The Soul and the City
by Andre Forget
One of the most remarkable features of Girls Fall Down is the way in which Maggie Helwig has managed to write the city of Toronto into existence. The well-documented Canadian obsession with place is in full bloom in this novel, but the Toronto Helwig creates is not Michael Ondaatje’s Toronto (which is fundamentally a place of rebirth), nor is it Robertson Davies’ Toronto in The Cunning Man, which is thoroughly colonial. Helwig’s Toronto is a place haunted at once by profound loneliness and an almost terrifying sense of connection. Much of the novel’s beauty is derived from how totally the author embraces this paradox; its genius, however, lies in the unflinching way in which Helwig uses the city to investigate the individual and the individual to interrogate the city.
Plato famously analogized the soul to the city in his Republic, and while the classical way of presenting this analogy assumes that we know something of the human soul and can therefore learn about the political body by using the same categories to think about it, Helwig inverts this; starting with a city that is disconnected, alienated, antagonistic towards itself and fundamentally neurotic, Helwig questions the assumption that the individual is a coherent category. The three main characters in this novel are at to some degree or another at war with themselves. Alex, the man over whose shoulder we spend most of the novel peering, is a diabetic whose body is in active revolt against him – he is a photographer by profession, but we learn that due to his condition he will eventually go blind: his special gift of sight will be robbed by the disease that is a part of him. Susie, Alex’s old friend and new flame is an academic studying homelessness who is torn by the knowledge that her research will have little to no effect. She has committed herself to a studying a problem that her profession has no power to change, and she has no faith that what she is doing will help anyone else aside from herself. Finally, and most compellingly, we have Susie’s brother Derek. A schizophrenic living in a tent in the Don Valley, Derek is the one whose mind has betrayed itself and whose great intelligence has been debased by a chemical imbalance.
The question of what it means to be human, for the characters in Girls Fall Down, comes back frequently to bodies – both individual and social – in all of their unromantic messiness. A small chemical failure in the brain leads to madness, an imbalance of bloodsugar leads to blindness. Cities are defined by the smallest, perhaps most irrational things – in this novel, the mystery lying in the background is a strange sickness that seems to have no cause and yet is spreading steadily, and a few falling girls in a city of millions sparks a massive panic. In the same manner, humans owe their existence to a complex yet terrifyingly rational set of causes and effects, and the smallest disturbance throws the whole order into chaos. But it goes the other way as well; just as the human body is the sum of a million interactions, so the city is the sum of millions of humans interacting and co-operating and falling into conflict.
To claim that this novel is about a single thing would be a gross injustice to the author, but I think it is fair to say that the heart of this novel is political. Helwig has given us a city that is defined by the deep rifts between its citizens caused by class, mental health, worldview, and the modern myth of autonomy, just as its physical landscape is divided by streets and avenues, river valleys and bridges, just as its individual characters are divided against themselves by illness or ideology. But it is also defined by the often hidden ways in which all of these citizens are connected – either tangentially or actually – by the material of the city and the material of their bodies. That a sickness could pass from a madman living in a tent through a poor young prostitute and beyond into the teeming masses of the subways and bars and restaurants speaks both to the fragility of the human body and in a strange way to the enduring strength of human communities: we are never so disconnected as we may think we are.
No one can accuse Helwig of having crafted a beautiful treatise on the goodness of the world. What she has created is far more interesting: a meditation on the profound and sometimes disturbing ways in which we are not alone.