The Blue Light Project
Knopf Canada, 2011
Hardcover, 347 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
Nobody writes like Timothy Taylor. Thoughtful, provocative, intense, prescient – he’s a unique voice on our Canliterary scene, with, for me, a growing reputation as a chronicler of, and guide to, the urban landscape with its often concealed microniches and highly evolved and adapted flora and fauna. Taylor came to my notice in 2001 with his first novel, Stanley Park. Nominated for the Giller Prize, it garnered the Vancouver writer and journalist significant attention, but not, I think, as much as was deserved. Even then, as the solitary occupant of a list of Taylor novels, it seemed like the beginning of something new and special — a masterful, entertaining narrative used as a vehicle for much larger ideas — and not just any big ideas, but ideas plucked from the interface of the now and the near future, ideas that, in response to new and unprecedented social pressures, were just beginning to percolate up from depths of our cultural subconscious and into our collective gaze. In 2001, it was the ramificatioans of the globalization of our food supply, and the role food may play, perhaps on a molecular level, in our sense of identity and connection to the land. Taylor gave voice to locavore sensibilities just as we, as a culture, were beginning to realize that it might be necessary to have them. In The Blue Light Project, Taylor turns his penetrating gaze to the phenomenon of celebrity culture, and the evolution (or devolution) of the sources of meaning and power in our meme-saturated internet world, the media-enhanced merging of reality and entertainment, with a nod to the relevance of art, both public and private, and the issue of personal authenticity.
Eve Latour is a former Olympic champion biathlete (perhaps loosely reminiscent of our own Silken Laumen) who, in a stunning display of personal courage, won her event and a place in the heart of the world, while competing on a broken ankle. Eight years, however, have passed, and, much to the disappointment of her long-time boyfriend Nick, it seems, she has done little to capitalize on her celebrity status. At Nick’s insistence she has agreed to meet with executives at Double Vision, a firm interested in marketing her image but her enthusiasm for the venture is underwhelming at best. Despite her high public profile Eve is very much alone at this junction in her life. In the interim since her Olympic triumph, her foreign correspondent father has been killed in the field, her beloved but troubled younger brother Ali has disappeared into the drug subculture of the city, and she has begun to suspect that her partner Nick may be more devoted to her celebrity than to her soul. Her isolation has reinvigorated her search for her brother, whose last known connections had been with the shadowy underground street art movement.
Into Eve’s life jumps Rabbit — a feral street artist, freesteal (a combination of parkour and street art) enthusiast and denizen of the urban demi-monde. As with other Taylor characters (the father in Stanley Park comes to mind) Rabbit’s mental stability is not always a given. A self-identified burnout case from the tech boom, the twenty-six-year-old Rabbit left a promising career in technical engineering on a point of ethics, to wander (quite literally) in the wilderness before insinuating himself into the city’s urban street art scene. Inspired by a comment made by real-life documentarian Werner Herzog, that a culture without adequate images is doomed, Rabbit has found some personal fulfilment with his urban art projects. He has earned a certain fame within this niche for his landscape series “alley-long posters of wildflowers and mountain fields,” a sort of virtual re-imposition of “what might have been if the city were not standing.” Art is, however, by his own admission, only a transition phase for him, fame is not his goal, and he plans to remain in the city only long enough to complete a final, grand artistic statement before retreating to a small property in the country left to him by his deceased parents. Part of the considerable tension in the story derives from the readers uncertainty about Rabbit, his sanity and his ultimate intensions. Eve has become aware of Rabbit’s work on her frequent runs through the city, but it is a chance witness of one of his parkour moves (an unself-conscious, spontaneous expression of creative and harmonious movement within his environment) that brings him to her particular notice, and then, his similarity to her missing brother, that keeps him there.
The personal stories of Eve and Rabbit unfold against the backdrop of the Meme Media hostage crisis — a specifically modern catastrophe in which a high-tech, bomb-rigged madman storms a reprehensibly exploitative reality show known as KiddieFame while it is in progress, taking child participants hostage, riveting the world’s attention on the city and instigating a tense standoff with authorities. This incident is closely modelled on the real-life Moscow theatre hostage taking of 2002, which lasted from October 23 to October 26 — the same calendar days used to subdivide The Blue Light Project storyline. As well, the KiddieFame hostage-taker uses the alias “Movsar Barayev,” the real-life name of the Chechen rebel leader of the Moscow siege. This background story introduces other key characters, most notably Thom Pegg, a disgraced investigative reporter, stripped of a Pulitzer Prize for faking a source, and now eking out a parasitic existence as a celebrity profiler, who is specifically requested by “Mov” as the one person to whom he is willing to tell his story. This particular crisis frames celebrity culture and the rise of mass murder as a form of personal protest and expression (think Montreal Polytechnique, Columbine, etc., etc.) as two of the story’s key issues, providing Taylor with the opportunity to examine them from a number of different perspectives. The complex, ritualized relationship between the mob that confers celebrity and its anointed recipients is thrown into high relief as the details of the show are revealed. Significantly, Mov explains to Thom that he has emerged from the black and secret heart of the government — his former career was as an operative specializing in “softening up” suspected terrorists slated for torture. Once evil is countenanced by a society, it seems, its manifestations may not be easily predicted.
