Jeff Wood - A spellbinding work in the spirit of Tarkovsky or Jodorowsky that reimagines the American frontier at the turn of the millennium, a time when suburban development was metastasizing and the Social was about to implode
Jeff Wood, The Glacier, Two Dollar Radio, 2015.
A spellbinding work in the spirit of Tarkovsky or Jodorowsky that reimagines the American frontier at the turn of the millennium, a time when suburban development was metastasizing and the Social was about to implode. Following a caterer at a convention center, a surveyor residing in a storage unit, and the masses lining up for an Event on the horizon, The Glacier is a poetic rendering of the pre-apocalypse and a requiem for the passing of one world into another.
"Call Jeff Wood's The Glacier what you will—a novel-in-screenplay-form; a prose poem on the themes of death, suburbia, and the cruel symmetries of cosmic time; a surreal prophecy from America's anguished heartland—it will remain what it was always aiming to be, and that's one of the most indelible and visionary movies you've ever seen."—Jon Raymond
The blend between novels and other mediums is not new. Prose poems, poetic novels, fictional histories … there is constant flux to reach the boundaries of the novel, to escape and run rampant in the minds of their readers. Jeff Wood’s The Glacier continues, and in many ways builds off, that tradition by recreating the sense of time and place, of playing the illusion the best authors tend to do. One could flip through the pages and see a script for a movie, and one would be mistaken to do so; this is more. There is a sense of authority here that readers rarely see. In a story set on the outskirts of expansion, the continuing tidal wave of boredom Americana rips through the serene countryside. Characters survive the pre-apocalypse the way we expect characters to survive a nuclear war. Places come and go, relics of the past, and wrecks of the future. The Glacier is altogether new and incredibly familiar at the same time. It’s the story of what was and what can be, simultaneously.
This script format that Wood uses may be initially disruptive but incredibly necessary. We are painted scenes, characters, moments. Our feelings for them are neutral. We are not being swayed intentionally like a street side card dealer; we are shown the ways things are from a more powerful and narratively pleasing point of view. In this way, Wood really presses the boundaries of narrator and author relationship. The novel begins with the surveying of a new development, planning the dreams and futures of hypothetical families. Three characters, Jonah, Sue, and Gunner, are doing their part in creating a new world, one with “condominiums, duplexes, and house after house, lined up like tombstones across the countryside.” There is the mysterious and alluring Mr. Stevens, who is a joker among wild cards, someone who’s pulling the strings of everyone around him, and those around him almost completely unaware. There is Simone and Robert and Samson, survivors of the daily life that many can sympathize with. But this book is about Jonah, about his dreams, about what he thinks is a prophecy. This novel is about Mr. Stevens, about the Event Horizon, about the future. At the same time, it’s about the symptoms one develops as they continue forward their vision of what they think the American Dream should be: “Chronic boredom. A pervading sense of uselessness. Loneliness, isolation, malaise. Textbook depression. Anxiety. General physical nervousness. Circadian inversion characterized diametrically by compulsive napping and insomnia. Regret. Remorse… Repressed anger resulting in self-deprecation, passive aggression.” A significant piece of this novel is about dealing with the lull between large events, whether we think them as such or not.
Wood excels in creating space, in creating tension among the ordinary. This is a novel that doesn’t shy away from form. It may turn off readers simply because of that; however, it would be foolish to do so. Early on, Jonah has a vision, or at least we initially think it is a vision of the beginning of the end: “The windshields of cars shatter like fine crystal as the shock wave rolls down the highway, an aria of glass exploding across the legion of commuter cars. / On the side of the road, Jonah watches the sonic wave rolling toward him. / And he is consumed.” Suddenly, he asks for it to stop, and “the Apocalypse pauses.” Jonah is a narrative mutation, the cause for action in ways many protagonists attempt to be, in a new and imaginative way. Mr. Stevens is an antithesis of this effort. He is mysterious in action and in intention, unlike the fairly forward Jonah. Whereas Jonah is exploring the world and his own character, Mr. Stevens has a set idea about it all. He has an answer for everything:
It just doesn’t matter. You see— Everything you’re feeling is an illusion. It’s just patterns, patterns and chemicals, coming and going. It feels like feelings, but it’s not. If we stay focused on the tasks at hand it all works itself out. We’re so much better off when we realize that there just isn’t anywhere else to go. This is it! Why cause ourselves more headache and heartache. And, from experience I can tell you, once you leave the ship you are really out there in deep space, all alone.
There is a sense of trickery about him, the way he molds thoughts and sentences, the way he can spin those around him. And the reader quickly understand the relationship between hope and despair, something that we can all empathize on very raw and powerful levels. They are characters, avatars of the future and of the past, a common undercurrent for the entire novel. Wood manages to hit this point in many ways, from character interactions to scene setting. But Mr. Stevens and Jonah are exactly what we need, they are the two trains driving at seventy mils an hour towards each other and the reader sits patiently waiting for the eventual impact.
