Jeff Bursey - a fill-in-the-blanks novel mercifully free from characters to warm to and without tiresome plot points to retain, features artistic foibles, domestic strife, questions galore, a catastrophic hurricane, and a narrative voice that veers from mean to genial as it explores whatever topics come to mind

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


Unidentified man at left of photo, a fill-in-the-blanks novel mercifully free from characters to warm to and without tiresome plot points to retain, features artistic foibles, domestic strife, questions galore, a catastrophic hurricane, and a narrative voice that veers from mean to genial as it explores whatever topics come to mind and spills into the open what’s been overheard in public conversations in Charlottetown, PEI.

“Jeff Bursey tries his hardest to ruin a perfectly good novel about life in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, with all sorts of postmodern hijinks, but thankfully fails. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say he does for c-town what Joyce did for Dublin, he does more for it than Joyce ever did. The inexplicably titled Unidentified man at left of photo is Bursey’s most entertaining novel yet.” —Steven Moore, author of The Novel: An Alternative History

“I’m telling you now, Bursey, you use more than one paragraph of this letter of complaint to promote that nit-picking piece of crap you call a book and every page of my next book will be an excoriating explication of your entire oeuvre.”—Wayne Johnston, author of The Mystery of Right and Wrong

“Bursey has written a satire of PEI life that’s both under-developed and over-exposed. Mine is called The Crack in Everything or The Island Gospel According to Samson Grief and is so much better.”—Steve Mayoff, author of Our Lady of Steerage

Unidentified man at left of photo, a fill-in-the-blanks novel mercifully free from characters to warm to and without tiresome plot points to retain, features artistic foibles, domestic strife, questions galore, a catastrophic hurricane, and a narrative voice that veers from mean to genial as it explores whatever topics come to mind and spills into the open what’s been overheard in public conversations in Charlottetown, PEI.

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Jeff Bursey, Mirrors on which Dust has Fallen. Verbivoracious Press, 2015.

