People Park by Pasha Malla (House of Anansi, 2012; Counterpoint, 2014) Reviewed by Meghan Houser

People Park
by Pasha Malla
(House of Anansi, 2012; Counterpoint, 2014)

Reviewed by Meghan Houser

 “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.” —E.M. Forster, Howard’s End

 

Along with “kill your darlings” and “show don’t tell,” Forster’s tender bidding is a chestnut of creative-writing seminars, pairing nicely with reader-text-completion theory. Only connect with readers, the argument goes, and a writer has fulfilled his supreme calling. And yet fiction can succeed even if “connection” does not seem its highest imperative; the unlikeable protagonist of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, the indulgent length of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle, and the monotony and graphic violence of “The Part About the Crimes” in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 come to mind. What are we to do, then, with novels that are, whether deliberately or incidentally, somehow difficult to engage with? Is it necessary that a novel be constructed to “connect” with its readers? Is inaccessibility always, or ever, a problem?

People Park, Pasha Malla’s big, glorious mess of a debut novel, is in many ways a book-length answer this question, at once challenging and exemplifying the idea of art as a means of human connection. Heady stuff for a first-time novelist, but Malla, frequently pegged as a rising star in Canadian literature, has been nothing if not bold in his artistic choices. His résumé thwarts attempts at classification, including as it does crime fiction, humor writing, and experimental poetry. So it’s perhaps no surprise that in his first long fiction Malla goes straight to questions of aesthetic form and significance; he’s always been interested in literary boundaries, the artificiality of highbrow/lowbrow distinctions. Upon winning Ontario’s prestigious Trillium award for his first short story collection, The Withdrawal Method, Malla chose to devote his twenty-minute acceptance speech to an endorsement of the Pixar movie Up.

Malla addresses the concept of art-as-connection explicitly within People Park, but his most comprehensive statement is the novel in and of itself, which revels in its own abrasive aspects while earnestly—fittingly—exploring the complexities of isolation and communion, alienation and empathy. Malla’s writing has been critiqued elsewhere as flawed, but here, his deviant aesthetic beautifully underscores his literary concerns. And so People Park is ultimately a monument in defense of the difficult novel, the adversarial bite of Malla’s prose capping a uniquely gripping, surprising, and deeply affecting read.

People Park opens with an island city awaiting the arrival of Raven, a renowned “Illustrationist” (which is to say magician) commissioned for an anniversary celebration of the city’s recreational crown jewel, People Park. As Raven’s show approaches, we meet a motley sampling of his audience: a vacationing family with an over-medicated son, a manic family-man father, and a former athlete mother exhausted by domestic life; a lesbian couple, one of whom has withdrawn into her art while the other craves affection; the disgruntled former resident of a housing complex displaced by People Park; a teen intrigued by a violent, cultish gang; a reclusive sculptor pursuing mysterious “work”; and others—not least Raven himself, a silver-tongued enigma promising “revelations.” Each character’s narrative is complicated when Raven performs his headlining “illustration,” which proves to be no illusion: he makes the island’s bridge to the mainland disappear, and then vanishes himself. Social order soon frays as the city contends with its new isolation and an escalating series of all-too-unnatural disasters, culminating in floodwaters that threaten to overwhelm it entirely. We follow the characters as they are jolted from routine and forced to confront increasingly dire circumstances, their individual and collective humanity thrown into judgment-day relief.

The book is perhaps most readily understood as a satire—Malla skewers consumerism, classism and social media-age narcissism with wit as acerbic as Gary Shteyngart’s or George Saunders’s. (Modern masculinity is brilliantly caricatured in the golf-shirted, schnapps-drinking, ping-pong-playing “New Fraternal League of Men,” a Freemason-esque civic order; they are the much-vaunted “end of men” come to absurd, impotent fruition.) Au courant as his send-ups are, however, Malla has conceived the world of his novel to reveal the human condition on a more timeless scale. The city is a dystopia, but this is not Philip K. Dick, or 1984, or Cat’s Cradle or A Clockwork Orange; it’s not about the rise of the state or the machines or the bomb. Nor is this the post-apocalyptic anarchy of The Dog Stars or The Road. It’s not even Brave New World; drugs are too incidental to blame for this society’s malaise, and the limited interventions of modern technology seem important only as human-to-human interfaces. Malla’s island city is, rather, a dystopia of nonintervention. No transformative new technologies, robot overlords, Big Brother state, global cataclysm or any other diabolus ex machina has catalyzed this society’s degradation—yet it is degraded all the same, with just enough apathy, petty leadership, shameless self-involvement and communal prurience to be distinguishable from our present reality. But only just. Malla’s is a sort of post-Matrix (or post-Google Glass) vision: with the rise of the machines so thoroughly established, what’s left to contemplate but the continued rise of Us?

