A Convergence of Solitudes: Toronto in The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn and Calgary in Monoceros

About a year after I moved to Toronto, I re-read a couple Atwood novels: Cat’s Eye and Robber Bride. It would be a couple years yet until I’d see the sort of house Charis owned on Toronto Island in Robber Bride, but I understood what it meant to get “off at St. George and [take] the Bedford Road exit,” or walk “past the Queen Mother cafe,” which to my delight was, is, still there. So began years of getting a thrill every time I recognized a street name, a building, a restaurant, a landmark. Always, it was amazing to me that I could walk those streets and see those things.


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“‘Come on up. We’ll see if we can’t find some common ground.’” – Sean Dixon, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn About a year after I moved to Toronto, I re-read a couple Atwood novels: Cat’s Eye and Robber Bride. It would be a couple years yet until I’d see the sort of house Charis owned on Toronto Island in Robber Bride, but I understood what it meant to get “off at St. George and [take] the Bedford Road exit,” or walk “past the Queen Mother cafe,” which to my delight was, is, still there. So began years of getting a thrill every time I recognized a street name, a building, a restaurant, a landmark. Always, it was amazing to me that I could walk those streets and see those things. 
The thrill of recognizing streets and sights is part of the joy of Sean Dixon’s The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn (Coach House, 2011). Dixon immediately situates the reader on “Pendrith Street. In the area of Shaw Street just south of Dupont, not far from Christie Pits.” The book bleeds Toronto, right from its introduction of “a subway with two lines” to the significance of the Toronto-Dominion Centre, referred to only as the Meis building, a towering menace described as “sooty” in a neighbourhood that is “suity.” Most important to the narrative is the area of Kensington Market, where Kip and her friends reside, and where her father works. The plot centres around Kip’s fraught interactions with a developer named Pat York — York being the original and founding name of Toronto —who plans to turn the entire market in to the sort of condo-land we see in what’s currently called the South Core.Kip Flynn is concerned with those urban touchstones that disappear. Though the book was published only three years ago, so much of the landscape familiar to those first readers has changed. “Things never stay the same,” Kip thinks, and both novelistic and present-day Toronto are feeling the crunch of this evolution. Due to the specificity of the locations, Kip Flynn becomes a historical document of a Toronto slipping from us already.  The novel closely studies what is on the ground and underground —“earth, burial, buried alive.” The subway creates a pivotal plot point, a death occurs in a basement, and the first page states that “the Downtown area is not porous with catacombs or old mine.” The theme continues over the buried Garrison Creek, a kindly group of nocturnal worm-pickers, boats unearthed by construction “like the one citied in a popular old novel from which Nancy had derived no consolation.” (A meta-nod, a reference to the book which the Toronto Public Library Announced in 2007 as the city’s first Community Read, Michael Redhill’s Consolation.)That which is ground-level and below contains the historical record; the towers that rise like steel flora are ominous harbingers of future burials. “So the city is full of death, but …death is no harder than memory, memory poured into the structures and foundations of the city, the city for travelling through, like memory.” However, death, the covering over of a treasured thing, is not the final answer. For, “love is not a ghost. Love is the opposite of a ghost.” The reader of The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn is instructed to love what is present. One must know Toronto will always change, that the relentless motion of people will create a city you don’t recognize three years later. The important thing is to revel in what is here now.*    *    *
Kip reads about “another Kensington Market, somewhere across the pond.” There is also another Kensington, somewhere across the country. That’s where I used to live.
Every time I return to Calgary, it’s to a place I recognize less and less. Maybe it’s from living in Toronto so long, I sometimes forget how incredibly aggressive the whole vibe is in Calgary. I now feel uneasy in my hometown, in what Suzette Mayr calls in Monoceros (Coach House Books, 2011) “this relentless place.” The quiet at my Dad’s house is eerie more than comforting. I look over my shoulder a lot.
The pressure for uniformity in the Calgary suburbs extends to the people who live there. Calgary feels hyper-masculine, and to step out of line is to become extremely vulnerable. There’s little support for those who won’t fall into place. Mayr understands very well the hetero-normative crush of the suburbs, which take up more than 90-percent of Calgary’s area, and at least as much of its collective consciousness.Most of Monoceros’ narrative takes place in February. One might think it would be difficult to write about a prairie winter, or perhaps monotonous to read about one, but Mayr’s lucky to have Calgary to work with, with its ever-changing temperature. The Chinooks that roll in and out through Monoceros affect the moods and actions of the characters, like the Santa Ana winds do in the Raymond Chandler story, “Red Wind”:“There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” (Chandler, 1938)In an opening scene, Patrick Furey “and Ginger wrestled into scorching sex in the dead grass, hot enough to start a grass fire, their bodies flaring in the dark, in the middle of a February Chinook, the smell of Chinook wind and Ginger in his nose.” (Ginger is a male classmate of Furey’s at a Catholic high-school.) Days later, after Furey’s death, there is enough snow on the ground to warrant removal. Ginger shovels the sidewalks of his neighbourhood in a rage, his physical exertion an extension of his pain. Another Chinook comes, marking a scene of emotional repression, “the tumbling wind ate all the snow so he has no more snow scabs to peel.” Mayr’s description of the variable and contradictory weather patterns aligns with and affects the characters’ inner tumult.If the weather in Calgary is totally unpredictable, the prejudices that run through the populace are expected. This is why guidance counselor Walter and school principal Max hide their relationship (which is a marriage in everything but name, right down to the boredom of familiarity) for over a decade, to the point of maintaining separate residences in name only, lest they be fired from their shared workplace. When Furey kills himself, it’s partially due to the knowledge that navigating this world, when his classmates have begun to clue into his sexuality, will be too difficult. His love, Ginger, has gone cold (and hot and cold, like the weather). Monoceros’ winter feels like death, the thirsty grass so ubiquitous, the skeletal “ribcage of a lilac bush” in sight, Patrick Furey laying under the sod “in air so dry it makes the noses of people who walk above him — his own little solar system — bleed, their cuticles crack and peel.”
