In the run-up to Christmas, I read what has to be the most unusual book of the year, Verbatim: A Novel by Jeff Bursey. It’s set in the parliament of an unnamed Atlantic province in Canada and consists in the main of the transcripts of the assembly’s proceedings. From October through to June, at some point during the 90s, the politicians of opposing parties slug it out in the arena of the House, performing peacocks that strut and preen, attack and aggress one another. The issues are universal and yet particular – the problems of unemployment in rural areas, the stability or otherwise of multinational conglomerates that promise riches but may implode before they make them, problems with health care and crime, the state of the roads in an area subject to extreme weather, taxation and the personal peccadilloes of politicians. Outside the House, the problems are real and pressing, but inside it they undergo a strange transformation and become lost in clouds of rhetoric, or undermined by sharp, personal insults, traded with dirty tricks and corrupted by desire for power. I can’t stress enough how real this all felt – I even found myself checking halfway through that this was indeed a fictional province and fictional transcripts, because the language used is so perfect and convincing that there is a disconcerting lack of mediation or distance, only enhanced by the layout of the pages:
I thought this was something you had to see for yourselves. The page is split into two columns and reads more like a screenplay, with the politician’s speeches indicated only by name (there’s a sort of cast list at the front). There’s a point to this beyond the evocation of a kind of hyperrealism: alongside the machinations of the politicians, runs a subplot concerning the members of Hansard, the division that produces the transcripts of parliamentary sessions from recordings for posterity. This part of the story is told in a series of emails that run between the Speaker of the House, who tries to keep order in sessions, the Clerk of the House, who is a sort of administrative go-between, and the newly-appointed Director of Hansard, struggling to make deeply resented changes to the way his division runs. The poor Director is besieged by problems – the terrible conditions and pay his people have to work under, their lack of recognition, and the difficulty of the work they do, turning everyday speech into a better, but still truthful, version of itself. There’s a bit I really enjoyed when, as a minor rebellion, the Director sends the transcripts of proceedings out unedited, showing up how the politicians sound, how incoherent and rambling they are, without the meticulous editing work Hansard does. In fact, I loved all of this part, the attention to language and the anality of the issues that arose, as to the differences between X-ray and x-ray, for instance, or the controversial use of the dash. And once again, despite the fact that the reader only has emails at his or her disposal, their naturalistic quality gives a real feel for the working conditions and the personalities involved: the oily snakiness of the cunning Clerk, the fierce integrity of the Director, and some rather delightful minor characters, including the aggressively territorial librarian and the self-important techie person.
This is a very subtle book, and on first glance a rebarbative one. I wasn’t sure that I would get on with its peculiar layout and its exclusive attention to the spoken-word-written-down – there are no descriptions, no contextualising, no back stories. But it is surprisingly easy to read, and the whole point of politics is to create drama and conflict, even where there should be none. But if you go into this book not liking politicians, it is certainly not about to change your mind. With nothing but their words to condemn or recommend them (and as I say, they are the very quintessence of parliamentary speech) one ends up despairing of any system of government that relies on this kind of conflict-based approach to problem-solving. The need to win the war of words, and the demands of vanity and self-promotion, are so much the prime concerns that the reality of people suffering becomes a terrible, artificial prop more often than not. There was one moment that really struck me, when one of the elderly statesmen stands up to decry the behaviour of politicians in a moving and hard-hitting speech, but is instantly denounced by his offended colleagues who call him a communist and a reactionary, and accuse him of embracing the sorts of arguments that caused Hiroshima! ‘There is nothing wrong with a parliament, but nothing right with a malfunctioning one, and that is what we have now’, the elderly statesman declares, although he might as well have said that there are none so blind as those who will not see.
The epigraph to the book is a perfect one by Wyndham Lewis: ‘Should we describe it as Satire (merely because it does not refine the truth) or should we call it realism?’ As I say, this is a very subtle narrative, one that produces a meditation on what a ‘true’ account of political speech looks like, but that also appears by its hyper-realism to offer politicians just the right amount of rope to hang themselves. It isn’t a perfect read – there are so many politicians that I never got them sorted out (and the absence of descriptive markers and so on did have an effect for me here), although some I recognized when their pet issues came up, and some, like the Premier and the two Leaders of the main parties had most air time and therefore most space in which to become characters. There are no concessions to the story-hungry among readers; those who long for dramatic crises and catastrophes will remain unsatisfied. The integrity of focusing on the everyday matters of government pays off at the level of ideas, but can sometimes dampen the reading experience. And whilst I found the politicking intriguing, my heart was with the Hansard storyline, which made the book for me, and raised it above the level of just a political satire to something more profound about the difficulties involved in representing or refining the truth of what we say. I would have liked there to be more of it than there was. But if politics is your thing, and if you have a taste for satire, then this would be just an ideal read, and whatever your level of curiosity about government, this remains a clever, witty and extremely unusual novel. To produce something unique and original in this tired age of the sequel and the repackage is pretty impressive.