As Pasha Malla’s debut novel commences, its eponymous civic landmark is replete with citizenry, gathered for a joyous public celebration. When the book reaches its conclusion nearly 500 pages later, the park fills with people again, though the circumstances for their gathering are far more calamitous. A lot happens in between: things of an apocalyptic nature.
Malla, author of the celebrated short fiction collection The Withdrawal Method, tells the story of an entire community lurched into existential crisis. People Park – a long, complex read with more than a few narrative strands that could reasonably have been excised – unfolds a unique and fully realized fictional universe in which the author explores themes of displacement, isolation, and reunification with flashes of dark humour.
The story spans four spring days in an unnamed island city. The city’s long-standing female mayor has entered into an uneasy alliance with a macho, quasi-military organization to coordinate festivities celebrating People Park’s 25th anniversary. The main event is a visit from Raven the Illustrationist, an inscrutable mystic who slices the mayor’s body in half and causes the only bridge between the island and mainland to vanish. The city destabilizes and chaos ensues: riots, multiple abductions and disappearances, and dangerous weather anomalies abound.
People Park explores the response to these compounded crises, employing a cast of some 36 distinct characters. The story is prefaced by a dramatis personae, and maps on the interior front and back covers prove helpful, as the book is as much about complexities of place and the relationship between social class and geographic topography.
Malla employs lyrically descriptive language at unexpected moments: a five-year-old girl wets her pants and “the sound was gentle, like distant windchimes.” To balance such idiosyncratic flourishes, he ably handles constant shifts in locale and viewpoint, as people stranded on the island battle a freak snowstorm followed by thick fog and rising waters.
But there’s too much competing for the reader’s attention, and too many of the storylines fail to resolve. A primary character loses his ADHD meds, but the promised dramatic meltdown doesn’t happen. A mention that the entire catastrophe occurs over Easter weekend adds little symbolic weight. There are countless subplots, but many offer little in the way of emotional or narrative payoff. Despite its epic ambitions, People Park would have been stronger if it had focused more closely on the inner landscapes of fewer people.