A Boy Aims To Save His Mom — And Himself — In ‘The War For Gloria’

by Martha Anne Toll

The War for Gloria, by Atticus Lish

Atticus Lish’s second novel, The War For Gloria, is an ambitious book with a lot to say about family loyalty and love.

The War For Gloria follows the author’s impressive debut, Preparation for the Next Life, a heart-wrenching story of love between an Iraq war vet and an undocumented immigrant, both extremely down on their luck.

In his second novel, Lish dives into a different kind of love — that between mother and son. The titular “war” is Corey Goltz’s battle to save his mother, Gloria, in the face of a terminal diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Gloria is a single mother and a free spirit; her son is a teenager. Throughout Corey’s life, the two have moved through a series of sketchy living accommodations in working class Boston and suburbs, including Gloria’s car. When “the weight of the time and the evidence of who she was would hit her,” Gloria wonders, “Will it ever be okay?” She gives the finger to Harvard Square, looking at “the privilege and hypocrisy.” Her “scream of rage was at herself.”

The War For Gloria is written in memory of Barbara Lee Works, Atticus Lish’s late mother. Lish, the son of the well-known literary figure, Gordon Lish, does not elaborate further.

As the book opens, Corey is a smart, inquisitive high school sophomore. Gloria works at a private company with a “social service function, helping people who had been in drug programs find work.” They live in a modest apartment overlooking the water in Quincy, Massachusetts.

As in Lish’s first novel, The War For Gloria is peopled with well-drawn characters who live in precarious economic circumstances. Corey, it seems, feels more comfortable with students who struggle with an absent or deceased parent. He has two friends — Molly, a star athlete and student, the son of a single father, Tom, who runs a construction business, and Adrian, a brilliant and strange kid headed for MIT, whose mother has a brain tumor.

Corey is the result of an on-and-off affair that ended a long time ago. His biologic father, Leonard, is a shadowy figure whom Corey comes to realize is a charlatan. Leonard is not the physicist, nor even the cop that Corey thought he was. Leonard has done nothing to provide for his son’s welfare or help raise him. He reenters Gloria and Corey’s life after Gloria’s ALS diagnosis, making everything worse.

The backbone of The War For Gloria is Corey’s unwavering commitment to his mother as she gradually loses motor functions and speech. Corey’s teenaged reasoning — all heart — does not result in what’s best for him. But with great compassion, he manages to care for his ailing mother. He says his mom is “great. You’re greater than you know.” He drops out of high school to work a series of odd jobs and be available when she needs him.

Leonard starts slumming in the apartment, taking up space and food and even “borrowing” Gloria’s car for a week so that she is forced to navigate public transportation in her compromised condition. Corey sinks into justified, unfettered rage toward his father, whose garbled explanation of ALS is the opposite of comforting. “It’s a bulbar palsy or prion disease or radium poisoning or dot dot dot.” Corey joins a fight club to toughen himself up. He hopes not only to make money as a fighter, but also to gain the strength necessary to bend his father to his will, by physical force if necessary.

Gloria’s former friend and lover Joan also reappears and helps for a time, but like other adults in Corey’s life, she too disappears.

Lish is a sensational literary craftsman, using the words in his toolbelt to construct narrative that is at once coolly dispassionate and red hot with emotion. Despite his unceasing maternal devotion, Corey is wracked by self-doubt. “He could have built the ramp, but didn’t…. He could have done yogic breathing and used prana to bring his mother peace.” Corey’s version of love:

“To truly love someone, you must be willing to do anything for them…. You must be able to face any fear, any pain. Killing was easy, fighting was hard, ALS was the hardest of all….”

Spoilers prevent a discussion of the last part of The War For Gloria. Suffice to say that the narrative descends into a level of violence for which I was unprepared. Corey is kicked around and abandoned in every sense of the word. I felt the book thinned out as it moved to its conclusion. I wasn’t sure what the violence contributed to the world Lish had so painstakingly and masterfully built. Perhaps that is Lish’s point. His Boston is one with seamy undersides and unhinged characters who act with malice and revenge. The result is a very dark novel.

I will be thinking about The War For Gloria for a long time. The book opens a disturbing window into a teenager’s losing battle to save his mother, our broken healthcare system, the power that humans have to inflict harm on one another, and one boy’s efforts to save not only his mother, but himself.

