Reviewed by Michelle LeDonne
People Park. House of Anansi Press, 2012.
Pasha Malla’s debut novel, People Park, tells the sprawling story of a city’s downward spiral. Over the four days of the Easter long weekend, the city-dwellers of an unnamed metropolis have come together to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of their central, urban greenspace, which was the pet-project and social experiment of a megalomaniac mayor and her New Fraternal League of Men (NFLM), a futuristic Mason-like organization responsible for security.
Underneath a complicated and often clumsy structure, People Park joins a long line of works that explore the ugliness that so quickly emerges when the social order is placed under extreme distress. Malla employs the familiar accoutrements of late-capitalist, consumerist societal representations – notably the insatiable media – to bring the conflicts between community and isolation, illusion and reality, civilization and anarchy to life.
At the center of the anniversary festivities is the performance of an “illustrationist” named Raven, who has been flown in for the occasion. Raven creates public spectacles that are not magic tricks. He explains, “Magic is based in illusion, and illusion is based in lies. But what I create are not fictions. They are not lies. They are, instead, revelations. I simply illustrate what already exists, by removing the fog that obscures the truth” (200). Raven, like several of the novel’s peripheral characters, is not impressed by the city’s inhabitants and their senseless civic pride. In particular, an ugly conflict between social classes simmers under the surface of the ceremonies, ready to boil over. Raven expresses a nearly demonic desire to teach the complacent, idealistic islanders a lesson.
Raven’s climatic act causes the sole bridge between the island city and the mainland to mysteriously vanish. Panic ensues as the city’s inhabitants are forced to grapple with the reality of their isolation and a series of man-made and natural disasters, straight out of the latest doomsday blockbuster film, begin to unfold. As the city devolves into chaos, episodic paragraphs provide a fast-paced account of the action by shifting across a variety of narrative voices, including those of a family of four on vacation, a disenchanted loner, a compassionate activist, a lesbian artist, and a conflicted stooge of the NFLM. One young man, Sam, undertakes an Oedipal-like journey from sight to blindness as he becomes increasingly haunted by his past and, finally, microwaves his eyes to a paste of “scorched jelly” (364). Sam is one of the few characters given a backstory, which grants this gesture, however absurd, a nightmarish poignancy.
Toronto-based Malla is a talented and imaginative young voice, but the clarity, humour, and surprising moments, which defined his excellent short story collection, The Withdrawal Method (2008), are absent here. The moments when the narrative glides into a dreamscape are the only refreshing and unsettling breaks from the conventional and the expected. People Park’s scope is too ambitious. Finishing the novel feels a bit like nearly finishing a puzzle, only to find there are several pieces still missing. Despite the character list and map of the island included in the front matter, too many characters and sub-plots are introduced and then left undeveloped or unfinished. While this “lost in the crowd” effect has its own value, the sense of suspenseful conflict, and ultimately of loss, in the novel would be far greater had the puzzle pieces been fewer and more sharply cut.
At press time: Michelle LeDonne holds an MA in English Literature from McGill University, where she wrote a research paper on Lady Gaga and self-reflexive representations of celebrity.
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