An Impalpable Certain Rest by Jeff Bursey

Note: this review was originally published at Atlantic Books Today and is reprinted here by the kind permission of the author and ABT.

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? 

“One cannot be passive when reading Bursey’s fiction. One must participate.”

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. 

Jeff Bursey is a Canadian novelist, short story writer, playwright and literary critic. His books: Verbatim: A Novel (hardcover, October 2010; paperback, February 2018); Mirrors on which dust has fallen (June 2015); Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (July 2016); Unidentified man at left of photo (September 2020); an impalpable certain rest (June 2021).

His webpage is:

Michelle Butler Hallett, she/her, writes fiction about violence, evil, love, and grace. The Toronto Star describes her work as “perfectly paced and gracefully wrought,” while Quill and Quire calls it “complex, lyrical, and with a profound sense of a world long passed.” Her newest novel, Constant Nobody, takes readers on a dangerous voyage of espionage, tyranny, and love in a genre hybrid of literary, historical, and feminist fiction. Her 2016 novel, This Marlowe, based on the last few months of Christopher Marlowe's life, was longlisted for the ReLit Award and the Dublin International Literary Award and was a co-winner of the 2016 Miramichi Reader Very Best Award for Fiction, and her first novel, Double-blind, a study of Cold War medical ethics and complicities with evil, was shortlisted for the 2007 Sunburst Award. Butler Hallett lives in St. John’s.

2 thoughts on “An Impalpable Certain Rest by Jeff Bursey”

  1. I just stumbled upon this review. I’ve followed you on FB for a long time; I am a Miramichier. I worked for Jeff for several years in Charlottetown – wonderful to see his book reviewed here. He’s a great fellow and I can’t wait to get his latest work.

    • I know a few Connells, Cheryl, nice to meet you! And thanks for following TMR. I’ve never met Jeff, but his book “Centring the Margins” was influential to me as a reviewer.

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