A defence of storytelling: John Burnside’s Ashland & Vine and the visual arts

ashlandvineThere are often references to the visual arts in John Burnside’s novels. In The Locust Room (2001) the photography of Raymond Moore stands for the kind of vision that the main character tries to achieve. In A Summer of Drowning (2011), the focus shifts to painting. The main character’s mother is a famous painter and she herself likes to draw maps. In Ashland & Vine, Burnside’s most recent novel, the visual arts – film, in particular – also play a big part. But here, there’s a different relationship between the visual and the textual than in the other novels. In the earlier novels, photography or painting would often be used to suggest that the important things can’t be captured in language. TIn Ashland & Vine (2017), that’s not the case.

The visual in a novel is more than just a reference to a painting, a photograph or a film. It creates a relationship between a purely textual medium – the novel – and a visual art form such as photography or painting. Sometimes the two might complement each other. A painting may be able to capture or depict things that a text can’t – and the other way around. Yet in our increasingly visual culture, the visual can also be a threat to the novel. Roland Barthes (in Camera Lucida) famously suggested that photographs offer a punctum, a ‘pricking’ or ‘wounding’ that happens whenever someone views a photograph. The punctum is so powerful, he suggested, that it cannot be captured by language – it exists beyond, or even outside of, language.

the-locust-roomIn much the similar way, Paul in The Locust Room believes that photography may help him access the beyond-the-social he craves so much. Photography, he suggests, is ‘the art that brought us back to the things themselves’ (175). The end product does not so much matter to Paul – it is the act of photographing that is important to him. In Burnside’s earlier novel The Mercy Boys (1999), one of the men – Alan – is also a photographer. During a school project he comes to realize that it’s not the photographs that matter to him. Rather, it was ‘being there that counted. Being cold and wet, letting the water soak him, letting the wind chill him to the bone – that was what mattered’ (263).

Indeed, from Burnside’s first novel – The Dumb House (1997) – to A Summer of Drowning, characters have tried to somehow go beyond language. Paradoxically, then, the novels are both highly textual – by default – but also undermine the power of the word by suggesting that what really matters cannot be captured by language. In A Summer of Drowning Liv says that it is the negative (in the photographic sense) space of the unseen, she argues, that is the only place where some things can be seen (323).

Up until Burnside’s most recent novel, a kind of tension was established between the textual and the visual. The visual is always given more importance – even though the characters rarely achieve the kind of transcendent space that they believe the visual might offer. This changes in Ashland & Vine, Burnside’s eighth novel, which was published in early February.

Ashland & Vine

The novel is narrated by a young woman, Kate Lambert. She’s a film student, and lives with a filmmaker called Laurits. Laurits is in many ways a character typical of Burnside’s earlier fiction: male, troubled and looking for the world beyond or behind the social world. Filmmaking, for him, isn’t about stories, or relationships. In typically Burnsidean fashion, it’s about ‘the fabric of the world … about those moments and places where the fabric of the world was frayed or torn’ (47).

But the novel turns into a defence of storytelling, the textual kind, rather than film. Kate herself becomes a vehicle for a series of stories that an elderly woman, Jean Culver, tells her. Jean’s stories about her own life and that of her family become a corrective to Laurits’ influence on Kate, and to her study of film. While Laurits has more or less convinced Kate that it’s not the story that matters, Jean shows her that it does. Storytelling becomes a way in which more meaning is given to Kate’s life, although that sounds more sentimental than it is in the novel.

Roland Barthes suggested that language is by nature ‘fictional’ (Camera Lucida 86-7). Photography, on the other hand, is ‘a certificate of presence’ (Camera Lucida 87). Now that we’ve gotten so used to photographic manipulation that has changed somewhat, but the image still continues to hold more importance, or truth, than the text. In Ashland & Vine Jean becomes a much more important character than Laurits. The plot, then, and the importance accorded to the act of storytelling and narrative that Laurits had derided, suggests a change in Burnside’s oeuvre. The visual isn’t privileged over the textual anymore. It’s no longer a threat to it. Instead, it is the textual, the stories told by one character to another, that are important. Film, no matter its materiality, becomes ephemeral, and the stories we tell each other and ourselves are what count.


In 2014 I wrote an article in English Studies on Burnside’s fictional oeuvre, in which I also looked ahead to what we might expect of his next work.

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