Rules are ticklish things; perhaps even worse is the contemplation of their absence. The notion of the “plotless existence” is introduced late into Jeff Bursey’s tricky, unpredictable, humane second novel, Mirrors on which dust has fallen:*
. . . For instance, this morning I was pondering the question of the plotless existence.
— The what? The—
— It comes up from time to time. We each have these black dogs howling around us. Don’t you have one? Don’t you worry about where you’re going?
The way it’s framed by the obnoxious Jules Deeka, he could as easily be talking about the “purposeless existence,” and indeed, purposeless would be the standard frame for those “black dogs howling around us.” I take this elision, from plotless to purposeless, to lie at the heart of Mirrors. It’s built into the book’s formal strategies and abeyances, its small-town motley and prim subversions (the small-r revelations of which are one of its more serious pleasures). Is “plot”—the need for stories—inevitable to consciousness? We inhabit narrative throughout our lives, it seems, we wear our plots and pretenses like we do our clothes and the falser these stories seem, the more we cling to them. A kind of Gaddisfied Our Town, Mirrors doesn’t so much abandon plot as keep it within hailing distance. Bursey’s genial sprawl creates the impression that with a few recalibrations—applying more weight here, curbing conversational fat there—one could in fact have a wealth of story. It’s a matter of what rules one applies.
In any case, the conversation above moves onto matters of faith. Unsurprisingly: Mirrors is full of conversions, apostasies, betrayals and losses of faith, transitions (lots of transitions), and it shares some of its characters’ earnestness in confronting such changes. The title inverts the Baha’i exegesis of Christ’s urging that we “become as little children”:
That is why Christ has addressed the world, saying, “Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”—that is, men must become pure in heart to know God. The teachings have had great effect. Spiritual souls! Tender souls! The hearts of all children are of the utmost purity. They are mirrors upon which no dust has fallen.
As Bursey’s inversion might suggest, the narrative byways leave much to chance, cleave to chance, almost, as if tracking the patterns falls of dust might take. And yet the question of authorial control (or intrusion) was never far from this reader’s mind. For example, not too long after Deeka’s reference to the “plotless existence,” Bursey has a couple of drinkers ponder the question of purity in terms very close to those Baha’i mirrors, at Johnny’s bar (one of the more regular locales in a book where determinations of place/space seem as significant as the characters frequenting them). Most books where characters openly debate the title theme would suggest sledgehammer finesse, but Bursey’s artistry here as in his 2011 debut lies in the shrewd, minutiae-driven exhibition of the obvious: liberation through transcription. Whatever’s being smuggled in, I doubt it’s message. More like the manipulations of a wry anti-novelistic sensibility: whatever he can get away with. At Johnny’s, over the course of several woozily digressive pages (a Bursey specialty), this image of purity is picked up, put down, interrupted, mauled . . . —but, taken on its own, it’s hard to see the purpose. A bull-session reproduced in admirable detail, if detailing not-too-bright conversation is in itself admirable, but Bursey doesn’t seem that interested in sounding these characters or presenting the dialog dramatically, as much more than detail work. The high burnish of this “super-realism” and its modest register leaves any obvious message-mongering at bay, and the conversation itself (including its planting) unresolved, in suspension. This formal adumbration of the bigger picture, so to speak, has a local correlative in the strong focus on moments of decision, transition, and sudden insights into roads taken and not. Below, for example, a telemarketing wizard named Alistair discovers his inner doppelbanger:
. . . Since late spring, his most frequent dream lover was himself, an exact duplicate, who knew precisely what to do, a guy named Al, disease-free, unattached, who played the dominant sexual role, but in every respect was a slave. Joining with Al, his braver self, Alistair would feel everything the two of them did. He could be there at the beginning and end of lust, and of caring, for he deserved to come home at the end of a hard day to a home-cooked meal and a blow job.
When the idea of possessing his double seized his imagination, Alistair’s mood briefly changed, for he found what eluded him these years. Not another man, thank you Jesus, but me, me.
Bursey’s language wears the subjective mantel of his character’s objectively absurd conceit, while also remaining somewhat aloof. And if you imagine that “thank you Jesus” is all in innocence, here’s how he ends the chapter: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me as a sinner. On a Sunday night, this ejaculation from a time long past might not help him.” God permeates Mirrors on which dust has fallen, or talk of God does, seeping through the cracks and fissures Bursey’s style effectively underwrites. The debt to William Gaddis is pronounced in both the prevalence and manner of the dialogue, although Bursey allows himself a broader arsenal of stylistic gambits. Outside conversations or interior monologues, the writing is elegant without drawing attention to itself, capable of building to what in other books one might label epiphanies. Here their embedding is so cunning and eccentric—the book seems to unfold at individual, institutional, and civic levels simultaneously—they felt closer to “saturation points.” In dialogue, Bursey frequently deploys an important feature of the Gaddis burlesque, forcing the reader to trick out the “action” from a polyphony of voices in all their gloriously cracked empiricism, absent traditional identity markers. Bursey works, however, to create a more metaphysical pressure, a constant, subtle consciousness of what’s missing or, more accurately, being denied.
Set in the same fictional Atlantic town of Bowmount, Canada as his debut, Verbatim: A Novel, Mirrors possesses an equally large cast: 20-30 recurring characters (real speaking parts), 6-10 of whom could be called central, many related, often vaguely. I’m using ranges rather than numbers to emphasize the book’s quiet confounding of such categories. Likewise, Mirrors avoids unmediated contact between author and reader (i.e., language that isn’t spoken, transcribed or thought by some internal character: witness the near-total absence of descriptive language). When “scene-setting” occurs, Bursey imposes/mimes neutrality, often (this reader feels) with a Cheshire grin. The book opens, for instance, with a narrator-cum-village-greeter as quaint as Bob Balaban, dishing up local geography, history and figures before identifying a “motley collection of men and women from all strains, ages and affiliation,” “idlers” lacking civic spirit or pride. “It is mainly with that despised group of non-believers that [Mirrors] is concerned,” the narrator sententiously intones, and then disappears for the rest of the book. We meet Loyola Holden, a slacker in his late 20s, who functions, very diffidently, as the focus of the narrative. Very diffidently. Loyola‘s like a leaf, blown by the billows of other people’s talk (mostly, his pompous friend/mentor, Deeka) with a couple of unremarkable work and romantic dilemmas thrown in (he wants to fuck his cousin). Chapter titles (e.g., “The wrinkled homunculus,” a personal favorite) and how they relate to the material contained within are more obviously having fun. Roughly two-thirds of the way into Mirrors, the focus shifts from Loyola to Ivy, an attractive single woman in her early forties with her own romance problems. I see the baton being passed, eccentrically but not surprisingly, in the conversation quoted above, on the “plotless existence.” Ivy is Deeka’s hapless interlocutor.
The movement of Mirrors is Brownian, with a floating, tag-along quality reminiscent of late Bunuel (see also, Monty Python’s Flying Circus). More often than not, narrative attention follows or swerves to the who or what nearest to hand. Chapters are organized by place, the characters primarily conveyed in dialogue, but with a roving attendance that picks up, lingers, puts down the free-indirect POVs &/or first-person thoughts of random encounters. The profusion of transitions, connections and dislocations—often abrupt—requires some care. And while this isn’t a difficult book, as the pressures of what’s not really happening (plot) build, so too questions of what-it-all-means (purpose). Unlike some avant- or experimental books or books that distrust traditional narrative (which is what I fear this review is making it sound like), Mirrors is rich not just in language, but character, locale, action. And while the emphasis is on the quotidian, both the range—Catholic Archbishop, clerical tyrant, local hothead, etc., etc.—and agile replenishment of characters are, perhaps, Mirrors’ highest achievement. It’s not that Bursey plumbs their depths—this is a book of competing surfaces, after all, even when those surfaces are interior—so much as takes their measure, gives them their due, with a quizzical generosity that nicely balances Mirrors’ peripatetic spirit and chancier conceits.
This is important given that simply following a character through the book, like unwinding its various sinuous threads, is fairly labor-intensive. One book-long interweave with special plangency is worth examining more closely (possible spoilers ahead). Mirrors was written in the 1990s, and the sex-abuse scandals and cover-ups in the Church shift in and out of the background—it’s in the air, a repeated topic of conversation, and Bursey includes a chapter, “Priests,” that includes, briefly, the perspective of (the book strongly implies) one such molester, Fr. Jerome Ryan. Less obtrusively, Bursey uses Duncan Lonegan, a retired architect, to counterpoint the fallout among the laity—the betrayal and emptying-out of belief. Duncan is the book’s deftest, most sympathetic portrait, and the best testament to Bursey’s humane eye. One notes shadings of moral complexity in all Bursey’s portraits, but with Lonegan he gets a voice that is very anguished, sincere and even slightly puerile in its disillusionment. Appreciating the curves & swerves of this intertwining narrative thread—its intricacy and its poignancy—is best done in retrospect, as in the final encounter with Lonegan (note the devoted but not fussy attention below to the curves and swerves of first-to-second thoughts):
In that remote place in Duncan Lonegin’s mind it seemed he could see the many versions of Fr. Jerome Ryan, taken from all the years of acquaintance, superimposed on each other. I prayed to God and the answer wasn’t silence, the answer came through that man.
He chided himself for being so egotistical as to expect the world to stop revolving at that moment. Rev. Batalus continued speaking, Marian kept looking anxiously from him to their daughter, the rustling of clothes and hymnals, the squeaking of shoes, the faint scent of candles, perfume and dampness did not cease or diminish or grow. Absolutely nothing changed. Nothing outside manifested this illuminating solution, and had he taken it for granted anything would have? Later he denied it, but in that moment he desperately wanted an external confirmation or denial of what he heard. The answer to his one question, Am I abandoned?, had been brought to him by one who did God’s work. Now he understood. That answer occupied his mind while at the doors of the church he shook hands mutely, for how could he speak while God talked?
How could he speak while God talked? At its best, Mirrors builds to saturation points of tremendous power—near grace—thrusting a character into individual relief, as opposed to the embeddedness Bursey otherwise plies. The ingenuity of the book lies in a structural overlay that allows these moments their full, dare-one-say novelistic scope without also insisting on their inevitability.
There are occasional lapses. Some of the internal monologues felt weak, there are conversations where mere factitiousness seems to be doing the lifting or which devolve into the meaner-than-life, and there are authorial “nudges,” or so I thought, out of place in the otherwise delicate dance of chance and community. Both the lapses and the debts stand out because the form and ambitions of Mirrors are less forgiving than those of Bursey’s debut—which had the advantage of being both a literary and a conceptual coup. Verbatim: A Novel was written in the 1990s, a few years before Mirrors, and, as Christopher Wunderlee suggests in his introduction to Mirrors, it makes sense to pair the two, as the political-polis faces of their fictional province. Unlike Mirrors,however, Verbatim is a fakebook. That “a novel” after the colon in Verbatim: A Novel is pranking the “verbatim,” and vice versa. Verbatim purports to represent the transcription of parliamentary debates (more like ridiculously petty squabbling) while consistently finding that all-important sweet spot between over-the-top and under-the-wire (something in my opinion Gaddis’ A Frolic of His Own never managed). The “novel” in “A Novel” is more aspirational than not—even more likely, a tease . . . For a while, it had me wondering whether Bursey would try to pull off some kind of double-helix narrative, but whatever’s there, as far as I can tell, is pretty well submerged.
Plotlessness is no big deal when dealing with A Novel in quotes and after a colon, but Mirrors really is a novel. And while Verbatim puts the Gaddis influence to work in the most ingenious—and inscrutable—fashion, in Mirrors it’s just there. Fair enough. Though less successful perhaps than Verbatim, I find the reconciliation Mirrors is seeking with the novel more interesting. A commitment to the quotidian so dutiful as to dissolve its apparent point—like looking at an object until it disappears. A multidimensional play of characters who feel justified in their literalness, rather than in their fictive depths. And a loving, almost plaintive hold on moments of decision and transition as ordinary, let’s say, as our own uncomplaining suspensions of belief. In the end, the author Mirrors put me in mind of wasn’t Gaddis but another who deals in malaprops, misheard words, off-cues, and whose sui generis work is also equably enigmatic, the great Henry Green.
* In addition to being a novelist, Jeff Bursey is a free ranging critic and book reviewer. He has reviewed kindly my two books of fiction, and we correspond occasionally. I consider him a Goodreads friend, whatever the heck that means. -

