Title Sea of Glass
Author Rebecca Gransden
Genre Bizarro, Horror
Page Length 109
Publication Date 27 April 2019
Publisher Cardboard Wall Empire
Smoke fills the city air, choking the street, curling up and around the tower. Kattar Bassis hits the ground and crawls blindly through the chaos. A light shines out in the black, leading him to the entranceway of his building. So begins his ascent and search for the ever elusive EXIT.
I have a newfound appreciation for just how great this story is. I first read it upon release, and I thoroughly enjoyed the unpredictable plot and trippy as hell visuals, but I came away feeling like I hadn’t really fully understood it’s messages and themes. So I knew it would only be a matter of time before I came back for a reread. With this second reading, I really took my time, considering each chapter, and scouring the text hunting for clues to what it all meant, skipping back and forth to confirm or eliminate little theories I entertained and making 5,000+ words of notes. I am very glad I took the time to do this.
This is a work of genius. Now, I am very aware that in my reviews I often lace them with intentional hyperbole and silliness, mainly as a way to stop myself from getting too pretentious. And I normally switch that to 11 when talking about Rebecca Gransden stories because I have read almost everything this author has released, and I’ve yet to read something that I haven’t enjoyed. Gransden is my favourite writer, possibly of all time, but there is no hyperbole here. Sea of Glass is so much more significant, so much deeper, than I first realised. Get ready for this, and come along with me, because I’ve put my pretentious hat on, and I’m going to attempt an analysis.
SPOILER WARNING FOR… WELL, EVERYTHING.
It should be noted that with all great open-ended stories, one could interpret the messages and meanings in a multitude of ways. There’s always bound to be a little bit of interpretation through projection, and I think (like many Gransden stories) readers will be rewarded for putting a little more thought and time into reading deeper than what is said on the surface. I’ve seen some reviews comparing this to Dante’s Inferno, and comments about it possibly being a retelling. This is a good starting point. I think considering this tweet and this tweet from Gransden, Sea of Glass may not be a direct retelling, but a katabasis story of its own. A new katabasis for our modern times, but one paying homage to those that came before.
Now, most katabasis stories are allegory, and steeped in religious mythology. Dante’s Inferno with the Abrahamic religion’s depiction of hell, Orpheus’ journey into Ancient Greek Hades, Pwyll’s visit to the Welsh Annwn, and so on. I think the reason for this is because these stories were written, or told, at a time when religion was such a powerful influence on society. It controlled so much of everyday life. We are now in an increasingly godless society and so a visit to hell wouldn’t necessarily fit given our times. So, what is our equivalent for the modern age? Money. In one way or another, money has become our god, and globalised corporations are its church. We are slaves to the system. The majority of us work day in, day out, in order to have just enough to get by, and in order to make somebody else rich. We work ourselves ill, in search or hope of a promotion or pay rise. We present in a certain way, a way to please our employers, shareholders, and customers. It used to be that we did all we could to not be damned to hell. Now we do all we can to not get fired. To not be poor. We repent by fiercely protecting the job we hate, the job that eats at our souls. By following this line of thought, and considering three major aspects – the setting, our POV protag, Kattar, and the plot – the story really started to shine. Let’s do like a rapper, and break this down.
Setting! Sea of Glass takes place in a skyscraper tower. In many ways, the setting is its own character. It represents major corporations, powering an engine of consumerism, capitalism, and the inequality this breads within society. You see, corporations run on a hierarchical structure, meaning for every person at the top earning millions and having their needs met, there must be many, many, held down at the bottom to be the foundations. Some view this structure as giving people ambition and aspirations, but that is somewhat of a false impression fed to the masses by those at the top. For most people, globalised corporations will represent a dead-end 9-5 soul crushing existence until you’ve survived long enough to have served your purpose and be put out to pasture in retirement.
Kattar Everything that happens in the story is seen through the perspective of Kattar. Very little is said to describe him directly or give us too much knowledge into his past and current living situations. Instead the story is littered with little clues here and there that give us an insight into where he is in his life. A working class, lower class, fella plagued with self-doubt and belief in his lack of worth. Beliefs that have been forced into him by the corporate structure he is trapped in. He’s a lowly cleaner, believing he is where he belongs. He lacks ambition. He considers himself to not belong out in the cleanliness. He lacks the confidence to know what to do next in life, often just going with the flow, and often looking to others to be told what to do and where to go next, relying on their permission or right of access to move forward. He’s quite broken in many ways. Functioning, for sure, but also depressed and suffering a life of misery.
“Mummy told me a story about a clever doctor who when he was in the war got a very bad wound but instead of dying he chose to use himself as a test, and he treated his own wound and lived a long time with it all open for the world to see. Twentytwosix says that is a lot like you. Everyone sees your wound. But you don’t want people to see so it festers and weeps inside of you, until your blood is nothing but the sick tears the wound has been crying.”
