This book is missing a few things: fully-developed characters, a narrative arc, a sense of cohesiveness. What is this book about? I don’t really know. Yet I still read it. In fact, I read it with great interest, wondering what the author was going to come up with next.
Writing is hard work, often unrewarding, so there’s not going to be much effort here to convince you that you’re in a version of the so-called real world. Things are told, not shown. Everything’s so open-ended you’ll soon believe you’re writing this yourself.
In 3:am Magazine, Chris Via’s take is that “the book is a roving observation of ordinary people in an ordinary place which, though specifically Charlottetown, could really be any place.” And ”What is clearest in Unidentified man at left of photo is that author Jeff Bursey is having fun. At the same time the text challenges us with the question of whether an author is allowed to have fun and if it is allowed in this way.“
I also had the sense that Jeff Bursey was having fun writing this book. I asked him about it in the questions, below. You’ll probably learn more about the author and his book from the interview, but there are a few things I would like to say…
Physically, Unidentified man at left of photo is a tiny little book, a little shorter and wider than my cell phone. It is scattered throughout with photos by the author from in and around Charlottetown. There are real people and places in his book that residents of Charlottetown are likely to know even if the rest of us don’t. At first you might think the story is going to be about Joe. And then you might think it’s going to be about murdered red-headed girls. And then, and then…
What I enjoyed most about the book was the experimentalism of it. There is a whole chapter made up of nothing but questions. Another chapter made up of lines from poems written by Prince Edward Island poets. (I wonder how many times he read through those poetry books to find the lines he wanted? I forgot to ask him that.) And I can’t forget the chapter written from the perspective of an oncoming hurricane. Even the “Endex” is part of the experience.
On the dark side, Jeff Bursey is not afraid to enter sensitive/uncomfortable territory through his narrator, who often seems to say things without much thought. Examples: “The book tour gets lonely, and there are many artsy girls with big glasses and a bit of a tummy eager for attention.” And “That some of the mentally challenged enjoy chatting at the Tim Horton’s on Kent is no shame on that fine national establishment that has fed many and provided much to charity. Bully for Tim. It’s a mark of approval that in the Kent street location shatterbrains have found a haven. At times it’s better than any show playing at The Mackenzie Theatre.” I asked him about this in question four.
Bursey also takes the opportunity to poke fun at a few Canadian authors: “The event, whatever it is, hasn’t started yet, or there’s a break, and people are talking about Byron Katie, hockey, grey versus gray, the weddings they’ve attended, how much Mark Sampson and Rebecca Rosenblum would like this occasion, the misuse of semi-colons, threatening looks, bitter divorces, how Don DeLillo once had rabid fans,… how Michael Winter never sounded better in print than when he used court documents to tell a story, i.e., removed his own writing from his books, and whether or not that was brilliant or a grave revelation, and of course, the downtown clarinetist.” And “So many disappointments for local readers of this book. There’s probably a handful who persist in believing that at any point action, plot, suspense, may break out, despite their growing awareness that the pages are dwindling. They can’t possibly contain anything dramatic. That would be untoward, at this stage. Like if Ed picked up an Ondaatje novel and enjoyed it.” If you’re a nerd like me, these things will make you snort. (Note: I have read and enjoyed both Michael Winter and Ondaatje.)
1. Unidentified man at left of photo is truly a book like no other I’ve read; there’s no obvious narrative arc, no obvious character development, and the narrator/author talks directly to the reader (almost like audience participation) throughout the book. What inspired you to write such an unconventional novel?
Thanks for saying this novel isn’t like others you’ve read. Like my two previous novels, it’s unconventional, and for a purpose, not for novelty. On the surface level this is a satire about life in charlottetown, pei. Below that is a breezy examination of how to write and read fiction, topics the narrator and the narrative bring up. Here, that means addressing the reader. (Since they can’t be known, these readers are also, in a sense, fictional.) It’s also a reminder to the canadian novelists who remorselessly churn out realism and historical narratives that Modernism and Post-modernism did happen. At bottom, then, is an aesthetic concern, as in all my books, to render what I think in ways that encapsulate the content (form being content) in, hopefully, a fresh way.
2. In the October 20, 2020 Saltwire interview, I was struck by your comment “Sometimes we forget that writing can be about having fun as well as about serious things.” One of my first thoughts after reading the book was about how much fun you must have had writing this book. And when you can sense the playfulness of the writer, the book becomes that much more fun to read. What made you want to write something “fun” rather than something “serious”?