“The characters are wholly relatable. As I also grew up in a blue-collar town not unlike fictional Bowmount, I am intimately acquainted with the sort of small-fish small-pond malaise on view here… Once I surrendered to the text, details and textures of everyday life washed over me in a beautiful swirl… [Bursey] is continuing in the tradition of the modernists here, a group who struggled to make sense of a broken world. In our world of shock, spectacle and infinite distraction, a modernist novel like Mirrors of Which Dust Has Fallen feels most au courant.”—The Literary Review (U.S.)

“This is a tough book to recommend broadly because it is that rare piece of literature that demands quite a lot of work from the reader. There are wonderful moments and genuine insights, there is dazzling prose, and there are well-drawn characters. But the style is also difficult to follow, the unattributed dialogue a formidable tangle to be unraveled. Readers up for such a challenge will be glad to have put in the effort.”—The Winnipeg Review


Jeff Bursey, Verbatim: A Novel, Enfield & Wizenty, 2010.

Verbatim: a Novel is a blackly humorous expos of parliamentary practice in an unnamed Atlantic province. The dirty tricks, vicious insults, and inept parliamentary procedures of the politicians are recorded by a motley crew of Hansard employees.

But when the Hansard bureaucrats begin to emulate their political masters, the parliamentary system’s supposed dignity is further stripped away. Jeff Bursey reveals in both high and low humour how chaotic and mean—spirited the rules behind the game of politics are, and how political ’virtue’ corrupts everyone. 

"Jeff Bursey has written a clever, highly innovative and highly readable novel. The satire is sharp, sometimes hilarious, the language perfectly suited to the subject — Mr. Bursey has a pitch perfect ear." — Wayne Johnston

"...a tour de force of verbal dexterity that wields irony so deftly that the book, despite its intimidating scale, both challenges and delights." — Dalkey Archive Press

"[Bursey gets right down to political brass tacks in his eccentric, sometimes ingenious debut novel." — Winnipeg Free Press

"...an innovative and insightful narrative that is an uproarious read..." — Arts East

"Let the record also show that this is probably about the funniest intelligent book on politics you can get your hands on these days." — American Book Review

"...if politics is your thing, and if you have a taste for satire, then this would be just an ideal read." — Tales from the Reading Room 

“…through his spirited gift for mimicry, [Bursey] illuminates how the procedures and protocols of governing are perverted to hinder action and fuel the ongoing fractures that only assist the powerful. [Verbatim: A Novel] is that quintessential chronicle that captures a time so deftly, as a reader, it’s like reading your own memories of it.”—Christopher WunderLee, author of Moore’s Mythopoeia

“We have a sense of the characters, their motives and their feuds. We have a sense of the province itself… it is also suffering through a lengthy and brutal recession with no relief in sight. There is a whole world created here, one with its own history and its own angst.”—Mark Sampson, author of All the Animals on Earth

Jeff Bursey, Centring the Margins: Essays and Reviews, Zero Books, 2016. 

Centring the Margins is a collection of reviews and essays written between 2001 and 2014 of writers from Canada, the United States, the UK, and Europe. Most are neglected, obscure, or considered difficult, and include Mati Unt, Ornela Vorpsi, S.D. Chrostowska, Blaise Cendrars and Joseph McElroy, among others.

“…[the] breadth of [Bursey’s] reading is impressive… lending credibility and authority to his reviews, both individual reviews of books he has clearly carefully considered (both text and context) and the assembled reviews as a whole, which collectively leave the impression that their author reads comprehensively across formal and linguistic boundaries, and against the grain of entrenched assumptions about what books are worthy of our attention.”—Daniel Green, author of Beyond the Blurb

“Bursey is just such a patient and actively participating reader, repeatedly demonstrating these qualities to marvelous effect in his criticism. Centring the Margins is the perfect title for this smart, generous, empathetic book… Bursey’s analyses and conclusions set him apart, distinguish him as a singular critic, one who balances aesthetics and politics, one as equally enamored of artful sentences as of playful disruptions of narrative form.—John Madera at Big Other


John Reed reconstructs the works of William Shakespeare into a new five-act tragedy. The language is Shakespeare's, but the drama that unfolds is as fresh as the blood on the stage.

