Lee Rourke’s new novel Glitch opens with its protagonist returning home to England to deal with a family crisis. En route, his flight encounters a bizarre mechanical failure, segueing into a harrowing sequence of in-flight chaos. That’s only the beginning of an emotionally wrenching period for the novel’s hero, as he wrangles with troubled relationships, the specter of mortality, and a world that no longer works the way it should. Also in there are lyrical forays into memory and a handful of transcendentally-written passages, coming together for an unforgettable read. I talked with Rourke about the novel’s origins and how it relates to his other works via email.
Both Glitch and Vulgar Things deal (in very different ways) with loss, and with the absence of a beloved family member. Were you conscious of wanting to address these themes in a different way in Glitch? Do you see the two novels as fundamentally connected in some way?
This is a difficult question, as I have been approaching what I think I have tried to achieve in Glitch for the past 19 years. Vulgar Things, at the time of writing it, was a step closer to what, fundamentally, has affected the way I write: the death of my mother. I’ve never really wanted to write about loss, but it seeped into these novels. Even my debut novel, The Canal, is about loss: the loss of the self, rather than a loved one. But both Vulgar Things, and most recently Glitch, deal with the loss of another person. Vulgar Things explored the loss of another’s life (an Uncle), an absence of them through death, whereas Glitch explores the loss of a life (a mother) through the presence of dying.
Both novels are linked in this way, but both are separate. Vulgar Things is told from a distance, whereas Glitch is much closer, too close in fact. I wanted to write about the death of my mother in Glitch (after 19 years since her death), but I didn’t want it to be about me: my feelings, the aftermath, how I coped, et cetera. So I deleted all of that closeness out – which for me just seemed to make the process of writing the books far more intense and claustrophobic.
I read Glitch shortly before flying, which made my travel experience that much more unnerving. What was your process like for researching what such an in-flight event would be like?
I was once on a Boeing 747, approaching Schiphol Airport, my mother sitting next to me, when we were suddenly struck by lightning. It felt like we were hit side on by another aircraft, I looked up just as a blue flash travelled through the plane, cabin crew scattered to their seats and we immediately had to drop about 12,000 ft. It was scary and exhilarating. There was a man sitting next to my mother reading the Wall Street Journal through the entire episode. When the plane levelled and we resumed some form of normality he quietly folded his newspaper, turned to my mother, who was still shaking, and said, in a deep Kentucky drawl: ‘Your first time, ma’am? Don’t worry, it happens all the time up here.’ I thought my mother was going to punch him, but I thought he was the coolest bastard alive.
Flying is fraught with nervous energy and anxiety. I wanted that feeling to filter into my novel, so I began it with a cabin decompression. Decompression is symbolic with the themes of the novel, but as an aviation geek I’ve read up on this sort of thing.
The motif of glitches that runs through the novel occasionally suggests the surreal or the magic realist. How did you find a balance between these elements and the questions of grief and mortality that abound elsewhere in the book?
As the protagonist L-J states at the beginning of Glitch: everything is glitched. The world around us and the books we read, the films we watch, the art we gaze at, there’s always a flaw. We spend so much time trying to hide these fissures, we try to patch them up as best we can, covering up the cracks as best we can, and it has become the default mode to try and mimic perfection with this constant hiding and covering of what truly lies beneath the surface of things. There are a number of artists and writers and thinkers who’ve thought differently over the years and have tried to reveal the beauty in these mistakes, turning what most people believe to be ugly into art: Andy Warhol, Samuel Beckett, Ann Quin, Béla Tarr, et al. It’s the same with illness, with dying and death, there doesn’t seem to be an acceptance of this fundamental flaw, we hide from it, cover it up, pretend it isn’t happening. But there’s beauty even in death. I remember when my mother was dying of throat cancer, there was still part of me that couldn’t accept it, that tried to convince myself that she would somehow get better. Call this a coping mechanism, the simple fact that I didn’t want my mother to die, hope, whatever you want. The simple fact was I couldn’t meet it head on like my mother did. I think back to that time now and my mother said some of the most beautiful things to me and my dad and my brother. She looked at the world differently, we talked and talked and talked while she lay in bed dying, and we sat beside her, it was truly beautiful. I see that now, but back then, I tried to hide it looking for perfection – worried that others’ would not want to see these moments. Everything is glitched, and there’s immense beauty to be found in these mistakes. So we must accept them.
