Essay: Mirrors on which dust has fallen, by Jeff Bursey

Jeff Bursey’s two novels, Verbatim and Mirrors on which dust has fallen, feel busy, even noisy. Bursey relies on dialogue, as recorded and shaped in Hansard in Verbatim, and as uttered by the many characters in Mirrors, to show his storylines, reveal his characters, and explore his ideas. The dialogue in Mirrors in exquisite: not just good, in my subjective view, or in the view of what constitutes ‘realism’ in fiction, but painful as it forces uncomfortable and often unwanted recognitions of how people behave. Kate surrendering — surrendering far too much, in my view — to Loyola and the pleasure he brings her, or at least pretending to; Starlene abusing Loyola at work; Jules abusing anyone and everyone unlucky enough to fall within the sound of his voice; the CCII radio station management outlining plans that will upset and rewrite other peoples’ lives: these scenes leave me scowling in a mix of sympathy and disgust for the characters. The characters, too, often feel disgust. Duncan Lonegin might be the best example of this, a man forced into retirement and then cut adrift from his understanding of faith by the pedophilic scandals in the Catholic Church. Duncan is lost. His entire sense of self lies at his feet, and the stale and repellent priests who come to visit are no balm. Nor do the priests even try to understand why a man who fit a definition of ‘good Catholic’ — including obedience — is no longer attending mass.

The priests, self-appointed moral shepherds,  are, like many of the characters in Mirrors, distracted by, or even hypnotized by, the material: a much-needed paycheque in a brutal and tyrannical workplace; the precise dietary makeup of one’s lunch; the next lay.

Yet this is not a hopeless novel. A key, perhaps, waits not in expectations of character arc and plot development, techniques Bursey often eschews — you’re hard-pressed to find a traditional hero-protagonist here, someone to ‘root for’ — but in the ideas behind the novel.

One big idea being that perhaps something else, something more, surrounds  us, some alternative to deathly materialism and faithless institutions.By ‘institutions’ I mean more than churches, and more than the Church. Loyola and Mare work for companies that set themselves up as some sort of high road of sacrificial quest, some conduit to higher purpose and communion — communion in the end with what George Orwell’s often irritating but sometimes perceptive character Gordon Comstock would call the Money-God. This thinking is a deception, a sham. Clothing company Moscati-Mann and radio station CCII exist solely to provide profit and benefit to those who control them. Moneylenders in the temple? The physical labour performed by Loyola, and the emotional labour performed by Mare, make me think of the workers on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, wielding the ever heavier and heavier hands of time on mysterious clocks.

Take the title, Mirrors on which dust has fallen. The phrasing seems unusually clunky for Bursey, whose prose often displays elegant concision. Why not Dusty Mirrors? Because the dust here is just as important as the mirrors. The dust has importance and purpose, if not agency, however mysterious. An idea in the Baha’i Faith (for clarity: Bursey is not a Baha’i; I am) is how the human heart can function as a mirror, reflecting back that which is divine, which is good: ‘A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God …’ (The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys). So if these characters are mirrors on which dust has fallen — the dust sometimes being troubles beyond their control, like illness, or well within their control, like their own behaviour — then they have the potential at least for pure hearts, or at least to become something better than what they are. They can reach. Similarly when a much-derided and much-patronized restaurant burns down, Ivy catches a scent of something different, something enticing, on the wind.

Which is not to say Bursey is suggesting his characters, or his readers, Get Religion or Find God and then everything will be all right. Such a simplistic view of human struggles, and of the intimate difficulties of faith, would collapse beneath the weight of its own condescension. What Bursey may be suggesting is how we need to make some difficult recognitions: for one, the repressive and depressing nature of the prison of self. This, too, is an idea central to the Baha’i Faith,  and one which I’ve explored in my own novels Sky Waves and deluded your sailors. From the collection ‘Abdu’l-Baha in London: “Freedom is not a matter of place. It is a condition. … Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, he will not attain.”

Dire vicissitudes? Accepting dire vicissitudes? Such thinking collides with the standard Western mythology of the individual hero railing against great odds (if not ideas of God Himself) and, even if with tremendous sacrifice, succeeding. Since the Romantics and up through the twentieth century, through writing and activities that honour and privilege the traditionally masculine virtues of fight-fight-fight, of forcing and changing one’s environment to suit oneself, and in fiction that privileges this approach (the hero-protagonist you can root for is part of this), we’ve seen characters and their creators resist and even ignore dire vicissitudes. One notable exception, which I know only second hand through George Orwell’s discussion of it in “Inside the Whale,” is twentieth-century American writer Henry Miller. Orwell, whom I admire, could be full of intellectual shit, but he could also be perceptive and demanding — demanding of intellectual honesty in himself and others. Writing in 1940, not long out the Spanish Civil War, sick, understanding the dangerous situation in the USSR in a way few intellectuals in the West yet did, and and eyeballing with understandable dread the coming developments of World War Two, Orwell places Miller in starkness: “However, there is more than one kind of irresponsibility. As a rule, writers who do not wish to identify themselves with the historical process at the moment either ignore it or fight against if. If they can ignore it, they are probably fools. If they can understand it well enough to want to fight against it, they probably have enough vision to realize that they cannot win. Look, for instance, at a poem like ‘The Scholar Gipsy’, with its railing against the ‘strange disease of modern life’ and its magnificent defeatist simile is the final stanza. It expresses one of the normal literary attitudes, perhaps actually the prevailing attitude during the last hundred years. And on the other hand there are the ‘progressives’, the yea-sayers, the Shaw-Wells type, always leaping forward to embrace the ego-projections which they mistake for the future. On the whole the writers of the twenties took the first line and the writers of the thirties the second. And at any given moment, of course, there is a huge tribe of Barries and Deepings and Dells who simply don’t notice what is happening. Where Miller’s work is symptomatically important is in its avoidance of any of these attitudes. He is neither pushing the world-process forward nor trying to drag it back, but on the other hand he is by no means ignoring it. I should say that he believes in the impending ruin of Western Civilization much more firmly than the majority of ‘revolutionary’ writers; only he does not feel called upon to do anything about it. He is fiddling While Rome is burning, and, unlike the enormous majority of people who do this, fiddling with his face towards the flames.”

Whether Miller is truly “fiddling” I can’t say. I’d argue Bursey is not, though I would agree Bursey is facing the flames. Again: recognitions.

Some of this background might explain Bursey’s aesthetic choices. In the structure of Mirrors, we do not get the traditional single hero-protagonist on a quest, with a nice tidy arc. I’ve enjoyed and written fiction with nice tidy arcs; pointing out Bursey’s decision to avoid same is not a rejection of the technique itself but an attempt to observe and comment on what Bursey is actually doing, versus what one might expect Bursey to be doing. A reader expecting the hero and his quest might feel confused and baffled by all the voices, might even feel the narrator has failed, is hiding with Miller in the belly of Orwell’s whale. This thinking risks blinding one to what is in Bursey’s novel: a cacophony of voices, brilliantly rendered, united by a need to recognize something greater than their own little selves, united by a need to break out of prisons.

Perhaps, too, prisons of narrative.

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