ALL THE WORLD'S a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare - £2.86 |  PicClick UK

John Reed, All the World's a Grave: A New Play

by William Shakespeare, Plume, 2008.

An epic tragedy of love, war, murder, and madness, plucked from the pages of Shakespeare

In All the World's a Grave, John Reed reconstructs the works of William Shakespeare into a new five-act tragedy. The language is Shakespeare's, but the drama that unfolds is as fresh as the blood on the stage.

Prince Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured Juliet as his bride--by reckless war--he returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Enter Iago, who persuades Hamlet that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo. As the Prince goes mad with jealousy, King Lear mounts his army. . .

This play promises to be the most provocative and entertaining work to be added to the Shakespeare canon since Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

What it is: the known works of W.S., reconstructed, line by line, into a new tragedy, starring Hamlet, Juliet & Romeo, Iago, Macbeth, The Queen, Three Weird Sisters, Rosencrantz & Guidenstern, and the Ghost of the King.

The story: Hamlet goes to war for Juliet, the daughter of King Lear. Having captured his bride—by unnecessary bloodshed—Prince Hamlet returns home to find that his mother has murdered his father and married Macbeth. Hamlet, wounded and reeling, is sought out by the ghost of his murdered further, and commanded to seek revenge. Iago, opportunistic, further inflames the enraged Prince, persuading him that Juliet is having an affair with Romeo; the Prince goes mad with jealousy.

The issues engendered: War, parody, the question of what is authorship, sex and exploitation, the current Shakespeare fracas, the long history of Shakespeare adaptations, Shakespeare and Hollywood, the Public Domain, the literary canon, the state of contemporary letters in relation to “great” works, the creative future we bequeath our children.

I had just decided to name my new play “A Year Without Shakespeare,” to express my weariness with the recurring unimaginative return again and again to the Bard. Then I came upon John Reed’s NEW/old play, and I feel fired up! What a dramatic re-imagination is herein offered us! —Richard Foreman

The literary trick of the year! —Page 6, New York Post

I can’t quite believe “All The World’s A Grave”: such an original idea. —Ian McKellen

It’s a shrewd, gutsy remix that brings the conscience of Shakespeare to our troubled times. —Spalding Gray

In All The World’s A Grave, Reed is a director, an orchestrator, and an assembler taking what was present to work with, and making one brand new Reed/Shakespeare partnership play. He says it’s a Shakespeare play, but really it’s a Reed. How could it not be? Reed does to Shakespeare what Shakespeare did to himself. However, this is part of his big question, his radical literary populism, asking where is the author now, where lies the genius ? ... It is at once an act of homage and conquest. —Jordan A. Rothacker, The Believer

An inspired bit of bricolage ... This “remix version” of Shakespeare proves fascinating and entertaining. Reed clearly loves the Bard. His pastiche contains many of Shakespeare’s best passages, which are always a delight to reread. More impressive, though, Reed fashions from this familiar material a story containing enough surprises to delight even those well versed in the Bard. —Jack Helbig, Booklist

What's destabilizing—and often wildly comical—is not just the rude mash-up of characters and settings violently plucked from their canonical sources but the way in which the power of Shakespeare's language flickers uneasily, surging and hissing and fizzing out only to revive and fade again as the words play against their new contexts. —Christianity Today, Favorite Books of 2008

We haven’t experienced this much haughtiness since college! —Timeout New York

A proven Thomas Edison ... sophisticated fun. —Allan Jalon, Huffington Post

An absolute feast of Shakespeare remixed, reborn, and given a freshness I didn't expect--and it's somehow seamless in the re-appropriation for this new narrative. —Sustainable Arts Foundation

Reed caramelizes the Bard’s plays into a great and terrifying world ... a dizzying feat of writing and scholarship, and uncannily contemporary in its brew of constant trouble. —Lynne Tillman

This is the Frankenstein's monster of Shakespearean tragedy. It raises the Artistotelian emotions of pity and fear to a new level as the audience agonizes over the uncertainty of which catharsis John Reed's play is heading toward. —William S. Niederkorn

Reed has brought music's remix culture to literature with stunning results. —David Gutowski, largeheartedboy

All the World’s a Grave alerted the world to a timbre of postmodern genius never before seen in American letters. —Rami Shamir, Evergreen Review

This send-up of the bard is both new yet familiar; by using a literary form of montage, Reed plays with our understanding of some of the best known characters from Shakespeare's oeuvre and creates a work that is eerie in its timeliness. —Finn Harvor, Rain Taxi

The language is Shakespeare's, but the drama that unfolds is as fresh as the blood on the stage. —Fictionwise

The resulting story is both familiar and fresh, and the characters are energized and enlightened. Reed’s juxtaposition allows him to give added depth and dimension to characters. .. Shakespeare fans can expect classics, like Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy or Lady Macbeth’s “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” lament. But Shakespeare fans will have particular fun catching all the familiar Shakespeare lines that come in surprising contexts. It’s not Juliet, for instance, who cries “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou, oh Romeo?” —Scholarsandrogues

With all the cleverness of Touchstone and the mischievousness of Puck, Reed has boldly reimagined the Bard by cutting, pasting, puzzling, and rearranging Shakespeare's own words and characters into an entirely new play. ... Reed has tapped into that muse and produced a re-envisioned Shakespeare that proves to be both provocative, substantial, and entertaining. —hipsterbookclub

A new and invigorating interpretation... electrifying and comprehensive. —Zoe Rosenthal, BatesStudent

ReVO: a media play by John Reed


An American-based terrorist group deploys their weapon of war: a terminal STD. Drama/ultra-black comedy. Shot & set in NYC. 2014/2015.

Future now.

With their leaders facing charges of property crime, the Students for a Democratic Society have splintered and gone underground. Their radical new protest now verges on terrorism. Weapon of choice? RVO, a bio-engineered, lethal, sexually transmitted disease. Delivery method? Fuck the man. Targets? In the ego-soaked, oversexed parade of Manhattan's self-identified petty elite, who can be sure?

In the spirit of New York's No Wave movement of the ’80s, ReVO restores a vision of the chaotic, ugly, solipsistic city altogether missing from contemporary cinematic depictions of New York.