Fun, here, means placing in the exploratory novel–it seems each of my novels can be called that–some humour. Here, the comedy is more apparent, but I think readers of Verbatim: A Novel (2010) and, if less so, Mirrors on which dust has fallen (2015), could point to their humour. I never wanted to write what some people determine are “serious” works, ones devoid of any kind of humour except two types, “wry” or “grim.” I had to read and study that kind of canadian novel in university and I don’t see a need to contribute more of such stuff to our national library. That said, comedy has to be taken seriously or it won’t come off. Writing this novel, or so-called novel, for the kind of novel it isn’t (anti-realistic, anti-historical) and is (pro-aesthetic), allowed me to compose whatever I wanted without concern for, as you mentioned, arcs, character development–really, any of those devices that are no different from foreshadowing–and to make jokes as they came to me. It’s a satire, at times mean-minded, at times genial, but altogether meant to make people laugh.
3. This is the first book of yours I have read, but certainly not your first book. How does your other writing compare to this?
All the novels are as inventive as I can make them and all of them, so far, are satires. In direct and indirect ways they each deal with politics, sex, lifestyles, communities, social issues, and aesthetics.
4. As I read, I couldn’t help wonder if the narrator reflected your own personal thoughts or if the narrator is a character you developed? The reason I’m asking is because some of the things your narrator comments on borders on uncomfortable/inappropriate/non-politically correct. What is the purpose of these interjections?
The short answer is that the interjections do what comedy is meant to do: make you uncomfortable, upset your complacency, and rob you of shields against how other people view matters. Art isn’t meant to make one feel only cozy and loved. People make inappropriate comments all the time, and I don’t mean a poor joke at lunch this very day, but throughout history. Cultural historians will look back at things in this time and wonder: “What were they thinking?” We all pretend or assume we’re better than our ancestors and our neighbours. In pei, for a time, news outlets allowed anonymous comments to be made under stories, and there the false image of the “nice” Islander was completely debunked. The commentators were as envious as the next person in the next province, as petty, as gullible, as prudish, as biased. The narrator encapsulates some of that rudeness. What some readers might miss is that there is a monologue in the Endex that attempts to set the narrator in context.
Since the words were set down by me (mostly), then yes, my personal thoughts are present. How could it be otherwise? My personal beliefs, however, are separate. I’m as much absent as in my other novels.
5. There’s a whole chapter in your book made up of (seemingly random) questions. Are these carefully constructed, or did they just come streaming out of you willy-nilly?
Some questions are based on actual news events in pei, but many are simply what happens when the keys hit the keyboard and the cabinet of subjects is unlocked. Free association. The ones to do with the figures in the book were more carefully placed, but only if they made sense in the rhythm of the piece. Rhythm is very important in this book.
6. If a gel that’s shaken and stirred becomes, just briefly, a fluid, but reverts to being a gel when left in peace, would you consider that an oblique comment on the human condition? Explain.
May I, instead, compare and contrast? Seriously, readers will come to their own decisions about how they feel when life shakes them. In COVID-19 times, everyone has their own answer as to if they’re more “left in peace” or “stirred.” I’m good with letting readers come up with their own explanations.
7. When you read, do you gravitate towards “exploratory” fiction like your own? What titles would you recommend to the rest of us?
Much of what is exploratory is enjoyable formally, so yes, but if the book doesn’t have humour, like Situ by Steven Seidenberg, then it has scant chance of being read completely, by me anyway. I do read mainstream or conventional writers, and admire all good writing, but books that challenge my expectations help me learn. Some people (rather than titles) that come to mind are Joseph McElroy, fiction by Alexanda Chasin and S.D. Chrostowska, Evelyn Hampton, new brunswick’s Lee Thompson and Chris Eaton, certain Oulipians, the unpredictable Blaise Cendrars, and Gilbert Sorrentino.
8. What are some books/authors that have made you laugh? What books are on your bedside table right now?
To the first part, Catch-22, everything by William Gaddis and Sorrentino, Cendrars again (a laugh of delight and astonishment more than humour); also, Steve Mayoff’s pei satire, Starfish of David, that I’m reading now.
To the second part, some other books put out by my publisher, corona\samizdat, such as Rick Harsch’s The Manifest Destiny of Eddie Vegas, W.D. Clarke’s She Sang to Them, She Sang (a fellow canadian), and America and the Cult of the Cactus Boots: A Diagnostic, by Phillip Freedenberg and Jeff Walton. Also, from other publishers, Personhood by Thalia Field, Time is the Longest Distance by Larry Fondation, and Dag Solstad’s Novel 11, Book 18.
