As part of the ongoing reread of Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic, I contribute a brief discussion of Chapters Thirty-Seven to Forty …
‘combine heat, sugar and dairy products in the magnitude required until evil is defeated’
And so we come to the last four chapters of Tom Pollock’s The Glass Republic. Like the difficult second album, the middle volume of a trilogy is always problematic. On the one hand, the author has to ideally provide some sort of interim resolution. On the other hand, the ending hs to be such that it will inexorably draw the reader into the final volume. It is a difficult thing to achieve but I think that Tom has struck that balance extremely effectively.
Chapter 37 opens with the Glass Chevaliers in hot pursuit of Pen and Espel, Jack Winborough and Garrison Cray. Margaret Case’s arrangement with Mater Viae has been revealed and Our Lady of the Streets has finally found the means to return to the Lonon on the other side of the mirror. For Pen there is little alternative but to get the hell out, with the added problem of Espel, whose id has been awakened, meaning that the two sides of her are literally fighting one another. To escape into the middle of a riot, a riot that your words have apparently initiated, is then the purest bad luck, mitigated only slightly by the fortuitous arrival of Jack Winborough and Garrison Cray.
One of the things I really admire about this chapter is the way in which Tom invokes the random terror of the riot. In The City’s Son, the closing conflict had clearly delineated sides and a distinct purpose – Beth and Filius and their supporters against Reach and his minions – but here things are by no means so clearcut. And this is nothing to do with London-Under-Glass specifically, and everything to do with the nature of the mob. Historically, London is familiar with riots, and with the ways in which they can flare up suddenly, even in the midst of something previously benign. Every march attracts followers with their own agenda. Any clearly focused protest can suddenly lurch out of control. And once that happens, everything is up for grabs. There are no sides, as such; everyone is fighting for survival, and survival is personal. And this chapter show it over and over, in many different ways.
Jack and Garrison are fighting for a cause, but it’s not necessarily quite the same one, and yet they are temporary allies, and at the same time they’re fighting what the Glass Chevaliers represent on a more abstract level. Whatever else they might be, the Glass Chevaliers are an expression of establishment power. Their mirror surfaces are designed to suck the life out of protestors but they are a reminder too of the facelessness (and I choose that word advisedly) of a government that sets so much store by appearance. Confront a Glass Chevalier and you see yourself – we are all in this together as the UK government is so fond of saying – while simultaneously being reminded of how little power you actually have. These people only work for you if you agree with them. And yet the personal concerns remain. Pen cannot leave Espel, and neithre can Garrison. Garrison will help Pen, not for what she’s begun but because she may be able to save Espel, and that is as important to him as challenging the system. Even Jack nurses a quiet hope that he can return to his former life.
All this lies in the background that Pen and her friends flee the scene, only to find themselves pursued by the Chevaliers, in one of the more disturbing chase scenes in recent fiction. One might wonder how horses, even strangely supernatural horses, can or can’t outrun a car, even one driven by someone who knows how to drive fast cars in tight spaces. In fact, stop worrying about it because reality as we understand it has long since been suspended, and all that really matters is this moment – Jack and Garrison preparing to defend their barricade – or this one – Pen watching the disparate parts of Espel struggle for supremacy, a Freudian theory made actual. That confrontation with the Chevaliers catches too the strangeness of so many street actions in London in recent years – Tom’s fascination with the nature of the street itself is well to the fore here but there is a sense too that London itself changes everything that comes with in its purview in ways its rulers simply cannot account for.
After the hectic panic of Chapter Thirty-Seven, Chapter Thirty-Eight is altogether more contained. We’re back at Frostfield High School, or at any rate its analogue Under-Glass, back in that bathroom, which I realise finally, owes a certain something to M John Harrison’s ‘A Young Man’s Journey to Viriconium’, also known as ‘A Young Man’s Journey to London’ (and yes, it has taken me the whole novel to realise this – some critic). After the broad canvas of the streets it’s in this incongruous safe place, about as contained as one can find, that Pen must not only help Espel but also come to terms with her own nature. She has been literally fractured for the whole of this novel, Pen and Parva, and now Parva is lost, part of Mater Viae, and Pen remains. And here Pen has her moment of insight: ‘She was my opposite, but she didn’t hate me, not at all. So maybe – maybe – your id isn’t born to hate you. Maybe it’s only fighting you because you’re fighting it’ (419). Which leads to that small, delicate, deeply moving moment when Pen frees Espel’s hands and the two sides of her begin to rub their hands.
Chapter Thirty-Nine brings us back to Pen’s real world, albeit it through the mirror, and the reappearance of Trudi, the girl who set Pen’s hijab alight at the behest of the repellent Gwen. Abandoned now, Trudi retreats to the same toilet block, because it feels safe. I’m struck even now by how well Tom captures that school vibe. My school days are long, long behind me, yet the Gwens and Trudis of this world are very familiar – I could give them different names but they’re the same people – as are the situations, and indeed the toilet block was always, oddly, a place of safety and danger simultaneously.
With Trudi’s appearance the pace of the novel changes because, finally, Pen can make contact with Beth again, and proceeds to do just that. In the moment when she roars ‘THEN FIND ONE!’ as Trudi complains her mobile phone has no signal, we see Pen in all her glory and power. And this, incidentally, is the moment when the novel turns its face forward., preparing for the third volume.
Though this is inevitably topped by the moment when Pen sees Beth again and we begin to realise just how much Beth has changed. ‘The irises in its eyes glowed softly, the green of traffic lights. Pen recoiled from the rooftops that overlapped on its cheeks like scales, from the black cable hair that coiled over its ears, from the church spires that showed between its lips as it mouthed: Pen’ (427).
And as if that were not enough there is the moment when the Masonry Man takes Espel even as Beth drags Pen back through the mirror.
The final chapter of The Glass Republic is a wonderful mixture of humour and drama. Paul Bradley, Beth’s father, is currently ranking as the coolest father in fiction, obviously disturbed by what has happened to his daughter and yet determined to keep everything together and help however he can: ‘combine heat, sugar and dairy products in the magnitude required until evil is defeated’ (435), as Pen so memorably observes.
And then finally, we come to the moment when Mater Viae, Our Lady of the Streets, returns to London in an eruption of blue flame, a tide of cats, and once again the Masonry Men, ‘erupt[ing] from the road like sharks from water’ (438).
I cannot wait to read Our Lady of the Streets. Coming soon.