Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Zany yarn has plot twists, lively dialogue
If you have ever had a dream in which you are frantically searching for something or someone in a variety of odd places, you have a sense of what Torontonian Pasha Malla's first novel is like.
People Park is a zany and entertaining yarn crowded with incidents and colourful characters as different from one another as the acts in a top-notch circus.
Among the characters are many potential villains, but Malla keeps undercutting their deeds with dream-like plot twists and lively dialogue. Even when a scene becomes tedious, there is usually a verbal treat on the next page.
Malla received glowing reviews, not to mention Ontario's Trillium Award, for his first collection of short stories, The Withdrawal Method, in 2008.
The action in People Park spans four April days in an unidentified island city. (There is a map readers will find useful, but no indication of what year it is -- cellphones are absent.)
The focal point is a Silver Jubilee celebration of the city's main park, featuring an illusionist named Raven, who prefers to call himself an "illustrationist" because he claims to reveal the truth rather than fool people.
Raven has been invited by the mayor, a woman who controls life in the city with the help of a Mason-like group called the New Fraternal League of Men (NFLM).
Malla builds suspense through the people's anticipation of Raven's show and their uncertainty about what he might do. The excitement is enhanced by local TV coverage, which features live shots from ubiquitous news helicopters.
Some of Malla's best satire involves television, crowd behaviour (the people love watching themselves on TV), and shopping malls (the Galleria Mall shuts down at times for an organized effort to reunite parents with their missing kids).
On the Thursday prior to Easter weekend, Raven appears on a park stage to warm up the crowd for his Friday show. To titillate the people, he performs the age-old cut-a-woman-in-half trick, using the mayor. At first it appears that the trick has failed, but when the mayor, lying on a dessert cart, looks down, she sees her legs lying "in a heap on the floor."
As in a dream, the mayor spends most of the rest of the novel being wheeled around on the cart, her legs on the lower shelf. She feels no pain, conducts her business, and seems only a little inconvenienced.
Malla sketches a wide range of characters. Again, as in a dream, many of them go missing and are objects of searches. And along the way, Malla offers up such unique observations as: "The air was thick with that stale corn-chip odour that men exude in basements."
The novel builds to a conclusion of biblical proportions, but even the gravity of a flood is lightened by the sudden appearance of "a whole zoo's worth" of plastic animals "swimming up in pairs."
Malla's first novel is more than a worthy followup to The Withdrawal Method; it's a merry microcosm.
Dave Williamson is a Winnipeg writer whose new novel is called Dating.
By Pasha Malla
House of Anansi, 484 pages, $25
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 7, 2012 J8
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