Timothy Taylor. Story House.
Knopf Canada 2006 ISBN 978-0-676-97764-6
It is quite exciting to read a newish Canadian novel and to find it's about Vancouver and gosh, it's even about architects. Rare, and strangely flattering.
The core of the book is a three-storey International Style building: two wings connected by an open stairwell with a big skylight on the top. It is described as a diagram of returning, from sophisticated 'international' materials and surfaces at the top, at the interface with the sky which in this book usually has an airplane in it, and at the bottom, shaggy fir beams still with bark on the edges as the building hits the earth. Great diagram.
There is a father, a famous Erickson-type architect who may or may not have designed this building, whose personal life is full of anger, women and recalcitrant needy sons. There is a son, a famous Rashid-type architect, unusually sensitive to his women who generally look after things, being, unusually, both brilliant engineers (a reference to Peter Carey's Oscar and Lucinda here) and unsentimental multicultural new Canadians who are lucid, clear, piercing, rational.
Architects: all about men, their obsessions and preoccupations with their manliness – within the family, within their relationships but never in their architecture where they are canny and decisive, with conceptual complexity tossed off as glib invention in client meetings. Well, this is probably true to form. Romantics all, with dark visions of unsolvable conundrums. The reader is seduced by the details here, the materiality of being an architect. The men are brilliant, so sensitive to land and site, so hopelessly in love with despair.
Like Timothy Taylor's Stanley Park, Vancouver's sense of its complex, sophisticated and grounded self scents these pages with spotty rain, mud flats, the easy access to the North Shore, the hot grit of East Hastings. Each sentence is dense with place. Taylor's sentences are also dense with architectural reference: our young hero's new second-hand Boxter is Lubetkin blue – a reference so obscure and yet so delicate, encapsulating all that nostalgic heroism of 1940s British modernism that influenced a generation of immediate postwar British-Canadian architects in Vancouver, a post-colonial dot on Pevsner's map of modernism, a page in Donat's survey of the outposts of Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry sensibilities.
Vancouver has this effect on one.
The Story House is also about the difference between making statements and asking questions. The novelist is evident here — a plot, a situation about two sons of a fairly unpleasant genius-y father gets decorated with a million things from the Big Bang, to Haida Gwaii, to Gordon Matta-Clark, to boxing, to Rock Paper Scissors, to architecture school projects, to counterfeiting, to reality TV — the plot is the centre. It holds, but only for the patient reader. Although nominally about architecture, it is a slice through complex contemporary existence, but only a novelist would be so hyper-aware of the complexity of each and every character. In ordinary life one simply couldn't function with this degree of knowledge.
Nobody in this whole book is shallow, stupid or unthinking. Everyone thinks to absolute distraction. Elliot, the marginally older son, is a con with a bourgeois heart of gold. Graham, the other son, is a typical Martha, cross because he tries so hard and is sooo boring. When the problem of how to restore or even to shore up their old modern building with inadequate foundations (one brother thinks Matta-Clark, the other brother Haida long houses), the plan is described for the first time as a building, not just the provocative fragments we have so far been allowed, that still, by page 360, have not made a definitive object. And it is all the more powerful for this, for architecture is fragmentary, buildings aren't. Buildings stand, they can be photographed, etc, but their architecture is not material. Anyway, on page 360 we get the strategy: cut the building in half, pivot one side away and fill in the new void with glass.
Boy, am I disappointed. How 80s.
When the building is wrapped up with plastic on page 373 we are back in magical space again. Whatever, it falls down in the end. Just as well, its metaphorical value had overwhelmed all the protagonists, the reader and the author.