The Glacier is the novel that asks the good questions. It seduces you slowly, the reader hypnotized from the first page, from the first rumblings of the great “could be.” Jonah and Mr. Stevens spar with the world in the balance. Late in the going, our mysterious joker and power player gives advice to one of those beneath him: “But it’s such good fiction, isn’t it? Otherwise what else is there? The good news is that if God is finally just a figment of the imagination, then anyone is free to play him.” Reality is what we make it, the good and the bad. The eventual and otherwise. We have the power ourselves to survive the beginning and the end, we have the power to better ourselves. The Glacier stays the course, it makes the reader work for its enjoyment. Like Jonah, the reader must learn and adapt. And it’s all worthwhile. -
The early pages of Jeff Wood’s cinematic novel The Glacier depict a landscape rearranged through a series of instantaneous and radical changes. Jonah, the character who comes closest to serving as a protagonist, works hundreds of yards away from his fellow surveyors, plotting more houses for a cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood that already spreads as far as the eye can see. The narrative lens then pans across multiple characters for brief 1-2 sentence snapshots that resemble a series of jump-cuts in a film, building suspense while disorienting the reader until, in a “ferocious and beautiful…spectacle,” everything disintegrates, evaporates: the world is abruptly destroyed. The viewpoint comes back to Jonah just before he is consumed by the wall of atomic fire. He calmly watches the destruction spread until it reaches him. He simply utters the word “Wait,” and “The Apocalypse pauses.” For the duration of an entire paragraph, the reader is trapped with Jonah “radiating between two worlds,” a pause just long enough to ponder the beauty of the moment, before he becomes a charred skeleton like the rest. But then something peculiar happens. The mushroom cloud implodes, the fiery wave flows backwards, bodies and atoms reassemble. The world reconstructs itself, leaving its inhabitants dazed by the lost moment, by “what may or may not have just happened”—the Event has occurred.
What it means to “occur” in this book is hard to pin down, however. Rather than proceeding along a linear chronology, The Glacier takes the reader on a journey through and around time. (“It is coming,” the Radiation Man tells Jonah, “But it has also already happened. And it is happening all the time now.”) In this non-post-apocalyptic world, time works differently (or not at all), and the world feels like a different color on the page. What happens to space, too, is both warped and consequential. Before the Event, a small child runs out of his house to play in green field only to find his way blocked by “the monolithic wall of vinyl siding” from a subdivision that has seemingly appeared out of nowhere, the same subdivision Jonah stands in during the Event. This housing project, the rows and rows of houses, “the gray, suburban expanse…sprawl[s] endlessly toward the horizon of gauze and ozone,” ultimately filling a vacancy that the Event exposes in a flash like a camera in a dark room. With such patterning—expansion, destruction, expansion—Wood utilizes a fantastical depiction of the unceasing encroachment of suburbanization to explore what it means to be human in a world that has lost sight of itself as a result of constant development.
One method Wood uses to emphasize this lost sense of self is the very structure of the novel. The Glacier is written in the format of a screenplay—what its publisher, Two Dollar Radio, calls “a cinematic novel.” The form allows Wood to blend the seamless and fluid movement of film with the creative flexibility and intimacy of prose. With its blocks of dialogue surrounded by swaths of blank space, the format can invoke disorientation. For setting, readers are given stage directions, and beyond the dialogue the only gateways inside the characters are brief facial expressions or a few parenthetical descriptions (“whispering frantically”). But despite having the look, feel, and pace of a script, The Glacier reads very much like a novel, even as it leverages the screenplay format to allow for abrupt jump cuts and shifting angles, producing a 360-degree view of a world that might otherwise appear flat on the pages of a traditional work of prose fiction.
If, in the normal process of reading a novel, the reader is a co-creator of the story (by merging the author’s vision with his own), the cinematic novel only accentuates this process. It assumes an even greater level of co-creation, or co-imagination, on the part of the reader, just as a script assumes a greater level of co-creation on the part of the director and crew. In short, the reader has to (or depending on your outlook, gets to) do a little more work to fill in the spaces Wood leaves blank. Much like a blueprint gives only a certain understanding of what a building really looks like, Wood’s cinematic novel provides all the necessary pieces but leaves the assembly up to the reader.
In addition to this phenomenon of readerly co-construction, The Glacier highlights a seemingly opposite theme of self-destruction. Near the end of the novel, Jonah describes the “something” that has happened/is happening/looms in the future, as a situation where “We’re conspiring to engineer the annihilation of ourselves.” But, for both characters and readers, these two processes—co-creation and self-annihilation—are in many ways related. One of the primordial pleasures for many readers is the sensation of the self disappearing during the reading process—the feeling that when we’re really, truly immersed in a book, a type of annihilation of self naturally occurs. In this sense, Wood’s book may suggest that losing sight of ourselves might not always be a bad thing. - Joe Seale