The City’s Gates
Cormorant Books, 2012
Paperback, 327 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
The first in a series inspired by a summer pilgrimage to Montreal’s Argo Bookshop to explore new Canadian fiction from a Montreal perspective.
It is late April, and the city of Montreal is gearing up to host the International Economic Conference in August. The conference, which will bring a cabal of the world’s most privileged and powerful elite together to devise stratagems which will impact the material well-being of millions, is just the sort of polarizing event that tends to throw a society’s fault lines into high relief. The weeks pass, and the tension grows, as those invested in the success of the conference (lets call them the international corporatocracy) and those opposed to its ideologies (let’s call them the 99%) prepare for a showdown.
Enter Lee, a young post graduate loner with a degree combining elements of psychology, philosophy and statistics, and whose job, up until a few weeks prior, when he was laid off, involved ill-defined analysis of big data, at the shadowy, and also ill-defined “Centre.” Apparently, he was quite good at it. Good enough, in any case, to be recalled by the vaguely sinister Director of the Centre, and offered a special portfolio, directly connected to the looming Economic Conference. The Centre, which seems to specialize in knowing things, and is, one surmises, involved in some manner with conference security, has noted an outbreak of curious, anomalous social behaviour whose nature has alarmed the powers that be. In several isolated incidents, perfectly circumspect, even straight-laced, individuals, experience attacks of what can only be described as radical truth-telling, in which the “boundaries of social discretion” collapse, a development which the converging economic powers view as highly worrisome at best. Emergent viruses and new designer drugs have been considered as possible causes, but so far, efforts to pinpoint the exact source of the phenomenon have proved fruitless. Although Lee’s self-described talent is for detecting subtle patterns in rivers of random data, and he has adamantly expressed his preference for working with data, not people, the Director insists that he is the man needed to take to the streets in search of answers. Economic expediency dictates that Lee accept the offer, albeit reluctantly.
Lee’s story is, quite literally, over before it begins, as the reader is informed at the very outset that what they are about to read is “a transcription of a series of documents found during the course of a police investigation,” amongst the charred aftermath of a large, suspicious fire in a mixed residential/commercial building in the city. The documents include Lee’s journal entries, spanning several months preceding the conference, various magazine and newspaper clippings, mostly to do with the conference, photos, memos, and other minutiae, which have been redacted (albeit minimally) by the “authorities,” prior to their publication. There is no mention of Lee’s ultimate fate, which remains a mystery.
Painfully antisocial, Lee seems particularly unsuited to a life of espionage and uncertain as to how to proceed. Early attempts, documented in his journal entries, are random and mostly futile, his auditing of CARP, (citizens against rapacious profiteering) an activist group gearing up for protest at the conference, seemingly going nowhere. A break comes, however, when he meets Roomie (Rumi?) a veteran of the streets with connections to the anti-corporate resistance and other darker denizens of the Montreal demimonde. What follows is the tale of Lee’s adventures as he attempts to infiltrate the city’s myriad subcultures, in search of clues as to the source of the “disturbances.” Acting on a tip from Roomie, he eventually befriends (if that is the correct word) the fascinating Mals, acquaintances who meet at the Ancient Ocean, a bar distinguished by a huge aquarium, and subdued blue lighting. Membership in the Mals involves mannered, even courtly, social interactions, a highly stylized wardrobe, exquisite attention to personal grooming, and, perhaps most importantly, a mutually agreed upon denial of their mundane daytime existences.
Lee’s efforts, and reports thereof, seem, initially, simply bumbling and hapless, but, as the story progresses, readers have increasing reason to regard Lee’s testimony with ambivalence. As his investigations take him deeper into the city’s netherworld, his accounts become increasingly surreal. An introduction to a new drug, “windowpane” via a member of the Mals, seems to precipitate a crisis, and the reader learns that he has a history of drug use, and dealing, his own tag (or demonic sigil) … and of fires. It becomes increasingly difficult to discern if subsequent journal entries are a record of actual experiences, or of a disintegrating mind. Certainly, all the hallmarks of mania, possibly addiction, and a downward spiraling mental state are there — Lee has not been answering his phone, has been roaming the streets after dark, his personal hygiene is suffering, and he feels increasingly isolated, even in places like the coffee shop, where he had previously been comfortable. He comes to suspect Roomie of covertly drugging him, partly as a result of a revelatory dream.
Our last word from Lee is his articulation of an urge to light a fire. And so, the story comes full circle.
