Sunday, July 06, 2008

Girls Fall Down by Maggie Helwig

Having lived away from Toronto from 2002 to 2005, I found a very foreign city depicted within Maggie Helwig's Girls Fall Down. This city under siege, by paranoia underlined by strange happenings. The falling girls, the first one collapsing on a streetcar, and others follow, but no answers can be found. Authorities rule out poison-- well, as much as they possibly can, which is not entirely. There are no significant abnormalities: "'What does that mean...? What is an insignificant abnormality?'"

The first girl is the template, the precedent, for escalation. People whispering about bioterrorism becomes brown-skinned people beaten in the streets.

I do remember Toronto the morning of September 11th 2001. As Helwig writes, "Everyone waiting, almost wanting it, a secret guilty desire for meaning. Their time in history made significant for once by that distant wall of black cloud." The week I left the city, about nine months later, a garbage strike was just beginning. The SARS epidemic outbreak during the year that followed, and that massive blackout the year after that-- I missed it all, the brink of chaos. My city has always functioned in an orderly fashion, as much as possible with so many people in one place. This is the land of reason, logical explanation, and everything has always happened elsewhere.

And so I would suspect Helwig's Toronto would be more familiar to those who were here then. Here is a fiction steeped in reality, Helwig's Toronto so actualized that it fooled me, made me disoriented, but the problem was mine. All the part of the city I've not paid attention to-- references to The Cloud Gardens, for instance, which couldn't possibly exist, but it's just that I've never been there. To Bloor Supersave, which I thought might be standing in for Dominion, or the ManuLife Valu Mart, but of course it's its own place, right at the top of my road.

Against the city backdrop, is Alex, to whom a chance meeting has brought the past back in the midst of this chaos. Reconnecting with Susie-Paul, who broke his heart more than a decade ago, and she's got him all wound up (the way she always could do) in a quest to find her missing schizophrenic brother. She accompanies him on his nighttime rambles through the city, photographing the city's dark side (this theme, albeit in a very different style, reminding me of Haruki Murakami's After Dark).

The particulars of the story at this novel's heart weren't its strongest aspect. Connection and significance somewhat tenuous at times, but all this is strengthened in the context of the novel as a whole. The atmosphere that Helwig creates, and the greater connections between the people that live in this place. Moreover Helwig's fascinating exploration of girls, "the things that girls do." Their secret lives, never entirely uncovered, and their power, however unconscious, the novel's true heart. With such far-reaching ripples, the implications immense.