I had the great pleasure of reading with Jeff Bursey back in August at Type Books here in Toronto, but I’ve only now gotten around to reading his 2010 novel Verbatim. The event at Type was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever done, as it involved myself and others participating in Jeff’s portion of the show by assuming a role from Verbatim and reading out lines like a kind of play.
The need for this approach to a reading is evident as soon as you crack Verbatim’s pages. The book is written almost entirely as transcriptions from Hansard, the apparatus that records and transcribes the proceedings of a Westminster-style parliament. Jeff’s novel is set in an unnamed and fictitious Atlantic Canadian province in the 1990s and lays out with incredible verisimilitude nearly a year of debates—sometimes heated, sometimes inane—between the incumbent Social Progressive party, the official opposition the Alliance Party, and various other smaller players.
Of course, the real story is not what’s happening on the floor of the House but rather what’s happening behind the scenes, at Hansard itself. A new director has been hired, known in the novel strictly by his initials “SV”, and he’s looking to shake up the institution and drag it into the modern age. Needless to say the editors and transcribers, several of whom have worked there for decades, are not enthused by his plans for change. The conflict between SV and his colleagues takes the form of emails that intercut the transcriptions from the House at random intervals.
It’s a fascinating conceit and one that Jeff executes brilliantly. What impresses about this book is how much it can convey through this very tight narrative constraint. We have a sense of the characters, their motives and their feuds. We have a sense of the province itself: it’s larger than Jeff’s current home province of PEI (where he himself works for Hansard) and has several industries, but 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.
Jeff has great fun playing with the instability of his narrative, especially once SV begins making some radical decisions that impact the transcriptions themselves. Some seem innocuous enough – he begins allowing the use of contractions, for example, for those instances when Members actually use them – but others are more drastic. At one point, he releases an unedited version of the House’s proceedings to prove a point about the value of Hansard, which exposes the ignorance of both the elected members and the transcribers who record them. The Speaker uses the word “irregardless”; elected officials backpedal and muddle their way through speeches; a transcriber fumbles the phrase “fin de siècle” to hilarious effect.
The satire here is sharp and reveals something darkly comic. While the House argues endlessly about all manner of provincial minutiae, and Harsard practically collapses under SV’s devious pedantry, we can see this province truly struggling with some serious social and political issues.
What a reader can ultimately walk away with from Verbatim, I think, is the idea that backbiting, spin and outright lies dominate the political discussion in this country, and yet somehow we keep moving forward and functioning (more or less) as a society. This is equally true of the white collar environment, where change is slow and progress is often nonexistent, and yet it keeps working, somehow, through all the conflict.
It was a joy to see these ideas explored through a work of fiction with such a demanding constraint put on it. Verbatim is a strong work from a writer with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.