9. Are you working on any up-coming projects you’d like to talk about?
A short-story collection of mine called an impalpable certain rest came out in early June from corona\samizdat. Definitely not a satire. As for new works, I don’t generally talk about them until they’re done.
10. Final question. Why the platypus? I’ll leave it for readers of your novel to understand why I’m curious.
When I was a child I didn’t have children’s books to read due to a flood in the family home. Instead, I read a six-volume atlas of the world and some books from the How and Why series. Actually, those were read to me before I could read them myself, but I memorized parts of them. One of the H&W books was on animals, and the platypus stuck in my mind. This marsupial was little known where I grew up. In grade 4, in the terrible Catholic school my parents placed me in, the homeroom teacher asked students to name animals. Other kids offered what you’d expect, and when it was my turn I said “the duck-billed platypus,” to which she replied, in front of everyone, “If you can’t think of a real animal, don’t make one up.” I was enraged. At lunch I raced home, got the book out, and brought it back to school, showing the teacher the picture and description of the platypus. She apologized to me in front of the class and passed the book around. So that creature has stuck in my head for a while and in Unidentified man at left of photo I had a chance to acknowledge it.
If you find your interest piqued by Unidentified man at left of photo, or by Jeff Bursey, you can find out more about him and his books here. This book can only be purchased through the publisher, Rick Harsch at corona/samizdat.
The book launch–“Slingfest: PEI Satire”–took place in June, 2021 along with Steven Mayoff’s Starfish of David. You can watch the video here.
Thank you to Jeff for sending me the book and for taking the time to answer my questions!
17 thoughts on “Q&A with Jeff Bursey, Author of Unidentified man at left of photo”
I love that cover. Based on your review and his answers, I am pretty sure I’ve never read a book quite like this one!
I would be surprised if you have!
I like the cover, too. I imagine that the llamas are looking at the “unidentified man” off to the left. 🙂
What a fascinating author!
I agree! I’ve already got another one of his books added to my stacks!
Thanks for reading, Lisa!
1. What is pei? Now I’ve written it I think I can guess, but why the lower case for province names?
2. I really like that Bursey is thinking about literary theory as he writes. It’s true, the great majority of writers never get past realism (like painters with trees that look like trees).
3. That’s great that a whole town participated. I wonder if they gave informed consent? I wonder if they understand postmodernism? I wonder if I do.
4. Hooray for platypi.
1. pei = Prince Edward Island. I actually asked him why the place names are lower case, and he said “so that no country (or city, etc.) and its citizenry regard themselves as too important.”
2. Reading the book taught me stuff about how writers write that I hadn’t thought of before – until it’s missing from a book or commented on by the narrator.
3. I’m not sure that I do! Jeff Bursey is smarter than I am. 🙂
4. Yes, hooray!
The title and cover image are fantastic — they alone would be enough to induce me to pick this up! I really enjoyed your interview. The question about whether he reads the same kind of fiction as he writes is particularly interesting. I’ve always wondered what I would write if I tried my hand at fiction, and whether it would be something I actually like!
I’ve wondered the same thing! I’m pretty sure it will never happen, but if it did, it would probably be autobiographical since I would never be able to come up with something myself. I have a child-like imagination – so maybe children’s books!
I know very few of the authors he named in his answer – it would be fun to try a couple!
I laughed at that duck-billed platypus story-what a gem! Also, what a horrible teacher ugh. In grade 5 we had to do a research project on an Australian animal. I chose a koala, and my best friend Leah (who I still see to this day) chose the duck-billed platypus. We were very competitive with each other. I got an A+ on the assignment, and she got an A++. That’s not even a real grade! LOL
I bet that extra “plus” just about killed you! Lol
It clearly did, I still think about it, and it was….26 years ago LOL
Is this the book you sent me sentences from? I kept meaning to ask you about them?!?!?
What I love about this is how thoroughly and completely subversive this is, down to the size and shape, from a marketing perspective. So well thought out.
Also, I know we’ve talked before about wanting there to be more PEI books, so here we are!
Exactly! It was a good pick for me on many levels. I think you’d find it really interesting – it’s very smart.
Yes, this is the book!! At times, I couldn’t believe what I was reading – I had to share!!
Ahhhhh, I’m so glad to know. I loved those passages you sent! There’s a copy of Verbatim here in the reference library but nothing else in the system. Will file away the idea and aim to order sometime.
I’m curious now, too, about his other books. I do have his most recent, which is a collection of short stories. 🙂