‘People Park’ by Pasha Malla

Book Reviews

People Park coverReviewed by Amy Attas (published May 8, 2013)

In People Park, Pasha Malla takes us to an island city celebrating its Silver Jubilee. This city is familiar, but it is not ordinary. It’s an experiment. The place is packed with humans and the narrator describes them with a mix of disdain and amusement. We skip through scenes following a cross-section of the city’s residents, from the Mayor to the visiting Illustrationist, to a famous artist, an infamous protester, a family, a loner, and many others. Sometimes these storylines intersect, giving us rich perspectives of the same event, but often they’re spread thin across the city. Through it all the third-person narration holds a steady tone, watching the city with a detached interest, much like one of the characters describing his pet moles to a drinking buddy:

The thing with moles is they have to feel at home in their world. They have to be able to burrow, they like to feel safe, they feel safe by burrowing. They need to be surrounded in their homes. And they’re delicate. I only keep one at a time. If you put two together they’ll mate, and you don’t want all those babies. That’s if you’re lucky. Usually they just kill each other.

The parallels to modern Manhattan, or the recent lockdown in Boston, are not hard to spot, and Malla’s thoughts on increased-security anti-terror society are insightful, if pessimistic. The Mayor’s belief that “nature needed to be tamed, or it choked you” permeates the text, extending to descriptions of the mob which are often simultaneously belittling and admiring:

On television that morning the whole park had been teeming with bodies, all those bodies that existed within time’s machine, each body held a brain that made it a person, and each person had a mother and maybe a sister, or a brother, and friends, or at least people they knew, and those people had brains and families, and more people attached to them, and it was endless, a great sprawling lattice of people… yet everyone was so separate.

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings there was first an abundance of photos from witnesses, and then a push from journalists to attach names and stories to the characters in these photos. In People Park, Malla dances us through the anonymity of the masses and the powerful brilliance of all those individual stories. In this city, people are totally isolated and wholly integrated. One character, a writer, describes it this way:

During the day the zone was a storybook of wonders: why did that person have a parrot on her shoulder? What was happening down that alleyway with three men arguing around a dolly heaped with copper? This litter of thousands of orange paper dots – who, how, when, what? But in the cold, still night with the only life her own jammering heart and the cloudpuffs of her breath, Debbie’s curiosity shriveled. You bundled against the cold. You were wary. Any shadow could morph into a thief slinking at you with a blade.

Malla also has fun contemplating the influence of YouTube on our culture, represented in People Park by “We-TV’s closed-circuit” which “democratized the airwaves”. Characters often sit around watching TV, flipping through endless channels of citizen confessionals and smutty innuendos about juicy rods of salami. But it’s a fine line between commenting on the blandness of the masses and just being bland. Sometimes Malla’s descriptions are dull; other times they’re hilarious or poignant. “Was it less of a lonely life to be watched like that? To know you were seen?” asks one of the characters, but we never really find out.

Social media is most often seen as the epicenter of our narcissism, but Malla takes the discussion further, building on Don DeLillo’s postmodern, pre-Internet 1985 novel White Noise. In White Noise DeLillo takes his characters to “the most photographed barn in the world,” asking us which is more real – the barn, the photo of the barn, or the photo of people photographing the barn. In People Park Malla takes postmodernist theorist Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreal into the twenty-first century, as an artist sees her sandcastle model of the city projected on a movie screen, saying, “With the camera zooming in on her model it seemed unreal, or too real, the miniature buildings expanded to the size of actual buildings.”

Malla is particularly adept at unsettling social norms, complicating traditional notions of viewer and viewed, signifieds and signifiers. Characters often get each other’s names wrong, and this confusion complicates their identity and their rights. One character points out that “money’s just paper,” dispelling the illusion of worth. There is video surveillance almost everywhere on the island, and most people carry personal cameras. At first this seems science fictive, but as we saw in the recent Boston bombings, with smartphones in the palms of most city dwellers almost everything is recorded. As with White Noise, in People Park things do not feel real until you see them on the news.

Some characters are more aware of this duplicity than others. The narration shifts between a cross-section of third-person perspectives, some reacting, some interpreting, some rebelling. While the audience waits for a show from the Illustrationist, they look expectantly at a helicopter, and the narrator asks, “was the crowd watching it or was it watching the crowd?”

One underground group that paints windows black and parties in tunnels takes this duplicity to a more complicated level. A character explains, “We’re the band. He gestured above, at the network of wires overtop the dance floor. Those are sensors. The sound comes from us, moving around.” In an experimental city where the “democratic airwaves” give every person a loudspeaker, I loved this underworld Malla created with its different kind of egalitarianism. I was frustrated, though, that Malla spent so little time down there. He juggles at least fourteen different storylines, and this forces his characters into caricature. I would happily have spent a hundred pages learning the nuances of this underground society, and I think Malla knows enough about his world to write it, but with so many characters there just isn’t time. It’s impossible to squish an entire city into one book, and with his slew of characters I found myself disengaged, like I’d spent too long on YouTube.

This mirroring and doubling of reality shows up first in the book’s smart design: epigraphs and section headings are printed on the front of the page, then reversed on the back, and the experience feels like gazing at my reflection in a mirror and then finding out it’s two-way glass, that someone might be watching. The cover shows a pair of black sneakers and a glimmer of pavement, but when I turn it upside-down a whole body jumps off the page. The design gives the reading experience an immersive quality—am I reading the book or is the book reading me?

It’s obvious that Malla is whip smart with an enviable grasp on language, but sometimes he dwells too long, carving out every agonizing detail until it becomes a blur:

Overnight, Adine had learned this snoring like a song: the inbreath a gravelly scrape, a pause a gleek and rattle, and the exhale contained a groan, a sputter, a cough or a jammy smacking of lips, sometimes even the pasty slop of his tongue.

But he can play, too, using the Greek theta symbol in place of an ‘s’ to represent a person with a lisp, or evolving People Park’s profanities from present vernacular, calling someone a “fuggin asphodel.” Malla leans heavily on metaphors to make what he sees clear to the reader; sometimes it’s belaboured, at other times it’s fantastically insightful. After a husband has pondered his flawed marriage he “squeeze[s] his wife’s arm as though testing a fruit.” Malla knows people, he has studied their habits and describes them with a deft hand:

From that day on their mama became a pinched-in version of herself: smaller, and taut, and when she talked her mouth barely opened. It seemed something was hiding inside her that she couldn’t let escape. Though sometimes whatever it was would claw to the surface and come stabbing out in screams and slaps.

This is Pasha Malla’s first novel, following an award-winning book of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, and it is a solid first attempt. There’s no question the man has the necessary qualities of a good writer: he’s a keen observer, and he can bend language to craft sharp images. People Park has its flaws, mostly in the surfeit of characters and some heavy-handed descriptions, but I look forward to reading whatever he writes next.

House of Anansi | 304 pages |  $24.95 | paper | ISBN # 978-0887842160

Post a Comment

Your email address is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>


Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.