to be sure, with metafictional flourishes: one character observes, “Now I know what it’s like to be a fictitious character in a story, that sense of chockablock crisis and fate, of another hand stoking the drama to see how I might perform.” Even so, these best stories of the collection confirm the affective power and sublime reach of Glover’s stylistic arsenal.
“Shameless,” for example, a peerless gem, is, like “Crown of Thorns,” pregnant with its own inception: the desires of the central characters begin at cross-purposes, sparking an outrage (an infatuated girl is made to bark like a dog) that drives everyone apart, immersing them in suffering, but continues to pull magnetically on their destinies. And like “Crown,” this story telescopes in time, spanning years, narrated from a distanced third-person perspective that’s heavy on musical exposition and light on scene setting. Somewhere near the center of the tale is Rachlin Roohan, a butcher’s daughter whose unrequited love drives her to a kind of unremunerative prostitution, by which she becomes a Web sensation:
Lonely men in Mumbai and San Diego, smitten with the sad beauty, naked except for her hunting boots, besmirched with semen, smiling enigmatically, wore themselves to nubbins in masturbatory frenzies…. One by one they found her, knocking timidly or pugnaciously at her motel door at all hours…. She slept with them all, hungry for something, she thought, something that not one of them could supply.
The premise seems to channel Márquez’s “Innocent Eréndira,” with its equally legendary and irresistible sex worker, and the scope of the plot evokes the extravagance of magic realism, but at the same time, the artifice here reprises techniques that Glover himself forged in his previous story collection 16 Categories of Desire. What’s more, this story evinces Glover’s skill at capturing emotional extremes — of despair and tenderness — through deft pointillistic details redolent of a living and lived-in world.
Stressed Form and Déjà Vu
Perhaps the quintessential Glover fiction is “The Sun Lord and the Royal Child,” with its fussily articulate, syntactically sinuous and zanily repetitive voice, no less bruising in the end. The story recounts the meteoric rise and precipitous decline of, yes, a forensic archaeologist, Armand Nedlinger; after Nedlinger’s work on native peoples catapults him to fame (Nick Nolte stars in the optioned film), he becomes a reclusive crank and ultimately determines that his life’s work is flawed. Narrating the story is Nedlinger’s colleague and underling, Lennart Wolven, who attempts to usurp Nedlinger’s identity, partly by lusting after his archeological research and partly by bedding his wife, Melusina. In many Glover fictions, identity proves to be malleable in exactly this way; it’s often a site of contest, fluid and unstable, not a fixed construct, and fittingly then, the “Sun Lord” plot pivots on the identification of an infant skeleton preserved under glass on the narrator’s parents’dining table (though Nedlinger believes it to be the royal offspring of an ancient Indian tribe, the narrator’s mother dumps it in the trash).
Moreover, the story reveals a precisely articulated form, meticulously coiled, warping the narrative profluence in a series of recursive loops: that is, the present-action concentrates on a single visit to Nedlinger’s house, in the wake of Melusina’s suicide, but that visit, repeatedly announced, is constantly postponed while the narrator fills in the backstory, those highlights of his, Nedlinger’s and Melusina’s intersecting pasts. When the moment for the showdown finally arrives, the narrator prepares to torture Nedlinger with the particulars of Melusina’s infidelity, but things don’t go according to plan, and the story closes with a promise of redemption through nose-in-the-ground archeology. This unsuspected happy end tends to be the rule, rather than the exception in Glover’s torturous universe, and in other ways, too, this story hosts many of Glover’s trademark maneuvers and concerns: his interest in indigenous cultures and erotomania, his arresting formal exactitude, as well as his flair for abusing his homeland. Here’s a passage dense with most of the above:
As far as I know, Melusina was unfaithful to Nedlinger with only one other man, despite all the innuendo and gossip. When she died (the word die, in this context, is nothing but a euphemism for that horrid, public act of self-cancelling), they had no children, due, I believe, to a tragic injury Nedlinger suffered in a tractor accident as a boy on the family dairy farm near Burford, Ontario; the place is now preserved as a not-for-profit organic vegetable operation in his honour even though Nedlinger himself remembered it only as a typical Ontario family farm, a locus of sorrow, frustration, inhibition, philistinism, narrow-minded judgment, stupidity, race-baiting, poverty, animal abuse, overwork, incest, and casual, daily violence.
