Edna is alone in her apartment, sitting at a formica table, typing. Not writing, but typing. She’s not sure what got her started typing again, but it might have to do with a letter she received months ago asking if she would write a preface for the rerelease of her dead husband’s novel. Her husband, Clarence, is a frequent subject for her typing, but mostly she lets her mind wander and records those thoughts along with whatever daily happenings seem worth setting to paper.
Sam Savage’s Glass is the product of Edna’s stream-of-consciousness typing. Edna reflects on her past, but we have to read between the lines to find out what really happened between her and Clarence and how a woman named Lily and a place called Potopotawomac figures in. Even at the end of the novel, Edna’s back-story remains murky. Her half-hearted attempt to care for her neighbor’s plants, fish, and pet rat is the closest thing to a linear story you’ll find in this book, and that story is sometimes cringe-inducing.
The lack of linearity is a feature, not a bug. This short novel is a peek into one woman’s mind, and even the most balanced minds don’t operate in a purely linear fashion. As Edna describes her day or reflects on the past, she’ll get to thinking about her own thinking and about the way she describes her thinking. Sometimes she’ll parse her own words, considering our usual ways of describing our thoughts and actions. Here, she examines the phrase “summon a thought”:
I would scarcely be in a position to summon a thought, pluck it from the enormous heap of all possible thoughts, were I not already thinking it, in some sense of thinking, in some sense of already … Summoning a thought would be like summoning a stranger from a crowd in order to find out his name. Well, I suppose you could do that with gestures or by shouting or by going over to him and plucking his sleeve, as you might do if one day you were to see someone in a railroad station whose name who’d like to know, perhaps because he looks like the kind of person you would want to be friends with. To make the analogy work, you have to imagine that you are not able to go over next to that person, perhaps because you are horribly crippled or horribly tired or under arrest and are handcuffed to a policeman.
And on and on she goes, eventually concluding that “summoning thoughts is out of the question: they just come, and the matter seems complicated only because it is really so simple.” The more you think about language, the more slippery it can get, and I found a lot of Edna’s observations to be highly amusing.
Her thoughts on her marriage are fragmentary, and although we learn a lot about her past with Clarence, there’s even more that she doesn’t reveal. One Edna’s finer moments of clarity comes when she recalls how they used to read to each other:
I don’t know why we stopped reading together, but gradually we were not doing it regularly, and then without realizing it was happening we were reading different books, and gradually we came not to care about the book the other one was reading, because it was not the book we were reading, and we became bored and drifted off when the other one talked about his book. What we were doing, reading different books, was furnishing different rooms, constructing separate worlds almost, in which we could sit and be ourselves again. Of course those were rooms in which we each sat alone, and we gradually spent more and more time in them and less and less in the house we lived in together.
There were lots of little moments and passages that I appreciated, but the book as a whole doesn’t quite work. As a reader, I could never put my hands on what was at stake. The book comes to feel like a tissue of observations, held together by nothing but wisps. I felt some concern for Nigel the rat, the neighbor’s fern, and the snails and goldfish because their survival is at stake, but that’s not enough to grasp onto. Why should I want to spend 200-plus pages in Edna’s head? Why do her thoughts matter? Why do they matter at this moment? It’s only in the last quarter of the book or so that we’re given any reason to think that her fate is in doubt.
There were a few times when I thought Savage might be hinting at some darker story behind the long absence of Edna’s neighbor or the bombing that went off near Edna’s home, but the hints were so subtle, so slippery, that I wonder whether it was my desire for complexity that caused me to speculate, rather than anything in the story itself. In the end, I’m left feeling like Glass is an idea of a good book that doesn’t quite pan out. It reaches, but never quite gets there.