Ali Shaw’s novel concerns a modern-day Midas, a cold and inhospitable island, and a young woman whose body is inexorably transforming.
Let’s begin with something we can all disagree on: There’s nothing beautiful about nature. Gardens can be nice, I suppose, as are farms, zoos, and domesticated, furry animals. But nature itself, in the wild, is violent, ugly, and cruel. It grows by overrunning what already exists, by destroying life and overwhelming the order of things. This is something the Romantics understood: At their worst, they wrote about daffodils, dead legends, and the banalities of young love; but at their best they knew that nature, like history, was in essence terrifying and sublime.
What would Ali Shaw, the author of The Girl with Glass Feet, say in response? Set in the former whaling outpost of St. Hauda’s Land, a cold, wild and ugly island, Shaw’s novel is plump with nature writing. It begins with Midas, whose nerdy, allusive name fits his nerdy, elusive personality; and for much of the book’s opening we follow him snapping the local bogs and forests with his digital camera. He has two friends, the all-around good-guy Gustav and Gustav’s precocious offspring, Denver. Otherwise, it’s clear Midas doesn’t like society, or ordinary human interaction. In a clear figure for this disinterest in the human, Midas is described as seeing the world in photos—“they haunted the woods and lurked at the end of deserted streets.” As with the mythical Midas, modern Midas refuses to allow the real world to irrupt; it must all be representation.
This drab, self-contained existence is disturbed by the limping Ida McClaird, a mainlander. They flirt, in an awkward, adolescent way, and later she asks him out for a coffee. What follows is a drawn out, wonderfully frustrated courtship, where every approach by Ida makes Midas, who soon reveals himself to be an emotionally crippled fool, run away. As he concludes later, “He was plainly incapable of human interaction.” Though they’re in their twenties, their relationship is that of eighth-graders, each too shy to make a proper move. It’s a torturous climb to the eventual thrill of holding hands and sucking face. Shaw’s insights into the reclusive Midas are painful and ring true.
Oh, did I forget to mention that Ida has feet made of fricking glass? These glass feet, like nature, sound pretty, but in Shaw they read as a mix of the cybernetic posthuman—glass is a technology, after all—and the primal horror of fairy tales. Ida’s body, we learn, is slowly becoming infected with glass; glass cuts across her stomach, it spreads up her thighs. This mystical disease is a transparent metaphor for terminal illness—but unlike actual terminal illness, there is no real medicine here, no doctors, no hospitals. Ida never gives herself to science, never allows herself to be studied. The fact that Shaw gives us glass feet (instead of, say, cancer) testifies to this novel’s wariness of institutional knowledge, the brand of reason that reduces human life to utility.
Thus, Shaw gives us magic. But the magic of The Girl with Glass Feet is something less than the magic of Ben Okri or Salman Rushdie. Shaw’s imagination and writing tends to the unusual, but it’s tempered by rather ordinary dramas. “The rain,” he writes, “was a gray woollen join between the land and the sky.” But despite the elements of fantasy and the unceasing catalogue of strange perceptions, Shaw never gives us the surrealist jolt. He gives us little smiles, minor reactions, small reforms, rather than the revolutions demanded by more aggressive aesthetics. The juice of the plot, in the end, amounts to a nicely told love story, as well as the familiar tension of what Freud called the “family drama” of Midas, struggling with and against the shadows of his parents.
Indeed, Shaw all too often subordinates his obvious talent to the demands of his chosen form. This is not unintentional: while nature is excessive, this novel is not. The apparently obvious moral of The Girl with Glass Feet—that we should risk ourselves, that we should face down the sublime and take our place in the social and natural world—is belied by the formal restrictions the novel places upon itself. While Midas comes out of his shell, seizes the day, finds himself, etc, this becoming is always represented in terms of violence, and it’s not always clear that Shaw endorses it. Protecting the ego against the world, the book suggests, is a mistake, because the ego is already suffused with the world—by rejecting the world, you reject yourself. Yet Shaw, a writer after all, is clearly cynical about the ability of some people to leave their locked rooms and secret projects, their camera lenses and computer screens. He is cynical, that is, about any aesthetic of excess and risk, as we see throughout The Girl with Glass Feet, which is littered with suicides, hermits, and shattered lives, among a very small cast of characters.
It’s no accident that the action of The Girl with Glass Feet takes place on an island, away from cities and the unavoidable pressure of social life. This is a novel that rejects glamour and beauty in favor of that noticeably British aesthetic of shabbiness. “I think places take hold of us,” Midas concludes, towards the novel’s end—and St Lauda’s land is a dark and violent place. But this conclusion, one feels, is only tentatively accepted by the novelist himself, who sees the risks involved in such an admission: the loss of control, the threat to the ego, not to mention the threat to the novel’s form. Maybe it’s better, after all, if one doesn’t fall in love with a terminally ill woman; maybe Midas would be better to stay close to his camera, to stick to what he knows.