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Andrew Sullivan’s new novel, The Marigold (ECW Press), may instead engender comparisons to a plague outbreak.Eden Boudreau/Handout

In 2016, when Hamilton-based writer Andrew F. Sullivan released his second novel, Waste, much of the coverage it received centred on its visceral brutality (the Ottawa Review of Books referred to it as a “blown pupil of a novel”). As germane as the comparison to a street brawl was with regard to the story of two friends falling afoul of a drug-lord, Sullivan’s new novel, The Marigold (ECW Press), may instead engender comparisons to a plague outbreak.

What we’re reading and loving this week: Shipwreck opus The Wager and food memoir The Gastronomical Me

“I wanted to write a book with a big canvas,” Sullivan says of his latest work. “I was thinking about Don DeLillo’s Underworld and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. I wasn’t trying to reach for those things, but I wanted room to play and develop ideas elliptically.”

The Marigold showcases a Toronto of the near future, where a black rot is taking possession of people living in high-rise condominiums. Most startling of all, this fungus – known colloquially as “the Wet” – appears to have the ability to communicate with its victims and repurpose their bodies. Mercifully, not all of Toronto’s citizens are ignorant to the sentient fungus’ clandestine spread.

A City of Toronto “Wet investigator,” a rideshare driver, a 13-year-old teenager and the heir apparent of a real estate development firm have all caught glimpses of this sewer-scaling muck monster lurking in the shadows. Their mostly isolated viewpoints come together in a disorienting narrative of a conspiracy coming undone, with each narrator contributing segments to this mosaic of urban catastrophe.

“It’s this relentless crashing wave of perspective,” Sullivan says. “Almost like a patina effect – the layering and layering until the narrative shines through.”

Genre-wise, The Marigold is poised somewhere between its sci-fi, body horror and noir influences. The novel follows the lives of city power brokers side-by-side with technocrats sculpting the surveillance economy to their nefarious ends. Sullivan positions his genre-diverse characters so deftly in his narrative that they don’t seem out of place sharing the page.

“Genre gives writers a way to escape the tyranny of realism,” Sullivan says – while adding that his writing has always struggled with classification.

“None of my books are realistic. The characters and situations may feel real, but the context is not. I don’t care if that ‘intersection’ is there.”

Despite his reluctance to explain the Wet’s adaptive leap into consciousness hyper-realistically, Sullivan does render the government corruption at the heart of his novel with a convincing deal of fidelity. Cronyism, real estate speculation, coercion and embezzlement are still alive and well in the dour future world of The Marigold.

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“Watching someone pitch the panopticon as the next stage of living is my nightmare,” Sullivan says, referring to a 18th-century circular prison that afforded jailers unmitigated surveillance of prisoners. “It’s not a subtle novel. The idea that private data monopolies or auto-populating data can exist on every person who exists in a landscape – that’s my personal horror story.”

Sam (Soda) Dalipagic, the rideshare driver in The Marigold who uncovers information about the burial of missing persons in the foundations of newly erected condos, stands in for the common man compromised by these overreaching technologies. Soda’s every move and internet search have been monetized and “turned into a microtransaction”; they have been transfigured into a data-rich “extractive process that someone is amassing to build up capital.”

Readers of The Marigold will be left with little doubt over the reasoning for this information accrual, at least to its author’s unromantic turn of mind.

“It’s about turning the city and your existence into profits for someone else,” Sullivan says. “You’re doing that to create power and ownership. What are you going to use that for? To create change that benefits yourself.”