Snowball's Chance by John Reed

John Reed, Snowball’s Chance, Roof Books / 

Melville House, 2012.

Reed's first novel, A Still Small Voice, received high praise from an array of writers and critics. Paul Auster called it "a fine first novel by a young writer of great promise." SNOWBALL'S CHANCE is far more than a scathing sequel to George Orwell's Animal Farm, although it assuredly does count as that rarest of things: a successful sequel to a classic work. In a brilliantly conceived and executed riposte to the marketplace's unthinking cheerleaders, Reed's Snowball, the Pig ousted from the Animal Farm for rationality, returns to bring marketeering to the farm. 

"While reading SNOWBALL'S CHANCE, one plays this terrifying guessing game of animal clef: Which animal am I? Which animal is my neighbour? Which animal is my enemy? Written in lucid, wise, funny, fable-prose, this book brings to mind Spiegelman's Maus--the use of a playful metaphor to reveal horrible, frightening truths we might otherwise refuse to see. A scary, engrossing novel, a sustained triumph"--Johnathan Ames

This unauthorized companion to George Orwell's Animal Farm is a controversial parable about September 11th by one of fiction's most inventive and provocative writers.

Written in 14 days shortly after the September 11th attacks, Snowball's Chance is an outrageous and unauthorized companion to George Orwell's Animal Farm, in which exiled pig Snowball returns to the farm, takes charge, and implements a new world order of untrammeled capitalism. Orwell's "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" has morphed into the new rallying cry: "All animals are born equal--what they become is their own affair."

A brilliant political satire and literary parody, John Reed's Snowball's Chance caused an uproar on publication in 2002, denounced by Christopher Hitchens, and barely dodging a lawsuit from the Orwell estate. Now, a decade later, with America in wars on many fronts, readers can judge anew the visionary truth of Reed's satirical masterpiece.

Orwell's sacred pigs get a proper roast. --Portland Tribune

The estate of George Orwell is not happy about it. --The New York Times

Some books double as a matchstick: if struck in the right conditions, they can cause a wildfire. ... In the three weeks following 9/11, John Reed wrote a riposte to the Cold War fairy tale; the brilliance of Snowball's Chance being that it expands upon Orwell's parable to include terrorism, making the story a workable paradigm for the current global context. --The Rumpus

The novel transcends its particular circumstances ... Snowball's gambit is to turn the farm into a giant spectacle of happiness, and his Animal Fair represents more than just a place: it names an entire ethos. --Guernica

A wicked illusionist. --Los Angeles Journal

A swift and satisfying read, viciously funny. --New York Post

Free John Reed! Free the piggies! --New York Press 

A pig returns to the farm, thumbing his snout at Orwell ... the world had a new evil to deal with, and it was not communism. --The New York Times

Reed has managed to take a dated masterpiece ... and revive it for the odd, casino-like social and political world we're mired in today; in the process he's created his own masterpiece. --Creative Loafing, Charlotte 

Reed's tale, crafted amid ground zero's dust, is chilling in its clarity and inspired in its skewering of Orwell's stilted style. Whether you liked or loathed the original, there's no denying Reed has captured the state of the farm today. --Fort Myers News-Press

Fearless, provocative, and both reverent and irreverent at the same time. --WordRiot

One of the keenest thinkers of our time. --PopMatters


John Reed, A Still Small Voice, Delta/Delacorte, 


A spellbinding novel of love and war from "a young writer of great promise."- Paul Auster

Written with a storyteller's grace and a poet's touch, John Reed's powerful first novel is a true adventure of the heart -- at once a passionate love story and a sweeping historical saga set against a vivid backdrop of the Civil War....

The year is 1859 as seven-year-old Alma Flynt arrives in the Kentucky town of Cotterpin Creek to begin a new life. There, Alma will have as friends, neighbors, and benefactors the magnificent Cleveland family.

With their sprawling mansion and gleaming thoroughbred horses, the Clevelands are a wonder. But from the beginning, one Cleveland draws all of Alma's attention: the youngest son, John Warren.

Alma knew they were meant for each other from their first meeting. But everything changes as war descends on Cotterpin Creek, taking John Warren to battle and sweeping his family into the chaos.

Against this turbulent backdrop, Alma will come of age. And when the fighting is over, the story of a brave young man riding off to battle becomes a haunting journey of vengeance and redemption. And for Alma, yet another journey begins on the day a tormented young soldier staggers back into her life.


John Reed, Tales of Woe, MTV Press, 2010. 

True stories of totally undeserved suffering. Spectacularly depressing. Nobody gets their just deserts. Crushing defeats. No happy endings. Abject misery. Pointless, endless grief.

No lessons of temperance or moderation. No saving grace. No divine intervention. No salvation.

Sin, suffering, redemption. That’s the movie, that’s the front page news, that’s the story of popular culture—of American culture. A ray of hope. A comeuppance. An all-for-the-best. Makes it easier to deal with the world’s misery—to know that there’s a reason behind it, that it’ll always work out in the end, that people get what they deserve. The fact: sometimes people suffer for no reason. No sin, no redemption—just suffering, suffering, suffering. Tales of Woe compiles today’s most awful narratives of human wretchedness. This is not Hollywood catharsis (someone overcomes something and the viewer is uplifted), this is the katharsis of Ancient Greece: you watch people suffer horribly, and then feel better about your own life. Tales of Woe tells stories of murder, accident, depravity, cruelty, and senseless unhappiness: and all true.

The Tales: strange, unexpected, morbidly enticing. Told straight—with elegance, restraint, and simplicity. The design: a one-of-kind white text on black paper, fluidly readable, and coupled with fifty pages of full-color art.


John Reed, The Whole, MTV Books, 2005.

From John Reed, author of the controversial Orwell parody, Snowball's Chance, comes a subversive satire of modern culture, the complete lack thereof, and a lost generation that no one even tried to look for.

In the middle of America's heartland, a young boy digs a small hole in the ground...which grows into a big hole in the ground...which then proceeds to drag the boy, his parents, his dog, and most of their house into a deep void.

Then, as abruptly as the hole started growing, it stops.

So begins the first in a series of events that takes the beautiful-if-not-brainy Thing on a quest to uncover the truth behind the mysterious Hole.

