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Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada

by Hal Niedzviecki, ed.

There’ve been a few mutterings here and there that the venerable M & S is grasping for a degree of hipness in publishing Concrete Forest, but I say, “Bravo!” Bravo, that is, to the idea of a fiction anthology from a major publisher that focuses on the urban wilderness – Survival revisited and reconstrued, a quarter century after Margaret Atwood nailed the Canadian literary pysche to the page. (A quarter century!)

The execution is somewhat less exciting than the concept. It’s a gross reviewing cliché to call the results of an anthology “mixed,” even though the results of most are. But here we’ve got the multi-layered sophistication of Natasha Waxman’s opener “Topographies,” which maps both an ancient city and a man’s soul, alongside some pieces that seem like little more than spur-of-the-moment creative writing exercises.

I’ve previously read a third of the 26 stories, including the excellent excerpts from multi-book authors Michael Turner, Dany Laferrière, M.A.C. Farrant, and Cordelia Strube, but many readers will find much of Concrete Forest virgin country. Also, “new” here doesn’t necessarily mean young, but rather, a contemporary sensibility that’s shared by a talented new writer like Derek McCormack and a more experienced yet not-well-known-enough Mark Anthony Jarman. Dare I call it energy?

Editor Hal Niedzviecki writes in his introduction that the new urban fiction “challenges structure and form.” Yet little here blew my socks off stylistically speaking. There is some terrific writing: Lisa Moore’s “Purgatory’s Wild Kingdom,” from her collection Degrees of Nakedness, and Driving Men Mad author Elise Levine’s new story “Boxing Not Bingo” are sexy, visceral, and dense with astonishing imagery. Derek McCormack’s “Stargaze” (from Dark Rides) and Dany Laferrière’s “Pigeon in Lemon Sauce” (from A Drifting Year) are economical wonders, lovely distillations of experience laid down with grace. Daniel Richler’s “Montreal Hangover” smartly treads Martin Amis territory. But other than Michael Turner’s Hard Core Logo excerpt, there is little challenging of fictional form here. (Kafka is a bigger influence than Kathy Acker – not necessarily a bad thing.) And there is much that, to my more roco & co tastes, is minimal to the point of anemia.

Where are the Canadian equivalents of David Foster Wallace, Rick Moody, or Will Self? Where is Montreal’s Yann Martel when you need him? How come one of our most original new writers is not included here?

Urban, like Brazil, is a state of mind. As the editor points out, not every story is set in a city, but “all the stories share a distinctly urban sensibility.” There are no contemplative solitudes here. The highway and the subway, the suburb and the office tower, the scuzzy inner-city apartment and the Northern house party, all share chaotic dislocations. The wilderness meets the city in “The Great Salmon Hunt,” Vern Smith’s delightful, wicked tall tale. Men fish for monster-size salmon on Lake Ontario while in the distance, “The city core, the SkyDome, the CN Tower, and the Gardiner Expressway were enveloped in a green plume of smog, as if a lime rainbow had wrapped itself around downtown.” In Concrete Forest, the city is wilderness.

Hal Niedzviecki’s choices for Concrete Forest are refreshingly (and surprisingly) catholic in scope. I had trouble conjuring much enthusiam for his own stripped-down fiction in Smell It, and had anticipated largely the same kind of thing here. Instead, there’s satisfying variety (with some thin, immature pieces in the mix). And there’s some astute ordering of material, too. For example, Mark Anthony Jarman’s ripping monologue “I Apply,” André Alexis’s nicely weird “Letters,” and M.A.C. Farrant’s twisted “Altered Statements” provide an island of social satire in a sea of gritty (sub) & (sur)realism.

This is possibly the only developed country where an anthology like this would need to be published. Some of our most successful recent novels have all been busy elegantly mapping out literary landscapes in the past (Away, Alias Grace, The Stone Diaries, The Englishmen’s Boy, to name just a few). We’re young, we’re playing catch-up, we want to be taken seriously. Those tackling downtown as opposed to down-on-the-farm have had a harder time gaining a following (and getting published by larger houses). But even the BBC is now paying attention – producing a radio feature on the birthing pains of the new, urban Canadian fiction.

Not everyone living in a city is face down on the concrete or up against the wall, but you wouldn’t know it from this collection.There’s a lot of down-and-outers, drunks, unemployed, and people undermined by a faceless bureaucracy or corporation. (Do I hear Dostoevski? Do I hear Gogol? Do I hear Bukowski?) Aside from Natasha Waxman’s architectural historian and Michael Turner’s musicians, few of the people in these stories do any of the more interesting things people – even 20-somethings – do in cities. Where are the media junkies, journalists, hi-tech geeks, foodies, entrepreneurs, designers, etc? (Where’s Russell Smith when you need him?) There’s nary a bicycle courier even, except for one fleeting mention.

It’s hard to shake our reputation as a vast wilderness speckled with homely little towns, even among Canadian readers. (I had a writing student a couple of years ago who refused to read homegrown fiction. “All that prairie stuff makes me sick,” she said. I loaned her Elise Levine’s Driving Men Mad. Her head did a 360. My own rule of thumb – never read anything in which a cow appears on the first page.) I remember when I felt the same way. London, St. Petersburg, Paris, New York, Alexandria (who can forget Durrell’s Justine?). Books told you life was elsewhere – somewhere On The Road.

I can’t pitch a tent to save my life. Maybe the writers in Concrete Forest can – but they’re mapping a new topography of Canada. Interestingly, though, despite editor Niedzviecki calling the sensibilities in the book that of the “TV generations” (people born after 1965), there’s a lack of attention to our media-saturated age in these stories, save for wonderfully black, biting takes from Cordelia Strube and M.A.C Farrant – writers born before 1965. And there’s little global awareness either (strange in today’s McLuhanesque universe)– making some of the stories feel as hermetically sealed as one about cabin fever in a forest.

The co-editor and founder of Broken Pencil, an independent culture zine, Niedzviecki recently published his first fiction collection, Smell It. He’s a busy guy – co-organizer of Canzine, a festival of alternative culture, a Brave New Waves contributor, and an Exclaim! columnist.


Reviewer: Zsuzsi Gartner

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart


Price: $19.99

Page Count: 288 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-7710-6815-8

Released: May

Issue Date: 1998-5

Categories: Anthologies