The Poetry Project

On Island Falls by Owen Toews

Patrick DeDauw

Owen Toews wrote a short and weird novel about how to talk about geography. That word, here, means both 1) the organization of human life in space across the earth’s surface; and 2) the process of trying to understand and explain those patterns and dynamics to other people.

What human geography means in practice probably seems murky even to fans of some of the field’s leading public intellectuals, whether Ruth Wilson Gilmore or David Harvey. It’s not a question of “Where is Nebraska?” Gilmore explained to the joy of militant geographers everywhere, but of “Why is Nebraska?” Maintaining your fascination even on the second, arguably richer question isn’t always the easiest thing to be able to do. Maintaining someone else’s—well, good luck. For those who think of geographic analysis as providing maps for the campaigns that can change that world, as Gilmore and Harvey certainly do, there are real stakes to making that “why” fascinating enough to the right people at the right time.

Island Falls (ARP Books, 2023) is narrated by a graduate student in geography at a “former department store” in midtown Manhattan observing and learning from another graduate student in geography. This second student, a reluctant protagonist named Jan, got himself sucked from a Canadian prairie home into this central place in order to find the means of understanding why the part of the planet he comes from is the way it is. Navigating a New York that could as uneasily be a decade ago as 40 years in the future, the characters try to figure out what they’re doing taking workshops, planning occupations, playing basketball, getting evicted, and writing term papers. What could be grim insider baseball—I’m likely a bad judge, being a geographer, too—plays as something different, a back-and-forth between research and presentation that leaks out of the field. The book’s cramped episodes of a clumsy life spent figuring things out, and the fitful attempts to do something with it, stage a quietly unsettling challenge for writers with politics, asking us to think about what it is we think we’re doing, and how to do it better.

This narrative line is repeatedly overtaken by the drafts of Jan’s PhD project, awkwardly enough not taking the form of a dissertation. “‘People in my country like inquiries,’
he said. I couldn’t tell if he was kidding or not.” If you’re familiar with Canada, the joke is a bleak one. These intercut pieces make up the outcome of an inquiry, with enumerated findings of fact left in a printer, presented in a class, mailed to a friend who barely gets what you’re doing. It could just as well be titled “Why is Island Falls?” but that would probably be too cute.

Jan’s report, “an anatomy of evil, or something, from what seemed like the perspective of an escapee, or a liberating army,” describes an industrial settlement in the Canadian prairies, a place where people were thrown together under devastatingly unequal terms. In Island Falls, the uneven conditions of these people’s spatial integration into work and life—as residents of the mill’s/town’s forced-assimilation–camp North Wing, its paper-manufacturing Central Wing, its Laundry and Café Wing, and an ambiguously situated and eventually dam-riven Shantytown Wing—come to stand in for explanations for the type of people they are, what they’re entitled to, and what can legitimately be done to them. Some wings’ residents can work as long as the mill is running, others only temporarily when there’s a surge in demand, and others have to live among the industrial runoff until they change how they organize their lives, though even that job isn’t guaranteed. The despotic boss—let alone “capitalism”—doesn’t freehandedly plot these hierarchies, but his enforcers and exploitees definitely contest and replot them as capital reorganizes itself in lurches from crisis to crisis.

The inquiry traces how people with varying levels of effective control over the state-like institutions of the company town seek to manage internal and external pressures for change in particular ways: partitions, expulsions, industrial invitations, patrols, divestments, strikes, repurposings, prisons. There’s a lot, but not enough, change in the enforcement of rules for how different people are supposed to reproduce their lives in relation to one another, and to the forces that give them spotty entitlement to receive goods and services where they live. The report’s author feels compelled to itemize normal and terrifying lists—of neighborhood association fines, of known ways of avoiding overseer checkpoints, of backup sources of income, of sister mill towns, of balls and parades—that point everywhere to the vast work required to reproduce partitioned social life. Regional development thrashes unstably onward, buffeted by the planetary rate of profit and fits of state intervention, while differently equipped people try to make their own lives out of what’s available.

