The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish review – a gripping struggle for selfhood | Books

AMyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or motor neurone disease, is a condition of unknown cause that progressively destroys the human motor system. The victim loses the ability to open jars or turn the pages of a book, then to walk, to wash or feed, to speak and finally to breathe. A diagnosis of ALS means another three to ten years of life, although part of that time is a type of life that, at least outwardly, resembles death.

War for Gloria, Atticus Lish’s insanely good second novel, spans four years in the life of Corey Goltz and the death of his mother, Gloria. She wanted to be a feminist thinker, a painter, a musician, but instead she dropped out of college, got Corey, and put her projects on hold. Corey’s father, Leonard Agoglia, is a self-proclaimed physics genius who serves in a law enforcement role at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; as with much of Leonard’s life, the precise details are murky. He wasn’t around for most of Corey’s childhood, but after Gloria’s diagnosis, he begins showing up semi-regularly at their small home in Quincy, a coastal suburb of Boston.

Corey, who loves his mother and seeks fathers everywhere, longs for Leonard’s approval. While searching for him at MIT, Corey meets Adrian, an eccentric high school student who hopes to study there. Corey’s relationship with Leonard and Adrian deteriorates as his father and his friend grow closer. Their union is that of a master and a disciple, beginning with a common passion for physics but darkening. These shifting alliances and enmities take place in the shadow of Gloria’s worsening condition.

At the same time, we see Corey, 15 at the start of the novel, circling possible selves—high school student, brawler, construction worker, drug dealer, cage fighter, military, carer—and father figures: Leonard, a construction worker, a detective policeman. In the early stages of the book, he figures out what he wants, like any teenager, but as his mother’s needs grow, his options fade, imperatives pushing back possible futures.

Lish writes with strong, relentless economy, like a boxer punching a sack. Hemingway comes to mind. Sometimes he lists more than he describes Corey’s life, leaving us to fill in the missing parts (“In the fall, he became a sophomore. Someone gave him OxyContin and he took “). But he’s also got the taste — and the flair — for stunning flourishes, like the rubberized transfer of Spider-Man onto old pajamas, “flaking off like a mural of an early Christian saint on a temple wall.” in Italy “.

The often laser-like emphasis of Lish’s prose gives importance to whatever he pays attention to, whether it’s the moment Gloria’s fingers can no longer grasp a fork, winterize a boat, or come home. home after a thrash concert. Extraordinarily, he wrote a 440-page book without any flab. Gloria’s illness is the driving force behind her remorseless momentum: just as Corey adjusts to the last phase of her condition, she leaps forward again, Lish expressing how care is not only emotionally taxing and physically, but also logistically. There are forms to fill out, appointments to keep, new and expensive equipment to buy, obsolete equipment to pay for, different and more demanding schedules to imagine; all undertaken while watching the person you love the most crumble on all fronts.

The war for Gloria is often surprising, which is one of its strengths, but Lish also makes strange decisions. When the action moves to the University of Massachusetts, we are presented with a breakdown of the prospectus, student population, and drugs used on campus that reads like a sociological report. When Corey fights in the cage, we’re told head trauma “could cause pugilistic dementia or, as has been revealed in football, make someone prone to a neurodegenerative disease like ALS.” Lish’s storytelling sometimes floats without its characters — it’s not limited to their vocabulary, or range, or perceptions — but at times like this, it carelessly betrays the novel’s enveloping textures.

Personally, I find Lish’s writing so involving that if the price is an occasional dollop of undigested research, or a miscalculated point of view, I’ll pay it. I also gladly followed the turn that the novel takes in its last quarter, more akin to a detective thriller than a family drama or a bildungsroman. It’s not completely unexpected – male violence against women stalks the book throughout – but the totality with which Lish engages is shocking. That said, what happens is extraordinary but not implausible, and it’s as adept at handling murder and revenge as the horrors of degenerative disease, the expensive maze of medical insurance, and the wading of a teenager who, one way or another, loses everyone he loves. By the end of the novel, when Corey is deciding his next move, it might not be what every reader wants for him, but it makes sense as the answer to a lifetime of such cruel questions.

The War for Gloria by Atticus Lish is published by Serpents Tail (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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