With his island city as the rock on which modern man is slowly foundering by his own mediocrity, Malla uses Raven’s disastrous intervention (his forced isolation of the island, followed by increasingly severe weather events) to void the props of civilization—the routines and recreations, meals and medications, cliques and consumer goods—that had previously shielded the island’s residents from the necessity of honest introspection, forcing them to confront the possibility of their emptiness. The results of this reckoning are diverse, incomplete, individual; some characters that seemed little more than comic relief are unexpectedly ennobled, even as the story lines of major protagonists fizzle; pathos is revealed in the pedestrian, aberration in the banal. Relationships erode, new ones form and dissipate, and a very few are strengthened by the test. This judgment day quickly topples the belief that even the most vaunted pillars of “civilization”—family ties, friendship, romance, commitment to causes, civic engagement, etc.—are worth saving. Just because we’re in this together, Malla asserts, doesn’t mean we’re any better off.

Even the utility of art as a means of transcendence is questioned, and here we come to Malla’s meditation on the limits of his own craft. Raven can be seen both as a stand-in for the author himself, and a paradigmatic artist (the resonances of “illustrationist” are hardly incidental), his creation being the doomsday he has engineered for the city. There are other artists—Adine, the withdrawn lover obsessing over a solitary performance piece; Sam, the oddball sculptor with ominous ulterior motives; and “Loopy,” whose banal, crowd-pleasing creations include portraits of local celebrities—but only Raven has the world-shaping omnipotence, the creative control analogous to the novelist himself. Over the course of the novel, surprisingly, it becomes clear that Raven is not so sovereign as he initially seems. He is in fullest command of his creative powers at the novel’s beginning, as he makes vague but confident declarations like “My illustrations are an attempt to . . . complete the partial version of the world which exists in viewers’ minds” and “I wish to display a whole version of this city to everyone who lives here—the truth about this place,” and as he performs the genuine magic of his “illustration.” As everything goes subsequently to hell, Raven is present only as a disembodied commentator, sharing musings with the city’s hapless mayor. During their dialogue his confident veneer begins to erode; when the Mayor demands that he returns the city to “normal,” he responds,

“What’s normal? Isn’t normal what I’ve been trying to show you? And by normal I mean the truth—the normal, quiet truth beneath the clatter of your busy city lives. Though did I achieve such truth this time? I have my doubts. I can’t judge it myself, as I’m within it, you see? Who knows, I say what I do aren’t illusions, but maybe they are. Maybe they’re just lies. Don’t truths which no longer entertain become lies?”

The tone is mocking but also plaintive; an undercurrent of uncertainty has crept in, a sense that none of this is going quite as planned. The final slippage of Raven’s facade comes at the novel’s close, when he rematerializes to accept public credit for what he has wrought, only to be overwhelmed by a horrific mob of (presumable) islanders, who “were like the shadow cast by a sudden violent storm, or an eclipse, or a creature, huge and black and hungry” as they “swept down the path after Raven, over Raven, inhaling him—a flash of white and he was gone.” Somewhere along the line, the balance of power transferred from Raven to this human tide, who have served as both his audience and his players.

If we accept Raven as the archetypal artist, this denouement implies two things: first, that a creator can’t control his audience’s reception (if they end up a vengeful mob, so be it), and second, that as soon as other human beings are involved in the creative process, the auteur necessarily relinquishes some control of his vision. These two points are really the same, of course: whenever people get involved with art, things get unpredictable.

Given the novel’s skeptical view of humanity, this is perhaps an inevitable conclusion, and while it renders art (like everything else) an imperfect vehicle for the communication of “truths,” it doesn’t make it a futile exercise. The characters undergo plenty of revelatory introspection while struggling through the Raven-instigated chaos, though many of their realizations are tragic, and often cost dearly in love, life, or sanity. It seems that art’s great power is to disrupt the myopia of ordinary life, to jar its audience’s habitual perspectives with the hopes that, through some alchemy of intention and accident, presentation and reception, new understanding will result. This power is not without risk to the creator—as we learn through Raven’s demise via angry mob—but the alternative to this disruptive art is art that has been sanitized or made safe, only showing its audience what they already recognize and accept, and thereby doing nothing to educate, challenge, or otherwise create opportunities for transcendence of the quotidian. The novel’s example of this is the much-feted, totally ineffectual work of Loopy, the “artist laureate” who panders to the city’s self-involvement through a portrait series of local luminaries simply called “Us.”

