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City in Retrograde: Louis Armand’s GlassHouse

By Mike Corrao.

Louis Armand, GlassHouse (Equus Press, 2018)

Louis Armand’s GlassHouse opens with the demolition and excavation of a shed in the courtyard of a Botanical Institute in Paris. A man, Yaldun, sits in a folding chair watching the construction crew work, moving machinery and dirt. In another part of the city, a cop speaks with his partner. In another part of the city, a strange man wanders the streets. In another dimension, a being floats through space. GlassHouse is a short novel, but it is always in motion. Perspectives shift. Style and formatting change and adapt. The city is fragmented, reduced to its individual components, and collaged together again.

Before this, in the opening pages of the book, there is a map of the Jardin des Plantes, and the area surrounding it. The map appears aged. As if scanned from yellowing pages. The city presented in this view is obsolescent. Where other cities move in fits of demolition and reconstruction (I cannot remember a year of my life that was not subject to pylons and detours), Armand’s Paris is locked in stasis. There is no further development. There is only slow decay and controlled destruction. The excavated courtyards of the Botanical Institute only grow deeper. They are never filled; their contents are not replaced. “… space feels overwhelming in its primal emptiness.” Workmen move through layers of strata unearthing the underside of the Jardin des Plantes. Yaldun watches from his seat until it is swallowed by the growing pit.

The work of the crew resembles the work of urban archaeologists, albeit with more inelegant methods. The renovation of the long-standing institute feels as if it being performed post mortem. All of the researchers are slowly aging, lethargic academics at the end of their tenure. GlassHouse’s Paris feels past its prime. As if its construction had been finished decades ago, at the end of the Second World War. With its fruitful years played out across the sixties. Now, in our contemporary times, all that can be done is cleaning and organizing. Old stone monuments cannot be replaced, but they can be polished. Aging can be delayed but it cannot be stopped.

The Institute itself holds a strange position in the slow decay of the city. It is a place of dense and elaborate greenery. Contrasting the grayscale of the surrounding metropolis. It is an anchor for gaia. The excavation of its courtyards acting as a kind of pseudo-construction, in which green is replaced by brown and gray. Metropolitan expansion inching inwards. These renovations are not progress. They are empty gestures that will inevitably remain unfulfilled.

Inside the Botanical Institute’s hexagonal upper office, a young researcher speculates about various academic theories. Her sentiments often sound reminiscent of Kobo Abe’s Inter Ice-Age 4, internally discussing biological mutations and cybernetic enhancements. The sections of the narrative that adopt her perspective are dense with potentialities. Each one feigns at its capacity for new threads, for new perspectives. They present themselves as doorways that might be opened. But nothing comes of them. Plants die in their vitrines. The stasis of the city below creeps into the Jardin des Plantes interiors. We are given the impression that Paris is not only a place of unchanging architecture, but a place of unchanging people as well.

Elsewhere, in another part of the city, there is a murder. Two police officers stand over the fresh corpse of a school teacher. They discuss potential leads and complain about the forensics team. Schönbrunn, the lead investigator, says that the crowd is too large, that the beat cops should have cleared them out of the area earlier or at least created a wider perimeter. In this moment, we notice a distinction between the city and its inhabitants. Although both appear archaic, the stasis experienced is different for each. The city’s is literal, whereas for the individual it lies in an inability to change or progress. The crowd surrounding the crime scene , a mix of occupants and visitors, appears fluid and ever-changing, but their behavior will always be the same. They will always exhibit a short-sighted excitement.

The corpse becomes a tourist attraction. Traffic redirects itself. Onlookers gather around the scene of the crime. The moment the school teacher is dead, she is no longer a school teacher. Her death marks the body’s transition from subject to object. The two investigators stand over her body as if it is another part of the job. It is not a person. It is a new addition to the Parisian circuit. Another place for tourists to visit. They look on with the same attention they would give a historical monument, or a work of art. The crowd continues to coagulate. The corpse inspires further interest. In the crowd, there is a conspiratorial whisper. Some people begin to speculate about causes and culprits. But others do not participate. Like Qwertz, an enigmatic flaneur, who wanders through the streets. Stumbling upon the crowd and the yellow tape, he becomes paranoid. His routine is interrupted. He feels anxious. Qwertz is not a tourist. His relationship to the city appears intimate. The behavior of the crowd is loose and malleable. It exists in a state of constant mutation. The individual (the city-dweller in particular) attempts to maintain their own understanding of the city. To form a routine. When Qwertz meets the police eye-to-eye, he seems suspicious and frantic. The appearance of this new tourist attraction has disrupted his view of the city. The crowd grows malicious. They mutate again. They comb the surrounding area for suspicious and frantic figures.

This disruption of the archaic city is augmented by the fragmentary nature of the project. GlassHouse moves quickly. The perspective changes frequently, every one to seven pages. The style and format of the writing often shifts as well. Characters act independently, slipping away from the greater narrative. They go about their business, they ignore strange noises, they consider future plans. The various threads of Armand’s novel do not function to further the plot. Instead, they act as images to be incorporated into a greater collage, playing roles that may be minor but important in further understanding the events and figures surrounding the murder, or if not the murder, the afternoon that it happened.

Yet, as the novel progresses, these multiple perspectives become more and more disparate. They subvert the structure of the modern detective novel. The impulse to draw toward a conclusion is replaced with a desire to further obscure what has happened. To provide greater, increasingly unrelated contexts. The plot, or the spectre that resembles one, is not all that important. And this is a good thing. Returning to our metaphor of the novel as collage, there is no need for progression. Each new element is not intended to pull the reader forward, rather, it is another component for revealing a larger image that is not intended to serve as some kind of final revelation. When every piece has been laid atop the canvas, what we see is still chaotic and difficult to interpret. GlassHouse is not the story of a murder and its investigation so much as it is the construction of an enigmatic environment.

The lead detective, Schönbrunn, attempts to hold the various narrative threads together. The prominence of the dead body and the inferences that arise are a point of interest. There is the implication, with the disparate perspectives scattered throughout the book, that what may not seem connected at one point might become important later. However, in the same way that Armand’s Paris is an archaic entity, Schönbrunn is an antiquated figure. He is a cop from another time. He acts sluggish and self-righteous. He imagines himself as a beacon of justice in this unmoving place, somehow better than the people he is meant to protect. He often speaks in homophobic and misogynistic terms. In this respect, it seems fitting that the city has gifted him the authority he pretends to command. Not only is the architecture and infrastructure sliding in decline; the attached justice system is equally frail. An idealized Schönbrunn haunts every encounter he creates. A grotesque figure mocking those subject to his authority. When Armand’s Paris inevitably caves in on itself, we can at least find solace in the knowledge that Schönbrunn will be buried with it.

GlassHouse presents an incredibly interesting view of the archaic city locked in slow decay. I don’t know if this is what our contemporary Paris is like, I’ve never been there. But the Paris of Armand’s novel is complex and populated. Alive, but in decline. The city slowly caves in on itself, with the Botanical Institute at its center. GlassHouse is a city symphony of sorts, similar to titles like Berlin Alexanderplatz and Speedboat, or films like New York Portrait and News From Home. It is a short, but dense novel—one capable of excavating an entire city from the very ground it stands on.

Mike Corrao is the author of two novels, Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing) and Gut Text (11:11 Press), one chapbook, Avian Funeral March (Self-Fuck), and many short films. Along with earing a Best of the Net nomination, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as Entropy, Collagist, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis. Learn more at www.mikecorrao.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, August 19th, 2019.