Mirrors on which dust has fallen by Jeff Bursey. Verbivoracious Press. $18.99, 334 pp.
Rules are ticklish things; perhaps even worse is the contemplation of their absence. The notion of the “plotless existence” is introduced late into Jeff Bursey’s tricky, unpredictable, humane second novel, Mirrors on which dust has fallen:*
. . . For instance, this morning I was pondering the question of the plotless existence.
— The what? The—
— It comes up from time to time. We each have these black dogs howling around us. Don’t you have one? Don’t you worry about where you’re going?
The way it’s framed by the obnoxious Jules Deeka, he could as easily be talking about the “purposeless existence,” and indeed, purposeless would be the standard frame for those “black dogs howling around us.” I take this elision, from plotless to purposeless, to lie at the heart of Mirrors. It’s built into the book’s formal strategies and abeyances, its small-town motley and prim subversions (the small-r revelations of which are one of its more serious pleasures). Is “plot”—the need for stories—inevitable to consciousness? We inhabit narrative throughout our lives, it seems, we wear our plots and pretenses like we do our clothes and the falser these stories seem, the more we cling to them. A kind of Gaddisfied Our Town, Mirrors doesn’t so much abandon plot as keep it within hailing distance. Bursey’s genial sprawl creates the impression that with a few recalibrations—applying more weight here, curbing conversational fat there—one could in fact have a wealth of story. It’s a matter of what rules one applies.
In any case, the conversation above moves onto matters of faith. Unsurprisingly: Mirrors is full of conversions, apostasies, betrayals and losses of faith, transitions (lots of transitions), and it shares some of its characters’ earnestness in confronting such changes. The title inverts the Baha’i exegesis of Christ’s urging that we “become as little children”:
That is why Christ has addressed the world, saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”—that is, men must become pure in heart to know God. The teachings have had great effect. Spiritual souls! Tender souls! The hearts of all children are of the utmost purity. They are mirrors upon which no dust has fallen.
As Bursey’s inversion might suggest, the narrative byways leave much to chance, cleave to chance, almost, as if tracking the patterns falls of dust might take. And yet the question of authorial control (or intrusion) was never far from this reader’s mind. For example, not too long after Deeka’s reference to the “plotless existence,” Bursey has a couple of drinkers ponder the question of purity in terms very close to those Baha’i mirrors, at Johnny’s bar (one of the more regular locales in a book where determinations of place/space seem as significant as the characters frequenting them). Most books where characters openly debate the title theme would suggest sledgehammer finesse, but Bursey’s artistry here as in his 2011 debut lies in the shrewd, minutiae-driven exhibition of the obvious: liberation through transcription. Whatever’s being smuggled in, I doubt it’s message. More like the manipulations of a wry anti-novelistic sensibility: whatever he can get away with. At Johnny’s, over the course of several woozily digressive pages (a Bursey specialty), this image of purity is picked up, put down, interrupted, mauled . . . —but, taken on its own, it’s hard to see the purpose. A bull-session reproduced in admirable detail, if detailing not-too-bright conversation is in itself admirable, but Bursey doesn’t seem that interested in sounding these characters or presenting the dialog dramatically, as much more than detail work. The high burnish of this “super-realism” and its modest register leaves any obvious message-mongering at bay, and the conversation itself (including its planting) unresolved, in suspension. This formal adumbration of the bigger picture, so to speak, has a local correlative in the strong focus on moments of decision, transition, and sudden insights into roads taken and not. Below, for example, a telemarketing wizard named Alistair discovers his inner doppelbanger:
. . . Since late spring, his most frequent dream lover was himself, an exact duplicate, who knew precisely what to do, a guy named Al, disease-free, unattached, who played the dominant sexual role, but in every respect was a slave. Joining with Al, his braver self, Alistair would feel everything the two of them did. He could be there at the beginning and end of lust, and of caring, for he deserved to come home at the end of a hard day to a home-cooked meal and a blow job.
When the idea of possessing his double seized his imagination, Alistair’s mood briefly changed, for he found what eluded him these years. Not another man, thank you Jesus, but me, me.
