Gertrude Stein’s remark about her native Oakland — "there is no there there" — is often used as a quick dismissal of all suburbs and edge cities.
Toronto novelist and journalist Hal Niedzviecki, in his new novel The Archaeologists, explores the psychological consequences of that placelessness, and finds its origins in the intentionally forgotten histories that lie beneath the shopping malls and McMansions.
The Archaeologists is his 11th book, his most recent being Trees on Mars, his 2015 non-fiction critique of our obsessions with technology and the future.
The Archaeologists is set in a slightly fictionalized version of the ultimate "no-there" Canadian city, the Winnipeg-sized Toronto suburb of Mississauga. In his fictional Wississauga, a conflict over an expressway being built in the ravine of the Wallet River (his version of the real-world Credit River) comes to a head when bones are discovered above the construction site.
Are these the remains of the original inhabitants, the Wississaugans? Or is there some other more intimate dark history hidden in the soil?
Niedzviecki tells the tale from the perspectives of a half-dozen characters, most of them lost souls, including a young, depressed housewife, a closeted gay reporter depressed by the decline of the media, an aging, drug-abusing Lost Boy and a rootless suburban radical who has latched onto aboriginal issues and iconography to give herself an identity and purpose.
Their problem is crystallized in the story of the radical, Susan, who has just returned to Wississauga after living in an Eastside Vancouver squat and campaigning with her Cree boyfriend for an inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women. Susan thinks back to a time when an elder asked her, "Where’s your place, girl?" and was told "she doesn’t have a place."
None of these characters has a place, in large part because of the intentional effort to deny the history of the community where they live.
This same dilemma leads June, the depressed wife of a prosperous dentist, to imagine she can see and hear the spirit of a long-dead Wississauga elder. June, like several of the other characters, has a connection to the oldest woman in the community, 104-year-old Rose. But when June asks Rose if she knows anything about the Wississaugans she’s told: "It’s not good to talk about it. The Indians." (In real life, the Mississaugas sold land for the future city of Toronto in the late 18th century and were relocated to a reserve near Brantford in the mid-19th century.)
Rose’s recollections bring up other buried elements of the past. In conversation with June, she reflects on the fact that her long-dead husband worked in the Great Lakes Starch Factory along the Wallet River, and we learn in an authorial aside that occupational cancer from the starch factory is likely what killed him. Pollution from the starch factory, says Rose, "was the end of the fish in the river. But men have to make a living, now don’t they?"
Other secrets are more recent. Drug abuser Tim is haunted by the secret of his mother’s disappearance. TV reporter Hal is tormented by the inability to go out in public with his boyfriend, given that both of them feel the need to appear straight for their careers.
The one character who holds out hope of reconciling past and present is Charlie, the first-generation Canadian daughter of two India-born doctors. While the past seems to the other characters like "ethereal quicksand," Charlie plays in the forested Wallet River ravine and discovers signs of the long-relocated Wississaugans. To her, the Wississaugans are a welcome presence, while to the others they appear as restless ghosts.
A mystery wrapped in a study of psycho-social malaise, The Archaeologists is an intriguing and gripping portrait of contemporary Canadian life.
Bob Armstrong is a Winnipeg writer who has biked and jogged along the real-world version of the Wallet River.