(Singapore: Verbivoracious Press, 2015)
One angle: Jeff Bursey’s new novel Mirrors on Which Dust Has Fallen tells the story of a fictional working class Canadian town called Bowmount, and in exploring the mundane lives of its residents, the author is able to conjure questions about spirituality, sexuality, longing, frustration and ultimately, how change creeps into places that seem unchanging.
I wrote that description nearly three months ago, and while it neatly sums up the plot, it is entirely inadequate.
I’ll try again.
Angle two: We live in a time of instant gratification and diminished attention spans. Besides the evidence I see on the nightly news, as a writer I feel it more acutely every time I sit down to my computer. The sheer willpower it takes to shut off the internet is often staggering. (Just writing that sentence took me an hour because I Google’d “diminishing attention spans,” “instant gratification,” and for reasons that seem beyond my control, “lyrics to the Carpenter’s Rainy Days and Mondays.”) Reflecting upon the difficulty I had getting through Bursey’s text, it seems to me that he is testing this very weakness in our collective character. Mirrors on Which Dust Has Fallen eschews prevailing structures of fiction: descriptions vacillate between vagueness and extreme detail that is uncomfortable in its myopic view, and dialogue stretches on for pages and pages to the point that the reader is lulled a kind of trance. The conversations are rather commonplace and seem to signify nothing. It wasn’t until the end that this reader realized they are meant only to signify the possibilities of dialogue.
None of this is meant as a disparagement. On the contrary, Bursey’s book is thoroughly engaging. He simply demands of his readers full engagement with the text. The characters are wholly relatable. As I also grew up in a blue-collar town not unlike fictional Bowmount, I am intimately acquainted with the sort of small-fish small-pond malaise on view here. Most of us can recognize the deep anger and hopelessness of the low-wage worker:
At his workbench Loyola regarded the suits and jackets, measuring labour against time. Snapping on the radio he buried himself in the work, wrenching a flat piece of cardboard into the shape of a box, layering it with tissue paper also used to protect trousers, filling out forms to be photocopied, scrawling details in postage books, whipping the tape gun across, over, down the box, stamping them, then throwing each into a corner where six boxes of various sizes would eventually rest. Goddamn her, she knew this, had those suits from the first phone call, but she didn’t tell me, and why not? Bitch, they’re all bitches, even what’s her name with her fancy screwing games. They’re out to suck everything out of me.
Yet focusing my attention on the characters isn’t entirely right for this review either, as their lower-class status seems merely be an excuse for the author to experiment with their language, not a broader comment on society.
Angle three: After a first reading that left me slightly baffled, I embarked upon a second reading determined to at least consider a formalist view of the text. My question was this: is it true that if the formal elements of a text are done well, that the novel be enjoyed on a deeper level? My husband is a painter, and talks often of the debate between form and content, whereby the camp that believes art is meant to communicate a narrative would look at, say, a Caravaggio and proclaim the reason his paintings are successful is because they extol the asceticism of the saints or convey the rapture of the divine. The formalists would look at a Caravaggio and see the sweeping arcs, the color relationships or the economy of shapes and proclaim this the reason for stirring the aesthetic emotion in the viewer. It’s a nice concept in painting, but I always found formalism a difficult concept to apply to literature. I always thought, the story matters.
Bursey has made me reconsider my long held beliefs. I came to a scene where a character is listening to the radio, and the dialogue is an actual recreation of an entire radio broadcast, complete with commercials. As the pages wore on, my thoughts drifted:
I thought of the radio. My family and I have lived over half my life in the big cities of Texas (Dallas, Austin) and frequently “set-off” for the West. If you make this drive, inevitably the land will flatten out and the humans disappear save the greasy spoon cafes that beckon every seventy miles or so. The road becomes alternately wearying and hypnotic, until at a certain point the vast brown landscape forces a certain surrender too, and the enormity of the space forces the driver into a dreamlike state. As the radio signal weakens and the driver is forced to hit the scanner, the radio toggles between country music, prayer, Tejano, more country music before fading out in a buzz of static. Does this mean anything in the narrative sense? No, but there is a kind of beauty to this moment, and it’s the same kind of beauty to be found in the pages of Mirrors on Which Dust Has Fallen. If you’re listening but not really listening to it, you kind of feel like you reach some approximation of some truth. Once I surrendered to the text, details and textures of everyday life washed over me in a beautiful swirl. I understood, for instance, the enduring hold England has over Canada in the very British textures that came through the dialogue. I recognized a barely tamed pioneer mentality lurking just beneath the surface in the characters, a tendency shared with their American counterparts to the South and a source of both callousness and passion. In the same way that the beauty of a Jackson Pollock doesn’t mean anything but can still be appreciated, so too can Bursey’s book.
Last angle: Long ago, I wrote a book report on The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and the influence of Cubism on Gertrude Stein’s writing. This was freshman English, a bright spot in my otherwise lackluster Texas public school education. I haven’t thought about Stein for years (or the fact that my teacher described Toklas as Stein’s “friend,” an avoidance of the truth that I doubt would take place today. How change creeps into places that seem unchanging.). Stein wrote about Picasso, “After awhile I murmured to Picasso that I liked his portrait of Gertrude Stein. Yes, he said, everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will, he said.” For Stein, it seemed, “language is to be grasped not as a means of reference to a world of objects which can be dominated, but as a medium of consciousness.” That position seems most appropriate to understanding and appreciating Bursey’s fine book. He is continuing in the tradition of the modernists here, a group who struggled to make sense of a broken world. In our world of shock, spectacle and infinite distraction, a modernist novel like Mirrors of Which Dust Has Fallen feels most au courant.
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Cassie Hay’s reviews and essays have appeared in New Letters, The Literary Review, TLR Online, and This Great Society, and she has been a regular contributor to Electric Literature online. She lives in Austin, TX with her husband and two sons.
This review also references The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (NY: The Modern Library, 1990) and Modernisms: A Literary Guide by Peter Nicholls (NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).