- The Word on Politics
It's a good thing that Verbatim calls itself a novel in its subtitle; otherwise, one might have a hard time categorizing it. It is a satire, to be sure; it is a book on politics, and a political book; most of all, it is a book on language. This tempts me to categorize it as literature, along with the fact that its plot (for want of a better word) is quickly told. In an alternating two-part structure, we get on the one hand the verbatim proceedings of the parliament of a fictional Canadian province in the 1990s, of which the novel consists for the most part; on the other hand, we get the correspondence between the people connected to Hansard, the official body responsible for transcribing, editing, and publishing these debates (which are usually referred to as Hansards).
And that's all we get. There is no narrative voice, no framework to guide the reader through the text, no overt explanations. There are indeed points of reference that could help with orientation, but the reader has to do the mapping herself. The parliamentary parts consist of nothing but the Hansards, and just like any other specialized texts, one needs to learn how to read them; the correspondence parts are full of gaps that need to be filled. It is surprisingly easy (and enjoyable) to immerse oneself in the respective contexts and actually understand what is going on, and it does not take long to find out what the situation is. Hansard gets a new director who is [End Page 21] supposed to be a manipulable straw man but turns out to be a stubborn nuisance to those in charge. In the meantime, the two-party parliament (plus the ostracized independent member) is busy with everyday political bickering—the state is deeply in debt, there is a 16 percent rate of unemployment, and of course it's the other party's fault. Later on, a new election raises the number of parties to five, which doesn't particularly makes things friendlier in parliament. Both plot lines—again, for want of a better word—begin to intermingle and complicate as the novel progresses, and it is at these intersections that the text is most efficient in its satirical and literary venture.
One might think that the novel's merit is that it presents the unmediated discourse of politics; however, what it really does is show that political discourse is never unmediated. When I first read the initial clever, witty, and sometimes outrageously funny statements made by the politicians, I thought, "Man, I wish real politicians were as entertaining and eloquent as that," and then, "But people don't actually talk that way!" Don't jump to conclusions—this is not due to some illusion the author might have about politicians and politics. Rather, it turns out that members of parliament only seem as rhetorically perfect as they do; instead, what we read was the written version of the House's sessions as fixed by the hands of the editors. From the start, parliamentary figures of speech are full of the wonderful conventional understatements of "oh, oh!" and "(inaudible)" which represent what might as well have been full-blown riots or the most vicious ad hominem attacks, reminding readers that this is no direct representation, no attempt at veracity. (One can only imagine what happened when the protocol dryly states that "there was a commotion on the floor of the House.")
Nothing is verbatim in Verbatim, and the text reveals its own constructed nature in its details, which also show that the author not only has remarkable eyes and ears for nuances of language, but also equal, surgical skill at reproducing them. When the Hansard quotes a member as saying "(Inaudible)!", the punctuation gives it away: transcribers, editors, and many other people work hard to "uphold the stability of decorum and the dignity of the House," while those sitting in it do everything to ruin it. Initially, two directly opposed versions of the same transcript show...