Inspired by visions, signs, and an unlimited supply of pink cocktails served by an ever-lurking "Black Rabbit," Thing and her dogged production crew travel around America, encountering Satanists, an Extraterrestrial/Christian cult group, and a surprisingly helpful phone psychic. Their search for answers could very well decide the fate of the world as they know it.

But the more Thing learns about the Hole, her shocking connection to it, and the mind-boggling destiny that awaits her, the more she realizes that human civilization isn't all it's cracked up to be -- and that it's just about time to start over.

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John Reed, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love 

Poems, C&R Press, 2016.

Collected Lies and Love Poems, selects from a sequence of sonnets written from 2008-2015. Reed, the author of five previous books (three novels and two "stunts") lends his voice and eclectic abilities to this singular work, which, in addition to being a book of sonnets, is part love letter, part literary ode, and part delusion. Evolving the classical sonnet, a form which still captures our spirits, Reed summons our contemporary yearning: sugar sweet to splash of acid. "Come to me," writes Reed in sonnet #6, "like tomorrow to a child." Sonnet #41, in contrast, offers the lyrical confession, "All I want to do is stab people." With his plaintive lines, Reed gives expression to the inner ghost of the Twenty-First Century; sonnet #65, a valentine, wonders "Momma, are there other wooden children?" Free Boat spans 54+ sonnets, and that's a lot of sonnets, but Reed's stylistic ease guides his audience through an experience more akin to reading a photo essay. Indeed, of the 23 images in Free Boat, 9 are photographs by the author. Rhapsody, serenade, picaresque, Free Boat would be as comfortably tabled with Nadja by Andre Breton, as it would be with The Dream Songs by John Berryman, Delta of Venus by Anais Nin, or Under the Net by Iris Murdoch."


Aleksis Kivi - "the greatest Finnish novel of all time", the classic among the classics in Finnish literature.

Aleksis Kivi, The Brothers Seven. A Tale. Trans. by Douglas Robinson, Zeta Books, 2017. [1870.]

Seitsemän veljestä (The Brothers Seven), the 1870 Finnish novel by Aleksis Kivi (1834-1872), is one of the most (in)famously unknown classics of world literature—unknown not only because so few people in the world can read Finnish, but also because the novel is so incredibly difficult to translate, the Mount Everest of translating from Finnish. It is difficult to translate not only because it blends a saturation in Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Cervantes, and the Bible with a brilliantly stylized form of local dialect, but because it is wild, grotesque, carnivalistic, and laugh-out-loud funny on every page. It has been translated 58 times into 34 languages—but somehow the translations always seem to fall short of their flamboyant original.

Douglas Robinson’s new translation is a bold attempt to remedy that. He aims to make Kivi as rhythmic, as alliterative, as brash, as grotesque, and as funny in English as he is in Finnish. Since Kivi deliberately used an archaic Finnish, but used it playfully—and since Kivi was steeped in Shakespeare, to the point of memorizing whole plays—Robinson translates him into a playful Shakespearean register. As he notes in his Preface, this makes the translation a bit difficult to read—but the original is difficult for Finns to read as well, and the Finnish readers who love Kivi (and that is most of them) read him with pleasure despite the words they don’t know, because his prose is so intensely alive.

Seven Brothers

This is a novel about seven brothers living in rural Finland in the mid nineteenth century. It is quite unlike any other book I have ever read.

There is an earthy, bawdy humour to some of the brothers' behaviour but they can also be violent and difficult. Sometimes the writing is comic, sometimes it is Homeric and feels almost mythic in scope, such as an account of a battle with forty bulls. You get the sense of all kind of deep things going on here - I often found mysefl thinking of the Kalevala (the great Finnish epic which inspired the music of Sibelius), and I enjoyed the deep sense of the beauty, mystery and strangeness of the Finnish landscape - and the Finns.

This is a rich and multi layered novel which reveals different things at subsequent re-readings. I like this kind of thing; others don't. I'm also fascinated by the other-ness of Finland and the self sufficiency of its people. There isn't much of a plot - not a tight linear one, anyway. If you like a more "straightforward" story, and if you haven't much interest in Finland, you may not care for it much. I wouldn't say it is a "difficult" novel - no more so than most novels over a century old. There are some archaisms, and some historical references which may be obscure to many. But if you are alive to the richly textured nuance and the landscape, the myths, and the history, then you will find much here to enjoy - as I did.

It's also one of the most widely read books in Finland, so if you know any Finns, or have an interest in going there, you will want to read this book to get some insights into the people, the land and the history. - Monty Milne 

review at amazon.com

Seven Brothers

Seven Brothers, Aspasia Books, 2005.

Along with The Kalevala, Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers is Finland's most celebrated literary treasure. The crowning accomplishment of Finland's first literary genius, Seven Brothers remains "the greatest Finnish novel of all time", the classic among the classics in Finnish literature. 

Published in 1870, in the author's 36th year and two years before his untimely death, Seven Brothers laid the foundation for what Kai Laitinen later called "The Great Tradition in Finnish Prose". This tradition is characterized by realism, humor, respect for the common people, and depiction of nature as both friend and foe. 

Received at the time of publication by uncomprehending arbiters of literary taste, who still delighted in romantic approaches to literature, Seven Brothers fared poorly in early reviews. Posterity, however, has resurrected the reputation of Aleksis Kivi, and critics, scholars, and readers at large continue to praise the virtues of this trail-blazing, exceedingly rich novel.

Richard Impola's superb English translation captures the brothers' rustic milieu and the exceptional dynamics of Kivi's creative style and artistic conception.

Aleksis Kivi's Seven Brothers is a unique classic of 19th century Finnish literature, a work that has remained an unrivalled favourite among Finnish readers for almost 150 years. At the time of its publication the work was initially seen as an allegory of the birth of the Finnish nation and its path from ignorance to civilisation. More recently it has been understood to be one of the great melting pots of European literature, as the story of a group of illiterate brothers in the Finnish countryside borrows, modifies and reshapes a wide variety of classical and Renaissance literature. First published in 1870, Seven Brothers was the first novel written in Finnish. Almost singlehandedly the novel created the literary Finnish language. Stylistically Seven Brothers explores a wide variety of narrative styles, the prose at times parodying the language of the Bible and at others employing poetry and dialogue. Today the world of the novel, its characters, events, stories, songs and poems, permeates every layer of Finnish culture. AUTHOR: Aleksis Kivi (born Aleksis Stenvall,18341872) is widely considered the father of the Finnish novel. Kivi also wrote poetry and plays which are now considered classic works but it is for Seven Brothers that he will always be remembered.

