Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp – review

By on November 16, 2012

It’s the near future, in October, and something terrible has happened to Spokane, Washington.  The government has quarantined the entire city.  Many were evacuated.  Others chose to stay.  No one goes in.  No one comes out.  Information about what, exactly, has transpired is both a rarity and highly suspicious.  Rumors are swirling.  A few images have been leaked, most of them confusing and highly disturbing.  Dean Walker decides to quit school and sneak into Spokane to find out what is actually going on.  He wants to be a photographer, and he’s driven by the idea that documenting what has happened will make him famous.

Bad Glass is a book that is not easily classified.  It’s a contemporary fiction book that flirts with both fantasy and science fiction and has more than a casual acquaintance with horror, as well.  It opens with a description of a single photograph.  The description is typeset in smudgy, typewriter-esque printing and written in language that is cold and formal and highly official. The description is bracketed by a narrative that is less calculated and seems much more personal.

The book is divided into sections by similar descriptions of other photographs.  Each one, as the contents of the image are revealed, is disturbing and unsettling.  Following each report are the circumstances leading up to the photograph being taken.  All of it is told in first person, narrated by Dean as he journeys through Spokane, trying to figure out what, exactly, is going on.

Everyone knows that it’s a disaster.  Nobody, even the people in the city itself, seems to know exactly what kind of disaster it really is.  The reports contradict each other and the rumors are running wild.  The worst part of the situation, though, is that even the most bizarre explanations don’t even begin to match the bizarre things that are occurring.

The character who is most clearly drawn is Dean.  It’s a story device that seems particularly well-suited to Bad Glass because Dean is the one narrating it.  When he gets to Spokane, he falls in with a group of people about his own age, Floyd, Devon, Taylor, Sabine, and Charlie.  They let him come and live with them on the first day that they meet him.  He doesn’t know them, and they don’t know him.  Everyone else in Bad Glass is viewed through the filter of Dean, which keeps them removed every bit as much as the camera keeps the photographer removed from the subject.  It’s not essentially impersonal, it’s simply a way to maintain a sense of detachment.  You can see it and bear witness without actually being there.

All of the characters are doing their best to cope however they possibly can.  Some of them choose to make art.  Some of them choose to partake in whatever drugs they can find.  Still others search for answers.  They react because that’s the only thing they can do.  Ordinary rules of society don’t apply in Spokane any more.  Scavanging is the order of the day, and civility has largely gone out the window.  The reader is always aware that it’s Dean’s version of the events in the story.  That doesn’t make it feel any less real.  Dean is not an unreliable narrator, just a human one.  Any failings to fully flesh out any single character aren’t because the author wasn’t doing his job.  Instead, it’s because Dean just didn’t have reason or motivation to get to know them any better.

Bad Glass reads like a good suspense movie.  It’s one of those books that makes a reader tense up while reading because you just know something huge and scary is lurking just around the corner or just under the surface or just beyond the doorway.  It’s an unsettling book.  That’s a word that I keep coming back to as I try to describe what reading Bad Glass is like.  Unsettling. It is set in a world that is tilting steadily off-kilter, despite its familiarity.  Things that materialize in that book don’t exist and shouldn’t exist and could never, ever happen in a world that was sane and made sense.  Except, the world doesn’t always make sense, and that’s the thing that keeps Bad Glass so disturbing.  The sense of the ordinary just slides away in the face of incidents that are techincally isolated but occur with just enough regularity to make it obvious that Spokane has gone very, very wrong.

This is not a particularly gruesome book. There aren’t many scenes that are gory or contain any significant amount of splatter.  However, it’s still a very visual book.  If you have any imagination at all, then the descriptions are going to haunt you after you read them.  Even something as innocuous as a living room floor covered by a throw rug takes on a newly ominous nature. It has genuinely shocking moments that make for a book that’s as compelling as it is unsettling.

I did want to keep reading it.  The entire time that I was working my way through this book, I just did not want to set it down because I needed to know what happened next.  I was rooting for the characters to solve the mystery and save Spokane. I really wanted that to happen.

I’ve read a lot of books with a similarly surreal quality to them.  I’m a fan of Jonathan Lethem, and I read and enjoyed John Dies at the End, which I reviewed for this very site.  Novels in that vein often end up being difficult to follow.  I didn’t find that reading Bad Glass.  Parts of it feel positively hallucinogenic.  It takes on a frantic, fever dream quality in certain stretches, but while there were a lot of “what did I just read” moments, for me it wasn’t because I was having trouble following the plot.  Instead, it was a provocation of such vivid mental images that I had to make sure that the thing I had envisioned was actually what was described.  It always was.  Bad Glass progresses far more linearly that most novels with a surrealist bent to them.  It’s a novel that is chronologically plotted, which makes those moments when the uncanny smacks the reader in the face that much more powerful.

However, if you’re looking for a book that offers up solutions in neat little packages like so many individually wrapped candies, this is not the book for you.  Answers don’t really abound here. Things do not get resolved.  Is there room to be a sequel? Not really, or, at least, it didn’t feel that way.  This is not to say that Bad Glass was in any way unsatisfying.  This just isn’t the kind of story that lends itself well to having every loose end tied.  It stands on its own merits, and it’s a good book.

I’d recommend this book for older teens and adults who like a suspensful book with a steadily creepy atmosphere.  It’s got some good scares in it that are on a subtler level than hack and slash, and it plays with readers’ perceptions of reality.  If you can deal with that or actually enjoy that, then look into Bad Glass.

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