Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Two Toronto Novels and Lessons of Belonging: The Global City in Modern Canadian Literature

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Two Toronto Novels and Lessons of Belonging: The Global City in Modern Canadian Literature

Article excerpt

Russell Smith's 1994 novel How Insensitive momentarily pulls its protagonist out of the city to reveal what is different about life in the hinterlands. On his way to a nightclub in the north end of Toronto, Ted Owen finds himself for the first time beyond the reach of the subway system. The walk north from the terminal station takes him into a "deserted and sterile" streetscape of closed specialty food shops and "streetlights extending in a perfectly straight line for miles, disappearing over the horizon." Alienated by this taste of near-wilderness, Ted suddenly notices his dress: he has brought a trench coat because "Some voice from his childhood had told him he might be cold." The trench coat, he concludes, is "absolutely inappropriate for the suit." But his sudden self-consciousness is expressed not only in terms of space, fashion, or the triggering of a childhood memory. In his rush to leave his apartment he has forgotten his watch. Frantically he searches the tops of buildings for a pixelboard time display. "There was none," continues the narrator, "and he cursed the inadequacy of the street. In a real city, one would always be in sight of a pixelboard" (94). (1)

When he finally gets to the nightclub, Ted is stuck on the lack of a pixelboard time display. The following dialogue ensues, and it is worth quoting at length in order to understand that the lack of a pixelboard is no mere inconvenience. Ted says to a friend:

       "Do you know ... on my way here I was looking for a
pixelboard
   display, you know the ones on the tops of buildings and in the
   subway, to check the time, and when I couldn't see one I was
actually
   irritated? I mean we've come to expect that every street has one
   somewhere."
      "Fully," said Andreas, pouring wine inaccurately.
      "And I realized that a mere two years ago I would never have
   expected them on any
 street, much less desired them, and even less
   been embarrassed by their absence. I mean it felt strangely
provincial.
   I've come to feel that in a real
 city you'd always be in sight of a
   pixelboard time display."
      Andreas laughed. "And the temperature."
      "Exactly. And preferably with a constant stock ticker
running, so
   one can keep track of New York prices. And when the New York
   exchange shuts down, at night, it would switch over to Tokyo
   prices. At least that way we'd all have some sense of being
   connected
,
   I mean you wouldn't feel this awful dislocation that you feel up
in
   deserted suburban areas like this. I feel so inhuman up here."
(97) 

Ted Owen wants to feel as though he is in a real city in order to overcome the provinciality of the hinterlands. But what is more striking about Ted's attitude is the way in which he believes that Toronto qualifies as a real city: it does not have to be the source and center of Canadianness, or even the nerve center of the Canadian economy; it qualifies by being connected to New York and Tokyo. In other words, Ted is signaling how a global city (2) like Toronto becomes a site of identity-formation that codifies itself as a global urban consciousness, fluent in a transnational discourse of signs, values, and knowledge. Through Ted's identification with foreign cities, themselves materialized in the abstract value of stock prices, How Insensitive serves as a case study of how fictional representations of the global city-hess of Toronto produce an ideological break in the history of English Canadian literature. By programmatically transforming Canadian literary nationalism's traditional anti-urbanism into a rearticulation of the relationship between the nation-state and its global cities, Ted signals that the relationship between land and national identity is historically past, and that new, ahistorical urban structures of feeling are taking its place.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate why the wholly urban cosmopolitanism represented in How Insensitive is significant is to contrast it with the anti-urbanism implicit in another novel that deals with Toronto's transformation into a global city. …

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