Posts Tagged ‘Alan Burns’


January 20, 2019

Alan Burns, like Ann Quin, was a British experimental novelist of the 1960s and 70s who formed part of an informal group of writers, the most famous (or at least most vocal) of which was B S Johnston. All have been subsequently neglected, including Johnston, though much of his work is now back in print, thanks in part to Jonathan Coe’s wonderful 2004 biography Like a Fiery Elephant. Quin seems to be experiencing her with last year’s And Other Stories collection, The Unmapped Country, being followed by her first novel Berg, this year. Now it seems it is Burns’ turn, with his first five novels all due to be reprinted by John Calder over twelve months, beginning with Dreamerika! (They are not, however appearing in order, with Dreamerika! being the fifth, first published in 1972).

Dreamerika! (subtitled ‘A Surrealist Fantasy’) is about as unofficial a history as you could imagine of the Kennedy family. Though largely constrained by actual events, and expressed in a language which is stripped of emotion, the placid surface of its sentences will suddenly be disturbed by strange images and unsettling fantasies. Take, for example, the opening chapter, ‘More Power than Any King’, which begins by recounting the deaths which occurred before JFK’s assassination. Here is the dispassionate description of Kathleen’s fatal air crash:

“Kathleen’s aircraft smashed into the mountains, she died in the wreckage. Her body was carried away in a cart.”

Burns eschews conjunctions, either using short sentences or an ungrammatical comma, creating the impression that he is simply listing facts. He follows this, however, with:

“Survived by her brothers, there followed the ritual talk between father and mother, foretaste of mortality, horror of growing older, crows crouching in a lead sky.”

Here, the sentence feels as formal but, by the end, is positively gothic. The detached tone is not simply a method of convincing the reader, but also a demonstration of the ruthless ambition of the parents. When, describing Joe’s death, we are told, “he was loaded and flown at a Nazi target” (he was killed while flying bomber during the Second World War), we see how Joseph and Rose saw their children as objects, as political weapons with which to make an assault on the highest office in the land.

Burns’ most disconcerting technique, though, is to scatter the narrative with newspaper clippings. Between the sentences above we find “Private yacht for auction”, and after the second we have in large letters: “Capitalist.” The cut-outs are not part of the narrative so much as a commentary on it, a sideways glance at what’s going on, torn from the heart of the culture which created the Kennedy myth.

The novel is divvied into eight chapters. The second, ‘Hey! You with the Car’, tells Jack’s story:

“Shaking hands across the street, every girl requested the pleasure, fifteen thousand votes in gowns.”

Jack is “colour film” compared to Nixon whose film “took place in a grey telescope.” It describes both his presidential victory and his assassination:

“The town of Dallas is built on guns and stretches in an arc of war.”

The next chapter, too, focuses on his death; on Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Ruby, before the novel moves onto Bobby. It would be fair to say that Burns has no interest in safeguarding anyone’s reputation:

“While his public life preserved the fabric of political respectability, his intimate needs were served by boys.”

This applies equally to the story of Teddy as the car accident which the senator escaped leaving a young woman dead (he had driven the car of a bridge and into the water) is recounted in detail. Teddy is said to have commented:

“Mary is dead. Everyone dies. Not my business. She took care of herself.”

Dreamerika! is an angry book, a fierce condemnation of a country in which one family can wield so much power and influence. It presents a picture of a society where money is everything:

“He offered to buy America for seventeen billion dollars and received assurances that the government would move put at their leases expired.”

Finally, the American Dream itself is corrupted, as Burns illustrates by moving beyond the Kennedys to Charles Manson. The novel’s final pages read like science fiction, a report on a dead planet, a lost civilisation:

“When they lost control of their world there was confusion in the area. They began to record the glories of the past. The ancient people once had power.”

However prescient this felt at the end of the sixties, it seems that Alan Burns’ time has come again.