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Posts Tagged ‘john burnside

Rising Up, Rising Down

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John Burnside’s latest novel, Glister, finds him looping back to territory he has already mapped. His last but one novel, Living Nowhere, was set in the Corby of his adolescence, dominated by the steel works and on the cusp of becoming post-industrial. It was clearly strongly autobiographical and he followed this with a stunning memoir, A Lie About My Father, which Burnside noted was “best treated as a work of fiction.” Now, with Glister, he revisits the same subjects – youth, family, small town isolation – as fabulation. Things are heightened and distorted, mirroring the hallucinogens which feature in all three books. Corby is transmuted into Innertown and Outertown and the steel works simply become the Plant. Equally notionally the book exists outside of time but, flashes of modernity notwithstanding, we are back in the Seventies in Burnside’s youth.

It is an oddly structured novel: a clutch of short third-person chapters give way to a novella-length first-person chapter which makes up the bulk of the book. This is narrated by Leonard, an incredibly precocious and disaffected fifteen year old “who is quietly disappearing from the world he used to know and has already stopped knowing, more or less on purpose.” (p4) Not only is he too big for the town but a series of boys his age have disappeared. A fiction is maintained that they have simply left home but no one believes this, the pull of the Innertown is too strong. No one escapes:

But he didn’t go away. Nobody goes away. The kids talk about it all the time but the truth is , none of us really know what’s out there, twenty, or fifty, or a hundred miles along the coast road, because nobody has ever gone that far. (p68)

Instead a serial killer seems to be at work. Death is not rare in Burnside’s work but this hint of a crime drama or even a thriller makes the novel stand out. It is misdirection though, there is no interest in a genre narrative. Burnside’s focus remains fixed and it is impossible to read Glister in isolation. Dan Hartland described the novel as “visionary and elusive” and in a way it is but it is also much less so than Living Nowhere or A Lie About My Father. Burnside is a poet but much of the prose falls flat and there is often only a slender gap between ambiguity and inarticulacy. Burnside is doing many clever things here but he failed to hold my interest and that is a pretty damning criticism.

Written by Martin

14 July 2009 at 20:02

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Certain Weather

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Poet in the City is an exciting and innovative venture philanthropy charity committed to attracting new audiences to poetry, making new connections for poetry, and raising money to support poetry education, in particular the placing of poets in schools.

BLDGBLOG alerts me to the fact that, in partnership with Poet in the City, Lloyds have commissioned new poetry by Patience Agbabi, John Burnside and Matthew Hollis on the subject of climate change. It was Burnside’s name that caught my eye, I am a great admirer of his prose but I’ve never actually read his poetry. Here is an excerpt from ‘The Afterlife Of Animals’:

and, far in the life to come,
through quicklime, or ice,

we’ll either forget,
or remember without knowing why,

the songs of all the birds that ever
nested in these walls: the shifting

dialects of mistle-thrush and wren,
the sparrows in the hedge, the herring gulls,

and out along the fence, the bright ascent
of skylarks, faded now

to static, in a tuft
of scalded grass

It is apparently National Poetry Month in America at the moment so maybe I will take this as an opportunity to read a bit more. Although I frequently say this with very little outcome.

Written by Martin

3 April 2009 at 13:11

New Yorker Fiction

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The Millions have helpfully put together an annotated list of all the fiction that appeared in the New Yorker last year. It includes stories by three writers I admire a lot:

‘Awake’ by Tobias Wolff

Wolff is one of my favourite short story writers but really this is just a vignette. He still manages to conjure up a lot from very little though; a callow youth awake next to his sleeping girlfriend in the middle fo the night, picking at the scabs of his own self-doubt whilst at the same time inadvertantly revealing even more about his character.

‘The Bell Ringer’ by John Burnside

This is a very slowly told and gentle story. Burnside’s style is always somewhat detached – even in his superb memoir, A Lie About My Father – but usually it has a greater sense of immediacy and it is frequently punctuated by violence. Here the story resolutely mirrors its quiet, isolated setting as it describes a woman struggling with her desire for something other than her life.

‘Lostronaut’ by Jonathan Lethem

Both the above stories could be considered typical New Yorker fare. Lethem’s science fiction story of an astronaut trapped in orbit is different but shares the same atmosphere of muted despair. Presented as a series of letters to a lover on Earth it chronicles life in the remorseless face of entropy.

All three have written better but they are worth checking out and the list is definitely worth a perusal.

Written by Martin

5 January 2009 at 21:11