I was curious about the use of names in the novel: it seems as though there’s a very precise and particular way in which they’re deployed throughout the book. How did you come up with that approach?
I wanted to use names formally. I didn’t want any nomenclature to be applied casually or in any way that might suggests these characters live closely. They don’t. The ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ needed to feel austere – not in that horrid upper-class English way, but in a way that might suggest each lives separately, up on their own pedestal, away from others, but also fully aware of others. The way they are named and how this is framed within the narrative shapes the relationships, I guess. The dislocation between L-J and his sister is reflected in the way she is named by him throughout the novel, which flits from formal ‘Sister’ to her given name ‘Ellie’. On the other hand, there is a closeness between Mother and L-J, a deep connection, but he still refers to her as Mother in that same formal manner, he also worships and looks up to her in the same way people do a saint.
Stylistically, Glitch has a few moments where the prose turns experimental. What was your process like in terms of finding the balance between the more restrained sections and these paragraphs?
I never really plan anything like that. It’s not that I think: right, now for my ‘experimental’ bit. The theory always dictates the style in my writing. The ‘experimental’ bits in Glitch are when Mother is reading Wallace Stevens’s poetry and also William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and they begin to merge with her own thoughts about love, life and dying, there’s also my own reading on the formation of Amber that seeps in to those sections, too. I think, in my mind, I was trying to mirror the long process of succinosis (the abnormal development of Amber) through the failure and interference of text and language. Language has undergone a type of abnormal development and it is littered with flaws, cracks, and fissures. There’s no perfect text just like there’s no perfect piece of amber. There’s just the process of succinosis. Something might look perfect – a pane of glass, for example – but look closely and its flaws, blisters, fissures, and glitches will begin to reveal themselves gladly.
All those establishment, bourgeois, lyrical novels stacked high in bookshops and on shortlists that aim for perfection, that hoodwink us unto thinking that’s what art should be … they’re merely polished pieces of amber displayed in dusty cabinets.
Why write like that when there’s true beauty in the flaw? We don’t need to polish anything. We just need to unearth the glitch.
Next year will bring a book of poetry from you; would you say that it relates to Glitch at all, stylistically or thematically speaking?
Ah, Vantablack, yes. I’m really proud of this collection – a book of poems about one thing: the colour black. Structurally it resembles my previous collection Varroa Destructor, something I call URL poetry. But Vantablack breaks things up more. The only theme that connects everything I write is the theory that influences the way I think about writing. Vantablack is quite an angry collection, I take aim at things through the colour black, but it’s also tender, too: it deals with anxiety, depression, love and loss, the relentless, unchanging everydayness of things. All of my writing attempts to unearth something beautiful in these things. I try. The words appear. Sometimes I call my words poetry. But I am not a poet.
As a writer who’s published works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, how would you say that you find the balance between these forms?
To be honest, I just write them. I mean, I don’t have to adjust myself in any way to help secure them in place. The books force themselves upon me and I write them. I think the only thing that gives them balance is my own world-view, my thoughts on what writing is, what it’s for, and what it should be. I don’t enjoy writing, if there’s any joy to be found, it’s in knowing that I’ll never be able to answer these questions.
So I simply keep writing.
Lee Rourke is the author of the short story collection EVERYDAY, the novels THE CANAL, VULGAR THINGS, and most recently GLITCH, as well as the poetry collections VARROA DESTRUCTOR and VANTABLACK. He also contributed to the acclaimed KNOW YOUR PLACE essay anthology. He is a contributing editor at 3AM Magazine and has written regularly for the Guardian, TLS, Bookforum, Independent, and New Statesman. He lives by the sea.