If anything dims the luster of such a story, it’s that, as in “Shameless,” the narrative reprises the very same maneuvers that Glover hatched in 16 Categories of Desire, where they seemed sui generis, so lovingly mannered as to defy recycling (I urge you, please, at once, to read “Lunar Sensitivities”). Yet, these design principles—the carousel of identity, the corrosive love triangles, the ludic motifs—resurface persistently in the stories of Savage Love, with an eerie urgency, burning through the local permutations. This narrative repetition compulsion is particularly evident in the title story, and here, we see ever more sharply what gives the collection its retrospective flavor.
Probably the most difficult story in the collection, “Savage Love” reads like a case study in the triangulation of desire, René Girard’s theory that desire is always inherited, borrowed or stolen, from a third party, who might be the true object of desire — or as Glover describes it in a blog post on Numéro Cinq, “the idea that the self is created when it identifies with the desire of the other.” The protagonist, Ona Frame, a struggling writer of horoscopes, finds himself forever competing with his friend, Shelby, a famed and posh poet, for the attentions of their mutual inamorata. Every time Ona meets a new girl who promises to be different — reliable, conventional, small-breasted, monogamous — she inevitably becomes identical to her predecessors, Shelby’s type: buxom, cruel sexual exhibitionists who shag Shelby behind Ona’s back. It’s a disorienting experience for Ona and the reader, made palatable and compelling by Glover’s finely pared sentences: measured, lucid, elegant, more restrained than manic. To compound the story’s degree of difficulty, as the title indicates, it’s also powered by an engine of conceptual paradox; central assertions about the characters and their reality are routinely subverted by their opposite. One moment, a lover will hold forth on her fetishistic sexcapades, and in the next she will insist that she prefers the humble missionary position and can only orgasm in private. The story playfully advertises this formal mechanism, its “infinite regress of assertion and contradiction,” when Ona scores big with oxymoron in a game of Scrabble.
In Attack of the Copula Spiders, Glover reveals the literary provenance of these maneuvers, which he has cribbed from Thomas Bernhard, who casts his shadow over several stories in the collection. In his appraisal of Bernhard’s The Loser, Glover describes the novel’s “stressed form,” which supplies an accurate snapshot of his own artistic methods:
The three principles [sic] — Gould, Wertheimer, and the narrator — are all graded variations of the same character… This grid of receding narrators and repeating character traits and plot motifs supplies a matrix over which the author drapes his phantasmagoric riot of rhetorical substructures — repetition, antithesis, rant, digression, word play — all of which add drama, interest, and comedy to his text.
Further, in that same blog post on Numéro Cinq, he cites another precursor who employs similar devices (triangulation, contradiction), the Polish absurdist Witold Gombrowicz, particularly in his story “Lawyer Kraykowski’s Dancer.” (In “Uncle Boris,” one character receives a casino pay-out in zlotys, the Polish currency).
The number of literary allusions systematically grows, as do the throwbacks to Glover’s own works. In “Savage Love,” the conflict reaches a tipping point in which Ona and Shelby appear to exchange identities (are they one person?), and in a supermarket aisle, the neurotic duo somehow incites a mock wedding, a ludicrous and cheery spectacle that throws a wrench in the ruinous cycle of the plot. In Glover’s second novel, The South Will Rise at Noon, a reenactment of a Civil War battle works a similar magic, overspilling its artificial boundaries, piercing the fourth wall and effecting real consequences for the characters.
Savage Love is rich, even saturated, with this kind of artistic déjà vu. From the callbacks to his past works (and the uncanny recurrence of design principles in the collection), we might simply conclude that, after decades of innovation and stylistic ventriloquism, Glover has found, for now, his favored métier. And the literary allusions might merely reflect Glover’s postmodern taste for the textual remix, an impulsive sampling, which would be consistent with his enthusiasm for hybridity and mongrel forms (a notional lycanthropy haunts Savage Love, as various characters act like dogs: “Arf, woof,” goes little Megan Strehle in “Shameless.”) But something more profound might underlie these aesthetic backward glances: by such measures, Glover’s stories cross into the territory of both textual autobiography and literary criticism, another form of generic hybridity. As he assimilates those artistic landmarks, impressing them with the stamp of his new-forged Canadian cool, he exposes some latent meaning that they all hold in common.
