Finally, we get Forget’s debut novel. It was no disappointment! Forget knows a thing or two about Canadian literature—the former editor in chief of The Puritan also has a Master’s of English with a focus on CanLit. I only mention this to say he knows what traditional pitfalls to avoid.
In April 2022, Forget released a collection of short stories he edited and compiled called After Realism, “24 short stories for the 21st century.” Whatever you expect upon hearing the dreaded phrase “CanLit,” you will get something different when you read In the City of Pigs.
Forget’s protagonist Alexander Otzakov navigates the semi-secret world of Toronto Money, which uses art as a mask in various ways, most notably to make itself seem noble and high-minded while committing shady deals. In the City of Pigs explores this literally and figuratively. ICP is refreshingly frank about sex and money in a way Toronto is not known for. What is really behind the large art grants? What is the nature of the grease that makes property deals work? Most profoundly and practically: does anybody who lives in the city even care?
The literal strain is the plot, which is straightforward, but I won’t reveal here to avoid spoilers. But the novel’s heart explores the relationship between art and money by asking what art really is. Forget is hardly the first author to ask, but his answers avoid debut-novel cliches, and are smart enough to make the novel essential reading, if for no other reason.
I suspect what people are liable to call “digressions” in my view is the novel’s meat and potatoes. No useful answer about the relationship between money and art can come from someone who doesn’t understand art, and Forget leaves his reader with no doubt about his grasp of the subject.
There are lengthy discussions about, for example, an underwater organ that makes the reader consider not only what hearing music really is but what seeing music is like, ie, pipes playing Bach underwater releasing air bubbles in certain patterns that render music visible. I happen to have read Pynchon’s Against the Day before reading this novel, and was reminded of Pynchon’s wonderful “digressions” about transmitting radio waves and other signals through the aether.
“God is the throbbing hum of an inhumanly low frequency, a bass note that sustains the universe,” is a sentence I’ll quote here for two reasons. I love it. Also, it describes Bootsy Collins’ role in Parliament Funkadelic so well. There’s no mention of funk in this novel, but great novels make you think of other unrelated things and tie them together. The novel’s in-depth discussions of classical music were joyful, even or especially when they were over my head.
The novel’s title comes from Plato by way of a fictional art group that launches guerilla events in abandoned buildings in the city. Without getting into the particulars, this is a novel that juxtaposes Plato, Toronto arts societies, Faust, Mozart, Toronto gentry, and gentrification. Local staples like The Communist’s Daughter abound.
For one thing, it references Dundas West and Norm MacDonald. It’s set in Toronto and Halifax, two cities I lived in. The protagonist is a former-musician, so dialogue brims with strong opinions and scathing judgements, two things always fun.
Perhaps the novel may be described as an apolitical look at political power via art. It’s also about love, sex, and money. It’s a broad novel I don’t mean to reduce narrowly. It’s about thinking and living.
The wealthy power brokers are treated fairly, which is to say the state of inner-life and creativity in their soul is not ignored while their deeds and machinations are described accurately. The loathing is earned, not pre-determined. The moral and artistic world of this novel may have exacting standards, but it gives everyone a chance!
Perhaps the best observation is that what seems like flagrantly corrupt business deals and cynical co-opting of art is something the general public will simply not give a shit about. When it comes to how business is really conducted, the public is as apathetic towards it as it is about serious art.
The novel’s highbrow strains are high, but Forget’s head is refreshingly not up his ass. Joyce responded to critics’ accusations Ulysses was inaccessible by pointing out that his characters were mostly poor. Bloom tabulates his day’s expenses at the novel’s end, and Otzakov looks for an affordable place to live. It is a very grounded novel.
There are tender, truthful moments where people discuss the full dimensions of their relationships in ways that echo Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It’s funny and frank about unsavoury instincts and impulses that balance the highbrow chatter.
Forget takes on Toronto’s tendency to praise itself for being polite enough to avoid discussing how real power and money really work, while talking about much else along the way in novel ways, from booze to drugs and more. There are parties and pities aplenty.
It refreshingly explores whether the very idea of art is rarified, indulgent, useless shit in today’s age of ascending maga fascism just as intensely as it looks at the connection between art and commerce. In other words, the perspective comes from a deep desire for knowledge, honesty, and concern for people.
Without reducing an artistic, imaginative work to a didactic social novel, Forget recalls Michael Brooks’ edict to be ruthless to systems and kind to people. The “power” he explores here is not about a particular political party or easy satire of a specific corporation or industry. But about the interlocking systems we all operate within, albeit from very different positions and heights.
The moth just wants to move towards the light because that is the moth’s nature. “I’m the moth, you’re the moth…”
Forget understands that human nature may be constant in regards to this system, but not everybody needs to find somewhere to live. Moths may all be drawn to light, but some are flying in a podiatrist’s office while others are in Rosedale.