The Glittering World‘s promotional blurb pitches author Robert Levy’s debut novel as a kind of Lovecraftian In the Woods—a story of trauma and origins that ratchets up to eleven the blink-and-miss-it, ambivalent uncanniness of Tana French’s novel. Forty pages in, it seems as if something even better is in store. A series of bizarre and kaleidoscopic murals—”frolicking manticores, a nude woman with a red star on her back, the flowering roots of swollen tubers”—grace the walls of an abandoned mill, with only one sentence written in explanation: “Borealis the Mother was sent up from the Heavens of the Faraway World to bring comfort to the children of the Screaming Places.”
Purple prose, definitely—but effective in its weird blend of heavenly and hellish imagery. There’s something primal about it.
But if The Glittering World aims to be a kind of modern-day fairytale, it ultimately comes up short. The characters—which aspire to something like archetypical status—slide just once too often into flatness. And the strange creatures that populate the woods around Starling Cove are ultimately too much flesh and blood—too little a barely-there suggestion.
To backtrack, though: The Glittering World begins with four people—Blue, his friends Gabe and Elisa, and Elisa’s husband Jason—returning to the site of Blue’s birth in order to sell the house left to him by his grandmother. Starling Cove, though, is unsettling from the start. Once home to a commune, the Cove is now a kind of gallery of grotesques, populated almost exclusively by ex-hippies and religious zealots. Blue’s grandmother, it emerges, was one of the latter; as Blue begins to piece together childhood memories, he realizes that his mother took him away from the Cove to separate him from her own mother, who had become obsessed with the idea that Blue was a kind of changeling. It seems that as a child Blue had disappeared into the woods, and when he was found (weeks later), he had no explanation of where he had been.
Blue’s discomfort in the face of these revelations quickly rises to a fever pitch; always an outsider, Blue fears there may have been something to his grandmother’s paranoia after all. His fears (perhaps inevitably) are borne out by a second disappearance—this time, of Elisa and himself.
So much, at least, for the first quarter of The Glittering World. To Levy’s credit, this first section—told from Blue’s perspective—is by far the strongest. The tension is exquisite not because we doubt what Blue “is,” but because Levy is so adept at painfully peeling back the layers of memory and habit that Blue has accumulated over the years in order to reveal some primordial self—one that’s not really a “self” at all. There’s something both alluring and revolting about Blue’s metamorphosis; the so-called “Other Kind” transcend individual selfhood in a way that we typically associate with sublime, spiritual experience, but Blue himself—at least, the Blue who has comfortably settled into ordinary life—responds to the mounting evidence of his true nature with sheer horror until he quite literally has no choice but to accept it.
It’s in the following sections that Levy’s novel falters. In the wake of Blue and Elisa’s disappearance, The Glittering World shifts viewpoints from Blue to Jason to Elisa to Gabe. It also shifts from the introspective to the interpersonal, delving into the complexities of Elisa’s marriage and Blue’s semi-romantic relationships with both Elisa and Gabe. The problem is that the fairytale scaffolding of the novel was never mean to support this kind of realism, and the more the novel lingers on the relatively mundane realm of pregnancies and extramarital affairs, the more the characters settle into an uneasy netherworld somewhere between the stock figures of myth and the rounded characters of a realist novel.
Ultimately, of course, The Glittering World does settle back into a supernatural vein. By that point, though, the magic has largely dissipated. There is a superhuman grandness to our first brushes with the Other Kind that is largely lacking from their later appearances. To be sure, there are moments that evoke a similar sense of awe—moments that very nearly draw the reader into a kind of trancelike worship; the highly ritualized destruction and rebirth of the “hive” in the final pages of the novel taps into the natural rhythms of the world in breathtaking fashion.
Then, though, there are the moments that break the spell; Levy’s description of “electric green lifeblood leeching down into the pool water and reeking of brine and copper” is jarring in a scene that reads largely like an evocation of some ancient fertility cult. It’s a visceral description, yes, but also an oddly clinical one. It strips the moment of its mysteriousness and lends it the feeling of a slightly tawdry work of science fiction.
Perhaps that’s what Levy intended; as more than one character notes, the Other Kind are alien beings rather than mythic ones, and there is the unexpected note of physicality in that inscription the characters find in the old mill. But the push-pull between mysticism and realism never quite resolves into some hybrid of the two, and the result is a novel that feels uncertain of itself and ever so slightly off balance.
The Glittering World was published in February 2015 by Gallery Books, a division of Simon and Schuster.
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