- Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities
Nostalgic for the small-town settings and the Canadian historical particularity of a Robertson Davies or Margaret Laurence novel, Stephen Henighan recently lambasted the 'ahistorical North Americanism' of Michael Ondaatje and Anne Michaels, while also blasting the 'vapid commercialism' of such writers as Russell Smith and Andrew Pyper. No doubt, Henighan would find little to recommend in Downtown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities, a collection of scholarly essays that insist on the centrality of the city within the Canadian cultural imaginary. But, as editors Justin Edwards and Douglas Ivison argue, Henighan belongs to that sizeable group of Canadian thinkers who still cling to the idea that the small town, [End Page 335] the wilderness, and the North are at the heart of Canadian identity, thus perpetuating the myth of a non-urban Canada. In the introduction and epilogue, Edwards and Ivison consider how this myth has functioned to construct a sense of commonality in this most varied and far-flung of countries, but '[r]ather than ... associating the city with exciting new writing and the non-city with tired old myths,' their collection largely forgoes such binaries, focusing instead on 'the materiality and specificity of our cities and the experience of urbanism as a way of life in Canada.'
As one would expect, Downtown Canada contains a number of essays on the city in contemporary Canadian fiction. Predictably, we read much about Toronto as imagined by Michael Ondaatje, Austin Clarke, and Russell Smith. Michael Winter's St John's figures prominently, as does Michael Turner's Vancouver. Among the essays whose subject matter is contemporary, Domenic Beneventi's consideration of ethnic flânerie in the Montreal novels of Régine Robin and Robert Majzels is memorable for its careful attention to the inadequacies of those reductive spatial discourses that have encouraged us to see Canada as remote, empty, or white. John Ball's essay on transnational urbanism in Catherine Bush's The Rules of Engagement is also strong. Like Beneventi, Ball draws on the work of geographer Doreen Massey, who argues that because 'the social realities which constitute a locality increasingly stretch beyond its borders ... you can sense the simultaneous presence of everywhere in the place where you are standing.' Although Ball does good work with Bush's rendering of London, England as an 'international contact zone,' he does disappointingly little with Bush's self-consciously transnational representation of a Toronto where, for example, all the taxi drivers are Somali and the protagonists meet at a bar called the Transit Lounge.
While Ball reminds us that Toronto, keen to advertise its racial and cultural diversity, recently adopted 'The World within a City' as its official tourism slogan, the essays by Paul Milton and Lisa Salem-Wiseman suggest that such diversity does not extend – or is not perceived to extend – to its suburbs and the suburbs surrounding other major Canadian cities. That said, both essays scrutinize the myth of suburban homogeneity. In particular, Milton argues that Canadian scholarship on suburbia has been characterized by 'displaced attacks on middle-class philistinism' and has ignored 'the lived experience of suburban dwellers.' This part of Milton's essay is lively and very engaging, but his conclusion, that expressions of dissatisfaction are central but not peculiar to suburban fiction, is disappointing.
Although the collection favours contemporary work, it contains three essays that speak to the long history of urban writing in Canada. The best of these is by Richard Cavell. Building on the work of Glenn Willmott and Walter Pache, both of whom have argued that the city has been rendered persistently invisible by the dominant tropes of Canadian literary criticism, [End Page 336] Cavell examines the 'defeatured landscapes' in a number of early and mid-twentieth-century Canadian stories. He argues that ours is a literature which 'consistently adopts modes of abstraction as ways of eliding the effects of colonization within the domains of social and cultural production.' Where some of the weaker essays in this collection stop short at close readings of novels with...