The City’s Gates introduces itself as a puzzle, with an “Apologia” letting us know that the book we are about to read is an “archaeology” consisting of documents found in the rubble of a building destroyed by fire. What it all means is left wide open: the body of documents, we are told, is “curious and idiosyncratic … often fragmentary, often contradictory and often difficult to lend credence to.” If this sounds like we’re going to get author Peter Dubé in full surrealist mode, we can’t say we weren’t warned.
Once we get into the documents themselves, we encounter the same spirit of mysterious self-awareness. The main narrator is Lee, a social researcher who is assigned by the Director of an unidentified Centre to infiltrate and report on various shady organizations during the lead-up to an international economic conference being held in Montreal.
None of this is as clear as it sounds. The Centre (we are informed by a footnote) is “obscure.” Lee refers to it as “a sort of shadowy, interdisciplinary research unit.” The Director has a “relatively obscure official position,” a face that looks like “an actor’s mask,” and an aversion to open spaces and sunlight. Finally, the groups Lee is called upon to research aren’t the usual anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protesters, but bizarre tribes of retro aesthetes, free-love bohos, and a group that carries on like a 21st-century version of the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.
Despite plot elements that make it appear to be a contemporary tale torn from today’s headlines, The City’s Gates is essentially a fantasy, something close in spirit to G.K. Chesterton’s dream/nightmare The Man Who Was Thursday. The tribes that Lee encounters are “living in a space that overlaps, but doesn’t intersect with” the real world, which makes the book sound like an allegory, perhaps of the soul’s journey to a higher level of consciousness. If so, it is a trip that is hindered at every turn. Characters search for some transcendent, infinite truth through art, music, drugs, sex, astrology, or whatever else comes to hand, but the conclusion seems to be that all meaning is contingent, that obscurity or ambiguity – “the mysteries of the unspeakable” – is inherent in any form of expression.
Depending on your disposition, this is something to celebrate, resign yourself to, or get frustrated by. An odd mix of old and new, The City’s Gates is both highly original and maddeningly vague. But readers who don’t take any of it too seriously should find it a treat.