:: Article


By Oscar Mardell.

Lee Rourke, Glitch (Dead Ink, 2019)

After a twenty-year stint in New Jersey, L-J is coming home to Suffolk. His mother has just been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and this will be the last time he spends with her. As his plane gains altitude over Manhattan, his view becomes weirdly distorted: ‘the grid pattern below began to pixelate…it seemed to him they were cutting an acute line through a digitised masterpiece — but not only that, it seemed they were part of the masterpiece itself.’

But L-J would see that. Since his arrival in the States, he’s been working as a linesman – as a Transmission Tower Engineer for the national grid’s ‘New Jersey Transmission Project’. And L-J knows better than most, therefore, that New York City is ‘a digitised masterpiece’, that its existence is due to a sublime matrix of electronic signals. Moreover, to be ‘a part of the masterpiece’ seems to have been L-J’s desire all along. While the plane is still above Manhattan, we learn that he was drawn to his profession for this very reason:

He’d wanted to move up to the 500,000 volt pylons, the towers above all others, working with the real linemen, those crazy individuals he’d first seen on YouTube all those years ago energising themselves, the entire voltage running through them as they work six inches from the lines. Imagine that, he liked to think, 500,000 volts running through and all around your body — actually becoming part of the entire US grid, becoming electricity itself.

As if to drive the point home, L-J resorts to the same terms when explaining his work his ex-girlfriend, Rebecca:

Most line workers love the charge, the hum, the jolt…electricity. It’s like they feed from it, each day, waiting for that familiar hum, the crackle along the line…and then, to attach oneself to it, to become part of the hum, the crackle, for me, I guess that’s what it’s all about…Thing is, he said, I want to disappear. I want to completely disappear. Like those bodies you hear about, submerged into concrete, never to be seen or touched again…that’s what I want, to reinvent the new, away from everything…I just want to disappear…Shoooom!… sucked into the grid like electricity.

The distortion above Manhattan, then, is no distortion per se, but a mirage which reveals things as they truly are, a ‘glitch’ in L-J’s vision which enables him to see the deeper reality: on the one hand, the objective world beneath him, and the hidden infrastructures which sustain it; on the other, the subjective feelings lurking within himself — the (morbid) desire to become ‘part’ of the objective world, to ‘disappear’ within it.

It turns out that L-J has already done a pretty thorough job of disappearing — that he broke things off with Rebecca ‘without reason, vanishing to America like a ghost’. And in this, he’s followed in the footsteps of his father, who vanished when L-J was a child and who also maintains a ghostly presence within the novel:

Something father’s disappearance had taught him from a young age: things change, they fluctuate, and are prone to wild oscillations. He’d seen it all before; he recognised the patterns, he knew there was more to come. When any sort of disruption happens — especially in moments of suspension such as hanging on the line, or in this case, air travel — things haven’t just failed, they’ve already left us behind…He didn’t like to think about it too much, but it was all filtered down to him via Father — even if L-J didn’t like to admit it, Father was the source… In his disappearance Father was always close to hand.

Glitch, it probably goes without saying, is full of these unexpected glitches, of ‘wild oscillations’ and ‘disruptions’: a sudden cabin decompression on L-J’s flight home; his mother’s passing (which, like any passing, feels unexpected even if it has been anticipated); the surprises revealed in his mother’s will; the global financial crisis of 2007; the films of Andy Warhol; and the novel’s central motif — a bead of amber with a thin fissure through its centre. Having been accustomed to such disruptions by his father’s (and his own) freak disappearance, L-J is able to see them for what they truly are: not ‘glitches’ in their respective realities (technological, biological, economic, aesthetic, natural) but fundamental ‘parts’ of those very realities.

But does this make his mother’s passing any easier? Quite the opposite, for it is that ability to see things as they are which ultimately joins her to L-J. We learn of their special bond almost as soon as he lands in Suffolk:

He thought about everything Mother had taught him, everything she had said. He thought about the invisible line that could be found between him and Mother — something she always said existed. He could feel it: it was real, even if his sister could not see for herself.

This ‘invisible line’, we eventually discover, is poetry: ‘the living umbilical cord between him and Mother’. And while L-J is too obsessed with electricity to fully share his mother’s fondness for verse, he appreciates ‘the idea that something as mysterious as a poem could reveal to him things exactly as they are’. His mother’s passing, then, does not just signify the intrusion of a deeper reality, it also heralds the loss of the only figure in L-J’s life who might have been able to recognise it as such.

Glitch is a perfectly realised novel — one which never wastes a word, nor loses sight of its central theme. In the Guardian, Jude Cook suggested that it was ‘occasionally overschematic with its central metaphor,’ but this is precisely the point. In constantly returning to its eponymous subject — in its obsessive replaying of flaws and errors, of recessions and disappearances — Glitch presents an exact imitation of the cyclical repetitions of trauma, and of an increasingly familiar mindset, therefore: one which doesn’t just see catastrophe and loss as divergences from the ordinary course of life, but as the defining features of its fabric.




Oscar Mardell

Oscar Mardell was born in London and raised in South Wales. He currently lives in an urban commune in Auckland, New Zealand where he brews beer and practices Aikido. He teaches in the English Department at St Mary’s College, and volunteers for English Language Partners NZ. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in War, Literature & the Arts, The Literary London Journal, and DIAGRAM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, January 13th, 2020.