Reading Glaze by Kim Curran

Another from Vector, last year

Glaze by Kim Curran
(Jurassic London, 2014)

It happened that while I was reading Kim Curran’s Glaze, Slate writer Martha Graham decided the moment was perfect to lambast adults for reading Young Adult novels when they could, and indeed should, be maintaining their hard-won maturity by reading books for grown-ups, from which they would learn so much more about the business of being an adult than from the necessarily limited viewpoint of young adult novels, with their “uniformly satisfying” but “far too simple” endings. And then Graham went on to criticise adults reading YA for seeking “escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia” and abandoning “mature insights”.

Graham’s article tells us more perhaps about her own concerns and SE Smith took issue with it in the Daily Dot, arguing that many readers of YA fiction are Millennials, for whom growing up has become a lengthier and more challenging process, thanks to economic crises which force them to live with their parents. Reading YA fiction reflects this prolonged childhood. I’m not convinced by the argument but it might say something about the fascination with the so-called dystopian, as well as that desire for a ‘satisfying’ ending.

Coincidentally, at the same time I read an article by Ursula K Le Guin in which she observed that “My fiction, especially for kids and young adults, is often reviewed as if it existed in order to deliver a useful little sermon.” Le Guin dismisses this by suggesting that “the meaning of the story might lie in the language itself, in the movement of the story as read, in an inexpressible sense of discovery, rather than a tidy bit of advice?” Indeed, Curran herself comments that “In writing for teens, there’s one thing that makes me more wary than anything else. And that’s ‘issue books’. Books which are written with the sole purpose of ‘helping young people these days’. Books with ‘clear moral messages’.”

It is almost certainly true that there is no overt moral message in Glaze but I would argue that regardless of what Curran may think, and pace Le Guin’s comments, there is more than a passing whiff of ‘issue’ to the novel. In fact, I suspect it is part of the nature of YA fiction but the question is whether the writer allows such issues to drive the narrative or else lets them sit in the background, to be noticed or ignored as the reader sees fit.

In Glaze the ‘issue’ certainly doesn’t drive the narrative but neither is it inconspicuous. As we read we’re constantly ask to think about the significance of opening ourselves to being controlled yet encouraged simultaneously to ignore it, which is somewhat confusing. Glaze is pretty much every social network you’ve ever experienced, all rolled into one and delivered via a chip inserted into the brain, requiring its restriction to the over-sixteens (and hence the concern about control and suggestibility). It is, as one might expect, the ultimate adolescent rite of passage. While it fosters a sense of togetherness in those who do have access to it, those who are not chipped inevitably feel excluded. It is also possible to revoke chip privileges. Given we live in a society which more and more often uses the threat of exclusion as a tool for social management, it’s difficult not to think of Glaze standing in for a range of other things, everything from poor internet access to denial of benefits.

However, that part of the story is mostly relegated to the background. We focus instead on Petri, who feels this exclusion particularly strongly, given she is a year younger than most of the people in her class and already set apart by her intelligence. Yet, one suspects that Petri already knows that things won’t change significantly but her desire to be part of the crowd, come what may, is instantly recognisable, as indeed is the conviction that possession of the latest technology will somehow fix everything. Neglected by her mother, Zizi, politically if anachronistically right on, well-intentioned but clueless about bringing up a child, it is perhaps not surprising that Petri invests so much in attempting to build her own community even though she is painfully isolated from people, and that this leads first to acquiring an illegal chip and then to the discover that Glaze is not – surprise – as innocent as it seems.

Glaze works best when Curran’s characters are interacting with one another moment by moment or when Petri suddenly grasps a situation. In terms of emotional intelligence, the novel is streets ahead of its plotting, which is, bluntly, either ho-hum or intensely melodramatic. The setting feels more like a stage backdrop than a convincing recreation of a near-future London. There is nothing distinctive about the school which Petri attends (although we are clearly in a future in which Michael Gove never existed) and there is some general handwaving towards a political situation which has school students with a strong sense of social justice out on the streets but uncertain what it is they’re campaigning for or against. Clearly, something is wrong with society but, given we see it through the eyes of a self-absorbed teenager, we’re left with an interpretation that is necessarily partial and superficial.

Which I found very frustrating as there were moments when Curran hinted at other fascinating narrative possibilities, only for Petri to turn away distracted, although what she was doing didn’t always seem as interesting. I often questioned the plausibility of the story while accepting the need to just run with it, because this was Petri’s experience. Irritation was balanced by the recognition that Curran generates enough pace to bridge that gap between accepting and resisting the story. What makes it work finally is that however bizarre Petri’s experiences seem to be, Curran catches that tension between an adolescent conviction that the world can be made a better place and the realisation that the world is actually a lot more complicated than it initially seems.

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