Douglas Robinson, Aleksis Kivi and/as World Literature

Aleksis Kivi (born Aleksis Stenvall, 1834–1872) is widely considered the father of the Finnish novel. Kivi also wrote poetry and plays which are now considered classic works, but Seven Brothers (‘Seitseman veljesta,’ 1870) is his seminal work and without a doubt the classic of Finnish literature; indeed it was the first full-scale novel ever published in Finnish. Although it is written in the spirit of realism, the novel demonstrates through the brothers the extent to which the world of myth and legend was very real and palpable, and fundamentally rooted in the Finnish mindset of the day.

Volter Kilpi - an unfinished novel manuscript about Lemuel Gulliver’s fifth voyage—this one supposedly to the North Pole, though along the way the ship is sucked into a vortex near the Pole and hurtled two centuries ahead in time.

Volter Kilpi, Gulliver’s Voyage to Phantomimia. A transcreation by Douglas Robinson, Zeta Books, 2020.

When the great Finnish modernist genius Volter Kilpi died in the summer of 1939 at the age of 64, he left behind an unfinished novel manuscript about Lemuel Gulliver’s fifth voyage—this one supposedly to the North Pole, though along the way the ship is sucked into a vortex near the Pole and hurtled two centuries ahead in time. He and three surviving shipmates end up in London in 1938, wondering how to get back to their time.

In addition to translating what Kilpi wrote into Swiftian English, Douglas Robinson has here written the incomplete novel to the end, based on Kilpi’s report to his son on how he planned to return the men to 1738.

Because Kilpi also playfully pretended to have “found” the original English manuscript, presumably written by Lemuel Gulliver himself, and “translated” it into Finnish, Robinson goes along with that pretense and pretends to have rediscovered and “edited” and “annotated” the original English manuscript—written, perhaps, not by Gulliver but (at least partly) by Jonathan Swift.

The addition of Robinson’s English translation of Volter Kilpi’s “translator’s preface” and two fictional constructs—anonymous “random notes toward a vorticist manifesto” (1914) and an ersatz “reader’s report” by an imaginary Finnish Kilpi scholar named Julius Nyrkki—transforms the entire volume into a postmodern “critical edition” that would have tickled Volter Kilpi pink.

Vain harva on lukenut, mutta silti moni väittää niin – huomisesta lähtien  helpottaa, sillä 900-sivuisen merkkiteoksen voi kuunnella äänikirjana | Yle  Uutiset | yle.fi

Volter Kilpi, In Alastalo’s parlour, 1933.

