Burn Man: Selected Stories by Mark Anthony Jarman

Burn Man: Selected Stories is a representative collection covering Mark Anthony Jarman’s award-studded career, chosen by the author and introduced by John Metcalf. It is the sort of treatment reserved for writers of major repute and significance (think Munro, Atwood). Whether or not Jarman deserves to be mentioned in that hallowed company will be a matter for future scholarly debate.

For the moment we can say with a fair degree of certainty that while Jarman is a risk-taker extraordinaire and the author of some of the most adventurous fiction ever to emanate from within these borders, there’s also no getting around the fact that his take-no-prisoners brand of storytelling will not appeal to everyone. It is, however, a brand of storytelling that, if you’re willing to accept the challenge, will leave an indelible impression. Jarman writes in an unconventional mode. His largely first-person tales of male angst, misbehaviour and regret are boldly nonlinear impressionistic monologues and can sometimes come across as a stew of words splattered across the page.

First up in the new volume is “Burn Man on a Texas Porch,” the story (loosely speaking) of a man left marked beyond recognition when his camper’s propane tank explodes. The narrative, while swirling around notions of scars, healing, skin and the disguises we use to navigate a hostile world, centres upon the sort of life left to the burn victim once the doctors have done all they can. The narrator recalls a woman’s lips on his, tells us of love post-burn (keeping the lights off while being serviced by an escort dressed as a nurse), and describes his new career as a mascot on-demand, done up as a bunny at Easter or a clown waving a sign outside a flower shop. He figures that, as long as he can keep his face covered, he’s okay. The story—proceeding in fits and starts, circling back, jumping ahead, reprising theme and variations in different guises—ends as a commentary on the fragility of life and love.

“His singular manner of rendering the world is often shocking and chaotic, but also uniquely absorbing, even revelatory, much like the world itself.”

The narrator of “Song from Under the Floorboards”—a star football player in high school, now a mechanic—narrates a tale of failure and missed opportunities that includes the suicides of two classmates. “There is no convincing logic in my life,” he laments, a recurring theme across much of Jarman’s fiction.

The narrator of the final story, “The Hospital Island,” is visiting Rome with his young cousin, Eve. He’s escaping, or avoiding, messy entanglements awaiting him back in Canada, but life in Rome offers little relief from his anxieties (in an earlier story he and Eve witnessed a stabbing and watched the victim bleed out). His thoughts fixate on things disturbing and gruesome, such as a local practice from hundreds of years earlier of relegating plague victims to a barge and setting them out to sea. At one point he’s wondering why he can be fascinated by stories of other people’s travels, but his own seem to amount to nothing. “Why,” he asks, “do I have no faith in my own life?” The question resonates, sticks with us.

It’s probably true that in his fiction Mark Anthony Jarman is doing something that nobody else is doing. His singular manner of rendering the world is often shocking and chaotic, but also uniquely absorbing, even revelatory, much like the world itself. His prose cannot be pinned down as it swerves and contorts, zigs and zags, irresistibly pulling the along reader with it. The ride may be bumpy, and you can be sure there’s no soft landing. But, based on the evidence to be found in this new volume, it’s a risk worth taking.

Mark Anthony Jarman is the author of Touch Anywhere to Begin, Czech Techno, Knife Party at the Hotel Europa, My White Planet, 19 Knives, New Orleans Is Sinking, Dancing Nightly in the Tavern, and the travel book Ireland’s Eye. He has taught at the University of Victoria, the Banff Centre for the Arts, and the University of New Brunswick, where he has been fiction editor of The Fiddlehead literary journal since 1999. He is also co-editor of the literary journal CAMEL.

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Biblioasis (Nov. 21 2023)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Paperback ‏ : ‎ 320 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1771965479
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1771965477

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Ian Colford’s short fiction has appeared in many literary publications, in print and online. His work has been shortlisted for the Thomas H. Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award, the Journey Prize, the Danuta Gleed Literary Award, and others. His latest novel, The Confessions of Joseph Blanchard, was the winner of the 2022 Guernica Prize and was published by Guernica Editions in 2023. He lives in Halifax.