Fiction Review by Aaron Shepard

Steven Peters, 59 Glass Bridges (Edmonton: NeWest, 2017). Paperbound, 228 pp., $19.95.

59 Glass BridgesNear the beginning of 59 Glass Bridges, Steven Peter’s debut novel, our nameless hero encounters a ghost in the form of an eighteen-year-old girl named Willow, his guide through the world in which he has mysteriously found himself. “Maze” is how he refers to this place he must escape. His guide, however, refers to the world, at least initially, as “his labyrinth.” For the novel itself, if not the story, this proves to be an important distinction.

The maze begins as empty, dry-walled corridors, offices, and monochromatic tubes: a tantalizing image of abandonment and futility. Chapters in the maze alternate with the hero’s recollections of his grandmother, a remarkable character—an artist, adventurer, and teacher for the hero’s childhood self. These recollections come in pithy, effective scenes that contain the novel’s most affecting moments. The intent of this alternating structure is not altogether clear: it’s difficult to say whether or not these memories are occurring to the hero at a particular point in the maze, as the two story arcs don’t explicitly inform each other. Either way, the presence of the larger-than-life grandmother and the nostalgic, mostly rural scenes hold the novel together.

By nature, a successful story is a labyrinth: rather than advance through a set of problems until we reach the exit, we work our way toward the heart of the story, the “why” of it. Borges, the literary master of labyrinths, said, “….nothing is so frightening as a labyrinth with no center.” Fortunately, 59 Glass Bridges is not that labyrinth; the reader can intuit the story’s heart through his memories of his grandmother. The question is whether there is a workable path to the centre—if we (or the book) have not cheated our way there, unearned.

Arcane, maddening, and compelling for both hero and reader, a maze must exist not just within its own set of rules but in at least some acknowledgment of the conventions of storytelling, which, while generally permissive, demand a certain level of symmetry and echo. Which isn’t to say a maze must be perfectly allegorical. I enjoyed the playful and imaginative way Peter’s novel’s maze unfolds and changes shape, the way images echo and repeat yet evade tidy symmetry. Many of the details should be appreciated for their own sake, not for any assumed metaphorical function. Indeed, even when describing endless, mundane office corridors, 59 Glass Bridges is pleasingly raw and exuberant in its execution, balancing tongue-in-cheek reflexivity with the emotional weight of the other chapters. However, there are times when a straighter path might have achieved a greater dramatic effect.

The eponymous glass bridges—through which the hero often glimpses either a Minotaur in pursuit or mirror images of himself—suggest the Minotaur is his double, a monster in pursuit of himself. The two story arcs indicate the maze is a progression through his grief and loss. If so, what is the significance of the office and city imagery—by the hero’s admission, a largely dull wasteland?

Even when the maze expands to include feral forests and rivers, we remain unsure of any particular meaning. The often single-minded focus on the maze’s intricate details and rules threaten to overwhelm any subtle hints hidden therein. An eerie boatman’s sing-song chants are compelling, but don’t add many layers to either story arc. We wonder, too, why Willow is an eighteen-year-old girl. If she’s meant as a link to either his grandmother or his mother—thankfully, no romantic subplot here—the connection is tenuous and undeveloped. Other images—like owls, red mittens, and the cryptic marginalia in a bible—more successfully marry the hero’s personal story with the broader mythology of mazes and labyrinths.

A clash in tone unintentionally adds to the enigma of the hero’s identity. His voice—young, sardonic and sceptical—seems a perfect fit initially, easing us into the strangeness of the maze and allowing us to accept the possibility of a Minotaur. By the book’s middle, his continued “What the f*ck?” bewilderment and the petulant interactions with his guide begins to grate. The present-tense voice, while evoking a sense of immediacy and highlighting his disorientation, precludes any introspection. The elegiac and evocative chapters with his grandmother suggest the hero’s increased maturity and understanding—but these epiphanies aren’t reflected in the voice of the character within the maze. The hero’s present life remains largely a mystery to us. After a childhood spent with his grandmother, what did he learn? Who is he now? It’s here where the maze’s convoluted paths could have been corralled more firmly toward explicit meaning, even at the risk of feeling slightly contrived or unsubtle.

The final chapters land with just enough weight to transcend the sense of arbitrary play and move us toward the realm of horror. We feel for the hero as he stumbles toward the unknown, toward his inevitable confrontation with the monster. If he surmounts the maze and its Minotaur, then by proxy he learns to surmount grief and forgive himself. Though he’s armed with nothing more than a new-found strength of will courtesy of his guide and his memories, we feel hopeful; until now, the sight of him wandering blindly with little insight or growth has aroused more pity than admiration.

—Aaron Shepard

As in The Malahat Review, 201, Winter 2017, 112-115