After a bit of a wild ride in Jeff Bursey’s last book, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this one. But he’s shown himself to be wonderfully versatile, and has written a (more) “mainstream” collection of short stories. (Like Unidentified Man at Left of Photo, An Impalpable Certain Rest is published by corona\samizdat, which means it’s a cute little thing, so easy to carry around and read anywhere.)
Calling it “mainstream” is not to say that it doesn’t have qualities that set it apart. From what I’ve read, it wouldn’t be one of Bursey’s books if it wasn’t at least a little experimental. And what better way to experiment with form and voice than a collection of short stories?
The first story, Certitude, is the longest, and sets the tone for the rest: confident. Bursey is confident in his ability to tell a story in the way he wants to tell it. There is a lot of dialogue between old friends in this story, and it’s bang on. No need to describe the mood or tone of voice – it’s very clear how everyone is feeling by their choice of words and the way they speak: sometimes speaking over and on top of each other. The first person narrator is disappointed in his old friends who have come back to their hometown. He thought they had gone off and become successful, but really they just turned out like everyone else: complaining about the way things are, but doing nothing to change it. And they all think they’re right. The narrator–who also thinks he’s right–may have chosen not to put up with others’ righteous attitudes, but he’s alone because of it.
Better to live and accept the great distance between what you want and what you’ll get, and to be happy with that, not complain like those guys or the office people around me. Not stoical, mind, because that shuts you up, makes you a shell of a man. To find someone to talk with, that’s what’s needed. But until you do you strain to exist on your own, keeping on for reasons you don’t fully understand, not throwing yourself in front of a car, but lasting. Outlasting anyone who moans about a worthless life and a bleak future. That’s where I am, in that game yet out of it, a spectator, wondering and watching. And waiting for something.
In Charm, Jack and Lana live in an apartment below people who like to play loud music late into the night. One night, Jack goes up to ask them to turn it down. Instead they turn it right off, and that’s when Jack discovers he can hear everything they say through the floor/ceiling – much of it uncomplimentary to Jack and Lana. He becomes obsessed with listening.
He became invested, almost philosophical, as he worked at figuring out these other tenants through filters of wood and plaster.
In Reliance, Sharon disapproves of her daughter’s life. She thinks her dancing is “lewd” and her boyfriend too old. She also thinks he shouldn’t be traveling so much – he should be around more to be with Doris. So, as she’s rummaging around in their medicine cabinet, she does the unthinkable.
Don’t talk about what you don’t know, and you don’t know lots. Don’t insult me. I told you about sex, yes, but not for you to waste it on some… encyclopedias, is it? Where’s the money in that? When’s he going to marry you? But why should he pay for milk when he can get cream? And why can’t he get a job here in town? Not good enough, is he?
You make it sound like I’m a slut.
Do you behave like one? You dress like one on stage.
Swaying and staggering against their companions, the commuters grimly pretended that each was the sole occupant of the subway as it careened over the Northern Line tracks taking hairpin turns without slowing, scraping its sides continually and leaving small fires in its wake… While even in this miserable winter the occasional tourist’s face could be seen, at this hour the tube was crowded with workers heading home. There were labourers too, sweaty and grime-faced, adding to the stink of the close atmosphere produced by the unwashed and uncared for bodies of most of the train’s inhabitants. Bill regarded them all with disgust from his corner near the doors while waiting to arrive at King’s Cross where he could extricate himself from this sulfurous mass. He hated subways at this hour, and the only thing that took his mind off the stench while being crushed against structural pipes or the Plexiglass was to survey his fellow passengers.
What follows is Bill’s involvement in a stranger’s life after observing closely on the subway for weeks: a man, his blind wife, and a young woman.
Other stories in this collection include (among others): a man alone on an island, losing his marbles; a married couple full of anger and resentment over the woman’s insomnia; a man who dreams that he and his wife are being chased by airplanes; a man’s rambling “confession” of his obsession with a woman; and a woman who travels south to escape her demons, just to have them follow along.
The following reviews of An Impalpable Certain Rest were beyond helpful to me as I read this book:
Michelle Butler Hallett via The Miramichi Reader: Can fiction show and thereby re-create, and then beyond that create anew, universal human experience? I argue that Bursey… is reaching for that. Bursey forges a profound empathetic bond between me and his characters, and he accomplishes this with his apparently odd choices of narrative technique.
Alex Good: 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).
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.
I can relate to this last quote from Good’s review, as there are a couple of stories in Bursey’s collection I enjoyed reading even though I wasn’t exactly sure what was going on. How can that be, I wondered? The magic of good writing.
Thank you to Jeff for sending me a copy of his book!
My review of Bursey’s last book, as well as a Q&A: Unidentified man at Left of Photo