:: Article

A Glass House in the Age of Criticism

By Chris Via.

Jeff Bursey, Unidentified man at left of photo (corona/samizdat, 2020)

In his third novel, Canadian writer Jeff Bursey places readers in a glass house and arms them with stones. But before clarifying the metaphor, this particular brand of fiction needs to be defined. According to Bursey’s preface to Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews (2016), his preferred term is exploratory fiction. Other labels include experimental, speculative, innovative, and a litany of pejoratives from the tradition’s opposition. With roots in Rabelais and Tristram Shandy the branches extend to B. S. Johnson’s book-in-a-box The Unfortunates (1969); Raymond Federman’s typographically exuberant Double or Nothing (1971); Italo Calvino’s reflexive, metafictional If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979); Annie Dillard’s assemblage of previously published “found poems” in Mornings Like This (1995); Mark Z. Danielewski’s cult sensation House of Leaves (2000) [1], which features explicitly in Bursey’s book; and even Jonathan Safran Foer’s dismantling of Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles (1934) in Tree of Codes (2010) [2]. Now, in Unidentified man at left of photo, Bursey similarly dispenses with mainstream literary decorum, brings the author-in-the-act-of-authoring into the work, and ultimately exposes and challenges the notion of reader as critic.

Randall Jarrell’s 1952 essay “The Age of Criticism” remains one of the strongest arguments on the phenomenon of criticism supplanting reading and should be a required text for readers of all stripes. “There has never been an age in which so much good criticism has been written—or so much bad; and both of them have become…astonishingly or appallingly influential” [3]. For Jarrell “the act of criticism…has become the representative or Archetypal act of the intellectual”, driving home the point with an anecdote about a reader who declines to read Moby-Dick because they have already read it once and then promptly “start[ing] out on the latest book about Melville.” He goes on to draw the conclusion that with so much criticism at the forefront of the literary conversation readers cannot help but approach this or that work from a disposition saturated in notions of what is and is not acceptable. Of course, one of the aims of criticism is to inform potential readers, but it has become more and more difficult to determine which criticism is good or bad. Luckily, Jarrell gives us several tips for discerning bad critics, including: “[the bad critic’s] methodical and oblivious contempt for unfashionable masterpieces, his methodical and superstitious veneration for fashionable masterpieces and their reflections…”

We seem to be on the path of an infinite regression: a need for critics of critics. But what Jarrell is more insistent on is the need to reverse the priorities of the fiction and its criticism: “We do not become good critics by reading criticism and, secondarily, the ‘data’ or ‘raw material’ of criticism: that is, poems and stories. We become good critics by reading poems and stories…; it is reading criticism which is secondary…” Some seventy years after Jarrell’s essay it is clear that the intertwining of reader and critic has become commonplace, partly explained in David Foster Wallace’s point that his generation of writers were the first to come after the apex of literary theory [4]. Indeed, today’s writers are keenly aware of their position, knowing with every keystroke what this or that critical school will extrapolate from the “raw data.” In the face of the artist’s need to create and the reader’s need to criticize, Jeff Bursey, himself a critic, puts this pervasive hyper-awareness on full display, preempting (or perhaps taunting) the reader-critic from all angles.

This “being aware of what today’s reader is aware that the writer is aware of” makes for a smörgåsbord of postmodern capers—some familiar, some original. The fourth wall has long been broken in film and literature and it is in no better shape here. The narrator is the writer of the book we are reading, though not necessarily Jeff Bursey. Subversive, irreverent punctuation abounds, beginning with the title. Almost all place names are lower-case (charlottetown, tignish, victoria, prince edward island, canada), yet people names are conventionally capitalized (even though the author refers to his characters as “things”). After one salacious scene we are told: “And, yes, I am interested in getting the Bad Sex in Fiction Award”[5]. In a twist on the footnotes-in-fiction that Infinite Jest (1996) popularized, the author-narrator employs what can be called the “paragraph note,” and in one such note informs us that “these notes are not inspired by DFW but by Edward Gibbon.” One chapter is composed of questions; another assembles lines taken from native pei [6] poets; and Mad Lib-like blanks invite the reader to supply details. A Tim Hortons gift card is offered to the reader who can correctly identify a particular allusion [7].

