An unnamed island city is celebrating the silver jubilee of People Park, an experiment the current mayor began and still clings to as evidence of what she has done for the island. Former residents are returning to join the party, but not every islander is entirely happy about the festivities, including people whose homes were demolished to make way for the park.
The mayor and the macho, masonic New Fraternal League of Men (an organization whose members are convinced that it alone is responsible for everything good that happens on the island, and annoyed that the inhabitants consistently fail to recognize this) are working flat out, together and in rivalry, to make sure that the narcissistic celebrations of the island go according to plan.
Raven, the famous illusionist brought in as the spectacle’s pinnacle, is not a magician, despite being able to do tricks that seem like magic. Instead, as he says, he merely allows what is real to be truly seen. This makes for two cleverly allegorical tricks that he performs over the weekend, resulting in a frustrated, powerless mayor and an insular city with a superiority complex discovering – once all links are severed – just how much it has been unknowingly relying on the mainland.
Pasha Malla’s debut novel, People Park, has a huge cast of characters, from successful and struggling artists to disenchanted teenagers, each one with his or her own role to play in the tragicomic, farcical catastrophes of the book. In an effective commentary on social class, Malla conveys their lives and stories with quick, deft sketches, showing how the events of the jubilee weekend affect – or don’t even register on – the lives of these people.
This wide-ranging lens with a quick eye for the telling detail is appealing to start with, but is difficult to sustain in this big novel. One of the strengths of The Withdrawal Method, Malla’s collection of short stories, was his ability to create an entire tale out of a taut, terse exchange or a couple of incisive observations. He is good at surprising his readers and at making them cringe and feel uncomfortable.
But this becomes a weakness in People Park, when the wry witticisms that do double duty as emotional intelligence in a shorter piece fail to deepen our understanding of the characters in the longer work, instead repeating and reinforcing each person’s particular identifying motifs.
The characters in People Park often come in pairs, and the best of these duos is Starx and Bailie, both members (the latter extremely unwillingly) of the New Fraternal League of Men. Olpert Bailie has been called up, after an absence of many years, to be Starx’s partner in Raven’s security detail. The relationship between these two men – which appears at first sight to be typical wimpy underdog versus preening, cocksure alpha male – is beautifully nuanced. Malla complicates the stereotypes of male characters with a light comic touch.
In its good parts, People Park is reminiscent of Gary Shteyngart or George Saunders, but I could never rid myself of the anxiety, while I was reading it, that at any moment I would turn the page and discover a naked emperor. The novel is a little loose, a little baggy; its inventive and adventurous spark is often at odds with a writer’s need to find the story’s best, most efficient shape.
Mixed in with the smarts, there’s a great deal of extraneous material that doesn’t really go anywhere, whole characters and storylines that provide colour and social commentary but not action. The world of the island is vividly imagined in pleasing detail, but the characters need to develop in the context of their various personal and island-wide crises to fully complement the novel’s satire, allegory and humour.
Some of the characters – in particular Starx, Bailie and Debbie – are given the space to reflect on the little failures and missed opportunities of their lives, but although these moments are good, they are too infrequent. Despite these drawbacks, which are essentially a problem of time rather than talent, People Park is much more mature and ambitious than – if not quite as polished as – The Withdrawal Method.
J.C. Sutcliffe writes about books at www.slightlybookist.wordpress.com.