Copyright © 1998 All Rights Reserved.
by David Bright
Concrete Forest: The New Fiction of Urban Canada
edited by Hal Niedzvieki
McClelland & Stewart, 296 pp.
"In the city there's a thousand things I wanna say to you." So declared The Jam in their 1977 sub-punk anthem "In the City." And the city - the real city, that is, not the sanitized version of Rhoda or Friends - has always struggled to get itself heard in North American culture. Sure, towns and cities do appear frequently in Canadian Lit, but always more as dramatic setting rather than as visceral experience.
Concrete Forest changes all this. Edited by the youngish Toronto writer/journalist Hal Niedzviecki, this anthology features stories from more than two dozen of Canada's most exciting and challenging authors. With tales of Canadian urban life that resound with conviction and compulsion, Concrete Forest finally puts to bed the notion that Canada can or should be defined in terms of "the land," no matter what those truck ads and Blue Rodeo have to say. Instead, like Bill Clinton probably said at some point, it's the city, stupid....
Just what is meant by "Concrete Forest"? In a rather unnecessarily pretentious introduction, Niedzviecki says it's "a fiction forest overgrown with the joys and terrors of the urban, a land where the events of the everyday are depicted as real to us in lasting ways that transcend the ephemera of our fleeting lives."
Whatever. Take a tip and start with the stories themselves - they make quite clear exactly what the concrete forest is: Peter Stinson's rapid-fire account of a Calgary taxi driver's tour of duty, Dianne Warren's spooky tale of a paranoid flower saleswoman, Leo McKay's borderline-Kafka account of a man's attempt to assist an abused child. The essence of urban life - its immediacy, anonymity, alienation and uncertainty - is captured perfectly in these and other contributions. Above all, as the character in Daniel Jones's take of unconsumated friendship says, "There are so many things to talk about, so many things to say."
Not everything gets said here, of course, but Concrete Forest is an impressive start. Fifty years ago, W.O. Mitchell celebrated a mythic prairie life in Who Has Seen the Wind? Anyone who lives in the city sees the wind every day, and knows that it's grimy, gritty and pretty much in your face. Just like these stories, in fact.
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