Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

No Mean City: Reading Sean Dixon's The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn

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No Mean City: Reading Sean Dixon's The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn

Toronto is a city in search of a mythology, a narrative that will transform it from a collection of bedroom communities into a city with a centre and a soul -- however tarnished or glittering that might be. In search of such a narrative, three kinds of myth-makers have turned their attentions to Toronto.

The first, epitomized by writers like Michael Ondaatje in In the Skin of a Lion and Hugh Hood (whose epic, Proustian, twelve-volume series the New Age / Le Nouvelle Siecle -- see The Swing in the Garden, Reservoir Ravine and Black and White Keys especially -- imagined Toronto as one centre of a great nation), have constructed realistic, identity-forming, city-building myths, such as those revolving around great public works (the Prince Edward Viaduct and R.C. Harris Water Filtration plan in the case of Ondaatje) and family dynasties (the Goderich and Archambault clans in Hood's series).

The second group of myth-makers eschew (or radically alter) reality to emphasize the city's imagined connection to the surreal and supernatural. These include the large stable of science fiction and fantasy writers who have altered Toronto's streets and people for their purposes: see Kelley Armstrong's novels Bitten and Broken in which werewolves course through the Don Valley, Tanya Huff's Vicki Nelson detective-vampire series (Blood Price, Blood Trail, Blood Lines, Blood Debt and Blood Bank) and Terence M. Green's futuristic sci-fi novels Blue Limbo and Barking Dogs, among numerous others.

The third group of myth-makers is considerably rarer. Its writers blend the real with the surreal in order to make myths not only within Toronto but of the city itself. The first writer to do so in a concerted way was 'mythopoeic' poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, much of whose work (the stories in Noman's Land and poems in Afterworlds in particular) explicitly mythologizes familiar Toronto spaces and events, such as Honest Ed's, Caribana and Henry Moore's famous bronze Archer sculpture anchoring Nathan Phillips Square. Fellow poet bpNichol's Martyrology series accomplishes a similar --if more widely ranging -- end. Two subsequent writers, Darren O'Donnell (in Your Secrets Sleep With Me) and Claudia Dey (in Stunt) have extended MacEwen's practice into an exemplary tradition, but the true inheritor of MacEwen's mythopoeic legacy may be Sean Dixon, whose The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn turns a vivid imagination upon Toronto.

Toronto is at a point where it requires a new narrative, one to bolster it during a period of restraint and recrimination. And into the breach steps Dixon's principal protagonists: a pierced, punk-looking young woman named Kip Flynn, who adorns her transient business-woman's body like others might a home, "with glittery baubles, pretty lampshades, old keepsakes, shrines [and] hidden closets" and her friend, roommate and sometimes nemesis Nancy, "an urban explorer, builderer and anti-development activist" who, as Dixon writes, "took pleasure in infiltrating new condo towers for the purpose of liberating collections of cockroaches and mice."

The central tension in The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn revolves around a schism between Kip and Nancy. Kip, the itinerant entrepreneur, seems fated to side with developers hoping to raze and rebuild Kensington Market into a maze of condo towers, while Nancy, a former City Hall tour guide, turns her attentions to preventing such destruction, by burning the whole city down if necessary. Between Kip and Nancy are arrayed a dead boyfriend, the son of a notorious developer who inhabits the brutal, (seemingly) impenetrable blackness of the Mies Towers, an army of worm-pickers, a Vietnamese gangster-philanthropist and a bass-playing murderer named Henry.

At the same time, these characters seem to embody characteristics of the city itself: all at once they are gentle, vengeful, inert and vicious, and their energies are devoted principally to figuring out who they are and what they can possibly stand for, in a city continually changing around them. As Nancy remarks, "Experience told her the pace of change could be hard on a person; when the city changes too fast around you then you can start to lose sense of who you are."

The changes Dixon documents are epochal. To Nancy's dismay, the new Mayor has "declared that her beautiful, gliding maroon streetcars were impeding the progress of the city's movers and shakers" and announced plans to replace surface transit with subways. "Such digging," she notes, "would require funding deals with building developers who would eradicate height restrictions throughout the city and see a new heyday in highrise development."

Kensington is ground zero for this transformation, a circumstance that stimulates both Kip and Nancy to seek different forms of revenge that coincide with Nancy's plan to burn the entire city -- already on the verge of destruction -- down. As Nancy tells a crowd she has gathered for a 'performance installation' in the Market,

There's little doubt that the first pieces of architecture in this part of the world were ephemeral. They were made of fire and lasted only through the darkness of a single night! And yes, too, there have been a few times in the history of our city when we have honoured that earliest of all traditions with our memory! The first was in 1849, when the whole small city burned, and the second was in 1904 when the downtown got gutted at Bay and Front and Wellington! It was spectacular, glorious, far more celebratory than the way these buildings get taken down these days.

As the novel reaches its conclusion it becomes unclear who -- and what buildings, streets and even subways -- are real and which are ghosts haunting the self-destructive city. But if there is to be any remission, or any redemption, it must come through the process of making peace with all of these ghosts, living and dead.

In the introduction to No Mean City, an iconic treaties on architecture in a changing Toronto, Eric Arthur contrasted Torontonians' tightly aligned habits of city-building and destruction, remarking that

In the march of progress we have ruthlessly destroyed almost all our older architecture; street names cherished for a hundred years or more have been altered to suit the whims of the people on the street, and even our most treasured buildings, Fort York, going back to the beginnings of British settlement, have been threatened because the historic soil on which they stood interfered with the curvature of a modern expressway. [...] I have suggested that we in Toronto are curiously apathetic towards our history in terms of landmarks, street names, and the like; indeed, surely no city in the world with a background of three hundred years does so little to make that background known.

By immortalizing structures, events and spaces as diverse as an apartment built into the side of the Dundas Street bridge just west of Lansdowne, a fatal subway crash, the buried watercourse of Garrison Creek, the ruins of the Guild Inn, Kensington Market and the Mies Towers, The Many Revenges of Kip Flynn invites readers to perceive Toronto as a city whose buildings, neighbourhoods and civic infrastructure -- and the struggles to preserve them -- carry a historic, even mythical significance in a city perched perennially on the verge of becoming.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Amy Lavender Harris

Amy Lavender Harris teaches in the Department of Geography at York University in Toronto, Canada, where her work focuses on urban identity and the cultural significance of place. Her book, Imagining Toronto (Mansfield Press, 2010), has been shortlisted for the Gabrielle Roy Prize in Canadian Literature.

Go to Amy Lavender Harris’s Author Page