AN IMPALPABLE CERTAIN REST
By Jeff Bursey
A few years ago I started noticing a trend in literary fiction toward the new, or newly labeled, genre of the Weird. The origins of the Weird lay in a fusion of genre elements: primarily science fiction, horror, and fantasy. There was something subversive in this, as genre is essentially conventional and the Weird uses many of those same conventions to unmoor readers, leaving them to wonder what was going on.
I think the stories in Jeff Bursey’s an impalpable certain rest are located in the same Weird neighbourhood, though approached from a different direction. It is a landscape both generic and uncanny. Where are we? Someplace familiar but unspecific. “Where I work doesn’t matter,” the narrator of the first story tells us, and tells us no more. In the most fantasy-oriented story the survivor of a shipwreck finds himself on a magical island in some unnamed sea or ocean. In “A Livid Loneliness” a woman comes to another island, apparently a tourist spot, that’s only described as “this idyllic land where she had longed to live for so many years, this bright speck of color on a map of a drab, increasingly bleak and hostile world.” The Caribbean, maybe? We just know that it’s “the country of her fantasies.” “The Frequency of Alarm” is set in a country at war, or one that was at war until recently. But where? Eastern Europe? The people speak with accents, sometimes, but it’s anyone’s guess where they hail from.
This sense of a vague location is very much a part of the Weird, but Bursey comes at it not from a genre background but from the field of experimental fiction and the traditions of an earlier avant-garde. An entire previous novel, Verbatim, takes the form of a Hansard record. Another, Unidentified man at left of photo, uses frequent authorial interruptions to draw attention to its artificiality in a way that’s thrown down before the reader as a challenge. The characters aren’t real, the plot is just whatever convention or expediency dictates, and even the words on the page are just that: words on a page. A phone rings not for any reason other than the fact that the author “desperately needed to get out of that paragraph.” He needed a break. And so a character picks up the phone, or “the object described on paper as answering to the letters t, l, p, h, o, n and three es.”
an impalpable certain rest isn’t a book as self-conscious as this (the lower-case title is one of the only flourishes in this regard) but I wanted to mention the experimental background because I think it shares in the same sense of weirdness, if not Weirdness, I started off by talking about. It employs alienation techniques instead of aliens, but I think some of the effects are the same.
What grounds it in Bursey’s case – here and in the other books I mentioned – is his use of voice. Bursey is a writer of the spoken word: speech, dialogue, and what literary types call free indirect discourse. When you read you have to imagine someone talking. This is an essential quality, even in the stories that aren’t driven almost entirely by dialogue (as several here are). It’s a matter of style that comes across clearly in the first story. Listen:
If we had a boss who came in regularly I suppose things would change, but even a new boss couldn’t alter the fact that fewer people are buying what we’re selling like they once did.
That colloquial redundancy at the end nicely captures the rhythm of an interior voice. It’s not something that’s easy to represent in prose and few writers do it well. Here’s another good example:
What I think every day is at least for now I have a job, though the idea of not having one doesn’t worry me, because I have one, I know, but really, it doesn’t make me sleep any worse than I do when I think about losing it some time.
You don’t want to teach someone to write like that, but when it’s done well it has the effect of making you nod your head and shake it at the same time.
This use of language is both familiar and strange. It can work well in a naturalistic vein in stories like “Certitude” and “A Torch Did Touch His Heart, Briefly” that feature first-person narrators who expertly (or unconsciously) walk a line between despair and self-awareness. Or perhaps we might say they pitch into the former without ever quite achieving the latter. But in other, less conventional stories, voice is more disruptive, giving the sense of the Modernist project of dialogue-as-form, with the story itself dissolving into a medley or even cacophony. “What in Me is Dark, Illumine” has a Prufrockian quality to its gallery of voices coming and going, while “The Frequency of Alarm” almost reads like a play in its latter half. Both stories are grounded not so much in place (which remains obscure) as in voice, and voice used in such a collage-like way that it creates its own imaginative space that feels disembodied and alien. These stories are also the most difficult: requiring a rerun just to sort out of what is being said and what is happening. Always keeping in mind that “what happens” is something that’s often up for grabs in experimental or Weird fiction. It doesn’t want you to get too comfortable.
The tone of the collection is downbeat if not bleak, but there’s a great variety to it and it’s Bursey’s strongest work yet. The short story form suits his kind of experimentation, giving the results a more purposive and intense quality. I think this is also in part due to that inheritance I mentioned from a previous century’s avant-garde, here adapted to contemporary manners and mores. The cutting edge of culture is now somewhere behind us, but it can still light the way today when so much else, from our literature to our politics, is sliding into reverse.
Review first published online July 19, 2021.