The cover of People Park invites readers to take a walk in another’s shoes. See? They’re actually right there: the shoes, on the cover, with their laces still tied.
But it’s not going to be easy to wedge your feet in, not like that. You will have to do the work of untying them.
And, even then, they might not fit. Not even if the size marked on the inside is your own, because these have been worn by somebody else, enough to slightly scuff and strain.
Still, they are offered to you. And you might prefer to slip them on, rather than venture barefoot into Pasha Malla’s debut novel.
People Park places a demand on readers, from the start; the text demands from readers a willingness to step into the unfamiliar, their constant attention and reflection, and a curiosity about the variety of perspectives.
But it also makes a place for them. The cast is large enough to warrant a list of characters at the front of the book, so one more, a reader on the margins, is welcome.
You might as well make yourself comfortable there, on the edges, because just as the train lines skirt the edges of the island, the reader has difficulty connecting with individual characters.
First, there are a lot of them; the narrative offers a kaleidoscopic view of the world, from a variety of perspectives (thirty-seven, actually).
There are “families and lovers hand in hand, businessfolk swinging briefcases, Institute undergrads with their knapsacks and hangovers, teens walking bikes, the elderly in pastels, the tall, the short, the fat, the thin, the hirsute and bald, citizens of every shape and creed and trouser, many in Islandwear jackets — Unique! silkscreened into a skyline silhouette.”
Look at all those citizens. See? There’s room for you. They’re all unique, their mass-produced jackets say so. You can be Unique! too.
Right there: a clue. Sure, the Mayor is a character in this novel; she has a voice in People Park, but she is one of many residents/characters, one individual.
Regardless of your shape or creed or trouser, readers are invited to join this world as a citizen.
You can test the ideas of individuality and conformity, and question what has been created by those in power and what has been experienced by the citizenry in the wake of that creation.
“Do you know what this city was before People Park? It was nothing. It was a nothing place. It was disconnected, all these neighbourhoods flung off in all the corners of the island, and in the middle was a cancer. That’s what it was, a cancer. But think of a city as a person – what should a person have in its centre?”
People Park was once something else, a place in which people lived; now it is a greenspace, which people visit to celebrate its creation twenty-five years before.
Ironically, creating People Park required the displacement of the people who had actually lived there.
So, on one hand the novel considers where the soul resides and what is really in a city’s centre, a person’s centre.
(It is about philosophical musings on the collective and the individual, the public and the private, the reverence of archetypes and rituals to create meaning in the world. A work of art.)
And, on the other hand, the novel considers what happens to thirty-seven characters over one Easter Weekend, when it happens.
“Whatever was happening was becoming an it, an it that history would later name more specifically. For now it was it, and the careful order of the people, their submission to the uniformed authorities, suggested that everyone recognized they were living an it, helpless and servile to it, whatever it might be.”
(It is about what happens when the bridge that connects the island to the mainland is no longer available to use and the island’s residents experience an it. A good story.)
The world of People Park is complex. Pasha Malla has conceived of it in great detail, and the map only hints at the imaginative underpinings.
“The view swung south, to the Islet off the island’s southeastern corner, the first ferry chugging across Perint’s Cove to Bay Junction, then the Major was looking west along Budai Beach to Kidd’s Harbour and the manstons of the Mews lording over LOT, north to Mount Mustela and Upper Olde Towne, to Blackacres, to Whitehall again in the northwest, an industrial ghost town, its unused Piers, where no ships had docked in a decade.”
And it’s not only the place names which seem eerily familiar. There are many interconnections between the reader’s world and Pasha Malla’s world.
For instance, in the novel people are obsessed with their own TV channels on We-TV; it’s not that different from the current obsession with reality TV shows or from the social networking sites which encourage people to create online personas bearing little resemblance to their real lives.
And the New Fraternal League of Men? Think Freemasons and biker gangs. The messiah-like character of Raven with his mystical appearance and disappearance and reappearance over Easter weekend? That’s no different than the author magically revealing the truths that are commonly overlooked until exposed in art. (Or maybe you were thinking of some other mythic figure?)
This is disorienting and unsettling, which some will argue is what art should be, even though that’s not always welcome. In fact, at least one of the characters in People Park holds that view:
“…art challenges people, but people don’t want that. They just want to be reassured, to see themselves, to see each other, to feel comfortable in the world. What kind of art only makes you comfortable? Paintings of We-TV? What the fug is that?”
If you would rather watch paintings of We-TV, People Park will frustrate and annoy. If you want to make friends with every character you spend time with on the page, People Park will leave you lonely. If you want an author to tell you what to think, you will find you are the only one taking part in that conversation.
But if you are willing to put on those sneakers, and then slip them off — once it happens — and let your feet sink and squelch in the mud, People Park will get between your toes. And it will even make you laugh.
Copying out the passages that stood out for me in this novel, they fell beneath the notes that I had made from Rabindranath Maharaj’s The Amazing Absorbing Boy. It is a story of transformation of a boy who leaves the Caribbean to live in Toronto’s Regent Park and also the story of Regent Park’s transformation as a community housing project which spanned many years in Toronto’s downtown.
One of the last quotes that I noted was: “Whatever lay out there I wanted to see it all, panel by panel. And when I was finished, I wanted to push on. I couldn’t wait for Regent Park to disappear.”
Somehow this fits for me, with Pasha Malla’s tale of transformation, and with the Mayor’s vision of People Park.
The connection I find there is rooted partly in plot — because as much as there are characters in People Park who are all about witnessing the miracles and disasters of that society, there are those who want nothing more than for People Park to disappear.
But the connection is more solidly rooted in the sense that the author wants nothing more than for each reader to create their own notes, their own map, their own web of meaning.
(I felt like I’d discovered a little gem of connection in that quote and, yet, I realize it’s a connection that likely only speaks to me, based on my own personal readings of these two novels. Still, it gave me a little thrill to see one story reflected in the other, just as I smiled when I saw the reflection of Pasha Malla’s title on three different surfaces in the photograph I’ve shared above.)
Ironically, People Park requires the readers’ engagement with Pasha Malla’s story, just as it reminds the reader that we not only live, but construct, our own stories daily, one reflected in the next.