The City’s Gates

By Peter Dubé

The City’s Gates introduces itself as a puzzle novel, with an “Apologia” letting us know that the book we are about to read is “an archaeology” of documents found in the rubble of a building destroyed by fire. What it all means is left wide open: the body of documents is “curious and idiosyncratic . . . often fragmentary, often contradictory and often difficult to lend credence to.”

If this sounds like we’re going to get author Peter Dubé in full surrealist mode, we can’t say we weren’t warned. Once we get into the documents themselves we encounter the same spirit of mysterious self-awareness. The main narrator is Lee, a social researcher who is assigned by the Director of a Centre to infiltrate and report on various shadowy groups during the lead-up to an international economic conference being held in Montreal. None of this is as clear as it sounds. The Centre (we are informed by footnote) is “obscure.” Lee refers to it as “a sort of shadowy, interdisciplinary research unit.” The Director has a “relatively obscure official position,” a face that looks like “an actor’s mask,” and an aversion to open spaces and sunlight. Finally, the groups Lee is called upon to research aren’t the usual anti-capitalist, anti-globalization protesters but bizarre tribes of retro aesthetes, free love bohos, and a group that carries on like a twenty-first century version of the Chinese Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

Despite the plot elements that make it appear a contemporary tale torn from today’s headlines, The City’s Gates is essentially a fantasy, something close in spirit to G. K. Chesterton’s dream/nightmare Man Who Was Thursday. The tribes that Lee encounters “are living in a space that overlaps, but doesn’t intersect with” the real world, which makes the book sound like an allegory, perhaps of the soul’s journey to a higher level of consciousness. If so, it is a trip that is frustrated at every turn. Characters search for some transcendent, infinite truth through art, music, drugs, sex, astrology, or whatever else comes to hand, but the conclusions seems to be that all meaning is contingent, that obscurity or ambiguity – “the mysteries of the unspeakable” – are inherent in any form of expression.

This is something to celebrate, resign oneself to, or feel frustrated by. An odd mix of old and new, The City’s Gates is both highly original and inventive as well as deliberately and maddeningly vague. But readers who don’t take any of it too seriously should find it a treat.

Review first published in Quill & Quire, July 2012.

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