About a year after I moved here, I re-read those two Atwood novels. 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. I wanted to know the history too, so I read things like In the Skin of a Lion, and learned that the steam baths at Bathurst and Queen have been there an awfully long time. Consolation taught me the streets of my neighbourhood, extremely central and well-founded, were once extremely periphery. I read Fugitive Pieces, Once, Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, Unless, to name a few. Always, always, I had the thrill that a book had been written about the place I lived in, and that I could walk those streets and see those things*. It was so engaging because it was so new; no one writes books about Calgary.
It was with a dulled-by-time excitement I approached Fauna, which is a Toronto Book**. The shine was beginning to wear off, and I found myself initially a little put off by the Torontoness of the book. There's a scene near the beginning of the novel, told from the point of view of a raccoon, hanging around on garbage night, waiting for his chance to pry open a green bin and eat the delicious waste inside. The raccoon, of course doesn't know what a “green bin” is, or that homeowners use bungee cords to keep them closed, against an adorable† onslaught. The raccoon knows only “slender container” bound by “a kind of stretchy, spotted snake […] hooks in place of their heads and tails.” The raccoon knows that “[t]onight's the night when the lonely, feast-filled vessels stand unguarded, fastened with nothing but a clip that any yearling could undo.” As a Torontonian, I know exactly what's happening here, but I questioned if anyone outside Toronto would know just how quickly the raccoons figured out how to open the “animal-proof” bins, and the lengths people have gone to, to keep them closed before the night of unguarded garbage. A little bit of my old prairie sensibility flared up, because this scene is really a bit of an in-joke with other Torontonians. “Center of the Universe,” Calgary sniffs. “Think they're so important.”
Fauna mostly centers on happenings in the Don Valley, and those that live in and around it, including a homeless girl and her dog, and coyotes. The coyotes are under attack from “Coyote Cop,” an angry and traumatized young man (raised in Alberta no less), who expresses his inner turmoil through his determined to wipe the coyotes out. My reaction to the appearance of the coyotes, after being reminded of Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, was that the book could just as easily have been set in a place like Calgary. My parents' house backs onto Nose Hill Park, and before 14th street was extended behind the house there was very little between us and the animals. I grew up with deer, gophers, and coyotes in the yard. When a new subdivision went up on the other side of the hill, we began to see news stories on TV about how dangerous coyotes were. Homeowners were terrified when off-leash Maltese dogs and outdoor cats were attacked and eaten within close range of the park. Those of us on the original side of the hill scoffed. We'd learned long ago that you don't let your dog off leash, or your cat outdoors, if you wanted to see them again. The coyotes were simply living in a wild space, and if you enter that space, the onus is on you. So, my thought goes, why not Calgary?
Not even halfway through, it's clear that Fauna really does belong in Toronto because of its humans, who are mostly new to the city. This one of the things that makes Toronto, currently, the great place it is. From other parts of the province, the country, the world, Fauna is populated with transplants. Fauna has to be about Toronto, because there's no other city in Canada that attracts such a diverse crowd. There's nothing unusual to us about, for example, a half-white, half-Indian lesbian. Such a character might be seen as sensationalistic set in Calgary‡, though I'm sure there are plenty of people there that fit the description. York's characters really do represent Toronto, in a way that is multi-experiential without being tokenistic. Perhaps living here means that a local reader of Fauna can simply take this as a matter of course, and pay closer attention to the inner lives and history of the characters, all of which are beautifully told and retold by York. However, I again have to wonder if someone outside the city would be able to accept all the things York cloaks in suggestion or takes as obvious, the small details and differences we as residents already breathe in everyday without noticing.
Perhaps what I'll take away from Fauna is that I need to remember all those details that struck me when I first got here, all the things I learned, and learned to love (the east end? What?!). I've got nothing against coyotes, but Darius the Coyote Cop and I share more than an Alberta heritage. I still get a thrill going over the valley in a subway car; I'm always going to feel a little bit new here. So I leave you with a long passage from Fauna, because this seems to be a pretty central experience for a lot of people who live here, native or not, and it's the best description I've read of it.
He loves crossing the Don Valley. It's been the highlight of every subway ride since he arrive in the city five months ago—that moment when the train leaves its dank tunnel for the viaduct's airy cage. He always makes it his business to stand in a doorway, even when it means shouldering someone out of the way. North-facing on the way downtown, south-facing on the way home—always the side with fewer girders, the clearest view down.There's nothing like this in Calgary.
It made him giddy in those early days, feeling the long ravine open up beneath him. Much as he'd told himself he was done with backwoods life, there was something about that remnant of river stretched in its scrubby bed that cause the blood to thrill in his veins. When it was light out, the trees showed him their crowns, still black and bare; winter worked like an X-ray, the space between branches revealing riverbank and brush, trash-strewn campsites, snow and broken grass. When it was dark, the sunken forest grew. The river glinted. The roads—however jammed, however sparkling—were secondary. Some nights, they almost seemed to disappear
*I also read a lot of Canadian books set not in Toronto, but mostly in Montreal. Look, CanLit, I'm done chasing you eastward, and we are not going to talk about Michael Winter okay?
**I should definitely pickup Imagining Toronto. I'm pretty sure I used to read the blog.
† You know what else we didn't have in Calgary? Raccoons. I'm still completely fascinated by them. I make squee noises.
‡Oh, but things, they are a-changing. Calgary, I'm proud of you.