The Archaeologists is the 12th book from writer, culture critic, and Broken Pencil founder Hal Niedzviecki, and he says it’s a departure from his previous fiction in both style and content – most notably from his last novel, The Program, released more than a decade ago.
For starters, the Toronto author chose to serialize his new title à la Dickens, releasing one chapter per week online in Broken Pencil, as well as in Geist, The New Quarterly, SubTerrain, and Taddle Creek. The full text, published in book form by Winnipeg’s ARP Books, appeared five months after the first instalment debuted in April. And where the previous novel’s plotline somewhat disintegrated as its protagonist tried to write a new, alternate reality, The Archaeologists traffics in a somewhat less bizarre and more identifiable milieu. Set in the (semi-)fictional suburb of Wississauga, its characters tackle issues like urbanization, colonial legacy, and their own failure to live up to life’s expectations.
The book’s chapters are named for the characters at their centres: drug-addled Tim, who has returned to his hometown to visit his estranged, dying father and address the mystery of his mother’s disappearance; June, an anorexic housewife who finds herself restless, disconnected, and pregnant; Susan, an aging social and environmental activist on a pilgrimage home from the West Coast after a string of failed relationships; bitter Rose, known for being the oldest (and loneliest) person in town; helpful teenage misfit Charlie; and small-time journalist Hal, who finds his career and sexuality (and relationship with personal trainer Scott) stunted now that he’s moved out of the city core. These stories begin separately, eventually intertwining more clearly as the characters’ burgeoning suburb sees potential expansion thanks to a new freeway development along its main river.
The story confronts significant, timely issues – missing and murdered indigenous women, urban sprawl and environmental advocacy, First Nations’ claims to sacred land, and the immigrant experience, to name just a few – in a tactful way that feels realistic and ties neatly into each character’s unique personality and journey. The cast is bound by their shared, haunted hometown, but also by a lack of personal fulfillment, leaving each to grapple with existential pressures in their own, relatable ways.
The characters are also connected by a supernatural thread, with each undergoing some uncanny experience while embroiled with Wississauga’s future and their relationship to the land. June, for example, feels a compulsion to dig up her backyard under the watch of some external, immaterial force; whether the human remains she uncovers are the bones of Tim’s murdered mother, an indigenous leader, or something else is never made clear.
And typical for Niedzviecki, the book does not lack humour. Take, for example, the hilarious irony of white Susan “Proudfeather” petitioning zealously for land rights on behalf of – but not in the company of – indigenous peoples. Susan is but one of the many personalities in the novel that border on caricature, but remain believable enough to avoid becoming risible. These characters and their stories feel familiar (especially to any Canadian who has lived in a suburb), but their tangling and untangling is rivetting enough that they’re never boring.