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Fiction for Lovers: Freshly Cut Tales of Flesh, Fear, Larvae and Love

by Tony Burgess

“Contaminated but beautiful in the television light” is how the narrator of “Bug Day,” the penultimate story in Tony Burgess’s fourth book, describes the face of his lover. He could just as easily be describing Fiction for Lovers itself.

This book contains nothing nearly as gentle as surrealism; “delerium” might be a more accurate term. Its nine short prose pieces slosh uneasily back and forth between mundane autobiographical fiction, lurid true crime, and phantasmagoria. Like the real-life Burgess and his partner, the principal recurring characters are named “Tony” and “Rachel,” live near Wasaga Beach, Ontario, participate in community musicals, and watch far too much TV. Unlike Burgess and his partner, these characters are haunted by giant, evil dead babies (“The Screaming Tunnel”), are subject to flash infestations of Paraguayan cockroaches (“Bug Day”), and occasionally hack off each others’ limbs (“Arms”).

This last grisly tableau is vivid enough that readers would be well advised to attempt a reading long after mealtime (like pornography and horror, the stories in Fiction for Lovers are more than capable of producing quantifiable physical reactions). Those unfamiliar with Burgess’s previous work should also expect vertiginous shifts in perspective, narrative hairpin turns and cul-de-sacs, and lengthy patches of painstaking description.

Burgess’s major influences lie far beyond the white picket fences of polite rural Ontario literature, and I suspect that his goals lie beyond literariness itself as a positive value. There is a deep Burroughsian suspicion in these stories that language is a badly broken technology, and that consequently, all attempts to communicate truth or deeper meaning are inevitably out of focus and spackled with static. Burgess is constantly fiddling with the antennae, but he is as engrossed with making brief, harsh patterns flicker and squelch across the snow on the tube as with establishing a clear signal.

The resulting writing is hyperreal, by turns more boring and more brilliant than expected. In “Arms,” the version of Oklahoma! that takes places inside Tony’s head as he plays Curly McLain, is every bit as compelling and/or soporific as anything that ever graced the boards of any small-town theatre. As yet another version of Burgess suggests in the afterword, at their best, the stories in Fiction for Lovers allow the reader to “Walk quietly away from consciousness and resist the subs and the uns that it, after all, chose for itself, and move off, go elsewhere.”