Bay the Moon
At this point, even the collection’s weaker stories begin to clamor for a closer look. Take the flimsy “Prelude,” for example, in which a man suffers chronic insomnia due to his inordinate fear of death, and thus hallucinates the presence of lewd and beastly dancers on his lawn. The story is so slight that it doesn’t quite convince readers of the man’s delusions; it’s like foreplay that progresses abruptly from a nuzzle to a grope. Yet on closer inspection, we find that the tale depends for its power on a single word: the narrator describes, Phoenix Prill, “the girl from hospice” who attends him, and in the icy terminus of that last noun, we hear the vast unwritten of the text. For this narrator death is, in fact, an imminent reality: call it a depth charge in the shallows of this truncated narrative. Likewise, the fuller story “A Paranormal Romance” is creaky with literary clichés — a decrepit Parisian bookstore proprietor foists on the narrator a tome of old poems that contains a romantic note, which engenders a spectral encounter (or a wrinkle in time) — but it, too, might yield a parable, eerily ambivalent, about the birth of the writer and the power of literature.
Strange is the book that invites you to quibble with its triumphs and vindicate its miscues: perhaps this response derives from prolonged exposure to the text’s paradoxical climate. However, in the collection’s last story, “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night,” Glover lays aside all of his dazzling stylistic mannerisms, all of the brilliant, mad-scientist-in-the-laboratory-of-narrative excesses, and he elects to tell the story straight, muting the ludic repetitions, turning down the volume on the artifice until only a few quiet refrains survive, most resonantly the title phrase itself. (May it go viral, become a meme, a cultural shibboleth for like-minded pilgrims.) Another narrator, this one an ABD Proust scholar, embarks on an adulterous affair with his bohemian neighbor Geills, blue-haired and tattooed, the owner of the dog whose nightly barking disrupts the narrator’s work routine; at one point, she deadpans hilariously, “Is there a French word for ‘Lick my butthole and I’ll be yours for life’?” When the narrator’s wife kicks him out of the house, he moves into his rental unit at a storage facility, which he discovers to be a shantytown for the displaced and the dispossessed (see, if not now, then very soon, Glover’s “A Man in a Box,” from A Guide to Animal Behaviour).
Glover keeps the prose in this story on a short leash; the voice scans as a subdued lyricism or unaffected melancholy from which the narrator meditates on the doubtful pleasures and certain pains of desire. In the wake of their first tryst, Geills attempts suicide (almost cheerfully), and the narrator visits her in the hospital, fondles her posterior through her open-at-the-back gown, but eventually effects her release from the ward. On the cab ride home, the two have sex in the backseat, which prompts the narrator to observe:
She wore an expression that was both sad and beautiful, lorn from absence, from the knowledge that whatever happened between us, it would end badly, that all love ended badly, that we would one day part out of boredom or disgust, or that we would grow old and not be the people we were this minute, or that one or both of us would die and the electric liquid thing that was passing between us would dissipate in the ether. I caught her mood; the moment was worth any loss, any excess.
The narrator’s predicament bears all the signs of a downward spiral. But then, inexplicably, the wheels of fortune turn again, and the story slides to its conclusion, a dinner party in Geills’s tiny apartment, where the whole cast reunites: the narrator’s college students, his boss, the guys from the storage facility, the estranged wife, even the cab driver who ferried Geills and the narrator home from the hospital. Everyone except Geills, that is; only her dog, collared at last, stands in for her as a substitute. This final scene appears to eventuate more from the need for artistic cohesion than from any causal impetus in the plot; it’s like an access of joy in the artifice of narrative, and an overflow of love as old antagonisms are buried in a spirit of charity and grace. This mood is contagious, too. The collection comes to its close with a tranquil echo of Joyce’s Molly Bloom, as the narrator, facing the future beyond the text, offers the concluding benediction, these last words: “I thought, Okay. I thought, Affirmative. I thought, Yes. And then I thought again, Yes. Yes.”
