Underground Reading: The Glass Inferno by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson
Monday, January 26, 2009
The Glass Inferno, co-written by Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson, is one of the two novels (along with The Tower) that became the classic disaster movie "The Towering Inferno" (See what they did there?).
Set in an an unnamed Anycity, USA, the book chronicles the traumatic, destructive events of a single wintry evening. The centerpiece of the story is the Glass House - a beautiful-and-controversial new skyscraper.
The reader is quickly introduced to the story's villain: the fire.
From ember to blaze to really, really big blaze to ashes, the fire is daringly personified. The authors even use the fire's perspective to introduce each chapter, going so far as to give it a vicious, animalistic motivation. Especially in the early part of the book, when the fire is 'sneaking' about unnoticed, this literary device adds a lot of spark to otherwise very dry introductory material.
The other characters (the human ones) are a mixed lot. Even before the fire eats most of downtown Townsville, the residents and visitors to the Glass House are all having a traumatic evening. A local reporter is doing his damnedest to crucify the tower (appropriately for its bad fire codes...), causing a bit of (necessary, if belated) panic. The hero architect is in a professional battle with his boss, the developer, as well as a personal one with his shrewish wife. A clerk contemplates some larceny, a businessman's affair comes to an end, a con man moves in for the kill, a fireman wrestles with career ennui and a maintenance man does his best to drink himself to death. The Glass House is a very busy (and bleak) building.
One of the most interesting facets of The Glass Inferno is the bizarrely and erratically progressive composition of this group. The race and gender relations are slightly better than the genre standard, but still fall down at times. There are several very impressive female characters (the oddball retired teacher and the restaurant hostess are two of the book's heroes). However, all the good work on this front is undone by a heart-to-heart conversation in a trapped elevator between two wives about the importance of allowing mistresses.
The real curve-ball is Douglas. He's strong (mentally and physically), clever, a good leader, and one of the book's central heroes. He's also - in a shocking twist for 1974 genre fiction - openly homosexual. Ok, he is an interior decorator, but he also dangles upside-down over the edge of a building to save a falling elevator. One of the book's authors, Frank Robinson was a speech-writer for Harvey Milk, and has an appearance in the movie, and deserves a lot of credit for incorporating a character way ahead of his time.
To give further praise where it is due, Scortia and Robinson do a fantastic job fleshing out the entire cast in very little time... even if it is just to roast that flesh from their bones. The authors don't hesitate to narrow their focus in key places, in order to maximize the sense of horror. The flame's many inevitable victims don't go nicely, and even the survivors spend most of the book vomiting and/or inhaling the charred remains of their neighbors. One death - involving a storeroom of melted plastic Santas - is notably disgusting, and has definitely oozed its way to the top of my 'ways not to go' list.
While The Glass Inferno doesn't surprise with its plot - either overall or in any of the little twists - it does with its surprisingly-detailed (and occasionally progressive) characters and its tactical use of horror. The authors take care to keep the reader involved in the action, by constantly reminding them of what is at stake - both the value of life and the horror of (burning/oozing/falling) death.
Tube journeys: 5