Book Review

Buster by Alan Burns

a bildungsroman from alan burns (this is alan burns week)

August 29th, 2022

Here I go here I go reading a second novel – his first – from Alan Burns.

Barnes was an experimental novelist writing and working predominantly in the 60s and 70s, like Quin, Johnson, Brooke-Rose, Burgess, Lessing etc etc etc

Buster was Burns’ first novel and it is less stylistically complex than his later works, though it has aesthetic parallels to those soon-to-come textural stylings.

This short novel (a novella, perhaps) was first published in 1961 in a three-author anthology called New Writers 1. At this point in time (I’m walking my cute little dog around the neighbourhood) I am not able to look up who the other two writers in the volume were, but I imagine they were similar. (nb: looked up later: they were Dino Buzzati and Monique Lange.)

Of all of the writing explored in Joe Darlington’s The Experimentalists that I have read before, the novel Buster most reminds me of is B. S. Johnson’s Albert Angelo. Not just in terms of its content, but also its literary play.

This is very sparse yet descriptive prose, telling the third person narrative of an autobiographical protagonist-

(“it’s a boy but no balls” – I said to a dog owner with a scary looking hound who enquired as to my dog’s sex – “that’s fine,” he responded and let his big dog and my little one sniff each others dicks – the bigger dog had an anus that looked like a beached jellyfish that had drowned in an oil spill)-

-living through and just after the second world war.

“Dan” – for that is Alan’s avatar in the text – has had a pretty traumatic childhood with evacuation, the death of his mother and then his significantly older brother’s return from the the “Pacific theatre” (is that what they called it?) with severe and life changing PTSD.

Dan attends high school and then heads off to do national service (during which period he develops an interest in Communist ideologies & is the recipient of bullying from peers in the army) then, after he is promoted (because he comes from money), he ruins his opportunity of being an officer by daubing vague left wing slogans on a wall with paint.

While this is happening, his father is moving on with a sexy younger secondwife (there is the implication that he offers Dan sex with her, but this is not explicit in the text), and the older brother kills himself. Once Dan is booted from the military, his father funds his repeated attempts to qualify as a lawyer despite repeated exam failures. At the end of the novel, Dan ends up effectively homeless so decides to return to living with his father and the sexy secondwife and from then on properly (this time) dedicate himself to study and serious adulthood.

It’s a very typical stream of consciousness coming of age novel, in what happens and how it is described, and though it is enjoyable, being yet another middle class example of the genre there’s not really much to recommend this to anyone who isn’t deliberately reading a series of Alan Burns’ novels or has a crippling addiction to bildungsroman. It’s short, that’s a plus, but it’s very typical of its time and origin and, well, it just isn’t Europe After The Rain, which is a masterpiece.

It’s ultimately unoriginal, in terms of its thoughts, opinions, desires & it’s also (typically for this type of novel) frequently very homosocial/sexist & none of the women who figure are characters rather than ideas, tho it could be [generously] argued that the same is true for most of the men too.

This is not a novel of complex psychiatric explanation, and nor is it straightforward near-pastiche of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, though the simplistic stylings of the earlier chapters are someone reminiscent of the opening of that overhyped modernist text.

Buster is engaging enough, and – as I said above – it’s very short, and Burns exhibits a tendency towards zhip-zhip-zhip sudden turns and changes, descriptive without prescriptive dialogue etc that he would develop into his experimental style over the coming years.

More thoughts on Alan Burns next time!

I’m off to Notting Hill carnival; see you soon, blog fans!!!


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