My dad’s a window cleaner, so I’m looking forward to telling him about a story in which the hero is someone from his own world. In Alex Christofi’s novel Glass we’re offered a window into the life and death of one Gunther Glass, who, following the loss of his mother and his father’s resultant plunge into alcoholism, finds local fame by replacing the aircraft warning light atop the spire of Salisbury cathedral. His stature is further raised when this act brings him to the attention of John Blades, window cleaner to the Queen, who enlists Gunther on some high profile (high in terms of both prestige and dizzying distance from the ground) window cleaning jobs. This necessitates a transfer to London where Gunther moves in with The Steppenwolf, a reclusive author who survives purely on a diet of fish as he continues his 30-odd-year work on a definitive guide to living. Glass finds love with Lieve, a psychic medium with the ability to see a couple of seconds into the future, and learns more about Blades, a character who seems to not only have some UKIP-style ideas about nationalism and immigrants, but also the inclination and the means to engage in the much more hard-core tactics of terrorist groups like The Cagoule. 1
Gunther carries the story by being fun to spend time with. He’s reminiscent of Forest Gump in that he’s relatively innocent of worldly ways, which often leads him to respond to situations with an inoffensive purity that highlights absurdity. When he visits a Ride-Thru-Pop-Up Cycle Café, Gunther is treated to a mini lecture on reducing his carbon footprint by cycling, to which he points out that the café serves their free-poured flat whites in disposable cups. Rather than this coming across as gratuitous hipster-bashing, it becomes part of Gunther’s gradual realisation that there’s no such thing as purity. As Gunther himself says, since the death of his mother he’s been searching for something pure, hence his fascination with both glass and getting as high above reality as possible. It takes him the novel to realise that striving for this kind of purity is impossible, and that people can only do their best when facing the many contradictions blocking adherence to an ideal. It’s not a particularly original thought, but an important reminder.
The Window Frame
Surrounding this straightforward story, however, is a frame. The book begins with a foreword, not by author Alex Christofi, but by a fictional character named Angela Winterbottom, the Dean of Salisbury cathedral. Angela says that Gunther was responsible for her fascination with glass, which is as important to civilization as fire. She has decided to create a fictional account of Gunther’s life because it “amuses” her. She adds the caveat that “if I deviate from reality, or invent a character here and there, I do so only to separate out the various truths”. So what we have is a fictional character fictionalising the life of another fictional character for the purpose of both having fun and telling truths. And if your postmodern siren isn’t flashing like an aircraft warning light by this point, there’s also an introductory quote from David Foster Wallace. Dean Winterbottom appropriates Wallace’s signature use of footnotes throughout the novel.
For the most part, Angela’s interjections into Gunther’s story either quote Bible verses she feels pertinent to the situation, or attempt humourous asides that come off not so much as funny but slightly irritating and seemingly pointless. One footnote, however, puts the reader on firmer epistemological ground by explaining that the way Angela has access to all this information about Gunther is through interviews with the various characters. The reader then knows that a conversation that takes place between Gunther and, say, Lieve, is more or less accurate because Angela must have asked Lieve for the details of that conversation. Where we start to worry, however, is when reading passages in which Gunther is alone with his private thoughts: how could Angela possibly know what Gunther was thinking? It’s not usually a question we ask in fiction because we allow the author this kind of omniscience. But when the author is a fictional character, there’s an inexplicable sense of discomfort at them having the same power. Perhaps that sense of discomfort is the reason that Christofi didn’t dispense with Angela. We’re left not so much looking through a window as through a series of filters that distort Gunther, making his story not simply his, but a mirror for the perceptions of Dean Angela Winterbottom, Alex Christofi, and, presumably, ourselves.
This doesn’t feel like a postmodern novel in the same way that something by Robert Coover or B.S. Johnson does, because narrative is not subverted in the same way. Whereas postmodernism seems to like the mirror as a metaphor because it gives the illusion of reflecting reality whilst actually reversing it, Glass doesn’t appear to want to usher in the full-scale meltdown and retreat into purely self-reflexive fiction that is the logical conclusion of such theorising. There’s a pervading sense of optimism with regards to narrative in the book, which possibly ties in to this idea of abandoning the pursuit of purity and making the best of things. It’s also an incredibly human story, where the reader genuinely cares about the characters. Even if we are uncomfortably reminded that Gunther is a character invented by a character invented by an author, that doesn’t stop him from being endearing. Whilst the alcoholic father might be a pretty common trope, the way Gunther relates to him is handled with an impressive mixture of humour and pathos. During a particularly heated argument, Gunther partially diffuses the situation by pointing out the kidney bean lodged up his father’s nose.
It’s revealing that the only overt presence of author Alex Christofi is in the acknowledgements at the end of the novel, in which the first thanks he gives is to anyone who has ever contributed to Wikipedia. Wikipedia features heavily in the book, first as the resource Gunther uses to learn about glass, and periodically as an impossible but laudable pursuit of making all human knowledge available to everyone. Whilst Gunther’s mother doesn’t see the point of something where anyone can write anything, true or not, Gunther sees it as something “bigger” than any objections that can be raised against it. As Gunther tells The Steppenwolf, what is true at one time is not true at another, and provides (you guessed it) glass as an example. At different times throughout history, glass has been classed as a solid, then a liquid, then a solid again. But rather than panicking that both nothing and everything are true at the same time (this is me extrapolating now, not Gunther/Angela/Christofi) there’s still a point to looking in a mirror, especially, as with Wikipedia, we’re all trying to look into it together.
Glass was published in early 2015 by Serpent’s Tail.
Adam Ley-Lange lives and writes in Edinburgh, producing short fiction and reviews for various publications. Along with his partner he runs The Rookery in The Bookery, a website dedicated to the review of translated fiction.
- The Cagoule or “La Cagoule” as you’ll learn from the novel, was a French fascist group that engaged in false flag tactics in order to advance their far-right agenda. This included attacking their own adherents and blaming it on Communists, thus accentuating the threat of extremist leftist movements and hopefully leading to their suppression by the authorities. ↩