Atticus Lish deploys cold, unsparing realism to great effect
The War for Gloria, by Atticus Lish, is a difficult novel about difficult lives, a novel that Lish wrote in a style so hard and uncompromised it seems almost etched into stone. It takes place in the early 2010s, in Quincy, a suburb of Boston, a town of strip malls and marshlands, American flags and foreclosure signs, where happiness means a meatball sub and the nearby wealth of Cambridge doesn’t so much relieve the areas’ poverty as mock it.
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At the novel’s center is Corey, a Massachusetts teenager whose dreams derail when doctors diagnose his mother, Gloria, with ALS. A harrowing journey into darkness ensues, as Corey’s abusive father returns, Corey gropes for a future, and Gloria’s condition steadily, inexorably, declines.
Lish’s sentences move with an easy, confident gait, simple yet full of detail, employing much the same language as his characters. Describing Corey “cutting weight” for a wrestling match, Lish writes, “His teammate came back and told him he was out of time. He climbed off, his ankles sloshing, took off his jacket, sweatshirt, ripped open his garbage bags like a present. Water spilled out on the floor. His soaking sweatpants were loose around the waist. He pulled the drawstring and they dropped to his ankles. He was thinner.”
As in his last novel, Preparations for the Next Life, Lish has a journalist’s eye for the perfect, illustrative detail, as when he describes a bartender in a topless bar collecting tips. She uses: “a child’s plastic bucket, the kind that comes with a shovel.”
Yet the prose in The War For Gloria is deceptively simple, and just when you feel Lish is writing a bleak little novel about bleak little lives, he zooms out and dispenses with naturalism for omnipresence, colloquialism for medical terms, exposing just how vulnerable his characters are. Describing Corey take care of his mother, Lish writes, “For all he thought he was doing, he wasn’t vigilant; he was failing to see what he could do…Why didn’t he? Good question. The disease, stress, arrogance, impatience, blindness.”
Describing Gloria, before her diagnosis, he writes, “she had long white legs and when she put on her leotard and did yoga, you could see her rib cage and the bones of her spin counting up back to her skull, housing the anterior horns of the cervical ganglia.” The sentence begins with simple, everyday language (“long white legs”) and then escalates, until finally it resolves in medical terms (“anterior horns of the cervical ganglia”) alien to the reader and to Gloria, but revealing of her vulnerability. Even before Gloria’s diagnosis, there’s a sense that her body is beyond her control, endangered.
You can’t find writing like this, which dispenses with individual subjectivity in favor of an almost-divine omnipresence, anywhere else in contemporary literature. Lish seems less indebted to recent novels as to Flaubert, Tolstoy, and The Bible. For just as he traps his characters within disease, violence, and fate, so too does he trap them within the confines of a narration which is sympathetic but ruthless; caring but, in the end, cold.
But no colder than the characters can be to each-other. In excruciating, visceral detail, Gloria declines; Leonard reveals his sadism; and Corey befriends a Nietzsche-reading bodybuilder. Violence, imagined, then real, abounds. Men are either cruel or afraid. The novel is bleak, and would be an ordeal were it not for the rough beauty of Lish’s prose and the clarity of his moral vision.
In the third act, Lish shifts gears, with a murder-mystery plot that takes the reader by the throat. Someone sets Corey up, characters are killed off, and though the reader may find that the pages turn faster, in the end the main players (Leonard, Corey, Gloria) come out curiously unaffected. The whole plot simply fades, without a real confrontation, as if Lish wanted to write a paperback thriller but got embarrassed halfway through.
The genre elements that Lish imposes over his novel’s last act would not be so easily punctured were the rest of the novel less sharp. The psychological complexity of Lish’s characters, and the authentic, in-lived quality of their world, reveals the final act’s plot mechanics as false.
That The War For Gloria is satisfying anyway is testament to its emotional power and Lish’s narrative control. Corey, years older, has turned his back on the violence he seemed condemned to commit, dreaming of a better future. Yet, the ambient menace, the vague sense of fear that permeates so much of the novel, remains. “The world is a place with no rules except those that good people manage to enforce on their own,” Corey thinks in one scene; this novel hits like a kick in the head, leaving us with little to do but agree.