Ruminations on the Wisdom of Don DeLillo & the Ruins of Griffintown

May 23, 2010 § 1 Comment

It’s no secret that Don DeLillo is one of my favourite novelists.  His novels have a tendency to strike me on several levels, perhaps because the narrative is usually fragmentary and on several levels.  And whilst his dialogue is predictable in many ways, based on particular idioms of New York City English, it’s the way DeLillo constructs sentences and thoughts that always leave me digesting his work long after I’ve read, or re-read, it.  I oftentimes lose patience with people who say things like “I don’t have time to read fiction” or “I can’t remember the last time I read a novel.”  To me, this shows a fundamentally closed mind; novels percolate with ideas, philosophy, and ways of being in the world.  Novels allow us to personalise events and history, to re-consider moments in time, to re-consider our own ways of thinking, our own narratives.

Certainly this is true with DeLillo’s novel, Falling Man, about the aftermath of 9/11 in New York City.  This is not just a rumination on 9/11, indeed, the terrorist attack is a motif to explore post-modern family life in New York.  But it doesn’t have to be New York, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be post-9/11, either.  But the novel would lack the punch if it was set in Winnipeg in 1986.

Anyway, the reason I’m writing this is to give thought to the on-going argument between Nina, the mother of the novel’s main female character, Lianne, and Nina’s lover, Martin.  Martin, however, isn’t really Martin, he’s a former terrorist himself, named Ernst Hechinger.  Nina and Martin/Ernst argue throughout the book, in the presence of Lianne, over the nature of terrorism and the attack on New York.  Nina’s argument is hued by the fact that she is a Manhattanite.  Martin/Ernst is German.  She lacks the critical distance to see the attacks, he lacks the intimacy with Manhattan.  Throughout the argument, which is fierce and scares Lianne, they consider God and the motives of the attackers.  Nina sees fear on the part of the terrorists, Martin/Ernst sees history and politics.

Nina has just had knee surgery (and is developing a reliance upon painkillers) in the time after the attacks.  Indeed, Lianne is stricken at how her mother, in the wake of the surgery, has embraced her old age.  This worries Martin somewhat.  He wants her to travel again, to go out and see the world, to revitalise herself in the wake of the surgery and the attacks. She is somewhat more reluctant.

Martin: Travel, yes, it’s a thing you ought to consider.  Get your knee back to normal and we’ll go.  Quite seriously.

Nina: Far away.

Martin: Far away.

Nina: Ruins.

Martin: Ruins.

Nina: We have our own ruins.  But I don’t think I want to see them.”

Martin: But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it?  Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction?  You build a thing like that so you can see it come down.  The provocation is obvious.  What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice?  It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice?  You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.

I love this passage, not so much for what it says about NYC and 9/11, but for what it says for cities in general.  Ruins are all around us on the urban landscape (or the rural one, for that matter, abandoned homesteads, for example).  Ruins tell us the story of what was once here, how we got here, how we might have otherwise been.  Ruins tell us powerful stories about destruction, that is true, as Martin is noting.  But they also tell us powerful stories about ways of being that have been lost.  The ruins of Griffintown are a prime example.

The ruins of the neighbourhood are there for all to see.  In Parc St. Anns/Griffintown, on the former site of St. Ann’s Church, the remaining ruins of the church itself, its foundation, as well as foundation stones of the presbytery, the girls’ school, and the dormitory for the crusading priests who came through the Griff on their way to other parts of the world, are all there.  There are ruins of factories and warehouses throughout the neighbourhood.  Ruins of tenement flats.  Palimpsests of advertising for consumer products that are long gone.

Parc St. Ann's/Griffintown

Wellington Tunnel

Griffintown Palimpsest

We see this life as it used to be.  We consider what once was.  How people moved out of Griffintown because of its proximity to all these factories, train yards, and the like.  How the flats were cramped and cold, lacking in modern amenities like hot water.  Or yards.  The neighbourhood, when I began studying it a decade ago, always reminded me of the Talking Heads’ song, “Nothing but Flowers.”  Here was the site of the beginnings of the Canadian Industrial Revolution in the 1830s, reclaimed in large part by nature.  An inner city neighbourhood sprouting leaves and trees.  And grass growing through fractured concrete.  Trees growing out of windows of derelict, decrepit buildings.  Their floors reclaimed by nature.

The ruins of Griffintown also speak to this power that Martin refers to in the novel.  This was a locus of power for Canada, for the British Empire and Commonwealth.  Not just the products manufactured there, but the working classes trudging along to work, filling out the army in World Wars I and II.  The hulking CN viaduct, not technically a ruin yet, but something close to it, speaks to a time when the railway was king.  Indeed, it was built to separate the railway from the roads.

Anyway.  DeLillo’s got me thinking about the meanings of the ruins of Griffintown.  And what they mean, to the old Irish community that once lived there, to the urban landscape of Montréal today, and to plans to re-develop the neighbourhood in the future.

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