Plot The story opens with the looming corporate tower setting fire to a delivery van, causing explosions and releasing a killer fog into the street. Kattar takes shelter from the outside world in the tower, where he just so happens to work as a cleaner. He ends up trapped, and sets off on a journey to find the EXIT. As he travels through the tower, higher, or lower, or just deeper (space is a little fluid at times), he encounters a number of staff, weird creatures, surreal scenes and the such until he finally climbs through the glass ceiling and is faced with his EXIT.
So, what does it all mean? That’s the golden question. Gransden will often write stories that are hidden between the lines of the story she presents on the surface. She often uses symbolism and metaphor to reflect a social or political situation or an aspect of human nature. It’s no different with Sea of Glass. We must consider the setting, the characters, and the plot together to make sense of the symbolism.
Sea of Glass is about an outsider. A man struggling to fit into a world that is increasingly confusing and bizarre. A man struggling to live up to expectations. Kattar starts by witnessing the destructive force of a poisonous world. He tries to seek safety in the tower, in the workplace that has been somewhat of a safe haven for him and kept him grounded. But he’s trapped now, and as he moves through he learns of a destructive monster causing mayhem, and tearing people apart. He encounters characters, each damaged by the corporate world in one way or another. Many of them force Kattar to promise he will return for them, and that he will help them. They put pressure on him, and in many ways set him up to fail. As the story progresses, each chapter starting in a new space, or a redressed and reset stage, he witnesses more and more outlandish scenes. His personal safety is increasingly at risk, and a few times he barely escapes. Gransden very cleverly, and with great control, ramps up the action, the tension, the anxiety, the absurd and surreal imagery, the disconnect from a world we would recognise as real. The story becomes more bizarre as we travel on this journey with Kattar. I believe this story is about a man, an ordinary man, one that could just as much be you or me, slowly losing his sanity due to the pressure of being forced to live in a globalised, capitalist, consumer driven, world. A world he doesn’t feel he belongs in. A world he isn’t made for. A world he doesn’t have the right constitution for. A world where all he sees is damage and chaos and mayhem. A world that doesn’t make sense to him. He spirals deeper and deeper into this confusion as his reality becomes increasingly fake. Gransden utilises descriptions of fake or artificial materialistic objects throughout. For example, doorways are described as being artificial, doors and walls as potentially not really existing except in Kattars perception. Space doesn’t really make sense, with doors leading to places they shouldn’t. Couple this with how each chapter is titled using Esperanto – a made up language created by a man. There are other little clues to consider, such as how at one point, Kattar wakes in a padded room. In modern psychology, the descent of a person’s mind into a deep depression and the delusion or dissociation that can come along with it is sometimes referred to as katabasis. I know, right? Chills.
We follow Kattar, experiencing this messed up nonsensical world as he desperately searches for the EXIT. What is the EXIT? An exit from the corporate structure that suffocates those trapped in it’s grasp? An exit from the confusion of life? An exit from life? Maybe all of the above. In the end Kattar finds himself face to face with his EXIT after witnessing the most horrendous scenes of murder and mayhem. He doesn’t find the EXIT by playing their rules and climbing their towers. He finds it by going through those in power. He ascends to an ethereal space above a sea of glass where he is left with a choice. To go back to his hell, to suffer until the end of his time, or to stay high above. To disconnect from his reality, or dissociate, enough to the point where he will no longer know what is happening, to no longer feel the pain and suffering of life. But in doing so, he must go back on his word. He must leave behind the people he promised to help. It’s a selfish act, of sorts. He is damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. Because no matter what happens he, or we, can’t escape the system. And that’s the biggest horror of this story. What makes it so great is that it is a powerful, masterly crafted, tragedy reflecting one of the greatest tragedies of our modern lives.
This is the exit you’ve been searching for and you have no reason to go back. You’ll lose your mind here, that’s what you want isn’t it? Not to think anymore? In time, you’ll go to sleep; no memory, no awareness, no feeling.
Rebecca Gransden has created something very special here. This is a story paying tribute to the classics that came before it, and more importantly holds its own. It doesn’t look up to them with inspiration, hoping to one day be as good as them – it sits beside them as an equal in quality and significance. It’s full of little nods to mythology and theology throughout. Gransden’s descriptions are vivid and sharp, leaving a lasting impression in the mind. Shame on me for sleeping on this the first time around, because I make no exaggeration when I say this may be one of the greatest stories I’ve ever read. I’m not even sure I am finished reading it. It will stay with me for a long time to come. There are still aspects I don’t fully understand and would like to explore more. If you’ve read this far, you should definitely read the book also, and then come and discuss with me your interpretation and what you think it all means because I may have got it all wrong. Who knows?
Anyway, I’m off to quit my day job. Until next time, peace and love.