canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Word Burials

by J.J. Steinfeld
Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink, 2009

Reviewed by Kyle Muntz

Deadpan in execution, fantastical in its content, Word Burials is a clever, intensely original display of talent, equal parts literary tribute, surrealist exhibition, and meditation on cultural injustice.

Central to the book is allusion to the life and work of Samuel Beckett. Indeed, it even goes so far as to draw key elements from his play, Happy Days, in which protagonist, Winnie, lives her life buried to the neck in sand. Word Burials starts here, but whereas Winnie has little or no concern as to her prior state, Thad Johnstone has been placed there by sadist millionaire Caleb Lurvarum, and is being forced to dictate a novel half an hour at a time—the one we're reading right now. This elaborate contextual framework also recalls William Gass' masterpiece, The Tunnel, in which an equal degree of compositional irony has been achieved; the author only builds upon this stunning foundation. While a variety of traditional narrative elements are in place, all of them seem a bit... off. Character motivation and behavior is always a matter of calculated absurdity—but most often one so subtle the reader hardly notices.

Thad's torments make up the bulk of the narrative. Some are inflicted by Lurvarum, others by his mistress (a perpetually naked women who smears Thad's face in homemade jam) or his wife, Dorothy, a second-rate artist with an unhealthy obsession for martyrs. Thad's last year has been occupied by his affair with Dorothy—but this has nothing to do with his imprisonment, and she even numbers among his tormentors. Instead, Lurvarum has another, racial motivation: Thad's Jewishness. His extensive meditations upon his cultural identity are a prominent (if not central) concern. In addition to these corporal figures, Thad is also visited by individuals that have apparently come to him from through gaps in time and space. Their appearances lead to some of the most powerful, memorable scenes the work has to offer. While much of the book is obviously cut off from reality, when it severs its ties completely, the results are never less than phenomenal.

Like something out of Beckett, Thad's surroundings immediately present themselves as a metaphorical representation of the human condition—yet Thad repeatedly denounces this mode of reading. This is only one among many narrative subversions, inducing multiple layers of metatextuality. By the time the text reaches the reader, it has already been edited by Lurvarum in terms of content, specifics, and message—but later it becomes apparent that certain implied situations are no longer possible; and where do we go from there?

Word Burials represents an interesting development of the narrative mode developed by Kafka, Abe, and of course, Beckett himself. It's a success intellectually, artistically, but in other, more personal senses as well; a magnificent, astounding novel, which for its many loftier virtues is also accessible; and Thad's predicament, despite his own denial, is a universal one.

Kyle Muntz lives in Michigan.




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ISSN 1494-6114. 

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