Jan 29, 2011

Monkey droppings - Verbatim by Jeff Bursey

The monkey craves political comedy.

But The Daily Show is on too late, The Colbert Report on even later, The Rick Mercer Report is not as clever as it thinks, and This Hour has 22 Minutes ain't nowhere near what it used to be.

And in a world where Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are political icons, isn't satire dead already?

Verbatim (Enfield & Wizenty, 2010)
by Jeff Bursey
We are not here to make politicians sound like tramps or the average person. We are here to uphold the stability of decorum and the dignity of the house, which comes from the Mother Parliament in England, and is an institution worth preserving, not one to be torn apart. The road we are on is wrong! It leads to a mockery of an institution and degrades the Members.
In a former life, I attended law school for three terrifyingly long/remarkably speedy years. During my tenure as student, I had opportunity to peruse the many legal resources available to Canadians. Dominion Law Reports. The Canadian Abridgement. Black's Law Dictionary. And of course, Hansard, the written accounts of parliamentary debates. And once I looked in, I never wanted to return.

Reading Hansard is a slog (although recent electronic advancements have made it slightly easier to search). I did whatever I could to never need visit its pages. It is an invaluable resource; it is also dreadfully dull. Just my opinion, is all. I pity the person whose job it is to transcribe and edit the speeches, complaints, grandstanding, and just general mental meanderings of these woefully verbose Canadian politicians.

In other words, I pity Jeff Bursey.

Bursey has, going by his official biography, worked for Hansard for seventeen years, as transcriber and editor. It only seems fitting that his debut novel Verbatim have Hansard as its subject. Write what you know, you know? However, if Verbatim proves anything, it's that prolonged exposure to Hansard permanently skews the way you see the world. I mean, what if this is all Bursey can write? The poor man must suffer so, his life doomed to reinterpreting every thought through his editorial prowess.

That's a joke (I'm sure Bursey is inherently sane and pleasant), but not a huge one. Verbatim, written mainly in the form of actual Hansard transcripts, is a political satire so dead-on in tone and presentation it's almost indistinguishable from the real thing. I am sure whole segments of Bursey's imaginings could be dropped into actual Hansard pages with little to no disruption. It is a bold choice, and a commendable achievement, but it's also a flaw, as I'll explain.

Verbatim, set in an unnamed Canadian province sometime in the 1990s, is presented on the pages as actual transcriptions of parliamentary sessions (click here for an actual Hansard example: the presentation is exact in every detail). In this province, the Alliance Party and the Social Progressive battle for supremacy, each member giving lip service to their constituents, each primarily concerned with attacking the other's policies and credibility. Interspersed between sessions are letters between the new Director of Hansard, his staff, and the Clerk of the Court, outlining the day-to-day developments in renovating Hansard editorial policies to more accurately represent the speech and content of parliamentary members. In other words, to make them sound like sensible, rational people, not the easiest task in the world. And as the new Hansard policies are implemented, it becomes more and more obvious that the province is run by, for lack of a better word, sub-literates. And we, correspondingly, are implicitly to blame.

Bursey's reproduction of speech patterns and over-the-top hyperbole of Canadian parliament filtered through the arcane editorial processes of Hansard is note-perfect (I particularly love that, as in real life Hansard transcripts, bits of random hubbub by members are reported as "Some Hon. Members: Oh! Oh!" and "Some Hon. Members: Resign! Resign!"). As the members of each party repeatedly attack and mock the other, the statements prove that Parliament is, like most institutions, hardly a step above an elementary school in pettiness, vindictiveness, wilful blindness, purposeful obtuseness, and one-upmanship. As Bursey writes it, there are big, important issues out there, but when Parliament is in session, he who shouts the loudest and longest wins. This is hardly a new idea, but Bursey's inventiveness and integrity to the style and cause of his satire breathes new life into a stale theme. The epigraph by Wyndham Lewis is instructive: "Should we describe it as Satire (merely because it does not refine the truth?) or should we call it realism?" Bursey's satire is well-nigh indistinguishable from the real thing.

Indeed, Verbatim is such intensively perfect rendition of Hansard that it inadvertently falls prey to my own issue with Hansard; it can be frustratingly hard to read. This is not satire that may be read as a novel, in its more usual storytelling form. There are no characters, and members are interchangeable. This is as it should be, of course, showing us that good intentions and integrity mean nothing when the game of politics is at play. Yet I cannot deny that, as the book goes on and the attacks become louder and louder until the clamour of idiocy can almost be heard through the ink on the page, the satire becomes wearisome.

Verbatim is a book is easier to admire than it is to enjoy; just in the writing of this, I've realized that my appreciation of Bursey's accomplishment is far deeper than I first suspected. Bursey stuck to his guns on its form and narrative style, and should be applauded for the result (and it was not an easy book to get to press: click here for a story concerning one of its past publishing upheavals). His presentation is perfect, the comedy subtle yet deep (with a few broad jibes thrown in). Verbatim is not an easy book to digest, and I fear its challenging nature will turn off potential readers; it is, however, damned fine at points, and overall deeply worthwhile.



Jeff said...

Corey, hello. Thanks for the great review.

Just to let you and your readers know, I'll be at the Fredericton Library on 9 February to give a reading from _Verbatim: A Novel_. Admission is free, of course. Book sales will be handled by Westminster Books.

There's an interactive aspect to the reading, so I hope the audience will join in the spirit of the book. More details then.

Again, Corey, thanks for the good read of the book.

Jeff Bursey

Plante-Fitch said...

Wish I could be in F'ton. I like how this review turned inside out and back on itself. Monkey does the pretzel. Like a real reader reading. This is the kind of reviewing I like. Thx. Will get book to see for myself. BTW- Jon of the Daily Show-genius.

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