This story distills most clearly the conflict that reverberates throughout the book. It’s a Shklovskian quest to recover the sensation of life, to experience some contact with the Real, instead of the debased epiphenomena of the social construct. As the narrator in “Pointless” puts it, speaking for most of the book’s frazzled residents, “habit is the death of the heart,” the antithesis of metaphysical truth. In yet another trenchant essay from Attack of the Copula Spiders, called “Don Quixote, Rosemary’s Baby, Alien, and The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” Glover summarizes by indirection the essence of Savage Love: “each of these works is about a discourse of normality, of social tranquility, smashed by the eruption of an alien force.” This “eruption of the Real” often takes the form of “uncontrolled sexual desire,” especially in women who are frequently cast as those “monster[s] of outlaw desire on the loose.” Viewed in this context, Glover’s stories might court successfully the feminist audience that he risks alienating with his almost cartoonishly randy female characters (lovers masturbate each other in public parks, one wife has sex with her brothers-in-law at family functions, etc.). Moreover, when Glover writes, “humdrum reality is actually an illness and things we normally think of as illness are perhaps hints of something more healthy going on,” the line speaks directly to the crisis in “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night,” where the dog’s aggravating behavior triggers the narrator’s metaphysical redemption. The very pointlessness of the barking—a sign of, if not illness, then aberration—is precisely what recommends it, precisely why the narrator, in a drug-addled bacchanalia, himself takes up the song, baying irrationally in the night. It’s the antidote to a routinized existence.
In this light, Savage Love seems increasingly to be both an exceptionally masterful story collection and a heterodox kind of novel. In the end, the assembled texts might not offer any coherent strategy, some simple, rationally progressing how-to for the attainment of this beleaguered nirvana. While extremes of sex and violence serve most often as the portal, it would be unwise to define these terms too narrowly. For example, that the catalyst in “Pointless” is Geills and her transgressive sexuality (an analogue of the dog’s barking: two signs for the same referrent) doesn’t mean that Glover is idealizing this particular counter-cultural posture. Rather, the stories seem to choose from what’s available, to compose existential juxtapositions that are the only means of articulating or approximating this contact with the ineffable. And each story then examines this metaphysical problem from different angles, in texts of various cut, with shifting dimensions and temporal frames, reconfiguring the archetypal quest again and again.
The genealogy for this aesthetic vision also traces back to Arthur Schopenhauer, as Glover points out in his essay on Bernhard, “A Scrupulous Fidelity”: he cites “Schopenhauer’s notion that art itself is the intermediary between the supra-sensory and the merely human, that in creating or correctly appreciating great art we enter an eternal realm of Platonic Ideas (Beauty, God, or even Being in Heidegger’s sense) and leave the tawdry realm of existence behind.” Again, I’m not sure that Glover would prosecute narrowly that emphasis on the “correct appreciation of art”; however, given that the title of “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night” is itself identical to the dog’s aberrant behavior, Glover does suggest that literature, like kinky sex and graphic violence (or forensic archeology or fatherhood), might also be a conduit for that experience of the other, the true, the Real. It does a reader good to think so, anyway.
Surely, all of this — the technical mastery, the poignantly infarcted lives, the quiet music of the prose, the thematic heft — should suffice to compel the attention of any North American reader. Lumps and all, Savage Love is a virtuoso performance, an apt successor to the prize-winning Elle, further proof of Glover’s spoon-bending formal genius, as well as his almost clinical facility with our emotional G-spots, which he targets in surprising, off-kilter ways. But there is, as it happens, even more going on in Savage Love, because ALL of the stories are laced, charged, almost subliminally, with cross-references, echoes and reflections of images and motifs. What do we make of the fact that the poet Fishbein, in the Microstory that bears his name, gashes his head in a bathroom just like a young girl in “Light Trending to Dark”? That the child skeleton in “The Sun Lord” reminds us of the mermaid preserved under glass in “Splash”? That both the narrator in “Pointless” and Megan Strehle in “Shameless” bark like dogs, one apparently humiliated by the act, the other exalted? That another character in “Pointless” professes her love in the same self-abasing terms as the time-slipping inamorata of “A Paranormal Romance”? That dogs run amok across the collection’s pages?
