A Metra Hive of Slush and Villainy
Get Lost in Metraville’s Footnotes & Alleyways
The modern city is a confusing, dangerous and ultimately illogical place—and the modern Canadian city, doubly so.
That core belief is the motor driving Toronto author Jamie Popowich’s Metraville, which was released in October by Insomniac Press.
Though Popowich has refused to identify Metraville as a fictionalized Toronto—indeed, the city lacks the pointed Rob Ford-esque mayor that would really cement the send-up in the minds of readers—seemingly no aspect of modern Canadian city life goes un-mocked.
Crime and justice, city spending and budget cuts, politics, public opinion and even the weather are all absurdified to Kafkaesque degrees. Metraville’s city court in particular sees a beloved judge dishing out strange punishments and banning offenders from owning shoes or pockets, or consigning their mothers to forced labour.
Kafka’s not the only auteur that Metraville calls to mind, as the proliferation of footnotes, which often run onto a second or even third page, suggests Popowich is familiar with the works of David Foster Wallace.
Closer to home, the strange, haphazard chronicling of a tragic city’s bumbling feels like a spot-on prose take on filmmaker Guy Maddin’s excellent 2007 fictiumentary My Winnipeg.
The sad tale of Tavis Stiker, _Metraville_’s famous astronaut son trying to adapt to the infinite horrifying boredom of life post-space, meanwhile, recalls Jonathan Goldstein’s Lenny Bruce Is Dead, with its deft balancing of wry humour and all-encompassing depression take up the bulk of the book’s first half.
Popowich doesn’t stay too long with any one character, location or narrative until the second half when we meet Julian Baxter, a failed, unionized criminal who gets the book thrown at his mom in Judge Stone’s absurd, moralistic court.
Free to go despite his guilt, Baxter gets mixed up in worse and worse crowds as he stumbles around the city, looking for answers.
A roving gang of pickpocket children taunts him for having lost his mummy. His old crime boss offers him a severance package—and then steals it from him. He narrowly escapes the wrath of a sidewalk meat vendor and a sadistic bus driver. And then he falls in with a ventriloquist and Armbruster, his dummy.
The pair are a darkly comic duo that Popowich treats so much like two separate people that it is easy (and pleasant) to forget that they are simply one man named Pokey throwing his voice and moving his hand inside a wooden puppet.
The dynamic between them is beautifully acerbic—a love pickled in the kind of hatred that can only come from years and years of failure on the local ventriloquist circuit—a place where critical and commercial success are, one imagines, hard to come by.
Their interactions, dependence and resentful, overwhelming friendship becomes indistinguishable from act, and is like Abbott and Costello doing Vladimir and Estragon by way of an old couple married 20 years too many.
Indeed, Armbruster survives Pokey’s plot to get Baxter to help him kill his dummy once and for all, and the only means Popowich has to end the book is to have Baxter leave the two to their own devices, wandering off alone into Metraville, looking for answers, missing his mother.
This city that Popowich has constructed is at once sprawling and personal, and everything in it is falling apart. The ground is covered in water and garbage. The alleyways harbour criminals and a man who has indefinitely prolonged his youthful appearance with a mysterious facial cream. Even the buildings are getting suicidal.
With its amusingly ironic font choices, at times haphazard multimedia approach and willingness to introduce you to concepts like “Ham the Metrachimp” and buses that are active repositories of various forms of human waste, Metraville is rarely pleasant, but if you’re feeling like city life is getting the better of you, Popowich understands.
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