Bursey’s language wears the subjective mantel of his character’s objectively absurd conceit, while also remaining somewhat aloof. And if you imagine that “thank you Jesus” is all in innocence, here’s how he ends the chapter: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me as a sinner. On a Sunday night, this ejaculation from a time long past might not help him.” God permeates Mirrors on which dust has fallen, or talk of God does, seeping through the cracks and fissures Bursey’s style effectively underwrites. The debt to William Gaddis is pronounced in both the prevalence and manner of the dialogue, although Bursey allows himself a broader arsenal of stylistic gambits. Outside conversations or interior monologues, the writing is elegant without drawing attention to itself, capable of building to what in other books one might label epiphanies. Here their embedding is so cunning and eccentric—the book seems to unfold at individual, institutional, and civic levels simultaneously—they felt closer to “saturation points.” In dialogue, Bursey frequently deploys an important feature of the Gaddis burlesque, forcing the reader to trick out the “action” from a polyphony of voices in all their gloriously cracked empiricism, absent traditional identity markers. Bursey works, however, to create a more metaphysical pressure, a constant, subtle consciousness of what’s missing or, more accurately, being denied.
Set in the same fictional Atlantic town of Bowmount, Canada as his debut, Verbatim: A Novel, Mirrors possesses an equally large cast: 20-30 recurring characters (real speaking parts), 6-10 of whom could be called central, many related, often vaguely. I’m using ranges rather than numbers to emphasize the book’s quiet confounding of such categories. Likewise, Mirrors avoids unmediated contact between author and reader (i.e., language that isn’t spoken, transcribed or thought by some internal character: witness the near-total absence of descriptive language). When “scene-setting” occurs, Bursey imposes/mimes neutrality, often (this reader feels) with a Cheshire grin. The book opens, for instance, with a narrator-cum-village-greeter as quaint as Bob Balaban, dishing up local geography, history and figures before identifying a “motley collection of men and women from all strains, ages and affiliation,” “idlers” lacking civic spirit or pride. “It is mainly with that despised group of non-believers that [Mirrors] is concerned,” the narrator sententiously intones, and then disappears for the rest of the book. We meet Loyola Holden, a slacker in his late 20s, who functions, very diffidently, as the focus of the narrative. Very diffidently. Loyola‘s like a leaf, blown by the billows of other people’s talk (mostly, his pompous friend/mentor, Deeka) with a couple of unremarkable work and romantic dilemmas thrown in (he wants to fuck his cousin). Chapter titles (e.g., “The wrinkled homunculus,” a personal favorite) and how they relate to the material contained within are more obviously having fun. Roughly two-thirds of the way into Mirrors, the focus shifts from Loyola to Ivy, an attractive single woman in her early forties with her own romance problems. I see the baton being passed, eccentrically but not surprisingly, in the conversation quoted above, on the “plotless existence.” Ivy is Deeka’s hapless interlocutor.
The movement of Mirrors is Brownian, with a floating, tag-along quality reminiscent of late Bunuel (see also, Monty Python’s Flying Circus). More often than not, narrative attention follows or swerves to the who or what nearest to hand. Chapters are organized by place, the characters primarily conveyed in dialogue, but with a roving attendance that picks up, lingers, puts down the free-indirect POVs &/or first-person thoughts of random encounters. The profusion of transitions, connections and dislocations—often abrupt—requires some care. And while this isn’t a difficult book, as the pressures of what’s not really happening (plot) build, so too questions of what-it-all-means (purpose). Unlike some avant- or experimental books or books that distrust traditional narrative (which is what I fear this review is making it sound like), Mirrors is rich not just in language, but character, locale, action. And while the emphasis is on the quotidian, both the range—Catholic Archbishop, clerical tyrant, local hothead, etc., etc.—and agile replenishment of characters are, perhaps, Mirrors’ highest achievement. It’s not that Bursey plumbs their depths—this is a book of competing surfaces, after all, even when those surfaces are interior—so much as takes their measure, gives them their due, with a quizzical generosity that nicely balances Mirrors’ peripatetic spirit and chancier conceits.