Volter Kilpi’s classic novel Alastalon salissa (‘In Alastalo’s parlour’, 1933) has a reputation as a ‘difficult’ book. A Swedish translation is finally ready, but no one has ever succeeded in translating the work into English. Books from Finland decided to commission an extract – and had to admit defeat
‘Volter Kilpi is no good for people with weak lungs,’ said the poet Lauri Viita, some time toward the end of the 1940s. ‘Reading him, you get out of breath straight away.’ Kilpi’s major work, Alastalon salissa (‘In Alastalo’s parlour’) will take even an experienced reader two weeks, wrote another, older poet, Aaro Hellaakoski, in a 1937 essay.
Both were right. If one begins to read Volter Kilpi’s extended novel Alastalon salissa (1933) in the spirit of an entertainment or a detective novel, one soon tires. One can negotiate the slow tempo of its text, its long, curlicued sentences and wildly original vocabulary only by applying the brakes and pausing from time to time. For myself, I have found the two­week reading period prescribed by Hellaakoski about right. Kilpi is a demanding writer: every word must be read, the path of each sentence followed to the end.
When the book appeared, contemporary reviewers were already mentioning the names of Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Kilpi had certainly read Proust, but Joyce exceeded his knowledge of English. Kilpi himself saw the connection with the modernists of his time, but also emphasised the differences; most important was the encouraging consciousness of the works of the French and Irish masters.
With the appearance of his great novel, Kilpi was immediately branded a difficult writer. He never became a favourite of the general public, but he soon attracted his own faithful readership, as well as posthumous revenge. His masterpiece has appeared in three editions. When, in 1992, Finland’s biggest newspaper, Helsingin Sanomat, asked a group of writers and critics – elite readers and literary gourmets – to name the best Finnish novels to have appeared since the country gained its independence in 1917, Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa made a surprise appearance at the top of the list.
Volter Kilpi (1874–1939) was by no means an unknown writer. He had al­ ready, at the turn of the century, published three novels, Bathseba, Parsifal and Antinous (1900–03). The names are indicative: the tone is aesthetic and meditative – the subtitle of the first novel is ‘David’s conversations with himself’. The young Kilpi was a sworn symbolist, or ‘romantic of the new century’, as Vilho Suomi, scholar of his early work, has characterised him. In his collection of essays Ihmisestä ja elämästä (‘Of man and life’, 1902), Kilpi stressed introspection, the importance of attending to one’s emotional experiences and perceptions, the role of art as a mirror of the inner life.
Kilpi’s early work was followed by a pause which was broken only by some interesting essays and personal criticism and a couple of works on contemporary political and cultural questions, Kansallista itsetutkistelua (‘National self-examination’) and Tulevaisuuden edessä (‘Facing the future’, 1917–18). After these, Kilpi withdrew into his private life and his work as principal librarian of the university in Turku.
The silence was broken only in 1933 by the novel Alastalon salissa, which was followed by a collection of short stories on the same subject, Pitäjän pienempiä (‘Lesser parishioners’, 1934) and a novel, Kirkolle (To church’, 1937). Kilpi gave the three books the collective name ‘the archipelago series’: they are all set around his home town of Kustavi, in the archipelago of south-western Finland. In the preliminary chapter of Alastalon salissa, which is at the same time the prologue to the entire archipelago series, the writer describes wandering through the churchyard of his native town, reading familiar names, ‘extinguished years and decades ago, whose lives are nevertheless before me like yesterday’. Like Proust, Kilpi is à la recherche du temps perdu.
Alastalon salissa was completed as its author approached his sixtieth birthday. Kilpi had been writing it for ten years. The initial subject, the building of a barque as a joint project among the inhabitants of an island parish, had been clear for some time, but the shaping of the correct narrative form and composition took time. Kilpi was not satisfied with conventional style; he wanted ‘plastic narrative instead of silhouette narrative’ and compared the result to solving an equation in many stages. Kilpi broke the bounds of conventional narrative and language in four directions: vocabulary, syntax, the handling of time and the depiction of characters. He took vocabulary from the dialect of his home area of Kustavi, but also invented his own neologisms and broke down the borders between parts of speech, nonchalantly changing nouns into adjectives, verbs or adverbs (and vice versa) almost in the manner of Finnegans Wake. Writing was, for him, a process, as irrational ‘as any other element of life’. Attempts have been made to explain Kilpi’s use of language with reference to his increasing deafness, which may have strengthened his predilection for detailed visual description.
The novel does indeed include extended descriptions of, for example, a pipe-shelf or tea-tray, but the auditory aspect is not neglected. Sentences of half a page or an entire page are not rare; in the case of a couple of them, it is known that he spent as much as a month constructing and polishing them. His narrative is slow throughout in terms of vocabulary, sentence structure and general composition. Thus time, in the novel, moves exceedingly slowly.
The novel describes a meeting in which freeholders and sea-captains (a common combination in island parishes) negotiate and decide to build a barque together. The meeting lasts for a total of around six hours, but the account of it occupies more than 900 pages. The imbalance between the story and the descriptive material is considerable and deliberate.
Kilpi offers detailed descriptions of the appearance of his characters, but most importance is what is happening inside. Inner monologue and summaries of thought processes are major factors in the novel’s structure. Kilpi uses them to sketch his central characters: the chairman of the meeting, the resourceful Alastalo; his thoughtful friend Härkäniemi; the big, rich Langholma and his opponent Pukkila, who is distinguished from the rest by his jumpy style of speaking and thinking.
The elongations of the temporal perspective and the emphasis on the characters’ inner lives develop the novel’s philosophy of the value of every individual and the importance of every moment. The framework of the novel and the elements, too, have their tasks. As Pirjo Lyytikäinen, who has studied Kilpi’s late work, remarks in her book Mielen meri, elämän pidot (‘Sea of mind, feasts of life’), the sea and seagoing are constantly present, both as symbols and in language, through metaphor. In the background is a broad artistic and philosophical perspective with constant references to Homer and Plato – there is a trace of the Symposium in the meeting in Alastalo’s house. The men are planning a profitable economic venture but seek, at the same time, a fantasy, their life’s dream.
Kilpi hoped his book would be translated into other languages. His works, or parts of them, have appeared only in Swedish, through the efforts of the Finland-Swedish writers Elmer Diktonius and Thomas Warburton. ‘Kilpi is not for everyone, not even for one person in two,’ Diktonius wrote, although he himself, as an experimental stylist, well appreciated Kilpi’s value. Every translation of Kilpi, then, is a voyage of discovery, an act of defiance, which demands of its translator both courage and creativity.
In his last, unfinished work, published in 1944, the aged Volter Kilpi set out on a completely new tack. Gulliverin matka Fantomimian mantereelle (‘Gulliver’s travels to the continent of Fantomimia’) is a sequel to Swift’s novel, but at the same time a sharp satire on the increasingly technical and coldly mechanical world of our times, in which people are, to one another, ‘only objects’. -

If you are the kind of person who would find fascinating a 70-page account of a character walking across the room to choose a pipe from the mantelpiece, then Volter Kilpi’s novel Alastalon Salissa (In Alastalo’s Parlour)  is up your alley. The book was published in 1933 and forever changed the landscape of Finnish literature, as the modernist techniques employed by Kilpi allowed him to demonstrate to a stunning effect the creative potential of the Finnish language. The two volumes of Kilpi’s novel amounting to 900 pages of dense experimental writing narrate just six hours from the life of well-off dwellers of an island parish who have gathered in Alastalo’s parlour of the title to negotiate the building of a barque. The paucity of action is overcompensated by detailed overlong descriptions, the disjointed interior monologues of the characters, the use of dialect and linguistic innovations. The novel has been deservedly compared to Ulysses and In Search of Lost Time, although, as Kilpi’s knowledge of English was not sufficient to read Joyce’s masterpiece, it is more appropriate to talk about the artistic affinities between the two authors than about one’s direct influence on the other.

Although most of the novel consists of the verbalised thought processes of the participants of the meeting and the meticulous descriptions of the setting, there are also more conventional narratives appearing in the text as set pieces. One such story is about Ville from Vaasa, an accountant who runs into debt to fulfill his dream of building his own ship and sending it to Brazil to bring back a load of coffee beans. This story has been translated into German as Die Albatros.
Despite the obvious challenges of translating this modernist classic, the complete translation of Alastalon Salissa into Swedish saw light in 1997. The gargantuan task was undertaken by Thomas Warburton who had previously translated Joyce’s Ulysses, and, as of now, it is the only complete translation of Volter Kilpi’s novel into any language. As for the prospects of seeing an English translation, there is little to be optimistic about. Only a short passage from the novel has been Englished and made available in the now extinct journal Books from Finland. The first sentence of the translator’s letter to the editors says it all: “Reluctantly (I really have tried) I have been driven to conclude that Alastalon salissa is untranslatable, except perhaps by a fanatical Volter Kilpi enthusiast who is prepared to devote a lifetime to it.” (You can read the rest of it as well as the translated excerpt here.) Of course, it is an assessment of just one translator, and who knows, maybe there will appear a daredevil who will be self-confident enough to shoulder this daunting task.
In case I have sparked your interest and you would like to learn more about Volter Kilpi and his monumental novel, without further ado, I’m redirecting you to Kai Latinen’s informative article (also from the defunct Books from Finland) with the dispiriting title On Not Translating Volter Kilpi. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/author/theuntranslated/