A failed musician obsessed with avant-garde art enters a shadowy world where bohemian excess meets the avaricious interests of a real estate cabal.
Alexander Otkazov is finished with Montreal. Having wasted his youth on the love of art, he’s ready for a life of anonymous condo towers and profitable boredom. But when he moves to Toronto, he is forced into a monkish existence by the unforgiving pressures of the city — until he stumbles across a story about an ambitious experimental music collective that could be his ticket to a better job and a better life.
Desperate to prove himself as a journalist, Alexander chases answers that take him from Forest Hill mansions to the bottom of Halifax Harbour, moving ever deeper into a shadowy world of amorphous real estate deals, creative megalomania, and finance capitalism, where avant-garde art is simply another mask for big money. In order to unravel the threads tying everything he loves to everything he hates, he will have to confront his own most sordid desires and the lengths he is willing to go to achieve his dreams of an easy life.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
The concert fell on the second Saturday in April. I was filled with a certain unease, a quickness of breath that came on me when I thought about the heat rising from Theresa’s buttocks. I had caught a glimpse of something unpleasant inside myself, something aggressive and sadistic; I enjoyed feeling the poison waters closing above my head.
At eight o’clock, after I’d showered and drunk a pot of coffee, I received a text message from an unknown number. I responded with the code I’d been given when I purchased my ticket (Theresa had told me what to do) and walked down to the small park on Queen Street between nine and ten, to wait for further instructions.
A small knot of people had already gathered by a young maple near the path. I didn’t recognize anyone, but when I said the word Fera, there was a round of nods. I hadn’t been there ten minutes when a young man in a leather jacket appeared and told us to follow him. He asked each of us in turn if we were cops, which I assumed was part of the theatre, before leading us down a side street and around an office building, then into an alley that ran behind a row of houses. Everything felt very conspiratorial, but the whiff of transgression was tempered by the knowledge that, however naughty it might seem, nothing very bad could possibly happen. We’d bought tickets, after all. A large brick building loomed at the end of the alley. A fire escape ran in zigzags up to the roof. Our guide led us wordlessly up to the first landing and knocked three times on a metal door that had no handle. It was opened by a young woman, also wearing a leather jacket, who escorted us through a series of cramped hallways and corridors to a large, unlit space that smelled of dust and sweat and perfume. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I realized that I was standing beneath some kind of mezzanine. I stepped past the row of shadowy pillars in front of me and a cavernous space opened up. Here and there I could see strings of glowing green lights, and around me dozens of whispered conversations came together to create the sound of a buried sea.
The pillars of the mezzanine curved gently inward. Ghostly faces flitted past, and the lights blinked from the deeper darkness beneath its shadow. As I grew closer, I realized that the blinking effect was created by a crowd of people milling around a makeshift bar. A small hand-lettered sign saying $5 hung above the counter. There was no other information. I took out a ten-dollar bill and tried to get the attention of one of the bartenders. They had necklaces of green glowsticks hanging against their chests.
“What are you serving?” I whispered, when my turn came.
“It’s five dollars,” they said, pointing up at the sign.
“What’s five dollars?” I asked.
“The price you must pay for a drink. ”
“Right, but what’s the drink?”
“The Nectar of the Gods. ”
“Okay, but what is it really. ”
“We cannot say. ” A hint of irritation had crept into the bartender’s voice.
“I have allergies. ”
“Are you allergic to anything in sangria?”
“Then you should be fine. ”
“Great, give me two. ”
I drank one of the sangrias directly. It was shocking to think that, somewhere just a few blocks from my apartment, this enormous concert hall had been sitting empty for months. When had it been built, and for what purpose, and how long would it last? The cranes had begun to march north from Liberty Village. New condos were going up on the corner of Queen and Dovercourt. It seemed inevitable that such an unproductive space would soon find itself slated for destruction. There would be no record that this evening had ever happened, that a concert had been held in spite of the safety pedants and scolds and permit-grubbers. The music would live for a while in people’s memories, but in time (if Theresa was to be believed) it, too, would be erased. And this was what the composers and volunteers and musicians were willing to risk fines and court orders for. In spite of all the absurd posturing, perhaps filling this doomed theatre with mystery and young life for a few hours was not such an ignoble thing.
Again I wondered who was really paying for all this. Lying in bed with Theresa two nights before, I had tried to get her to disclose some information about what, exactly, I could expect. But she had just told me to read Book II of Plato’s Republic again, which hadn’t proved any more helpful the second time around. There was a great deal of talk about justice, and whether or not the best situation would be to behave unjustly while keeping the appearance of being an upright person. Then Socrates started talking about the beautiful city, the city where people lived simply and met their needs in uncomplicated ways. But Glaucon found this city too crude, fit only for swine, and told Socrates to be more realistic.
In theory, this squared well enough with the concert description. But I was left with a few nagging doubts. Socrates had given up on his beautiful city rather easily, after all, as if it were more a rhetorical gesture than an actual ideal. Later in the book, he certainly seemed happy enough with a stratified society, with philosopher kings at the top and foreign slaves down in the muck where they’d always been. It was as though the city of pigs was a kind of fantasy, an ideal of such unworldly beauty that no reasonable person could believe in it. But then perhaps I was reading too much into things. It was just a concert.
My train of thought was derailed when an ear-splitting shriek echoed without warning from somewhere in the depths of the theatre. The sound started out viciously high, a sudden, agonizing blast of pure noise settling into a kind of morbid buzz. When it finally died away, my heart was pounding and I’d spilled sangria all over myself. The burst of sound was followed by a silence that carried on so long as to become unnerving. The audience began to whisper again, but as the sound of hushed voices increased in volume and pitch, it became clear that the whispers of the crowd had been joined by the hum of strings. From the mezzanine above, a blue light crept up the dome of the hall. The contours of the room became clearer. At the front was a stage that held a large, solid mass, a kind of squat cylinder or raised disc. The music of the strings became a kind of dreadful static, unsettling precisely because it was organic, like the crunch of a hand slammed in a car door.
The noise reached an unbearable excess, and there was a sudden electrifying crack. A narrow red spotlight turned on directly above the cylinder, revealing a figure dressed completely in black and carrying a bullwhip. A piano started to play somewhere up in the mezzanine, and it was joined by another and then another placed at points around the room. Each played a complex tonal figure in staccato bursts, less melody than percussion. A kettledrum added to the din with a series of cascading triplets. Because the musicians seemed to be half a beat or so behind each other, the music was filled with strange, unpleasant echoes, a cacophonous effect that was magnified by the size of the hall and the distance between the instruments. I had no idea how they were keeping time, or if they were even trying to keep time. The collision of sound made it nearly impossible to identify a signature. Tonally it was chaos, but as the piece went on, a certain inexorable pattern emerged. The rhythms of the timpani became more regular. The piano melodies simplified into chord progressions. Something like a beat appeared, and the stupefying noise coalesced into a mechanical grunt and shudder.
It was at this point that the figure in the centre of the stage cracked its whip again, and a series of dull thuds and clanks were heard in rough time with the music. Grey light filtered in from the wings, illuminating two lines of figures in simple tunics marching with long poles in their hands.