This is important given that simply following a character through the book, like unwinding its various sinuous threads, is fairly labor-intensive. One book-long interweave with special plangency is worth examining more closely (possible spoilers ahead). Mirrors was written in the 1990s, and the sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups in the Church shift in and out of the background—it’s in the air, a repeated topic of conversation, and Bursey includes a chapter, “Priests,” that includes, briefly, the perspective of (the book strongly implies) one such molester, Fr. Jerome Ryan. Less obtrusively, Bursey uses Duncan Lonegan, a retired architect, to counterpoint the fallout among the laity—the betrayal and emptying-out of belief. Duncan is the book’s deftest, most sympathetic portrait, and the best testament to Bursey’s humane eye. One notes shadings of moral complexity in all Bursey’s portraits, but with Lonegan he gets a voice that is very anguished, sincere and even slightly puerile in its disillusionment. Appreciating the curves & swerves of this intertwining narrative thread—its intricacy and its poignancy—is best done in retrospect, as in the final encounter with Lonegan (note the devoted but not fussy attention below to the curves and swerves of first-to-second thoughts):
In that remote place in Duncan Lonegin’s mind it seemed he could see the many versions of Fr. Jerome Ryan, taken from all the years of acquaintance, superimposed on each other. I prayed to God and the answer wasn’t silence, the answer came through that man.
He chided himself for being so egotistical as to expect the world to stop revolving at that moment. Rev. Batalus continued speaking, Marian kept looking anxiously from him to their daughter, the rustling of clothes and hymnals, the squeaking of shoes, the faint scent of candles, perfume and dampness did not cease or diminish or grow. Absolutely nothing changed. Nothing outside manifested this illuminating solution, and had he taken it for granted anything would have? Later he denied it, but in that moment he desperately wanted an external confirmation or denial of what he heard. The answer to his one question, Am I abandoned?, had been brought to him by one who did God’s work. Now he understood. That answer occupied his mind while at the doors of the church he shook hands mutely, for how could he speak while God talked?
How could he speak while God talked? At its best, Mirrors builds to saturation points of tremendous power—near grace—thrusting a character into individual relief, as opposed to the embeddedness Bursey otherwise plies. The ingenuity of the book lies in a structural overlay that allows these moments their full, dare-one-say novelistic scope without also insisting on their inevitability.
There are occasional lapses. Some of the internal monologues felt weak, there are conversations where mere factitiousness seems to be doing the lifting or which devolve into the meaner-than-life, and there are authorial “nudges,” or so I thought, out of place in the otherwise delicate dance of chance and community. Both the lapses and the debts stand out because the form and ambitions of Mirrors are less forgiving than those of Bursey’s debut—which had the advantage of being both a literary and a conceptual coup. Verbatim: A Novel was written in the 1990s, a few years before Mirrors, and, as Christopher Wunderlee suggests in his introduction to Mirrors, it makes sense to pair the two, as the political-polis faces of their fictional province. Unlike Mirrors,however, Verbatim is a fakebook. That “a novel” after the colon in Verbatim: A Novel is pranking the “verbatim,” and vice versa. Verbatim purports to represent the transcription of parliamentary debates (more like ridiculously petty squabbling) while consistently finding that all-important sweet spot between over-the-top and under-the-wire (something in my opinion Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own never managed). The “novel” in “A Novel” is more aspirational than not—even more likely, a tease . . . For a while, it had me wondering whether Bursey would try to pull off some kind of double-helix narrative, but whatever’s there, as far as I can tell, is pretty well submerged.
Plotlessness is no big deal when dealing with A Novel in quotes and after a colon, but Mirrors really is a novel. And while Verbatim puts the Gaddis influence to work in the most ingenious—and inscrutable—fashion, in Mirrors it’s just there. Fair enough. Though less successful perhaps than Verbatim, I find the reconciliation Mirrors is seeking with the novel more interesting. A commitment to the quotidian so dutiful as to dissolve its apparent point—like looking at an object until it disappears. A multidimensional play of characters who feel justified in their literalness, rather than in their fictive depths. And a loving, almost plaintive hold on moments of decision and transition as ordinary, let’s say, as our own uncomplaining suspensions of belief. In the end, the author Mirrors put me in mind of wasn’t Gaddis but another who deals in malaprops, misheard words, off-cues, and whose sui generis work is also equably enigmatic, the great Henry Green.
Marek Waldorf is the author of The Short Fall (2013), a novel, and Widow’s Dozen (2014), a collection of stories, both published by Turtle Point Press.
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