Christie’s plea for Flowers I
I’m reading again.
You know those weeks and weeks and weeks when you’re stuck? After two months of drifting through a cloud of magazines, bad tv and crossword puzzles in efforts to coax my brain into allowing just one more acronym into permeating the blood-brain barrier, something finally clicked: critical mass was obtained, and I wanted to read again. It was late, dreary. I had no other choice: I bundled myself up and tumbled over to Value Village.
I know, I know. Value isn’t the most ethical place to shop; I do do my best to support our local bookstores and libraries (through the ridiculous late fees I somehow manage to accrue). For us, the thing about VV is that it is insanely convenient It’s on our block, open until 9 and (although it’s a bit of a grab bag) they often tend to have a decent selection of second hand books. It’s always an interesting array: a smattering of Maeve Binchy novels sandwiched between three different editions of Nicco Ricci’s book and the lesser known titles of best-selling authors. You can always tell what was really hot three years ago by the volume of copies lining the stacks Tuesdays with Morrie and Eat Love Pray seem have been particularly pervasive.
Classics are always in abundance (the books you’ve always intended on reading) – you can afford to be picky on this front: never settle for anything but the nicest editions in the best shape, plenty of copies of Crime and Punishment to go around (you’re going to read it on your Kindle anyway). There is no order here, just sheer chaos, entropic rows upon rows Zadie Smith right next to Babara Kingsolver, Danielle Steele astride Doestoevesky. Your only choice is to descend into a cathartic-catatonic rhythmic state of the thrift store shuffle. Methodologically scanning over each shelf and each row, reading each title, grabbing anything that looks valuable, following the lady chronically restocking the shelves, repeat. Take breaks to skim through Fantasy/SciFi and Cooking to make sure you haven’t missed anything that could have been mis-shelved or hidden and forgotten.
Then, delicately held between copy #87 of Fall on your Knees and this dog-eared copy of Sophie’s World that has lived in the same shelf-spot since I moved to Victoria, there it was:
The Beggar’s Garden.
Michael Christies’ The Beggar’s Garden is a another Vancouver book. A multi-narrative, Christie charts nine peripherally intersecting stories about different people living in the city, spanning it’s width and breadth. Despite being a book of well repute here on the coast, it’s still suffers the collateral of being Canadian: chronically hard to find, new or otherwise. Published in 2011, it was long-listed for the Giller and picked up the City of Vancouver’s book award.
The stories fit nicely into one another, like Timothy Taylor’s Stanley Park. They contain everything you would anticipate from a Vancouver book, deftly demonstrating the poignancy, empathy and awareness of it’s author. As if articulating the faults of the city absolves us from sharing in it’s guilt. Somehow though, in part in his simplicity, in part for his complete absolution to leave the stories separate, to present them objectively, in with an almost mathematical degree of calculation.
In the first instalment, Christie finds us vulnerable and unaware pulling us with the deftness of a tablecloth disappearing from a place setting:
They sent the wrong paramedic, one I’d never met before. He had sideburns sculpted into hockey sticks and stunk of canola oil. He was in my doorway with the gulping eyes of a rodent and the shocker thing in a red nylon duffle over his shoulder. His partner was old and wheezed bedside him from the three flights of stairs. It had taken me a while to answer the door because I was on the toilet, unable to pee for nervousness. When I stood, my hamstrings went pins and needles and I steadied myself on the towel bar while taking a minute to arrange my hair.
Everyone knows someone who is old. Everyone is afraid of turning into someone who is old; alone. It’s a story and a scenario that conjures up fear, resonates with familiarity, universality and empathy. Using this as a starting point, Christie is able to teleport us in through a ubiquitous portal into the Downtown Eastside (DTES).
It’s not for a few more chapters until he pulls out the typical Vancouver fare of addiction and juxtaposition:
The pavement is wet and reptilian…the air thick with evaporation. People are out tonight, like every night, hustling, smoking, chatting, shaking hands, screaming. Everybody is buying, selling or collecting things of a certain or possible value….
I was twenty-six when I started smoking crack. Crack. It sounds so ridiculous even when I say it now, so pornographic.
Skimming quickly over the backstory, with this quick nod to the grotesque, he then turns this into one of the lightest, happiest chapters as we follow-him through a flawless high: airless and clean. His simple ways of writing give a bare-bones west-coast feel to the whole ordeal, letting the rough grain of the wood leave splinters. What I most liked about this book was that it most accurately mirrored life in Van. Each area of town remotely overlapping, sharing walls of a vacuous honeycomb, a hive keeping everyone contained and close but separate, the Hollowness that comes with all Vancouver books.
Good morning Griz! February, 2013
Recently I was listening to “Leaving the Fold” (episode 258 of TAL). A huge portion of the episode talks about Jerry Springer’s career as a politician. At one point one of the guests launched into a tirad about the idea that the element of surprise in context inversely proportional to your reception of the information; that you should wear your most conservative suit the day you present your most creative ideas. In this way, Christie is sneaky. His writing is simple, and precise, which robs and strengthens it, broaching complex ideas through unassuming avenues:
…today was the funeral. It was held outside the city, so Bernice took the bus. After three transfers she stepped from the vehicle’s hissing doors and asked a boy in a pristine white tracksuit lazing on a bicycle with gold-plated rims where the church was. He flicked his chin grimly at what looked like a mall at the centre of a monstrous parking lot, so vast it reminded her of the sweeping landscape paintings often donated to the store, the ones that never sold because, she figured, they amplified people’s loneliness.
Bernice went to the pencil-lead-coloured coffin and pulled from her purse a wooden caterpillar that wobbled when pulled by its string. She set the toy beside her in the white satin interior. Karla had a ponytail-a style she’d never worn-and her face was puffy and spatulaed with makeup.
Christie has a way of presenting complex ideas with very simple language, springing them on you softly like buying a time share. He also does this by juxtaposing the stories, without explanation next to one another. Stories of who would most often be perceived as “the most desperate, marginalized” people are portrayed as quite happy, their detachment and highs and lows crowding out any semblance of the sadness of reality in their narratives. Next to this are some of the most quietly desperate stories, like the one about the dog and the yuppie living in a concrete shoebox apartment in the West End.
City’s are strange places indeed.