The instances multiply, never so obtrusive as to derail the local narrative but recurring relentlessly in the margins of every tale. They start to peak at the collection’s midpoint, in “A Flame, a Burst of Light,” the other historical fiction on hand. As a party of 1812 Canadian-Briton soldiers tends its wounded, the characters find themselves stalled out in the borderland between life and death; it’s a hazy, mostly arc-less, decentered story, which features amputations, like “Tristiana,” Indian mounds, like “The Sun Lord,” and one reference to a “whore on a basement cot” that points forward to “Shameless.” Then, after we venture through the forking paths of the “Microstories,” we find the patterns, the images and motifs, resurfacing again in denser constellations in the “Comedies,” until at last, in “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night,” we discover that the entire collection is, like “Crown of Thorns” and “Shameless,” pregnant with its own inception: most strikingly, Geills’ accommodating derrière in the hospital gown evokes the beastly dancer at the dawn, in a “white Communion frock burst at the seams,” who “[offers] her backside to the males.” The book’s cover art, with its lycanthropic metastasis of wolf and human anatomies, appears to offer, generously, beautifully, the skeleton key to the text’s involuted design. Call it a “vertiginous experience,” to borrow a phrase from Ona Frame.
Other story collections from Winesburg, Ohio to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting have sought, in one way or another, to achieve an artistic unity, but the closest antecedent to Glover’s achievement is Joyce’s Dubliners, which is similarly crosshatched with images and motifs in a Daedalian labyrinth of references. This is more than aesthetic frippery. In some cases, such interconnections invite us to rethink our responses to individual texts (in Joyce’s book, I submit, the artifice punctures the famous epiphany at the close of “The Dead”). Consider that in “A Flame, a Burst of Light,” the narrator references the whore in the basement as a metaphor for death itself; by implication (or association), the corollary experience of Rachlin Roohan’s embrace becomes laced with necrophilia. Eros intertwines with Thanatos by the back door, too.
Yet even if such patterning were merely cosmetic, it would still detonate an experience of the sublime — a scalding vision, breathtaking, this lateral smearing of consciousness across the varied space-times of the narratives (technically, the word for this is ecstasy). Why should this be so exhilarating? Does it merely flatter the reader’s intelligence, tendering a delayed reward in the cutthroat economics of attention? Is it possibly a punishment, visiting upon readers the self-destructive predicament of Tobin Thorn? Or is there some grace inhering in this literary pattern-recognition, with Tobin counting among the blessed? Here’s my theory, call it an intimation: in such densely reticulated texts, such richly patterned lives, we might find tangible evidence, some palpable assurance, that everything counts — that every particle of experience has the potential to resonate, some immanent staying power that keeps it from vanishing out the window of consciousness and being. In this light, the technique would supply a Proustian antidote to temporality, arguing for a kind of phenomenological object-permanence, the only immortality that human beings can know. Suffice it to say that the spirit of the artistry in Savage Love is ultimately infused with the same charity and affection that obtains in the dinner party at the conclusion of “Pointless, Incessant Barking in the Night.” Maybe it doesn’t quite make sense, but it still feels like home. In this oblique way, too, art appears to offer possibilities of transcendence, an experience of alterity that redeems us, however fleetingly, from the deadening scripts of human nature and culture.
While the unity of Savage Love is its crowning glory, I reserve a special affection for just one small piece, the story that seems most like an outlier in the collection’s shimmering matrix. In “The Lost Language of Ng,” Glover engages in genre dissimulation (shades of Borges?); the text reads as a parody of an academic article, complete with jokey parenthetical citations, about the death of Trqba, the last speaker of Ng, an atavistic language “Whose every word is poetry,” and which, if spoken, would put an immediate end to the universe. Trqba’s life progresses much like those of the other questing philanderers (or horndogs) in Savage Love, and the story concludes with the revelation that, on his deathbed, he began speaking in an unrecognizable language. A botched recording survives on YouTube. While the universe hasn’t ostensibly collapsed, the story suggests in its style that maybe, in fact, it has — maybe that rawer, phallocentric and ludicrous world of the Ng Real has retreated irrecoverably, and all that remains is the impoverished linguistic world of the text: a chilly place of reason and humor and exposition, but bereft of poetry. The story is at once absurd and profound, a heady combination, and it holds out the promise of new horizons in Glover’s fiction, suggesting that, from such back-tilted material, further treasures can be wrought. Maybe best of all, Trqba’s last words offer a fit vantage point from which to contemplate the whole of Savage Love: the book contains abundant evidence to belie the Ng apocalypse. For those with ears to hear them, the dogs are barking still.