5 books on Vancouver

by Guest Contributor Michael Turner

September 18th, 2012

The day after my final university exam I received a distressing call from a family friend informing me that my grandmother was “doing poorly” and could I come to Los Angeles to check on her. As my girlfriend and I had planned to pass through L.A. anyway (on our way to teach “literacy” to Sandanista farm workers), I said yes, and a couple weeks later we knocked on her door, which opened just as quickly onto a room full of septuagenarians sporting cone-shaped party hats, with my healthier-than-ever grandmother beaming front-and-centre, before erupting in a chorus of “Surprise!”

What followed is a long and involved story, but suffice it to say, my girlfriend continued on while I stayed with my grandmother, getting to know her in ways I had never imagined — her and her odd assortment of friends.

One of these friends was Vera, who, like my grandmother, fled Russia in 1917. Vera was a reader and a writer, and when she heard I was coming to Los Angeles (for the first time in my adult life), she prepared for me a stack of novels, all of them set in L.A. While I cannot remember every one of them, I remember Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939) and its snapshots of stockbrokers and switchboard operators walking to work in Tyrolean hats and tennis dresses (respectively); Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One (1948), whose opening pages tell you everything you need to know about the postwar English presence in Hollywood; the early novels of Raymond Chandler, particularly The Big Sleep (1939), with its unforgettable mid-book intermezzo; and perhaps my favourite, Joan Didion’s The White Album (1979), where the lead-off essay includes a visit with rock ‘n’ roll’s most uptight-laidback band, The Doors.

Every time I visit Los Angeles I am reminded of these books, just as every time I re-read one of them I am reminded of the year I travelled there — only to be surprised by what I saw.

Like Los Angeles, Vancouver has its local literature. Though not as well-known as the works of Chandler and Waugh, these writings provide insight into the city, colouring what remains of it, particularly books written and published prior to 1990, when writers seemed less interested in writing towards received notions of the city (that which everyone can agree upon) than amidst it. Much of Vancouver’s richest writing can be found in its poetry, particularly the work of over-50 writers like Maxine Gadd, Gerry Gilbert, Daphne Marlatt, Lisa Robertson and George Stanley (I would urge anyone interested in the aesthetic and political economy of Vancouver to seek out these writers). But for those interested in fiction and memoir, here is a provisional list:

Swamp Angel (1954) Ethel Wilson

1. Swamp Angel (1954) Ethel Wilson

While much of this novel takes place in British Columbia’s Okanagan region, its opening chapters are set in rain-drenched East Vancouver, where our protagonist, “Maggie”, plots to leave her husband. Though some readers might be uncomfortable with “Maggie”‘s essentialist depictions of Chinatown and its residents, parallels can be drawn between her plight and those “married” to a city that increasingly takes its residents for granted.

Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961) Malcolm Lowry

2. Hear Us O Lord From Heaven Thy Dwelling Place (1961) Malcolm Lowry

Written in the years preceding Lowry’s 1957 “death by misadventure,” this collection was edited by the author’s widow and sometimes note-taker, Margerie Bonner Lowry. Many of its fictions occur elsewhere, but there is enough in this book to anticipate the fragmentary post-modern Vancouver that emerged in the mid-1980s (“Through the Panama”), while at the same time describes, in gnarly prose, what it is to walk from forest to shore (“The Forest Path to the Spring”).

Taxi! (1975) Helen Potrebenko

3. Taxi! (1975) Helen Potrebenko

For years this book stood as an oft-cited novel whenever someone asked, “Why are there no novels set in Vancouver?” But as the city became more polished, so too did its literature, and this raw but riveting story of a young feminist cab driver found itself rentovicted in favour of me-first libertarians like Kevin Chong, Douglas Coupland and Timothy Taylor. There is a section in this short novel that takes place between our protagonist cabbie and a recently-arrived university professor that is one of the finest, and most complex, instances of female desire ever to be set in this city.

Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire (1989) Stan Persky

4. Buddy’s: Meditations on Desire (1989) Stan Persky

For a time Stan Persky was the closest Vancouver had to a public intellectual, a friend of the “San Francisco Renaissance” poets (Robin Blaser, Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and George Stanley) and a writer who chose not Erato but the “dictatorship of the proletariat” as his muse. Nevertheless, Persky’s dispatches from this long-lost West End gay bar introduced many of us to the city’s middle-class homosexual demimonde.

Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989) Evelyn Lau

5. Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989) Evelyn Lau

Like the protagonist of Wilson’s Swamp Angel, this is the story of woman who left her oppressive family for a new life. Unlike Wilson’s “Maggie”, Evelyn Lau is a real person, a child who wanted nothing more than to write poetry, something her immigrant Chinese parents denied her. In this harrowing memoir we see the city not as an adult but as a teenager moving through it, from fix to trick, a “tradition” that continues to this day.

Michael Turner is a writer of fiction, criticism and song. His books include Hard Core Logo, The Pornographer’s Poem, Fred Herzog: Vancouver Photographs (with Grant Arnold) and, most recently, 8×10. His criticism has appeared in magazines such as Art Papers, Art on Paper, Canadian Art and Modern Painters, and he has contributed to the anthologies Vancouver Art & Economies, Intertidal: Vancouver Art & Artists and Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties. In January he co-curated Letters: Michael Morris and Concrete Poetry (with Scott Watson) at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (UBC).


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