GlassHouse by Louis Armand
“Coffined thoughts around me, in mummycases, embalmed in spice of words.”
Ulysses (1922), by James Joyce
“By turns gnarled, tuberous, the mythic upturned baobab enfolded the sky[.]” So begins GlassHouse by Louis Armand. A taut miniature, it stands opposite The Combinations, Armand’s magnum opus (all 888 pages worth), a Ulysses-manque, a dizzying doorstopper skewering the false promises of Cold War soteriological half-truths (communism and capitalism; democracy and tyranny), with a wandering schlemiel in Prague. It’s, well … a lot. GlassHouse, by contrast, is a short book (128) pages, but within is a phantasmorgia, sex-murder, mob violence, and ants.
Split into three parts, the first part is pure detective noir. A body of an elementary school teacher is discovered in the Jardin des Plantes at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelles. Detectives Schönbrunn and Laborde are called in to investigate. Schönbrunn is pissed, because it’s he’s hungover, sleep-deprived, and it’s his day off. Laborde, his partner, is an obese hatemonger, an ice-hearted repository of contempt and ridicule for women and minorities, despite a perceptive acumen and the possibility of being right in his hunches. The museum staff are shocked at the developments, along with an accumulating crowd on the outskirts of the crime scene.
The museum staff include: Yadlun, an absentminded taxonomist; Madame Lenoir, his caretaker; Godemiché, aspiring subaltern gunning for Yadlun’s job; and Gachette, the young beautiful intern. Gep is Lenoir’s adoptive child, mute and sullen. Qwertz is a hobo with a spectacular and convoluted, an “Aryanised vagabond” who escaped Nazi persecution. Mahnood, an Arab, may or may not be an alien.
The first section pingpongs perspectives, one character to the next a la As I Lay Dying. Armand gives each character an idiosyncratic narrative style. Qwertz, for examples, rattles off a stream of consciousness reminiscent of Celine’s trademark three dots. “With an open suitcase full of Reichsmarks cuffed to left ankle …. Too hungry …. To care …. stuffing his face, right there in the fetid August corpse-stink, six years undead with a gut-ache & drunk as a fart, puking all over when the partisans burst in … Annus miserabilis of ‘44.”
Gep, meanwhile, contemplates:
“Running running running.
the animals behind fences, courtyard with victim cats
& old broken guy
on a chair
in the sky,
blinking wet-eyed down at him
And so on. This fractured narrative continues until mob violence erupts and the curated order of the Jardin collapses into chaos and slaughter. The focus shifts from noir to a disorienting array of perspectives; a kaleidoscope vision of ants, punk rock fish-people, a corpse, and the mob.
“[ ] Words are rushing [ ] at the speed of light [ ] yet thought stands still. [ ] A trillion neurons [ ] in a fixed firmament. [ ]” So says François X, aka, the victim.
A chapter called “The Hole” is ostensibly about the hole dug by the construction crew, but it becomes a free-associative word stew reaching a cognitive critical mass:
“its desires were fathomless once brought to light. dug-up trepanned archaeologised. secrets left to chance. occult wells of air. a will-always-done. points without contradiction. hieratic moons. a cross on sharpened stone. dawn birdsong.”
Recalling Pierre Guyotat’s transgressive fiction, a question arises: What does it mean? We, the reader, must contend with a word-river that may have meaning, multiple meanings, or no meaning. Must a passage mean something to have literary value? Must this section possess meaning because GlassHouse is, at least on a superficial level, a mystery? Who murdered the elementary school teacher? Is knowing this necessary for the storytelling to succeed? Or, like Lost Highway or Inland Empire, is the search for narrative meaning a deeper compulsion/demand/threat from the reader to the author for an explanation? “I don’t understand! Explain this to me!” In the words of Raoul Duke in Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, “Fuck, man. You’ve gone completely sideways!”
GlassHouse is a neo-noir phantasmorgia, Faulknerian and Lynchian by turns, written by a scholar of James Joyce and the avant-garde. Don’t expect any hand-holding or infodumps to clarify the situation. Although one shouldn’t take that as a reason to avoid reading the short book. In fact, like the works of Gilbert Sorrentino or Anthony Burgess, this metafictional odyssey is actually quite fun to read. It is a mystery story, but it is also a frenzied ode to the majesty and convolutions of language.