Monday, October 8, 2018

12th Canadian Challenge - 7th Review - The Outer Harbour

This is the first short story collection by Wayde Compton, who is more established as a cultural critic and occasional poet.  (I reviewed his earlier work here.)   These stories are set in Vancouver (or on a new island that appears at the mouth of the Burrard Inlet).  They range in time from 2001 to the very near future.  Many, though not all, are interconnected.  The overall approach is reminiscent of Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, though the scheme is not quite as rigorous.

To be honest, I probably did miss some of the connections, so I'm not sure I can exactly SPOIL the collection, but I will certainly be going into the over-aching theme of the collection, so be warned.  Overall, I thought this was an interesting collection, but one that also riled me up and portrayed Vancouver in an unnecessarily unflattering light.

In the first story, we are introduced to a performance artist who refuses to self-identify as Asian or Indigenous or any other racial category.  Her motivations aren't that clear, though she seems to want to undermine the idea that Canadians currently living in Canada have any kind of claim on the territory and/or can keep others out.  Clearly, this is mostly wishful thinking on the part of the author.

In the next story, "The Lost Island," we see the State reacting, and grossly over-reacting, to a different sort of challenge.  A small volcanic island has emerged in the mouth of the Burrard Inlet.  The government attempts to keep everyone away, but a small group of activists decide to claim the island in the name of Native Rights.  One of the activists spells out in the soil that they are armed, and shortly after this, an armed force "reconquers" the island, killing one of the activists.  It would be pointless arguing that this doesn't happen in Canada, but I think it is also true that in the post-social media era, the federal government has gotten much better at simply waiting out activists and squatters (as for example happened on Parliament Hill).  In this sense, I feel Compton is emphasizing the worst that could happen, as opposed to what would more likely happen.

There is a very droll follow-up story, "The Boom," told entirely through posters.  First, there are protests around the fallen social justice warrior.  Then the island is turned into luxury condos with a special water taxi to connect to downtown.  The final images are the different apartment layouts.

I've forgotten why the developer went bankrupt, but eventually the BC government takes the island back and uses it as a holding pen for people who have some spacial-shifting ability (this is where SF implausibility comes into focus, though not for the last time, since Compton has ghosts running about the island in the final story!).   I wouldn't say this thread is entirely satisfactory, but maybe 1/3 of the stories in the collection sort of deal with the real estate angle.

There is another major thread of two twins, who were conjoined at the head.  They apparently learned to play instruments and were in a band.  Then a rich jazz fan (who knew about their father) paid for an operation to separate the two.  (This is recounted in "The Instrument.")  One of the twins wants to become a film-maker, but the other one wants nothing to do with this project.

The artistic twin sets off on his own, getting involved with a quasi-cult-like group that re-enacts Medieval combat ("The Secret Commonwealth").  The payoff for this thread is discussed in "The Outer Harbour," though I wasn't sold on it.

There are a couple of odd pieces that don't entirely fit into the rest of the book.  One of them ("The Front") actually includes an interview with the author, Wayde Compton.  Basically, this lays out the idea that there are art installations that are designed to look like abandoned storefronts, but that will play music if one knows the key(s).  There was also a piece ("Final Report") that was reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem, where the report was about all kinds of different grants could win, including some where the applicant did nothing but would be contacted if s/he was the winner.  "Final Report" was amusing but did go on a few pages too long.

Clearly, this is definitely not a conventional short story collection.  It is mostly aimed at people who are fairly invested in cultural theory and are more interested in ideas than in characters or plot per se.  Whether this collection appeals to you is going to depend on how much you like experimental fiction.  I'm not sorry I read Compton's The Outer Harbour, but it also isn't going to be part of my top 10 or 20 books of the year.

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