Vancouver is notoriously difficult to pin down or define. The city is characterized more by its contradictions than by any overarching symbol or mindset: its natural beauty is at odds with its metropolitan leanings; its leftist history contradicts the drug-fuelled poverty and desperation of the Downtown Eastside; and its sunny self-image of acceptance and tolerance is undercut by its lengthy, and ongoing, history of racism and discrimination.
Vancouver writer and comedian Charles Demers ably captures these contradictions in his first non-fiction book, Vancouver Special, a far-reaching collection of essays. In fact, he seems to capture them too well.
Broken into three sections – “Neighbourhoods,” “People,” and “Culture” – the essays are tightly focused by subject but idiosyncratic in form. “Moving Around,” for example, includes a personal account of Demers’ experiences on the Number 3 Downtown bus, a history of transit in Vancouver, and an analysis of the current state of perpetual conflict between cars, cyclists, and pedestrians. Other subjects, including “Racism,” “Commercial Drive,” and “First Nations,” are handled in much the same way: personal experience leavened with history and analysis of current events, skewed more than slightly to the left.
In isolation, each of the essays impresses, amuses, and educates. Taken together, though, they fail to coalesce. The sharp shifts in tone and approach that make each individual piece a pleasure to read underscore the lack of an overarching thematic principle for the collection. That Vancouver is “in the process of deciding what kind of city it’s going to be,” as Demers remarks in his conclusion, is certainly a valid point, but his book reflects that indecision.
It might be thematically and metatextually appropriate that, like the city itself, Vancouver Special is somehow less than the sum of its parts, but it makes for a slightly frustrating reading experience. Vancouver Special is best explored essay by essay, rather than cover to cover.