As part of the ongoing reread of Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic, I contribute a brief discussion of Chapters Twenty-Five to Twenty-Eight …
‘They’re ugly.’ Espel’s jaw looked like she was fighting some rebellious instinct. ‘They’re so empty – so blatantly incomplete.’ (280)
At the beginning of Chapter Twenty-Six, Espel and Pen have taken cover during a weatherturn in what Espel calls Immigration Centre SW 1 butwhat Pen knows as Victoria Station. Here, they witness immigrant half-faces being brought in from detention camps elsewhere, and given IDs (that is, Inverse Depictors or prosthetics, to complete their appearance – Cosmetic, Prosthetic, Completing Your Aesthetic, as the jingle goes). Pen already knows something about this because Espel as a half-face herself needs an ID to, as she puts it, ‘keep me legal’. Here, for the first time perhaps, we fully understand the horror that is London-Under-Glass.
This is a society which is driven entirely by appearance. Perhaps not surprising given that it is a mirror world, and the mirror not only tells us (in theory) what we look like, but reminds us that other people are also always looking. In this world we accept, but rarely articulate and often forget, that other people are always looking. We perhaps become most aware of it when we look at celebrity photographs or cctv footage, yet all of us are on show, every day, in even the most casual encounter. The difference between this world and London-Under-Glass is perhaps that we make these judgements in a very casual sort of way. We are swayed by appearance yet we recognise too in our hearts that appearance is not quite everything. In London-Under-Glass, by contrast, the entire structure of society is predicated on a clearly articulated and institutionalised aesthetic hierarchy, one that is legally enforceable.
Rather than glancing at someone and making aN ephemeral judgement, in London-Under-Glass a person’s face tells you everything you need to know. London-Under-Glass is a panopticon, with everyone always on display, always observable, the outward expression of a deeply conformist society in which everyone is obliged to adhere to one rigidly defined notion of aesthetic acceptability when it is fairly obvious that the ‘norm’ is anything but.
Words such as ‘power’ and ‘control’ are in play throughout these chapters, and one expression of that power is to be found in the insistence that everyone look a certain way; though, here, that insistence works on two levels. First, the half faces must look like the full faces, because otherwise they’re ‘incomplete’, as Espel puts it; but then, having had symmetricality forced upon them, they must work for assymetricality all over again, except that surgically enhanced assymetricality can never be quite the same as the genuine article, can it?
That’s one of the things I find so fascinating about London-Under-Glass. It’s blatantly unequal and yet at the same time, there are even more layers of subtle inequality buried below the surface. Where, for example, we might expect Espel to feel a certain sympathy for the immigrants, because they are like her, needless to say, she doesn’t because she is of course local and they are not. To her they are ‘incomplete’ yet she misses the intrinsic irony of her accusation because she chooses to see herself as ‘complete’ and to ignore the means by which she came to be complete.
And this is perhaps the ultimate reminder of the status of the immigrant in a new city. Pen, or rather, her sister Parva, is immediately successful in London-Under-Glass because she has something London-Under-Glass prizes, or wants, or can exploit. She can immediately rise to the top of the heap. For most immigrants, however, life in a new city is a constant struggle; the treatment they undergo at Victoria is a literal expression of the need to assimilate and integrate, to become like everyone else while permanently marked out as being different.
And yet, as Senator Case would have it, ‘looking’ dilutes power as well as conferring it. For Pen this is particularly significant, given that in our world the sight of her scars causes revulsion whereas in London-Under-Glass, her scars excite envy because of their very assymetricality. In the end, they are still little more than a fashion. What happens when tastes change and people want a different form of assymetricality? Does Pen retain the beauty that London-Under-Glass confers on her? Or is it as ephemeral as the beauty of any model or celebrity in our world? Pen should in theory be happier in London-Under-Glass because of this apparent acceptance of her looks but her experience suggests that even there happiness comes at a price. The Faceless Ones know this … as Pen realises in Chapter Twenty-Five, they hide their faces not to disguise themselves but to step away from that constant judgement: ‘it helped them ignore the aesthetics they’d been raised to judge each other by’ (267).
And if we are in any doubt, it is made clear that Pen’s power is minimal. Her face is well-known, she is famous, but her power is literally skin-deep. She cannot do anything to stop the integration of IDs and half-faces, and her motives in doing so are anyway confused. Instinctively, she recognises that something is wrong here, but there is no quick, obvious way to determine what’s going on, and the weight of practice is against her.
The complexity of these aesthetic discussions is such that it comes as a shock at moments to realise that the other London, the other ‘other’ London is still out there. However, it makes itself felt in the most forceful of ways with the attack of the Masonry Men and their abduction of the immigrants. I’ve noted before my fascination with the Masonry Men and their female counterparts, the Women in the Walls, and although they appear less often in The Glass Republic my interest in them has not abated. Here, though, we see them in a very different role. Whereas we have previously seen them trapped by the activities of the Crane King, or else struggling to survive, here, as Pen notes, ‘They were disciplined; when they swam under the floor, they held formation. I think they had a mission – they were very specific about what they took’ (309). ‘What’ being immigrants. Something, then, controls the Masonry Men. More interesting, though, is how they come to be in London-Under-Glass, when they seem to be so very much creatures of Beth’s London. Which may provide just a hint of what is going on, especially given that Pen recognises the tattoo on the Masonry Man’s wrist, city tower blocks arranged to form a crown. And we all know who’s insignia that is.
Yet, mostly I find myself haunted by the image of them ‘swimming’ through the floor, and of Captain Corbin suddenly finding his leg caught in concrete. There is a dreadful terror in discovering that the world you think of as solid is anything but. Creatures swimming through solid concrete provides a whole new level of horror. More so than stepping through a mirror because there has always been that idea of a world beyond or in the mirror. It’s the cost of gaining entry to such a world that Tom has once again highlighted here.