The Meme Media hostage crisis functions as a “hinge moment,” for the story’s main characters — like the assassination of John F. Kennedy, or 9-11, a public moment which concentrates the malaise of an era with such emotional intensity that an accounting, or response is required, and personal and cultural histories are forever divided into the before and after. Taylor has a special ability to capture the sense of impending threat inherent in urban spaces — the intimation of something wild, unpredictable and dangerous lurking just beneath the surface, and he uses it to good effect in his depiction of the city, stopped in its tracks by the crisis. The atmosphere that coalesces around the hostage crisis is a heightened version of our own anxieties — complete with mob mentality, paranoia, the strange truth vacuum that forms in the presence of the bottomless, decontextualized, info-bit stream that is our wired existence, a sense of powerlessness and endless spin. All in all, it’s an uncomfortably familiar portrait and as such, glows with a relevance that cannot be ignored.
Although, on the surface the story seems dystopic (with direct allusions to Orwell, and 1984) it is, at its core, not about despair, but rather about individual choice and our ability to shape our own response to our surroundings in the face of seemingly powerful but invisible forces and mob mentality on a global scale. It is, also, about art as a form of authentic personal expression and the power of beauty. From Rabbit’s refusal to simply look the other way, and in doing so, perhaps empower something evil, to Eve’s ultimate rejection of the celebrity offered to her, to the pure heroics of Girard, one of the child hostages, Taylor makes it clear that individual choice to behave authentically is still possible. The key lies in the central symbol of the book — a beautiful piece of wall art which Rabbit discovers hidden deep within a train tunnel, illuminated only by the eerie blue glow of a signal light, unseen and unknown, the artist identified by the tag “Alto.” Reminiscent of the hidden island spring in Alistair MacLeod’s No Great Mischief, it is a piece of pure, individual, creative expression, indifferent to fame and owing nothing to the mob. It is the inspiration that Rabbit needs to see his way forward clearly — to respond creatively and authentically to the darkness that has gripped the city, with a gift of beauty and light, before embarking on his own chosen path.
There are, within the narrative, intimations of a creation mythology — we are given, after all, a new story, which, in the beginning, manifests in a blinding flash of light, and involves a beautiful woman named Eve, characterized as an “angel,” “an unwavering beauty,” the epitome of health and athleticism (in short, goodness incarnate) who chooses to reject celebrity and return to a garden with a soul mate, within whom she has recognized the integrity and authenticity she has been seeking.
The Blue Light Project has been criticized for incoherent complexity. I disagree. Indeed, the story is complex — as any reflection of our modern existence must be — and there are many disparate and not explicitly connected elements, but I feel these work successfully to mirror our fractured and uncertain times, contributing to the necessary atmosphere of brooding malaise and, yes, incoherence, without detriment to the main narrative arc. The suggestion that Rabbit’s parting gesture was a “stunt” insufficient to counteract the ills of the city, somewhat misses the point, as I see it. His final installation was inspired by the tunnel art, a symbol of personal creative expression, independent of any audience and in defiance of celebrity culture. Rabbit’s parting gift to the city was a manifestation of this ideal — a creative celebration of beauty that existed because it was within Rabbit to make it. The audience (if, indeed, that is the correct term) is immaterial.
In The Blue Light Project, Taylor has once again put his literary finger on cultural currents just at the moment of their emergence from our collective subconscious — big ideas like the dynamics and ritual nature of celebrity culture, the need to find (like the freesteal artists) a way of moving freely and creatively through our world, and our ability, through the power of individual choice, to continue to tell our own stories, in the face of unprecedented external scrutiny and manipulation. It is this ability, I think, that imbues his writing with its sense of uncanny fascination, and keeps one returning to the ideas long after the book is finished.
Further Resources: The Blue Light Project and the Urgency of Now by Prof. Kent Enns, Professor of Political Philosophy, Humber College, Toronto
posted on Timothy Taylor’s site, Wed. March 30, 2012
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