To deal adequately with this novel, it seems necessary to consider mood and narrative separately. The storyline begins in intrigue and fascination, but ends in some confusion and vagueness. Significant story elements are abandoned along the way, and the approaching conference, whose immanence has maintained tension in a quite satisfying way throughout, comes and goes without the expected climax, Lee participating only peripherally, and the Centre and its concerns receding into the background. Other reviewers have noted similar issues. Lee’s possibly delusional journal entries continue for a few days past the conference, and then simply stop, and, while this has been accounted for in the original frame of the novel, it is still troubling for a reader in search of some sort of conclusion or understanding. Of course, one can make the argument that the collapse of order in the narrative simply mirrors Lee’s increasing irrationality, and that in a novel that touches on the futility of a search for meaning in the infinite chaos of existence (more on this later) it is unfair to expect neat closure. One can, one does, and one is still dissatisfied.
In the matter of mood, however, Dubé is masterful. The presiding atmosphere is that of a fever dream, intense, dystopic, and disjointed, with an overarching anxiety, amplified by the growing tension associated with the upcoming conference and attendant clash of ideologies. To delve into this novel is to step into the textual equivalent of a surrealist canvas, the sense of distortion, of looming presence, lurking menace, of disaffectation, reminiscent of Dali’s Soft Construction with Boiled Beans or, perhaps, The Temptation of St. Anthony. Dubé conjures up a city shrouded in a claustrophobic and paranoid miasma, out of which materialize, from time to time, startling images of almost hallucinatory intensity, and which then, just as quickly, recede into the gloom. The following passage, in which Lee, passing time in a coffee shop, catches his first glimpse of “The Band,” a bizarre group of youth who congregate to participate in a sort of calisthenics of ritualized violence, provides a good sense of the mood:
Out of the night’s long wet, a regiment of youths precipitated from the murk to bang up against the picture windows.
The young men’s hair was white blond and spiked into an unnatural display; tall, pointed, dangerous-looking. Ragged black bars of make-up — masks — were painted across their eyes. Eyes that stared — unblinking — through the plate glass. They splayed their hands on the slick surface. The ones to the rear slapped their comrades on the back and grimaced, tongues lolling out, at the young man seated right by the window.
The gang taunting him through the window was clad in strange military jackets, heavily decorated with badges and baubles, billowing Aikido trousers and heavy boots. They jumped and capered. The pendulous moon was over them and as they climbed atop each other’s shoulders– mouths open with muffled words [,] I was reminded of the of the stories I was told as a child, tales of the strange creatures that roamed the darkened s hours. Goblins, ghasts. None as agitated as these.
The sense of a dark, amorphous threat is everywhere — whether it be a sudden appearance of the band, shadowy figures glimpsed slithering in and out of abandoned rail cars, a shark wending its way serenely through the small schools of fish in the aquarium at the Ancient Ocean, bridges and buildings looming over the city’s populace, or industrial land being reclaimed by a patient and relentless nature where “feral cats lay with the moonlight on their flanks, their amber eyes scanning the underbrush for prey.”
Lee’s original occupation, which was to sift torrents of apparently random data for subtle patterns, to search, in other words, for meaning, gives some hint as to the real preoccupation of the novel. Although the work is richly allusive throughout, with much to occupy the lover of the arcane, the predominant preoccupation is with the disintegration of meaning in a world of infinite connections, a clear reference to our new wired world, big data, and our perhaps dim intuitions that endless connection ultimately destroys meaning or certainty. Lee, who specialized in finding pattern in the apparently random, ruminates unhappily on the slipperiness of words, the “infinite ambiguity of some kinds of language,” the impossibility of ever grasping the endless recombinant connotations of which language is capable. Under these circumstances, the allure of a drug which enabled the mind to encompass the meaning in infinite possibility is obvious.
There is a strong sense of the impotence or desertion of reason in the face of far more powerful, and darkly Dionysian forces. Coolly Apollonian statues on the edge of the city’s park have their backs turned to the violence and chaos of the anti-Conference demonstrations, and in a derelict rail yard, “around the great steel belly [of an abandoned engine] verdant tentacles squeezed with predatory intent.” Throughout the story, there are intimations, of a very Yeatsian sort, that some dragon is rousing, that perhaps the social imbalances, highlighted by the conference, have set some bleak, apocalyptic force in motion, “something dangerous, something unanticipated, that [lies] just out of sight.” As Lee describes it, “the city’s lights seemed suddenly inadequate to the gathering gloom.”
Dubé’s association with surrealism is not new, but in linking this powerful and disturbing sensibility to such easily recognizable current events (the International Economic Conference a thinly veiled reference to the real life G20 Summit in Toronto, in 2010) he has plumbed a strange resonance between the art form and our times. As befits the surreal, the writing brings something dark and dimly familiar to the edge of our consciousness. Although exactly what defies articulation, we recognize something in the writing that expresses our own deep intuitions and fears. It seems rightly wrong.