‘Mirrors on which dust has fallen’ by Jeff Bursey

Book Reviews

Mirrors coverReviewed by Keith Cadieux

Experimental novels are nothing new; for a good long while, authors have been questioning, subverting, and defying the conventions of the novel form. Despite this long history, something that is still new and relevant (novel, even… sorry about that) is exactly how authors continue to find intriguing and varied ways to play with those boundaries and conventions. Which brings us to author and critic Jeff Bursey and his latest novel, Mirrors on which dust has fallen.

Bursey’s first novel, Verbatim, was also experimental: told entirely in Hansard (parliamentary transcript) it centred on the fictional Canadian town of Bowmount, which is the same setting for Mirrors on which dust has fallen. For this new novel, once again Bursey has steered clear of a traditional narrative structure. There are large-scale events: the local Catholic church is caught up in a widespread sexual abuse scandal, a hostage situation at a pet store results in an explosion and the death of three police officers, and there is an annual bike race between Bowmount and its nearby sister cities. All of these events, though, are tangential to the focus of the narrative and are only mentioned in passing. The characters in the novel are aware of these events, and some are even affected by them, but for the most part these larger scale happenings are background noise and don’t have an appreciable impact on the day-to-day to lives of the Bowmountians. In a metafictional touch, Bursey has no qualms drawing attention to the idea that these more exciting events are purely a narrative device. In one scene, two characters discuss a book about the Mediterranean, remarking: “Did you know, the waters of the Mediterranean take… seven years to circle around there… from going in by Spain to leaving again along the coast of Africa? Think of all the shores it touches on. This book uses the water as a … device to follow what certain characters do over seven years, and what happens in the countries.” This describes quite clearly how the larger news stories function throughout Mirrors’ narrative.

And just as Bursey has eschewed the traditional plot, he has also avoided the conventional protagonist. There are quite a few characters throughout the narrative but most serve minor roles, appearing in only one or two scenes. There are, however, two characters that appear more often than others. Loyola is a twenty-something man working a dead end job at a clothing warehouse. Ivy is a single woman in her early forties who seems to be struggling with the fact that she is not as worried about being single as the other citizens of Bowmount think she should be. Ivy and Loyola do not have any meaningful exchanges. They are sometimes in the same scenes but neither has an impact on the other.

The various other characters present an interesting conundrum. They are well drawn and the circumstances of their lives touch on genuine lived experience but at the same time, they are difficult to differentiate. They are usually introduced or interact in pairs and share qualities or attributes that are easily confused: there’s Sam and Frank who are both painters, though one is an artist while the other paints houses; there’s Alistair and Bart, one of whom has fantasies about having sex with himself, and the other caught masturbating in a church confessional. This confusion, though, seems entirely deliberate and is emphasized by the structure and method of the writing itself.

Bursey does not use any dialogue attribution or quotation marks so when scenes involve conversations, it is very easy to lose track of who is saying what. This is especially true in a number of wide-scope scenes, such as in the local bar or at a father’s day dinner, where there might be ten or twelve characters in the scene all speaking over top of each other. In these instances, there are basically no narrative details and the prose serves almost as a transcript, without context, of the competing conversations. By all logical reasoning, these scenes should be a jumbled and incoherent mess. But they aren’t, and that is where Bursey differentiates himself from other writers of experimental fiction. Though I was sometimes (see also: often) confused as to who actually spoke particular lines, I was able to follow the overall arc of these long dialogue scenes and unpack the interconnection of seemingly unrelated discussions.

For all this complexity, the narrative voice does caution against reading too far into things. In describing the citizens of Bowmount in a general sense, as it relates to matters of city council, Bursey writes, “Some of those who had done miserably in chemistry or Euclidean geometry were fiends at discerning elaborate schemes behind the most legitimate procedures.” While some connections do emerge between the larger circumstances, the plot never materializes into a coherent or linear structure. Once again captured in the dialogue between characters is a meditation that manages to succinctly touch on the narrative itself:

… 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?

– No.

Worrying about where the plot is leading is a sure way to wind up frustrated with a novel like this. The plot is not the point, though there must be some kind of framework to build the novel around, even if only to point out how arbitrary and meaningless such a framework has ultimately become.

There are plenty of recurring themes and motifs throughout the disjointed narrative, and it is these that allow the reader to cobble together meaning from the chaotic assemblage of conversations. These characters tackle weighty issues such as depression and questioning faith. Though these themes are delivered in a way that most readers may not be accustomed to, they are no less poignant. The soul searching done by Duncan Lonegin in the wake of the church abuse scandal is easily the most emotionally charged examination in the novel. The characters also deal with social transgression, the nature of art, and quite a lot of anal penetration. Some of these scenes and images are funny and one is absolutely horrifying. I can honestly say that I have never before read a book in which being fucked in the ass was a full-on theme, but this is the case with Mirrors on which dust has fallen.

This is a tough book to recommend broadly because it is that rare piece of literature that demands quite a lot of work from the reader. There are wonderful moments and genuine insights, there is dazzling prose, and there are well-drawn characters. But the style is also difficult to follow, the unattributed dialogue a formidable tangle to be unraveled. Readers up for such a challenge will be glad to have put in the effort.

Verbivoraciouspress | 344 pages | $24.85 | paper | ISBN #  9789810954376

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Keith Cadieux

Keith Cadieux is the co-editor of the weird fiction anthology The Shadow Over Portage & Main, published by Enfield & Wizenty and recently shortlisted for a Manitoba Book Award. During the day-job hours, he is the administrative coordinator for the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.