Political Realities

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.


15 thoughts on “Political Realities

  1. This sounds like a book I very much want to read, thank you for your wonderfully suggestive review. I’ve been thinking about institutional fictionalizations–the courtroom as place where extra-fictive reality is stripped away and everything reduced to a kind of metaphysical drama–not all the way of stage drama, or what film & TV do with legal proceedings: something more stark, closer to the annals of psychoanalytic sessions, or philosophical renderings of them. This book, as you describe it, would seem to be working out similar ideas. I believe deeply that we need to find our way to demythologized narrative, and here might be a step in the right direction.

    Wishing you the best for the coming year!


  2. What an interesting sounding book! I like that the librarian is territorial and the techie self-important. I think I might know them! The book sounds so realistic in many ways, I wonder did it make you somewhat depressed about the state of politics?

  3. Litlove, it is both ironic and delightful that I, a Canadian reader and writer, should hear about this distinctively Canadian book from a UK reviewer! I’ve got it on my list. I’m not sure if it’s my cup of tea, but I think it would be A’s.

  4. This sounds fascinating! I love novels that make use of “primary sources” in unusual ways, and this seems to take that idea to the next level. The side-by-side storylines are also a fascinating touch. I will definitely have to look this up; thanks so much for the tip.

  5. I’m not sure this would be up my alley, but you do have a knack for making books I might not otherwise pick up sound really interesting. I love the layout of the book–very clever indeed.

  6. You do read the most interesting books, LL. I’m a little surprised that with its experimental form this one made it into print. Not that it doesn’t deserve it – and satire does seem one of the best ways of portraying politicians – but it seems to involve more work on the part of the reader to make sense of it. But it sounds like it works.

  7. Jacob – oh you really MUST read this book. You’ve reviewed it better than I have without having properly seen a page. I am so interested in what you say about institutional fictionalisations – that describes this perfectly, and I agree that it is definitely a direction in which we should be looking to see how narrative functions today. A very happy New Year to you, too!

    Stefanie – lol! I know just what you mean! Politicians per se make me feel depressed, but there’s something quite intriguingly neutral about the emotions of this book. You can sense the author is angry at politicians and having a go at them, but it’s all so subtly done that the reader feels mostly invited just to sit back and watch – you’re not told to emote in ways ordinary narrative tells you to. And once literature has got hold of a situation and starts to disembowel it, only good things can come forth. We need to have a place where we can discuss the disaster that is politics, and the cultural arena of literature and television and film is starting to wake up to that (have you seen the film, ‘In The Loop’?, that’s like The Office, but for politics). I’m very interested to see what will develop next.

    Lilian – how funny! Isn’t that the joy of blogging? I can’t count how many books I’ve heard about (English and otherwise) that I would never have come across otherwise. I do hope A likes this – it struck me as the perfect book for someone interested in current affairs.

    Emily – I would love to know what you make of this if you get hold of it. You’re spot on about those primary sources. It’s very intriguing formally.

    SFP – I would also love to know what you make of it! I didn’t know you were a fan of political blogs – it’s always a treat to find out more about blogging friends.

    Danielle – I wasn’t sure about how I’d get on with it, but it is surprisingly easy to read. That being said, I think it’s the kind of book that readers with a particular interest in politics will love. If you ever develop a love of politics, you could look it up then! 🙂

    Pete – the publisher who sent me this sent me two other books, both of which seemed literary and unusual and interesting. So hurray for some publishers who are prepared to keep trying new things. I thought I would have to work a lot harder than I did with this book, and once I’d got used to the page layout (I thought it would take me ages to read, but not so), then it was just fine. But I know what you mean – anything experimental requires you to be in a certain mood and frame of mind.

  8. This sounds brilliant. Being US centric politic wise as I am I can not help but read that quote from the elderly statesman and think of one of the very few politicians I admire. The self aggrandizement of politicians and their perpetual need to market themselves appropriately so they can forever (or so it seems) justify their salaries, benefits, and expenses being paid by the taxpayers is more than irksome to me and throws me outright into the camp of vitriol and outrage. I do, however, love a good bit of satire and might just plunk this one on my TBR list next to PJ O’Rourke’s “Don’t Vote – It Just Encourages the Bastards”. The similarities between US government and British have only been increasing over the last century and so I can’t help but see this as being relevant here as well. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

  9. Very interesting! I love books that do something different with form and aren’t afraid to mess with readers’ expectations for a certain kind of narrative. I’m not that into politics, but I’m curious about this if only for the form.

  10. Oh, how cool! I am weirdly enthralled by trial transcripts (I have the Oscar Wilde libel trial transcript, and the Scopes trial transcript as well), and this sounds right up my street. Adding it to my list for the new year!

    Nice use of “rebarbative”, by the way. I never feel that word gets enough play.

  11. Litlove, I very much enjoyed reading your review of this book. I am a big fan of “Verbatim: A Novel” and had an emotional as well as an intellectual response to it. I had the pleasure, however, of being at the Charlottetown launch and seeing (and in fact participating in) the “script” being brought to life by writers on the island taking various parts of the politicians. A well-loved literary figure (former PEI poet laureate, John Smith) read the part of the “elderly statesman” with dramatic gravity and sincerity. Other participants stood up and denounced him from the audience. It was quite an evening! The author invited audience members to yell out “oh oh” and “hear hear” to act as politicians and participate in the reading; they did so with gusto. You might be interested in reading my review of the book on Amazon.ca since my approach brings out different aspects of the novel. One of my favourite qualities to this book is the seemingly endless levels of meaning it contains. (You can find my review at: http://www.amazon.ca/Verbatim-Novel-Jeff-Bursey/dp/1926531035/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1293806090&sr=1-1)(Sorry – I don’t know how to put a actual link into my comment – please copy and paste). Happy New Year to you and to all who visit this site!

  12. Kimberly – I’d love to know what you think of it – I could easily see it gracing a banned book list one of these days! Oh and the author is Canadian, so I expect the scenes to be closer to American politics than British ones (but perhaps that’s not so? I am shamefully ignorant in this area). But for political junkies, I would think it would make a very provocative read.

    Dorothy – the form is highly unusual, and as is so often the case, it really feeds into what’s being suggested about questions of truth and authenticity. I’d love to know what you make of it, if it ever did end up in your hands.

    Jenny – so nice to have my vocabulary appreciated! I am very fond of the word, and probably use it more than I should… And would love to know what you think of this if you read it. I am most intrigued by the thought of transcripts from Oscar Wilde’s trial. I remember reading the book about the obscenity trial for Lady Chatterley’s Lover and being completely gripped by it.

    Beth – I love your review – wow! You do a fantastic job of covering all the aspects of the novel, and much that I leave out here. I’ll bet it must have been fantastic to hear the book brought to life that way – what a great experience you must all have had! Thank you for the link – I clicked on the second one and it came through perfectly.

  13. Pingback: Three Unique Voices | Tales from the Reading Room

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