Martha Anne Toll is a DC based writer and reviewer. Her debut novel, Three Muses, won the Petrichor Prize for Finely Crafted Fiction and is forthcoming from Regal House Publishing in Fall 2022.

You Haven’t Read A Heist Novel Like This Before

by Jessica P. Wick

The All-Consuming World, by Cassandra Khaw

A rag-tag band of criminals must come together for one last heist; of course, they didn’t part on good terms after the last job …

You might know this story, but you don’t yet know it in the hands of Cassandra Khaw. They transform one last heist into The All-Consuming World: a visionary, foul-mouthed, gory sci-fi adventure, dripping viscera, violence, and beauty in equal measure.

This time the criminals are cyborg clones — grown and augmented for work, treated like second class citizens and, unless something goes wrong, functionally immortal. When their bodies wear out or are damaged, their minds are uploaded into a new body, as long as nothing goes wrong. “Work, die, mulch the corpses, brine in the appropriate solution, bring them back. Rinse repeat.” Maya is the muscle and often our viewpoint character, loyal number two to callous mad scientist Rita, the manipulative former leader who’s bringing the Dirty Dozen — or what’s left of them — back together.

The authorities determined to stop them are autonomous AIs called Minds: relentless, alien, fascinating. A powerful Mind faction, the Bethel, believe the physical world and data exist to be devoured. We also meet the enigmatic Merchant Mind — out for themself, playing multiple sides to a mysterious end — and Pimento, a surveyor Mind who becomes embroiled in politicking. There’s a third wrinkle: Elise, one of two casualties from the last heist, isn’t exactly dead. Of course, she’s not exactly alive either – and that’s one of the hooks Rita uses to reel the old team back, along with the chance to figure out what exactly went so wrong last time.

For most of The All-Consuming World, the reader doesn’t know why the heist has to happen now, or what its target is. True stakes reveal themselves slowly. Anyone who seems to have answers turns out to be an untrustworthy manipulator keeping everyone else in the dark, so you’re pretty much in the dark, too. Khaw’s characters are damaged, raw, full of salt and vinegar, not always likable but charismatic. Members of the Dirty Dozen have baggage, and Khaw effectively gives you a sense of a dysfunctional, formerly chosen family, of outsiders with history. There’s little warmth, but occasionally a gleam of yearning which keeps you interested and adds to the tragic elements at play. Kudos to Khaw for the Minds, who think in terms that don’t align with how a species defined by biomatter would think. They don’t feel like somebody trying to imagine how AIs would think if they ruled the universe; they feel like AIs, who are ruling the universe. They’re terrifying and great.

Let’s talk about the prose: It’s incandescent, densely layered, adjectives and metaphor encrusted on the page and the mind’s eye. Although “encrusted” connotes static, this work is anything but static; rather, it’s orchestral, in constant breathless motion. “A million adjectives fettered to the mythic” is a description of one of the characters, but it’s a pretty good description of Khaw’s writing, too. I love when language is poetry, as it is here, and the syncopated melange of curse words, programming language, and stunningly realized images is intoxicating. Occasionally, the language overwhelms the story, and with so many viewpoints and such a quick pace it’s not always easy to follow scene changes. I found myself pausing as often as I found myself staying up late to read what happened next. Make no mistake: I did both these things, but I acknowledge less patient readers might wander away.

Although immortality has been effectively achieved for clone and machine, who gets to be real and who matters are questions this novel wonders about. It also thoughtfully considers whether it’s possible to break free from patterns when they seem hardwired. You won’t get a great sense of location or what everyday life looks like in Khaw’s universe, but you will think about what goes into making a life and what is important. There’s a lot to be introspective about.

The All-Consuming World is a gory, gloriously punk, queer heist story set in an unsettling and cold universe. It delivers thrills and questions. This is Cassandra Khaw’s debut novel, although they’ve published many novellas before, and it’s a worthwhile addition to the sci-fi canon. The ending is abrupt; a sudden stop. But it feels right that this story leaves you with questions unanswered and futures uncertain. The All-Consuming World will consume your attention and linger in your thoughts, a very good ride and a remarkable what-if.

Jessica P. Wick is a writer, freelance editor, and California native currently living in Rhode Island.