This Marlowe update

My next novel, This Marlowe, will be published by Goose Lane Editions on March 15th.

1593. Queen Elizabeth reigns while two rival spymasters — Sir Robert Cecil and the Earl of Essex — plot from the shadows to control succession upon the aged queen’s death. The man on whom their schemes depend is Kit Marlowe, a cobbler’s son from Canterbury who has defied expectations and become an accomplished poet and playwright, with a fierce reputationWhen plague closes the theatres, Kit must return tothe work for which he was originally recruited: intelligence and espionage.

Fighting to stay one step ahead in a dizzying game that threatens those he loves, Kitbegins to question his allegiances and nearly everything he once believed. Tensions mount and accusations of heresy and treason fly until he must choose between paths that lead either to love, honour, and loss — or to guilt and death.

In this novel of passion and intrigueMichelle Butler Hallett measures the weight of the body politic, the torment of the flesh, and the state of the soul.

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.

What not to watch before falling asleep

Last night, I watched a hallucinatory documentary, of perhaps questionable accuracy, on Mikhail Bulgakov and the circumstances that fed the writing of The Master and Margarita: oh, you know, just Koba the Dread purging everyone while occasionally calling a comrade at home and granting some weird bit of mercy, atop terrible wartime experiences and a morphine addiction, nothing to see here … watching that while sitting up in bed might earn one a very poor sleep. The fever and sweats: autoimmune. The dreams: Stalinist purges and Azazel. Yeah, Azazel. On a train platform at one point. Smug bastard he was, too. Feathers beneath his clothes. I expected goat hair. No: feathers.

Filthy feathers.

And two plus two equalled five.

Dreams of the dead

Dreams last night of pursuing, and catching up with, a dead friend. I expected, as a I dreamt, a denied-quest narrative. Instead, last night I got the prize. Several times. I got to talk to Tom, see how he’s getting on. He’s fine, if a little lonely and concerned for his daughter. He was trying to organize a concert. I got to hear his laugh.

I dream this sort of thing a fair bit. It’s emotionally charged. It’s also reassuring. Even as the dead friend explains I have to leave (it’s never the friend who has to leave; I’m the interloper, the trespasser), even as the friend points to a clock or pushes me away (Michael either ducks out of sight or gives me a hard shove on the shoulders so I fall backwards, and he seems to do so with regret), even as the friend gives advice on how I must travel “back” — even as separation happens again and again, the dreams, the contacts are reassuring.

Tears in the morning, though. Tears in the morning.

My obituary (for Colleen McCullough)

Colleen McCullough has died. She had a devoted audience and sold loads of books. She worked hard at her craft and was lucky enough to make some money doing what she loved. And she got an obit that led with an opinion of her appearance, because, as we all know, that’s what matters most with a woman: how her looks measure up against someone else’s ideal. 

So I figured the least I can do is help out some obit writer who might be struggling beneath a blinding cloak of sexism and stupidity — you know, be a sweet and quiet assistant, behind the scenes — and write my own obituary. I hope you like it. Oh, don’t worry: I got my husbands permission.

Golly, do all these words make me look fat?


An overweight woman who had trouble keeping her opinions to herself, Michelle Butler Hallett somehow managed to help raise two children. Her husband, Dr David Hallett, who teaches English at Memorial University of Newfoundland and who specializes in Canadian historical drama, Shakespeare, twentieth century British fiction, and the novels of David Adams Richards, insists his wife could cook a decent meal when she felt so inclined and points out that no one starved to death. Gifted with a large nose, Hallett’s wife collected and curated a wide collection of internet-based slow cooker recipes and liked to debate the use of something called the Oxford comma. She complained a great deal about her minor aches and pains, despite repeated advice to “Suck it up, Princess, you don’t look sick,” and it seems she enjoyed writing little stories on evenings and weekends. Sources close to the family note do admit that Mrs Dr David Hallett suffered from problematic hair and a regrettable tattoo habit, though she did sometimes wear makeup and always looked better for taking the time to make the effort.

“Queen bitch! I hope your voice gives out!”

(Triggers: physical and mental abuse)

A favourite song and video: “Would I Lie to You,” by Eurythmics. I watched it this evening after responding to a friend’s Facebook call for songs by or about badass women.

The video starts with the band waiting on Annie, who’s really late for the concert they’re giving. She arrives, driven by her lout of a boyfriend, who’s been at her all evening, it seems. As she tells him she may not come home to him tonight and walks away from his abuse, towards the stage entrance, he calls her a “Queen bitch” and adds “I hope your voice gives out”! Annie gets inside, sits before a mirror …

DAVE: Hey, you’re really late. What’s the matter?
ANNIE: Everything’s the matter, that’s all.
DAVE: Don’t worry. Just be yourself tonight.

This video, and especially that little exchange at the start, helped me break up with a guy who’d hit me. We were teenagers. He hit me during a minor dispute — not even a dispute, but a discussion — over what we might do that evening. I declined a suggestion. He punched me on the upper arm, hard enough to make me stagger, then seized my forearm and twisted it behind my back. I had no idea this attack was coming. I was so furious that the second he let me go I belted him one back.

This happened in public, in broad daylight.

He told me to calm down, as if it was my fault.

We were just teenagers, and I had a safe place to go: home. But even as a teenager, this guy tried mind-games on me, tried to convince me that if I somehow hurt or rejected him — he was sensitive and creative, after all, so I had to be careful, ya know — bad shit might happen. Nothing happened afterwards. I lived in dread of him for weeks. He didn’t come near me. We crossed paths a few times later, and I was civil, too polite, really — because I didn’t want anyone to know he’d hit me, and because, I think, I was afraid he’d do it again if I said the wrong thing.

The wrong thing — as if it was my fault.

We were both just teenagers, and he’d got no way to control other parts of my life, like my finances or, as happens now, my phone. So, yes, I could just walk away.

I couldn’t speak of it, though. And I’m pretty damn mouthy. I’ve no doubt there are people out there who hope my voice gives out some day. But I couldn’t speak of this. For years. Because I felt so ashamed of it. And I’d done nothing wrong. One smack and one arm-twist, from one teenage boy, and I couldn’t speak of it.

What does serial abuse do? Hey? An abusive partner who lives with you, has a finger in your bank account, puts surveillance shit on your cell phone: what toll does that take?

I think about him sometimes, wondering if he ever learned to deal with his anger.

I think about battered partners and the smug shit they have to hear from other people, shit like “Just leave,” as though it’s the battered partner’s fault somehow.

It’s never that easy.