There is a lot of empty space in Clint Burnham's Smoke Show. First and foremost, I mean this literally. There is a blank line after each paragraph, and sometimes an entire page is dedicated to a single sentence or even word: "Yeah, but you know, I'll see" or "Like." But even when the pages are filled with text, they remain marked by blankness. Burnham's debut novel consists of snippets of conversation, with only a modicum of exposition; his characters—young Canadian couples, indifferent and out of work—talk without talking about anything, though they occasionally discuss the joint they are rolling, their welfare checks, or the hallucinogenic tea on the stove. Some of the couples are married, some have children, but their lives consist mostly of running their mouths in an ill-fated effort to fill the void.
The novel written largely or exclusively in dialogue dates back at least to 1930s Britain, where its master practitioners included Henry Green, Evelyn Waugh, and Ivy Compton-Burnett. These writers (the sui generis Compton-Burnett excepted) tend toward a rigorous mimesis of human speech, with all its tics, indirection, and emptiness. They often emphasize, perhaps paradoxically, the unspoken—the gaps between what is meant, what is said, and what is understood. Such an emphasis lends itself at once to baroque plots of comic misunderstanding and to profound but subtle pathos.
Burnham at first appears to be working squarely within this tradition. The author of two books of verse, he combines a poet's rhythmic sensibility with an impeccable ear for self-contradictory speech. But his characters' inertia, their unwillingness to do or even to mean anything, eliminates the potential for comedy and tragedy alike. One couple, Jimmy and Lucy, have an ongoing obsession with planting hedges on their lawn, which vaguely gestures at a connection between the characters' isolation and their existential fear, but few of the other narrative strands are able to bear even this tenuous emotional weight. Of course, this is largely the point: Burnham examines a group whose defining characteristics are its lack of action and its empty talk. Only the book's sex scenes are rendered with anything approaching sustained exposition, and the implication seems to be that sex is the only mode of meaningful communication these characters can manage.
This plight is presented convincingly, and always fluidly, but the point is made quickly, and the repetition of static conversations yields diminishing returns. A novel that courts nothingness as insistently as this one does must take corresponding care over its form. One turns another page, reads two words—"You know"—and is faced with an expanse of white that is increasingly indistinguishable from those that preceded it. The novel's fragments—often beautiful in isolation—refuse to cohere, or even to make meaning of this refusal. One begins to suspect that there really isn't anything under the surface. Smoke Show is a novel of many voices, but all its silences sound the same.