This dichotomy between safe and disruptive art is, in itself, an argument in favor of difficult or inaccessible writing. The greatest testament to the power of writing that does not easily “connect” with its audience, however, is not Raven’s art but the author’s. Humanity’s a distractible, unpredictable mess, in Malla’s vision, and it’s only in the accidents of extrema that we are revealed; those are the conditions Raven creates in the city, and Malla does the same with his writing.

That said, the book is far from inaccessible. Malla’s satire is sharp but inclusive—we’re all in on the joke, even when it’s on us—and his ear for diverse vernaculars, ranging from pitch-perfect evocation to absurd riff, makes his characters funny, individual and often astonishingly genuine, from a lisping thug (“let it go, man, it’θ only a θymbol”) and a cognate-scrambling old man (“At last the birds fly home to roast”) to a subtle limning of marital unease (“Hey, we okay? Just kidding around . . . Pearl said, Kellogg, hey, no, I know. Just feeling a little stressed, a little weird is all. Coming back is weird . . . Kellogg corralled his wife into his arms. I love you, he whispered into her neck. I know, said Pearl. I know”). However, Malla’s writing can also feel, at times, gratuitous, opaque, and similarly inconsistent. Malla’s debut story collection, The Withdrawal Method, was criticized for some of these “flaws”: Publisher’s Weekly called it a “disappointing assemblage of pieces” in which Malla’s “heavy-handedness feels cynical” at times and “Malla chooses the road of obfuscation, too often denying the reader crucial information”; even in generally positive reviews, the Canadian magazine Quill and Quire called its title “perplexingly unappealing,” a reviewer remarked in The Rumpus, “I don’t really know how Malla gets away with what he does” and The Toronto Star stated that “his aloofness spins the narrative in circles instead of locating his characters' emotional truth,” concluding that “this distancing can make it harder to invest in Malla's stories.”

Are these qualities present in People Park? Yes. Are they necessarily negative? I would argue, given this book’s thematic concerns, no. The cynicism does feel heavy-handed sometimes, many descriptive passages are deeply (and intentionally) “unappealing,” some characters seem aloof to the point of caricature, certain sequences feel like one-off jokes that ran on too long, some story lines peter out sans resolution. And yet this unpredictability, this textural unevenness add an organic frisson to the reading experience, making the (many) moments of sheer wit or beauty or empathy that much more astonishing. And shouldn’t that be how empathy is, after all? Astonishing? And isn’t life gratuitous, and entertainment gaudy, and some people harder to love than others? People Park is a triumph of expressionism, not the realism (whether sur-, magical, or otherwise subcategorized) we tend to expect of novelists; Malla animates for his readers the messy, uneven experience of modern life rather than rendering a precisely edited portrait of it.

People Park is a workout to read—but if the novel went down any smoother, the reader likely wouldn’t go through the same bewildering and, for my money, deeply affecting gauntlet of responses. Malla’s writing has a boundless capacity to delight, but also to disturb on visceral, emotional and intellectual planes, just as his characters are disturbed by an act of creative destruction. He’s writing about the experience of coping with a dangerously warped reality, so on some level that’s exactly what his writing needs to be, and is: dangerously warped. And although shared experience can’t alone engender meaning in the world of People Park, it must be worth something that I felt more empathy than sympathy for Malla’s characters, narratively tossed and turned as we all were. In his beautiful zinger of a final line, Malla admits as much, switching to the first person to reveal that his own “illustration” has, all this time, included us and even himself: “And the mob kept coming, scorching the air with their voices, sweeping down the cliffs in a vast dark wave, out onto the beach, where we could only stand and watch as they fell upon us all.” The following page is entirely black, fading to gray on its reverse, then to blank white on the facing page, which bears a single printed “O.” Is this a unity, or an abyss? Are we saved or damned? Malla isn’t telling—he’s in that O with everything else. There is no author’s note.

 

Meghan Houser is an editorial assistant at Alfred A. Knopf.