Book review: ‘Glass’ by Sam Savage
Coffee House Press: 210 pp., $15 paper
Sam Savage published his first novel, “Firmin,” in 2006 at age 65. His author photo, unchanged since then, is of a narrow-faced man with a longish gray beard and unkempt white hair. He looks either like the kind of person who might have earned a doctorate in philosophy from Yale or someone who mutters to himself while feeding pigeons in the park. Savage is, in fact, the former; the main character in his new novel, “Glass,” is the latter.
This is Edna, an elderly woman who is distracted, elliptical, bitter and alone; despite all that — or perhaps because of it — she is an intriguing storyteller. “I think a lot,” the book begins. “I think too much Clarence liked to say, when I objected to some of the piffle he would come out with, especially when he had knocked back a few. I am not going to go into that now, into his drinking or his piffle as I am not at the moment thinking about Clarence, except insofar as I have to in order to mention him at all.…" Edna has been asked to write a preface to a reprint edition of Clarence’s first novel, a request that spurs her to drag a typewriter from the closet and begin writing. Stubbornly, she writes not what was requested, but a story of her own, an unfocused memoir that swings through her thoughts and everyday life. “Glass” is the result.
In a run-down building in an unnamed northern city, Edna’s apartment overlooks a roaring ice-cream factory in one direction and a freeway interchange in another. She used to take the bus to work, she tells us, but she stopped going. She sometimes walks to a nearby diner, sometimes to Starbucks, and sometimes her money runs out before the end of the month. She remembers a childhood of privilege, with a nurse, a gardener, a mansion on a hill, a mother who read French Vogue and skipped her birthday. There is a puzzle in the book concerning how she got from that life of affluence to her much-reduced circumstances. While time is a bit fuzzy in her circuitous narrative, it has been at least a few months since she stopped paying rent.
Only one other tenant remains in the building, a widow with many plants; Edna calls her Potts. When Potts takes a trip, she asks Edna to water the plants and take care of her fish, talking amiably. Edna tunes out. “It was impossible to listen to her,” she writes, a sentiment both horribly rude and somewhat understandable. Thin and stooped, Edna seems ill-suited to nurturing, and concern for the living things left in her care is one of the things that keeps the pages turning. This includes another pet, a rat in an aquarium, which Potts dumps on her at the last minute.
We gradually learn that Edna bears outward appearances of being not quite right: She is often odd or inappropriate and wears earmuffs at all times of the year. Then again, she lives in a very noisy place — maybe some indications of her craziness are actually rational.
To live in Edna’s head is to spend time with the minutiae of her world, dealing with the mess of a broken photo frame, hearing the rat’s wheel squeak, trying to figure out why the completed pages piled on the table slip to the floor as she types. “I often have words in my head, sometimes my own words, sometimes other people’s, fragments of conversations, bits and pieces of songs and poems, pointless chatter, and little announcements like, ‘I am going to open the window’ just before I open the window,” she writes. With the rat, it turns out, she finds an unexpected commonality, imagining how she might resemble it from an outside point of view: “‘Edna scurries pointlessly this way and that in her enclosure,’ the person watching me might write.”
Edna makes a distinction between writing and typing. What she does is type, she insists, turning out page after page without any real intention of creating something publishable. Her pages scatter, skimming the floor of her apartment much like the wood chips in the rat’s cage. To Edna, “writing” is a lower form of art; it was Clarence, her husband, who wrote.
The story of Edna and Clarence is sprinkled throughout the book in tantalizing bits, as are her occasionally emerging childhood memories. From a poor Southern family, Clarence was a self-styled Hemingway coming a generation too late, writing manly magazine articles and making a dead-end foray into Hollywood. Edna’s bitterness is grooved by decades of close contact, by individual and shared failures.
It is not hard to imagine someone like Edna, who moves invisibly through a culture that has no time for the old woman ripping the crossword puzzle out of the free newspaper at Starbucks. Savage’s skill is in creating complex first-person characters using nothing but their own voice. As improbable as it sounds, “Firmin” was narrated by a charming, erudite rat — well-read because he had gnawed his way through literature’s great works — with a fondness for porn and Ginger Rogers. Edna’s voice, too, is unique and hypnotic, although it is full of evasions and omissions. She tells a difficult story: It is cold and critical, a fading picture in place of memory.
“I can see from my expression that I was happy at those moments, I have no doubt that I was happy,” she writes, “but I am unable to refeel the happiness. The fact is, I cannot imagine it.” Typically, memoir gives us the emotional high points, but Savage’s Edna inverts that: She writes loneliness and tedium, the bits and pieces that are hard to look at, or that typically wind up on the cutting room floor.
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