Ashland & Vine review: John Burnside’s new novel fails to convince
Scottish poet’s foray into post-second World War US history is disappointingly contrived
Ashland & Vine by John Burnside
John Burnside: “His poetry collections are persuasive and heartfelt in a way his fiction rarely is.” Photograph: Ulf Andersen/Getty Images
Ashland & Vine
A man was shot dead on the street, at Ashland and Vine. Many years later, almost a lifetime later, an old woman, his daughter, recalls the incident to a much younger, more recently bereaved daughter of another father. Many of the incidents in Scottish poet John Burnside’s fraught, wordy ninth novel are based on facts, or at least variations of facts, drawn from US history. Relentless in the telling, it all adds up to a dull, humourless work. It seems contrived, comprised as it is of long passages of conversation – but ones delivered, strangely, in the clinical prose of a documentary. It is difficult to believe all of it, or indeed any of it.
Burnside is a determinedly literary writer. This quality serves him well in his poetry, which is intense and compelling, and also, most brilliantly, consolidates his trio of powerful memoirs: A Lie About My Father (2006); Waking Up in Toytown (2010); and I Put A Spell on You (2014).
So vivid are his personal recollections of his abusive parent, who was a bully as well as a liar, and so unsettling are Burnside’s candid personal accounts of his own demons – alcohol, drug addiction and mental illness – that he emerges as a daunting survivor returned from hell to share his findings.
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“Not so long ago, when I was still mad . . .” Waking Up in Toytown begins – beat that for an opening.
His voice once heard is not easily forgotten and this creates a major problem for the reader of Ashland & Vine because the initial narrator, Kate Lambert, a film student faltering towards alcoholism, never convinces. From her introductory gambit: “The day I met Jean Culver was also the day I stopped drinking”, she seems no more than a variation of Burnside’s damaged self, which he has already dissected in meticulous, gut-wrenching detail.
“She” – Jean Culver – “made me think that quitting was what I already wanted to do. Or if not wanted, then needed . . . needed to create some distance between Laurits and me, to go back to something not quite defined, but secret and transformative, like the place you go back to in old pop songs. Most of all, I needed to stop blanking out each day’s end with whatever makeshift oblivion I could achieve and live with whatever came . . . I needed to break out of the sheer tedium of my repetitive existence. Get drunk, sober up, get paranoid, get drunk again.”
It takes effort to blank out Burnside and attempt to see a character, a young woman co-existing in 1999 – note: end-of-20th-century USA – in a random relationship with Laurits, her laconic, film-making boyfriend, who likes to think he is Estonian. He has a project in mind. Part of it includes sending Kate out into the world – well at least the immediate environs – to ask “the same 11 questions” of anyone who opened their door and agreed to share their time.
Good old Laurits helps to ensure the entire novel is even more improbable. Why? Because he insists that Kate does not record anything: “No recordings . . . All we need are stories.”
That could also be said of readers; all we need are stories and they don’t have to be real but they do have to be true. Burnside’s methodology renders this impossible: the characters fail to come alive and so cannot convince, although Kate does have a reason for her stupor: she is grieving for her father. Her despair is conveyed in an implausibly literary language; Burnside’s approach to this novel is uncomfortably rhetorical.
Kate may be semi-drunk but she knows her references: “Two days earlier I had been trudging around a leafy suburb with Copland’s Quiet City in my headphones – the Bernstein live 1990 performance, which I shouldn’t have been playing, because it was one of Dad’s favourites – and I just hit a wall in my mind and came to a stop, ridiculous, helpless . . .”
Her wanderings lead her to a yard and the use of that word jars as she then proceeds to describe trees and an area of “natural disorder” so the reader’s imagination must immediately adjust to deal with the description of “a surprisingly long driveway” bordered by wild flowers growing “in tangles under dogwood and mock orange”.
Finally, at the house, announced by the sound of wood being chopped, is the old woman – the aforementioned Jean Culver – whose marathon discourse dominates the narrative. Her account of her life, initially spanning several sessions which develop, predictably, into a friendship between lost souls – one resigned to loss, the other aspiring to retrieval – comes at a price: Kate must first stop drinking. And hey presto, she does.
Burnside presents his narrative as a combination of adult fairytale – a storyteller with so many varieties of tea in her kitchen she has not managed to taste them all – and Camus’s eloquent late classic La Chute (The Fall, 1956).
Like Jean-Baptiste Clamence, the lawyer in the Amsterdam waterside cafe in that novel, Jean Culver is primed to speak: all she needed was a listener. And speak she does, on subjects ranging from her father’s murder to her brother’s high-security military career, to her genius niece’s political subversion and subsequent life on the run. Jean leaves nothing out and even includes her tragic love affair with a woman who left her to marry a man.
All of this is recounted in a first-person voice that drones on and on, causing the reader to suspect that Burnside set out to write an American Pastoral all of his own. The catch is that Philip Roth already got there in 1997 and with a more alluringly elegiac tone. Many other writers have also already written their versions of the 20th century.
Jean is tough, strident, exact and embittered. She also sounds more like a newsreader than a witness looking back on a solitary life. It is also irritating that she can reproduce exchanges conducted between other people and at which she was not present – an all-too-common fault in first-person narratives.
When not listening to Jean, Kate remembers to check in with her other life, the daily one that staggers along, with the boyfriend who has some murky problems with which to contend. Chance intervenes, as it does throughout the novel – ‘Chance’ could well have been used as its title.
Burnside is interesting and his 14 poetry collections to date – with a new one out next month – are persuasive and heartfelt in a way his fiction rarely is.
Late in the narrative a minor character, who arrives on the scene to fill in some holes with more facts, apologies to Kate, saying: “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to give you a lecture.” He probably means it.
Burnside on the other hand has delivered a disappointing, unoriginal and overbearing glance at post-second World War US history, and yes, it does read as a dutiful, if uninspiring, lecture.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent. Her debut novel, Teethmarks on my Tongue, is published by Dalkey Archive Press