Michelle Butler Hallett Reviews Short Fiction that Plumbs the Depths of Form and Meaning
An Impalpable Certain Rest
In her recent review of Katia Grubisic’s English translation of Marie-Claire Blais’s novel Songs for Angel, Amanda Perry argues that Blais believes in, and endeavours to show via her narrative techniques, a universal human experience. Not long ago I wrote about Blais and Jeff Bursey in an essay, calling them both “outliers” as far as anglophone CanLit goes and praising their courage.
Both writers take huge aesthetic and thematic risks, and both writers are often accused – as am I – of expecting too much from their readers. (I can’t speak for Bursey or Blais, but it feels to me like an accusation.) What if approaches to fiction like Blais’, like Bursey’s, are not about expecting too much or demanding something from a reader but about respect for a reader, and respect for how fiction itself can work? What if these unusual techniques do indeed point to the possibility of universal human experience and all that implies, and thereby try to create deeper, if more difficult, empathies?
Bursey’s latest book, a short story collection called An Impalpable Certain Rest, looks odd. First, it’s a pocket book, a size and shape no longer common. The cover art, by Bursey and Beth Janzen, draws the eye downward into a thickening darkness, a descent experienced by many of the characters within. Yet atop this darkness, first in flicks and shadows and then a defined narrow band, is a gorgeous lightening blue – of water reflecting back the sky, perhaps.
Another oddity: Bursey punctuates dialogue with the em dash. So do I. We’ve discussed this technique over the years, first over a shared admiration of the work of American novelist William Gaddis, and then in terms of how it can support thematic vision.
For me, using the em dash and foregoing dialogue tags like “she muttered” or “they said” forces me to work harder, to make certain that emotion, tone and, most of all, character voice, are clear. It forces me to show, not tell. Bursey is more advanced, interrupting the dialogue with narration but no additional punctuation beyond a comma or ellipsis.
While this technique does require close and attentive reading, it also leads to a deeply immersive experience. One cannot be passive when reading Bursey’s fiction. One must participate. Actively thinking about what a character is saying, or not saying, and why, creates what I can only call a hyperrealism. I do not read about Bursey’s characters; I am in the room with them.
Bursey might not thank me for the “hyperrealism” comment. He is an experimental writer, uninterested in traditional realism and naturalism. His daring use of dialogue leads to questions of character and narrator reliability.
Playwright Robert Chafe advises, “Make sure your characters are lying, lying to each other, and lying to themselves.” Bursey’s characters lie, as humans do, causing or magnifying sadness in their lives. Catching the lies within the strong empathetic bond forged by Bursey’s technique deepens the stories’ emotional punch.
Yet these are not hopeless stories. While Bursey does reach for intellectual and emotional honesty in his fiction – and the results can be stark – he’s no nihilist. (If he were, why would he bother with writing fiction at all, let alone risky experimental fiction?) With one story title from Milton’s Paradise Lost, “What in Me is Dark, Illumine,” and the collection title from Whitman’s Song of Myself, we get clues not only to the characters’ broader humanity but to a Modernist concern with creation. Are these songs of Bursey himself? They are in that he wrote them – with great care.
Can fiction show and thereby re-create, and then beyond that create anew, universal human experience? I argue that Bursey, like Blais, is reaching for that. Bursey forges a profound empathetic bond between me and his characters, and he accomplishes this with his apparently odd choices of narrative technique.
Bursey is interested in far more than the surface story. He wants to plumb just how and why fiction can work, and that ambition, like a rock thrown into water, ripples out into broader questions of just what it means to be human.