Sunday, March 11, 2007

"She Ridicules Suburbanites" | More on Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians

A rather scathing review of Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians (Longmans, Green & Company, 1960) lambastes the author for her unflattering portrayal of Toronto's circa-1960 suburbia:
Don Quixote tilted at windmills, Phyllis Brett Young tilts at the sacred cows of suburbia, poking fun at the ranch-type bungalow, the bigger and better electrical appliances, the strange tribal customs of the natives such as the barbecue and the "inverted snobbery (which) dictated that servants did not belong to the Good Life. ..." All these things are satirized with a lively, sophisticated touch, and in this category the book is excellent, even if the suburban pack will be in full cry after Mrs. Young, anxious to nail her hide to their knotty pine walls. (Joan Walker, writing for the Globe & Mail, Saturday October 22, 1960; page 16)
The reviewer goes on to aver that Young's suburban satire "fails dismally," commenting on its "stock characters" and "slick dialogue" and its apparent "nostalgia ... for the Toronto of Rosedale." This may well be true, but I have the feeling Young's reviewer may protest too much and perhaps projects her own longing upon Young.

But the prospect of a novel of this vintage tackling suburbia -- then a relatively new phenomenon in Toronto (Don Mills, "Canada's first corporate suburb", was only about five years old when The Torontonians was published in 1960) -- is encouragement enough to read. This is particularly the case given that I have come across so little Toronto literature focusing on suburbs. Hugh Garner's Death in Don Mills (1975) comes to mind, as do Antanas Sileika's Buying on Time (1997), Linwood Barclay's Bad Move (2004), Michelle Berry's What We All Want (2001) and Blind Crescent (2005; not exactly Toronto, but close enough), and Ray Robertson's Gently Down the Stream (2006; which includes several long passages on the narrator's return to his parents' Etobicoke home). If the boundaries of fictionalized Toronto may be stretched far enough into southwestern Ontario, it becomes possible to include Emily Schultz's Joyland (2006) and Kerri Sakamoto's The Electrical Field (1998), as well as Barbara Gowdy's suburban fiction including Fallen Angels (1989). One thought worth considering is that many of the areas once considered 'suburban' (including Don Mills and even the neighbourhoods Margaret Atwood writes about in Cat's Eye (1988)) have subsequently been swallowed up by the city.

As I have wondered earlier here, I am not sure why there are so few clearly identifiable suburban Toronto novels. It isn't because suburbia is uninteresting (as the American writer Don DeLillo has shown so convincingly, banality is rarely boring), nor is it because there is any lack of willing readership. I'm not the first person to tackle this question. In 'Rewriting White Flight: Suburbia in Gerald Lynch's Troutstream and Joan Barfoot's Dancing in the Dark', an essay published in the edited anthologyDowntown Canada: Writing Canadian Cities (University of Toronto Press, 2005), Paul Milton (who, if my memory is accurate, was one of my tutorial leaders when I was an undergraduate student at Queen's) comments,
I came to question the relative absence of suburban sites in major Canadian fiction, an absence made all the more significant given that a large proportion of Canadians live in suburban areas. Why might Canadians choose to live in the suburbs yet choose not to write about them? (167)
Milton goes on to suggest that where suburban literature does exist, its "dynamism ... may result from the interaction between the competing discourses of the dream and the myth," (173), adding that suburban novels "revisit and revise the suburban dream, acknowledging the illusory quality of its claim to transcendence." (182)

Perhaps Milton is accurate. But it seems to me that there must be more to the story, and I would guess further answers will be found by looking at suburban literature not as a small collection of contemporary novels related only by their suburban setting but as a sub-genre with a diverse and contradictory history of its own. I am hopeful that Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians may, as the earliest suburban Toronto novel I have yet come across, give some further sense of this.

['She Ridicules Suburbanites' review is from the Globe & Mail, Saturday October 22, 1960; page 16. The cover image is of Phyllis Brett Young's The Torontonians; Longmans, Green & Company, 1960.]

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