For some readers these shenanigans alone will be enough to delight in the reading, but the question arises whether or not these gimmicks are enough to sustain interest throughout the book for other readers. There are times, such as the banter about rendering dialogue, when the tread gets worn, but overall the author-narrator’s charmingly snarky voice keeps the conceit fresh. From his refrain of “I can’t be bothered” (usually in reference to some expected nicety like, say, a character’s backstory) to the deadpan line “If you want realism, put your hand in a fire,” we cannot help but welcome the intrusion. Even if some of his ruses are imbalanced, the two “blank” chapters “Trouble in the henhouse” and “Trouble in the henhouse (reprise),” whose punchline and debunking of a writing myth are delayed for maximal effect, make up for it [8].

What is the book about? This is a great question since the copy on the back cover is informative but not exactly credible. In the author-narrator’s words this is “a Gold Cup and Saucer-inspired cotton candy wad of a love letter to c-town,” of which Bursey is a native [9]. We start with Joe, whose name we are told is inspired by Henry Miller’s first novel [10], and who ends up in c-town because of a family inheritance (quest novel setup?). Then we move to the dead body of a redheaded girl (possible mystery story?), complete with a crowd of rubberneckers equipped with a vocabulary reminiscent of Alexander Theroux’s notorious “Why Don’t You—?” chapter of Darconville’s Cat. Then we move to Ruby MacMuckman, who is working on removing the passive property from her passive-aggression, and a grocery store clerk as the first victim of Ruby’s new code of conduct (Seinfeld-esque sitcom novel?). Alan and Rebecca MacKendolandyon have drifted apart in their marriage (a novel of infidelity?) [11]. Raymond and Terra have a suspiciously close but ultimately platonic relationship (rom-com?). Farley McTeague pitches his own self-published pei-themed books to local sellers (Künstlerroman?). Whatever it is, the book is a roving observation of ordinary people in an ordinary place which, though specifically Charlottetown, could really be any place. One key theme that arises in all this pedestrian domesticity finds its indebtedness in Henry Miller’s hedonism: “Do you have to suffer because you don’t want to make anyone else unhappy?”

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. Regardless of our judgment, the author-narrator offers many justifications for his antics, the general position being summed up as “Look, I live with this thing for months or years, and you can get through it in half a day.” In the end, though, the book—or rather the author-narrator—is more generous with talent than the theatrics would have us presume. From a session of miniature golf that becomes a philosophical journey to a torrential ending with a personification of Hurricane Bruce, Bursey/“Bursey” succeeds in pulling off what should be a failed stunt—even if he does complain that the “bit at the golf course wore me out with its Themes and Messages.”

[1] Danielewski pushed the genre to new limits in his series The Familiar (2015-2017), which was canceled by the publisher after its first “season,” proving that even a notable experimentalist cannot fulfill publishing ROI bottom lines.
[2] This seems to have been a brief fling for Foer that left fans of his more conventional fiction perplexed and demanding a return to form, which he followed with Here I Am (2016). To be fair, that book does contain text messages.
[3] Citations of Jarrell’s essay come from No Other Book: Selected Essays (1999).
[4] I cannot be bothered to find this citation, but I encourage the reader to seek it out. If this footnote bothers you, you may do well not to read Bursey’s latest book after all.
[5] See: https://literaryreview.co.uk/bad-sex-in-fiction-award.
[6] Prince Edward Island.
[7] Another reminder that this is a specifically Canadian novel.
[8] If this is not enough, there is a good dose of male protuberances done in the slapstick manner of Pynchon’s early scenes in Mason & Dixon (1997), but not in the plot-critical manner of Gravity’s Rainbow (1973).
[9] Inside jokes and local color (I mean, colour) adorn the text and make me wish I were a native.
[10] Bursey upset the English department at Memorial University of Newfoundland with his choice to write his MA thesis on Miller’s work.
[11] This is perhaps because he tried to read Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men to her as bedtime reading.


Chris Via is a book reviewer based in North Carolina. His work appears in Rain Taxi Review of BooksSplice3:AM MagazineThe Arts Fuse, and The Rupture. He recently contributed introductions and afterwords to several novels; and in 2018 he won honorable mention for Grove Atlantic’s national book review competition. He is also the host of the growing literature-obsessed YouTube channel Leaf by Leaf. Chris holds a B.A. in computer science and an M.A. in literature and writing.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 18th, 2020.