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Flat

by Mark Macdonald

The apartment as metaphor looms large in Mark Macdonald’s debut novel Flat. Metaphors for human isolation and the soul-crushing regularity of modern architecture, bird’s nests for disconnected voyeurs – apartment buildings dwarf the novel’s unnamed narrators and their isolated lives.

In Vancouver’s West End a man identified only as J is found dead of a drug overdose. Every wall in his living space is covered in postcards and drawings of neighbourhood buildings, evidence of a derailed mind. When a casual friend is called in to act as executor for J’s few belongings, he is drawn into J’s obsession with the architecture of apartment buildings and their unholy alliance with the 90-degree angle, “the enemy of love.” Passages narrated by other unnamed West End tenants run parallel to this central plot, so that the novel’s structure begins to imitate the blueprint of a modern building, with each narrative thread an enclosed apartment branching off a shared hallway, the inhabitants architecturally and emotionally connected but never meeting.

The strategy doesn’t always work. At times the apartment building’s sheer metaphorical weight threatens to sink the novel, and J’s executor’s descent into madness calls out for more narrative and fewer insistent descriptions of his degenerating mental state. The novel comes alive, however, when Macdonald allows the material to organically unite through mood, tone, and a consistent eye for the psychological tics that distinguish the multiple narrators.

These reservations aside, there are some bravado pieces of writing in Flat. The scene in which J’s executor is engulfed by an apocalyptic vision of crashing apartment buildings and their maimed inhabitants stayed with me for days, a remarkable feat considering how overwrought such material could have been.