Smoke Show
by Clint Burnham
Arsenal Pulp Press, 2005

Reviewed by Roger Davidson

There isn’t a great deal to criticize about Clint Burnham’s first novel, because there isn’t, in terms of text, a great deal there in the first place. Does this mean that there isn’t a great deal to the book? That’s debatable, and Burnham obviously has his backers. My personal inclination is to detract, though a little reluctantly, while simultaneously acknowledging that something interesting does occur in the reading of the book. However, I can’t accept that this is creatively rounded, sustained, or quite innovative enough, to merit novelistic kudos.

Firstly, the use of the term ‘novel’ is problematic for me. If we estimate that Smoke Show’s average number of words per page is around one hundred and fifty, and the book is one hundred and eighty-pages long, then in terms of words, it bears less than half the text of the average novella. Some pages are blank save for a single word (‘Like’); some have two words (‘You know’), many have a single sentence at the top (‘And so in the end, you just have to say, you know what’s the point.’), and most have two or three. With all due respect to Burnham’s experimental endeavor, when I lay $20 down for a novel ($18.95 plus tax, to be exact), I expect in return a certain number of words; I expect to spend a certain amount of time with the book (the solution to this might be to read and ponder on it several times, but I have no inclination to do it).

So what does the book achieve? Like Isaiah Berlin’s fox, Smoke Show knows one thing. Or rather, it does one thing, and as it goes, it does that thing quite meticulously and cleverly, and ultimately, once the repetitive effects have built upon the mind, movingly to an extent – that is, the sense of hopelessness the novel exudes leads one to sigh a great deal while reading.

What Smoke Show does is to lead us not into, but rather across the surfaces of, the lives of a small social set of young-ish Vancouverites, who spend their days in inane half-conversation and a cloud of cannabis smoke – for surfaces are all there is. They communicate in mindblowing vagaries – ‘Yeah, no, like great. You?’ – language we all hear across North America daily. Burnham gives sad glimpses of the vacuousness of these young stoners’ lives using a technique that might be considered to have its origin in the Hemingwayan Iceberg (nine tenths of which, you will remember, lays beneath the surface), although here it is suggested that there is no depth to perceive between the lines. We do not get to know them. There is nothing memorable about any of them, so that they tend to merge into each other, so that picking out separate strands of the lives therein becomes an irritation only a few pages in. Is there is just very little to say about these people? Are they worth depicting at all? Or is the reader intended to form imaginative sympathies with the depressingly distant ‘protagonists’? Or is the book just an irritable complaint about how young people in super-consumer society have given up on thought, language, personal challenge, individuality and commitment? Certainly, Burnham has nothing good to say about them; not that any of it seems to be their fault, particularly – it’s just the way things have gone. They have abandoned any notion of a richer existence, and life, or the system, has abandoned them. It’s mutual, and there’s apparently nothing to be done about it, and little to be said. Their inanity speaks for itself. They are tragic; they just exist, that’s all, and they do so in a vacuum, passing time, and getting stoned, buying goods from Walmart to destroy them for entertainment, and then returning them and laughing hollowly about it. Smoke Show is a complaint about contemporary inauthenticity, in the existentialist sense. But unlike the existentialist movement of the first half of the 20th century, it doesn’t make any attempt to round out a route to a preferable authenticity, and this is why the book gets nowhere – if you believe it’s better to stand up and fail nobly than to lie back and sigh, then don’t read this book.

Ultimately I felt that Burnham’s novel may be subject to the same misery, the same stunted mentality it seeks to reveal; it makes no commitment, offers no sustenance, holds up only minimal effort. If you can’t change things, moan about them. The effect is unequivocally depressing, so that one feels no inclination to muse on the book after reading it. Upon reading the last line, I immediately brewed some strong coffee and went straight to my couch to read a chapter of Ulysses (the Hades section – one of the most nourishing chapters in any book anywhere). I felt starved. Call me old-fashioned, but I still believe in Joyce’s credo that the purpose of literature is ‘the eternal affirmation of the spirit of man.’

Finally, are young Canadians really as vacuous as Burnham presents them? Even the stoned and disaffected among them? Is the book fair? How would Burnham like to see young Canadians acting and talking? I for one know a lot of young Canadians who are political activists and artists, who attend poetry groups, who paint and sculpt, who make intelligent criticisms of America and the world, and know their Chomsky from their Negri. I also know less intellectual young Canadians who talk in a similar way to Burnham’s characters, and yet aren’t the vacuous, vague nonentities he renders.

If I might apply Philip Sidney’s notion to the equation, Smoke Show neither delights nor instructs. Yes, that’s an old-fashioned idea now, but today, a piece of writing should at least attempt the former.

Roger Davidson is a Scottish writer and journalist currently living in Québec and working on a novel on contemporary socialism set in Detroit and Cuba.