André Forget, In the City of Pigs (Dundurn Press, 2022)
Reviewed by Mark Sampson
In his earnest, episodic debut novel, In the City of Pigs, André Forget attempts to braid the seemingly unrelated concepts of 21st-century avant-garde music and Toronto’s exploding condominium market into an essayistic tale about urban decay and the ulteriority of capitalism itself. His vehicle for doing this is protagonist Alexander Otkazov, a young, disaffected former musician who abandons his life in Montreal and moves to Toronto in the mid-2010s, where he implausibly lands a job as a music critic and feature writer at a classical music magazine despite having few contacts in the city and no advance degree in journalism.
What unfolds is a series of set pieces as Alexander explores Canada’s (mostly Toronto’s) experimental music scene, forays that include writing a profile of an avant-garde group called Fera Civitatem – Latin for ‘wild state’ – which holds its orgiastic concerts in unconventional spaces, and another of an underwater organ called the hydroörganon, housed at the bottom of Halifax Harbour. The novel’s main twist comes very late in the story, when we learn that Fera Civitatem is not nearly as iconoclastic as it first appears and is in fact a front for something far more nefarious involving Toronto’s real estate market.
In the City of Pigs reminds us how well-worn the genre of “cynical young person trying to find himself in an urban art scene” can sometimes feel. Indeed, this novel owes a huge (perhaps too-huge) debt to the early works of author Russell Smith, Forget’s editor at the Rare Machines imprint at Dundurn that published this book, specifically the novels Noise and How Insensitive. We’ve been here before: jaded urbanites with little to no self-reflection or awareness, treating art primarily as a “scene” to be seen in, a blood sport to win, an avenue to run away rather than toward something, a mechanism for distancing oneself from the real world rather than a way of connecting with and interpreting it. Forget’s characters are looking to fill the voids within them with abstract notions about what “serious art” is and isn’t.
Unfortunately, the novel spins its wheel trying to add something fresh to the conversation. At one point, In the City of Pigs has an unintentionally meta moment when an interviewee of Alexander’s, talking about one of her well-reviewed compositions. says, “I thought I could do something new with the Quartet. For a while, I thought I had done something new with it. But that’s because I made the mistake of listening to the critics. When I got some distance from the piece, I realized nothing I’d written would have surprised an educated listener in 1975. And this isn’t just a problem for music, either, right? Literature, painting, film – it’s like all we can do anymore is regurgitate.”
And yet, this novel somewhat redeems itself, and in spectacular fashion, about three-quarters of the way through, when the narrative pivots to an affair that Alexander has with a married older woman named Margaret. Here, we finally see our protagonist in vivid three dimensions as he grapples with his feelings for this woman and the situation their tryst has put them in. Theirs is a perfect verisimilitude of what real affairs usually are: passionate yet logistical, familiar yet mysterious, comfortable yet fraught. This 60-page section of In the City of Pigs is a tour de force of how the messy juxtapositions of desire can reveal the deepest, most telling aspects of our humanity.
Unfortunately, too much of the rest of this novel feels bloodless by comparison, undone by turgid musicological monologues and tiresome references to Platonic philosophy (the book’s title is taken from Plato’s Republic) and why Bach is better than Mozart. The twist involving Fera Civitatem and its sinister motives feels both tacked on and hard to swallow. It’s all so didactic even as it tries to be “serious art.” What’s missing seems to be a tongue making at least an occasional visit to the inside of the author’s cheek. There is, after all, something inherently ridiculous about Alexander and the people he associates with. Yet the narrative presents nearly everything they speak of and preoccupy themselves with at face value, opting for blanket earnestness rather than a comedic bite that would allow the story to critique everyone – pretentious experimental artists and conniving capitalists – in equal measure.
André Forget divides his time between Sheffield, England, and Toronto. Former editor-in-chief of the Puritan, Forget also edited After Realism: Twenty-four Stories for the Twenty-first Century, an anthology of short fiction (Véhicule Press, 2022). In the City of Pigs was longlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize. Forget is working on a non-fiction book about propaganda for Biblioasis.
Mark Sampson is the author of the novels All the Animals on Earth, The Slip and Sad Peninsula, among other books.
- Forget’s review of Ring By André Alexis in CNQ.
- Forget’s essay on Norman Levine, “Will a Posthumous Story Collection Help Canada Forgive Norman Levine?” in The Walrus (22 Nov. 2017).
- “How novelist Mark Sampson’s experience as a door-to-door salesman made him a better writer,” CBC Q&A, 2017.