Friday, September 11, 2009

Man on Wire

Eight years on and it still seems unbelievable: two giant towers, there one minute, gone the next. The New York City skyline still seems incomplete these days, even though the Empire State Building has more room to shine. The World Trade Center lives on in memory of course. The best memory is from August 1974, when a young Frenchman, Philippe Petit, walked eight times between the twin towers on a narrow wire.
Petit wrote of his dazzling feat in his 2002 book, To Reach the Clouds: My High Wire Walk Between the Twin Towers. The 2008 documentary, Man on Wire, is based on Petit's book. This is one of the rare cases when the film is better than the book in my opinion. British director James Marsh said he thought of his film as a "heist movie". It does feel like a heist film, focusing on the preparations for the walk -Petit readying himself with supporters in France, casing the towers and so on. There is no footage of the walk itself (unthinkable in these Youtube days!) but plenty of photographs. And the film is also a love letter to the World Trade Center, an homage.

Canadian writer Steven Galloway, of The Cellist of Sarajevo fame, centred his 2003 novel, Ascension, on a wire walker who walks between the twin towers in 1976. But his fictional walker is not a young Frenchman. He is Salvo Ursari, a 66 year-old Roma man. And his walk doesn't end as well as Petit's shall we say (we know this in chapter one - not a spoiler!).

Since 9/11 there have been the endless wrangles about how to both remember the towers and the people who died there, as well as how to replace the buildings. William Langewiesche wrote about the immediate clearing up of the site ("unbuilding") in The Atlantic magazine, later published as his book American Ground: Unbuilding the Word Trade Center. Philip Nobel wrote of the wrangles in Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero (2005). The starchitect Daniel Libeskind, selected to do a master plan for Ground Zero, talks a bit about the aesthetic and other struggles in his 2004 memoir, Breaking Ground: Adventures in Life and Architecture.

Of course the reverberations of 9/11 go way beyond the towers. Just this summer the "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" came into effect, forcing everyone crossing the US-Canada border to have a passport. This "thickening" of the formerly "undefended border" between friends kind of means the terrorists won, doesn't it? Jim Lynch uses the politics, both personal, local and cross-border, of what he calls the "nonchalant border" between BC and Washington State as the setting for his excellent new novel, Border Songs. Small-town oddball Brandon Vanderkool unexpectedly finds his calling when he joins the U.S. Border Patrol and is soon at the centre of an uptick in pot smuggling and human trafficking. Mike Doherty in the National Post called the novel "required reading" and noted that Seattle-area writer Lynch "gets Canada right."

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Dominion of Wyley McFadden

"You can't ignore the rat. Kill him." So goes the 1950s rat eradication poster from the Alberta Department of Health (available on a t-shirt from the Provincial Archives of Alberta shop!). The anti-rat campaign worked, making Alberta the only rat-free jurisdiction in Canada. Or perhaps the world? Recently there has been talk, as there is periodically, that rats were found here or there. They're usually pet rats (not allowed in Alberta) that have made an unsuccessful break for freedom. Or muskrats or "pocket gophers" misidentified as rats.
The most recent rat scare even got a comment from Premier Ed Stelmach, who otherwise has been pretty quiet this summer: "You won’t have any rat feces in the food that we produce ... I have great confidence in our pest control people ... they’ll get every rat that there is in the province.” I'm sure the Premier doesn't mean to imply that the food everyone else produces has rat feces in it. Pretty sure.
Meanwhile next door in Saskatchewan there is news of a rat infestation in Swift Current. I'm sure Saskatchewanians enjoyed the reports that focused on 'what does this mean for rat-free Alberta"', as in the CBC report: "Swift Current rat problem puts Alberta on alert" (okay, we've got rats, but what about our rat-free neighbours?)

Toronto writer Scott Gardiner focused on this inherent inter-provincial rivalry, or perhaps Alberta smugness, regarding rats in his acclaimed 2000 novel, The Dominion of Wyley McFadden. Toronto "urban trapper" Wyley McFadden sets out to "redress geo-zoological discrimination" by introducing a truck full of Toronto rats into Alberta. Complicating his mission is the female hitchhiker he picks up in Wawa, Ontario. An eccentric but funny road novel, full of authentic Cancon.

Apparently Gardiner was inspired to write the novel by a summer working the Alberta rigs, where he was teased mercilessly for his Toronto-ness. And that to me is the flip side to the cheery talk of a rat-free Alberta. There is something very Fortress Alberta about patrolling the border, looking to kill invaders. Shades of building a firewall or "Let the eastern bastards freeze in the dark." Or look further back in Alberta history, in the darker periods when some Albertans dabbled in anti-semitism, or what the late Howard Palmer called "nativism" in his 1982 book Patterns of Prejudice: A History of Nativism in Alberta. Keep them foreigners out! I'm reminded of the classic graphic novel about the Holocaust, Maus: A Survivor's Tale, in which Art Spiegelman depicts the Nazis as cats, attempting to exterminate the Jews, depicted as mice or rats. Just yesterday I saw the new Tarantino WWII film, Inglourious Basterds and sure enough there in scene one is a Nazi going on and on about Jews as rats.

I don't mean to denigrate the fine work of the Alberta rat patrol of course! I'm as pleased (and smug) as the next Albertan to live in a rat-free zone. Just don't be surprised if your cousin in Moncton rolls his eyes.

For a first rate natural history of rats, in this case in New York City, pick up Robert Sullivan's excellent 2004 book Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Sullivan poked around garbage-strewn alleys in Manhattan to learn more about this great American success story.
Update: August 2012. An outbreak of rats in Medicine Hat, Alberta once again threatens Alberta's reputation as a rat-free province! Rats in the Hat!