I recall reading once—though I can’t remember where—that all novels essentially fall into one of three categories: the novel of plot, the novel of character, and the novel of ideas. This sort of categorical essentialism is perhaps dubious enough on its face, but that classification system has long stuck in the back of my mind. No novel I’ve read has so thoroughly demolished those particular classifications as Mark Gluth’s No Other. For this is a novel of atmosphere, of ambient dread, of raw emotion that suffocates the air. There is a clear plot here, but its incidents, essential as they are to the book’s impact, are subsumed into the overwhelming fog of emotional desolation that covers every page. A mere recitation of the incidents of No Other’s plot would render it a simple melodrama, which it most assuredly is not. Similarly, the book features three fully formed characters at its core, each one, in his or her own way, helplessly grasping at life, but we glimpse them only dimly, fleetingly, through a despondent haze.
If the characters remain outwardly obscure, that is only because we are inhabiting them from the inside. Hague and Tuesday are brother and sister coping with their mother, Karen, an extremely nonfunctional alcoholic. Told in four parts, Gluth shifts perspective with each section. The first is told (primarily, though not entirely) from Hague’s point of view, the second and the (very brief) fourth from Tuesday’s, and the third from Karen’s.
Hague’s section is permeated by the horror of a child living with a violently unpredictable matriarch, one prone to extended alcohol-related absences and violent unpleasantness when she is around. Part two, the longest section of the book, follows Tuesday as she cuts ties with Karen, finds slivers of happiness—primarily through a genuinely loving relationship with Rachel, a musician —and starts to duplicate many of the same erratic behaviors as her mother. This section is thick with grief and anguish, the brief glimpses of happiness occluded by the shroud of trauma. Tuesday is needy and often frustrating, but we understand why. We yearn for her happiness, even if we know she is unlikely to find it (at least within these brief 144 pages). Part three, Karen’s section, is a kind of fantasy of displacement, a warped “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” by a mother who cannot face up to the damage she’s done her children.
Gluth’s prose style could perhaps be described as stream of consciousness, but it’s not the stream of consciousness of Joyce, in which prose is used to replicate the flow of individual thought. Gluth’s prose transforms the outside world—physical reality—into an environment of emotions. ”Her thoughts were images strung from moods,” Gluth writes in one passage, a line which could well serve as a logline for the aesthetic of the entire novel. This transformation is accomplished not so much through physical description (though Gluth does offer us many beautiful images), but through the elemental quality of his prose. The book opens with the following sentences: “Hague was just there, or barely. The packed dirt was damp in the shade of the tires. It soaked through his jeans then underwear. Beyond it this field was baked and flat. It was the sunlight that was everywhere. The cone or whatever he was in was cool considering. This playground was what it was part of." Obviously, Gluth could have just written, “Hague sat in the shaded ground near the playground,” but the fracturing of the prose, its naive grasping quality, perfectly mimics Hague’s fractured spirit.
Gluth’s prose inhabits a shattered emotional state (or, rather, three shattered emotional states) so completely that even simple causal logic becomes disrupted. Often, events are described first in terms of their emotional effects, only later in terms of their material reality. One example: “[Tuesday] said Rachel hold me, I want you to hold me. When Rachel thought Just get the fuck out of here Tuesday, Tuesday sobbed. She stormed for the hall, slammed the door. It was because Rachel had screamed it.” For Tuesday, it is Rachel’s thought, her anger, that stings, not the screaming, so Gluth foregrounds it.
Gluth’s prose recalls a bit of Cormac McCarthy in its stripped-to-the bone intensity—and considering part one opens with an epigraph from The Road, Gluth invites the comparison—but whereas McCarthy’s work most often suggests a cosmological nihilism, No Other is more closely tethered to specific individual human emotions. Gluth writes with the same overwhelming force of McCarthy, but without the sense that the world is always and only a realm of desiccated brutality. Tuesday, Hague, and Karen suffer enormously, but their lives are just their lives. They are not stand-ins for the whole of human existence. This produces something much smaller in scope than a McCarthy novel, but it’s all the better for it.
Other literary referents suggest themselves—Faulkner for the novel’s broiling internality, Dennis Cooper for its jagged portrait of damaged youth, Jean Rhys for its swirling rhythms—but No Other never feels less than wholly original. Gluth has maybe borrowed a few tricks from these literary greats, but the emotional devastation at the book’s core cannot be faked. It’s raw and real and absolutely devastating.
Watson is a professional bureaucrat and amateur critic. He currently resides in a basement in Silver Spring, Maryland, though he grew up in a basement in St. Louis, Missouri.