While change in Calgary is and always has been relentless, Mayr describes its topography as “the prairie layer of topsoil then clay then rocks and roots all the way down.” Compare this to Sean Dixon’s description of the layers of history in Toronto: “Ten feet down (she said), there had, at one time, been a perfectly preserved, late-nineteenth-century dwelling of a young woman who had just recently been a prostitute and was trying to embark on a seamstress business… Twenty feet down had been the remnants of a burned library from an obscure second house on the estate of the Denisons, who had owned all of what would be Kensington Market… Thirty feet down were found the skeletons of four horses, buried in a row… Forty feet down was all dirt, no remnants of houses at all… Fifty feet down was the skeleton of an enormous fish. Not a whale. A fish.” Both cities build, constantly, yet only one seems to have layers of life.Though Calgary is comparatively new it does have its own ghosts. It contains those who couldn’t take the pressure, like Patrick Furey, those crushed by the tiny downtown “jungle of cranes, booby traps of fenced construction sites, and one-day-only, one-way streets, so typical of this stupid city Calgary.” If The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn feels like a slightly enchanted fairy tale of a city that, while changing, remains loved, Monoceros puts Calgary on notice for bad behavior. This different approach speaks directly to my experience of the two cities. (Though here I have to add that I am, at heart, a prairie girl, who loves that climate and geography. Chinooks are a wonder.) Mayr describes “a regular cardboard-cutout Calgary apartment. Decorated with cardboard-cutout Ikea bookshelves,” and a snack that seems so Calgary to me in its blandness it made me laugh out loud: “nachos with melted Cheez Whiz and mild-level salsa.” This is what Kip and co. are trying to avoid in Toronto, this complicity to beige bourgeoisie, “a new stone kitchen counter with a newer, stonier kitchen counter… ludicrously expensive cheap-looking clothes.”  Mayr astutely captures how trapped one can feel in Calgary, but she also acknowledges the potential in its people. One of Monoceros’ main characters, Faraday, has sent away for unicorns, real ones. She believes in their power to “gore and eradicate the impure.” To finally take away the dirty snow hiding in the corners. “I’m not prepared to settle for a mediocre product,” says Faraday, in regards to losing her virginity, but it also speaks of those who can see further than the next sub-division. While Petra, a popular bully of a girl, “has settled for the University of Calgary here in town for now,” Faraday has bigger dreams.Faraday’s unicorns arrive, the “convoy pulls to a brief stop at the red light, in the deserted heart of downtown, under the ring of red lights on the alicorn that is the Calgary Tower.” The unicorns thunder through the school where the Patrick Furey was tormented to death, where Max and Walter had to pretend that they did not love each other. They do the only thing possible: they “stampede.”
*    *    *The characters in Monoceros, as citizens of Calgary, get around almost exclusively by car. They are swayed and dismayed by reports of “a two-car pile-up on Deerfoot, traffic backed up on Crowchild Trail, one lane blocked for road repairs heading west on McKnight Boulevard.” But Kip Flynn lives in “a walking city,” where life is lived on the ground, among the people, nestled to the brick, though “bereft of memory [not history], housing the dead.” Toronto residents, both fictional and non-, worry that the rise of condos will bring an ironic, suburban flatness to their lives. With a (now former) mayor who has done everything to elevate the car over any other method of living in Toronto, with every destruction of something old to create something new, these two very different cities are slowly homogenizing. (Interestingly, Mayr ensures that the Calgary of Monoceros is an extremely multi-cultural place, which has not always been the case. It is a hopeful movement towards the vibrancy of Toronto.)  Monoceros has lessons for Kip Flynn about the imposition of the banal. Architecture designed to be put up quickly for maximum profit, with minimal thought towards living, creates conditions which can lead to a staid and stultified populous. We, from the suburbs of Calgary (and those from suburbs all over the country), know how it feels to live under this regime of bland modernity; the ‘burbs and ‘burbians have a mandated have a mandated uniformity. Kip Flynn, a downtown girl her whole life, fears this outcome in the way we fear dark corners; instinctually. It is her friend Nancy, Kensington Market transplant and former denizen of the suburbs, who is astutely aware of the physic damage the ideology behind boring new buildings can impose. Nancy, who knows the alternative, is most engaged in the “war for the city’s soul.”   *****Heather Cromarty, formerly of Calgary, is a Toronto-based reviewer and critic. She has written for Quill and Quire, Lemon Hound, and Globe and Mail.