GLORIA MUNDI is a jeremaid. The title comes from the phrase Sic transit gloria mundi -- So passes away the glory of this world -- but Eleanor Clark's new novel is less a lamentation than a denuciation. Be prepared, when you open this book, for wrath and vitriol.
Readers of Clark's earlier books, particularly of Eyes , etc ., a fierce memoir written as her eyeslight failed, will not be surprised by her anger. She has always recoiled from hypocrisy, corruption and turpitude, and from all the excuses -- how she loathes the rhetoric of self-fulfillment! -- trotted out to dignify baseness. Words like "fate," "justice," "noble" and "excellence" are still part of her active vocabulary, and the tone of anger has always been Olympian. She doesn't want to waste thunderbolts on files -- and that's the trouble with Gloria Mundi . Unable to find in this inglorious world an object worthy of her wrath, she growns ill-tempered and uses her powers as Zeus used his, capriciously and wantonly.
There is a murder in Gloria Mundi , but its as brutally pointless as most murders, and the process of justice doesn't produce "a Macbeth, an Oedipus, or a Captain Ahab, or even Pinocchio. Just that miserable demented blob of a murderer and his nondescript victims, in a three-panel mirror, multiplied more or less to infinity. Our substitute for drama." In this sordid ersatz drama, the relatives of the victims want to be in the news photographs; the lawyer has taken the case to further his own ambition; a witness makes the trial an occasion for public self-therapy, and Clark's wrath curdles into disgust.
That murder is merely one element in an intricate plot that brings together all sorts of deplorable characters. A fugitive minister, who staged his own death in order to begin a new life with a younger woman, turns up in a small town in Vermont. The minister's wife, after a lovely funeral, receives an anonymous phone call and sets out to find her husband, who is already being threatened with blackmail or worse by the punk who has recognized him.
Meanwhile, a real-estate developer, who oozes self-esteem as if he were equipped with a special gland, is at work in the town, but he is actually less repugnant than the thugs on motorcyles or the opportunistic hippies. The only principled characters in the book are the native Vermonters, who of course are helpless to defend themselves, and a cultivated couple -- she a former Trotskyite, he a bruliant musician until he loses his fingers in an accident -- who in the end are driven away. The plot has a Dickensian richness of circumstance and coincidence -- but to Clark circumstance is arbitrary, and coincidence is a poor, piddling, puny substituted for fate.
Eleanor Clark's contempt for plot shows in her treatment of dramatic scenes -- she avoids them whenever possible -- and in the murkiness of her narrative. The reader is hardly more aware of the gruesome forces at work than the characters in the novel. Things happen -- that's all that can be said, but what an awful thing to have to say. Things happen -- what could be more stupid and horrifying?
So this plot is a plot after all, a plot in the sense of a conspiracy. If the conspirators were individuals acting with design, destinies might have meaning; but in a world without order, when the only conspirators are events, it is our wretched fate to be cheated of meaning.
The language in this novel is calculated to strip away those fatuous pretexts that usually pass for meaning. Clark is not much interested in the niceties of observation that are usually called "insight," still less in the attitude praised as "compassion." Here, for example, is her account of the minister's decision to disappear.
"The very thought of [divorce] broke him to pieces, it was abhorrent, unthinkable . . . Besides this other way was more exciting. To be exposed, to his wife and the rest of the world -- in his position, with his reputation -- as a dime-a-dozen adulterer and cradle-snatcher too? Never. He would not inflict such pain, on his old mother above all. Let them mourn and cherish him with his noble image intact."
Vain, cowardly and sentimental, he comes off about as well as most characters in the novel.
Some readers of Gloria Mundi will no doubt complain that these characters are not likable, that the plot is hard to follow, that Clark's wrath invades every perception. This is all true, but is shouldn't prevent you from giving this novel a chance. "What we've been privileged to see," says one character, "is the morally unthinable becoming as ordinary as the airplane and the telephone, way beyond what any mind or feeling can deal with. So those faculties atrophy and get ready to fall off the way our tail did."
Eleanor Clark, I'm glad to say, is a failure of evolution. She has not shed her moral tail, nor forgotten how to thrash it. Like some fierce and splendid dragon, she reminds us that our own world might yet contain glories. She makes us know that we are craven if we settle for anything less.