There’s a code to crack, but it’s not deep—maybe two letters off. The report isn’t indirect because the human experience is impossible to describe. It’s more that there may be things we need to encounter again, awkwardly, in order to actually get it, especially when we think we—especially we—already know. It’s funny how many concrete things come into view when Toews, through Jan, dials us up a level of abstraction. Reducing complexity does make key aspects of complexity—the strategic ones we need to act on—clear. The bizarre effect of the report’s relentless references to residents’ home wings, without the expected qualifiers that a clever reader knows are implied, is to help us grasp anew and differently how the racism produced by and through the built environment has structured even some radical assumptions about people’s interests, worth, and priorities.

The text is cold. Its summary prose casually invokes dim historical events, as Shantytowners are themselves partitioned in an unstable hierarchy by “ancestral proximity to the North Wing and to past insurrections.” Even when people do organize themselves to think how people could relate with each other differently—beginning to account for what to do about the genocide in their midst—it’s not a rally speech. It’s more like passing by a place we swear we can remember from somewhere.

The book’s acknowledgments let us know that Island Falls emerges from visits to mill-like towns in actually existing Manitoba—stark and too ordinary in the archival and original landscape photographs Toews places throughout. The composite town’s not real, but it basically is. For those of us who rage at injustice, professionally or not, it seems like a weirdly practical question to ask how, exactly, we find ourselves in any place “where partition, atrocity, and quarterly returns sat so snugly side-by-side.” Synthesizing these social-scientific research trips into the quasi-artistic output of a fictional character, narrated in a novel by someone unlikely to be the author, Toews is doing something strange—I’d say making something strange, but it almost feels like invoking Brecht will make you stop catching my drift here.

Let me try this another way. The thought-terminating cliché—“it is what it is,” for example—doesn’t only do its pacifying work among people opting into political complacency. There may even be phrases that we like to recite that we use to do the same thing: “all struggles are interconnected,” “shocked but not surprised,” or “settler colonialism is a structure, not an event.” What was inevitable and what was contingent about how those interconnections came about? What does that tell us about building the concrete forces necessary to transform them? What are the parts of that structure, and why do they move together, many times, and apart, other times? How often do we invoke Amiri Baraka’s profound “changing same” to actually argue that a same is not, in fact, changing? As Jan’s observer defends his work, “He had turned his attention to the place itself, the whole prefabricated place, every part of it implicated in every other part. He tried to present, as simply as he could, that connectedness, and the way people there had been made to relate to each other.” If we grasp the fundamental outlines of why we are where we are, then what is to be done?

A thought-provoking rhetorical question or five, of course, isn’t any more useful than a cliché—which itself might be a necessary shorthand. But encouraging us to encounter things diagonally, sometimes, is worth a shot.

Toews’s first book, Stolen City: Racial Capitalism and the Making of Winnipeg (ARP Books, 2018), grows out of his own dissertation in geography. This intensely different book sharply and faithfully recounts the facts of how people in a race-riven class society found vehicles (churches, nations, business improvement districts, unions, armies, country music scenes, inquiries, condo boards) to set, contest, and reset the terms of the human transformation of the land and of each other across a whole region. A carefully researched nonfiction record, it’s also written to shreds—a description of what happened that shows us what could be done by showing us what has been done, for centuries. Toews, it’s worth mentioning, is also an organizer.

Reading Stolen City and Island Falls together teaches us something key about how to see familiar horrors anew, and how to think about and struggle with the inescapable challenge of telling that story in a useful way. How do we learn things about the world—about why there is suffering and what people can do about it—and how do we teach people what we’ve learned? How do we, collectively, snap out of it, and into something else?

I’m sorry to say for the poets that Jan’s anguished handwringing over finding the appropriate literary form never emerges as, in itself, all that interesting of a question. His desperate joke at the end about writing this into a musical, to make usable explanations “sing to us, the way they sang to him,” falls flat. Parlor games, like basketball, aren’t bad just because they’re not practically oriented. We learn a lot in the process. But thinking about how to put together things we know so that other people can encounter them, be changed by them, and make them useful—that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

#275 – Winter 2024