Burns’ collection of short stories has been sitting on my bookshelves for the best part of at least fifteen years. It seems to have always been part of the fabric of my book collection, and a book which has been mentally tagged over time as ‘commendable’. This tagging process is a curious one: one of some sort of indelible internal inking; it suggests that the book must have been previously read. That said, on reflection after reading the collection these past few weeks, there’s only a faint trace of recall of parts of its contents. Does this suggest that the stories therein just weren’t strong enough (or is it more to do with the eroding nature of the passing of time)?
I decided to read ‘again’ almost on a whim: partly confident that the mental tagging would serve me fine, partly in trepidation that my reading tastes or acuity in analysis weren’t once sufficiently developed. What I find is that all of the above is true. About the Body (first published 1988; Sceptre edition 1990) is, for the most part, subtle, well-written, and well-constructed. Certainly in the first half of this collection of fourteen stories Burns delivers precise, cut-glass, clear, clean prose. Hardly anything is wasted in the arrangements of words. Markers are placed early on in stories and economically returned to later. These stories have the feel of care in construction, thought, considerations of structure and texture. There are some slender and beautiful juxtapositions in place. Sometimes it feels as if Burns is crafting a piece, out and out, from a single kernel of an idea or from the delicate arrangement of one notion touched against another.
Embracing the Slaughterer (the first story in the collection, and one of the better pieces therein) builds from a few lines referenced to Marxist German poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht. Burns constructs a tale that is both somewhat predictable in direction yet engaging. We soon learn to analyse the probable style of his stories to come, insofar as locking on to the key elements which we suppose Burns to have built out from. Not only does Brecht’s three lines from Die Massnahme (The Measures Taken, 1955) form a central spine of Burns’ story (‘Sink in the dirt, embrace the slaughterer, but change the world; the world needs it’), but succinct lines such as the following, as narrated by the assassin character therein (having a whiff of Plato’s Republic, though this is not directly referenced), focus the reader:
‘Good food and wine, I told him, should not be the province of the merely wealthy, just as high culture must, if it is to survive, be taken up once more by the masses.’
John’s Return to Liverpool is at first a little odd to fathom, though it soon forms around us like steam in the warmth of the bathroom. Is ‘John’ the Lennon of Liverpool we automatically concoct in our minds? It isn’t immediately clear, but it doesn’t need to be: Burns leads us through the story and we see that, yes, here is Lennon, though in a form other than we suppose him to be. Burns seems to be playing with the way we construct connections in our heads. Very deliberate structural arrangements begin to form in stories such as How Things are Put Together, and here Burns explores filmic qualities in his writing. The body of work so far tends towards a complementary, precise and crafted affair. Even the story lengths, as individual pieces, seem honed and clipped — as consistently similar as they are.
Subtle juxtapositions form in stories such as Practical Living: ostensibly about the death of a pet rabbit, this story develops around emotional connections and unspoken difficulties regarding a disabled child. Later, in My Life as an Artist, a man and his wife each can’t let go of their separate passions or, rather, that which troubles and forms them: he, a maintenance man/caretaker aspires to be an artist; his wife is in continual grief for their lost baby from many years gone by. Burns shifts the dialogue well, creating a believable pair of gender perspectives, and he manages to blend the sensibilities of the two characters into the whole. In Blue, a man awaits the outcome of an archaeological dig in which it’s anticipated that his RAF pilot father will be found, having crash-landed there before the main character was born: Burns plays with the reality/imagined liminal spaces that the emotive connection can blur.
However, from Guido’s Castle onwards, at the half-way point of the collection, there’s almost a deconstruction taking place: several of Burns’ careful connection methods from the earlier part of the book begin to slip into the more exploratory. The aforementioned Guido’s Castle builds to a point of empty non-commitment on the part of the writer: why did Guido build the tower at the back of the villa that he and his dying wife share? Burns leads us towards some succinct and teasingly cerebral conclusion, but we discover that the tower is merely folly. Burns means to leave us unsatisfied, but it isn’t a taste that is embraced.
A Country Priest and Fogged Plates seem at first to be pieces back in form, but significant twists in each only serve to disturb the reader: the slightest of fictive cheating has taken place. The former, for example, unexpectedly places us in a far more profound scenario than we at first realised; the latter plays with where we are in time. That we gradually work out a time and place in any given story should work as a reward for our reading and connecting the puzzle pieces: when we’re shifted from that path, rudely as it were, when we’re walking comfortably along in the story’s authority, it risks unsettling us.
By the time Burns presents us with Babel, towards the end of the collection, the exploratory is well-bedded in: the result here, however, is somewhat confused in its descriptions, place, time, and reason for being. The very last and longest story, Dealing in Fictions, makes a promising start, concerned as it initially is with a man and his analytical, intellectual partner, and the promise of some great truth playing itself out, as evidenced in the opening line: ‘Life always leaves you unfinished.’ Burns soon throws us completely with a sudden and unexpected event that rips through the narrative thread. This is not as unbecoming as in previous stories, as noted above, but what transpires thereafter is an eventual petering out of the potential force of the tale, and indeed the collection as a whole.
In Dealing in Fictions, Burns starts to explore (not so subtly this time) the ideas of one of his characters (the Polish literary critic, Zurawski) within the structure of the story itself. Set against the backdrop of Irish terrorist activity in London, Burns explores the story of Peter and Ruth, and of terrorist activists Mary and Tony, through Zurawski’s eight hypothesised narrative structures. However, Burns only seems focused on the first of these (the intersecting biographies theme) before losing interest in dwindling word counts towards the rest. Perhaps this is another play on Burns’ account, though if it is then it’s far too subtle to be appreciated.
Thinking on the collection as a whole, it is appreciated by this reader to be engaged in an English language book that hasn’t either been mangled by presumably erroneous translation or which slightly irritates at the edges with its own particular syntax. Burns writes as a British English-speaking native and we must always appreciate that which doesn’t slightly buzz at our own ears. That said though, there is a slight irritation in Burns’ choices of flat, almost prosaic, character names: Simon, Peter, Mary, Andrew, Neville, Tony, et al. It raises the question that has sometimes formed in my own writerly consideration: should we place our characters so blatantly in their landscapes by such choices, or can we afford to exercise more in the way of flourish and embellishment in this respect? Guido may even also fit into Burns’ characterisation structure, fitting neatly into his Italian landscape as he does.
This all said, the mental tagging that first inked itself into my reading perceptions, regarding About the Body, is for the large part still intact: Burns writes here with some efficient, subtle, elegant prose, and for that the ink remains as was. Perhaps his subtleties in the first reading, several years ago (if, in fact, I did at all) were lost to me. My ability to analyse has deepened and broadened, and so Burns’ juxtapositional arrangements and structural explorations are now more evident. This said though, I’m left wondering what will remain, internally and indelibly, of Burns’ About the Body in another fifteen years’ time.