Newfoundland Urbanism in Lisa Moore’s Alligator

A second post in a row about Lisa Moore’s first novel, Alligator. Earlier, I extolled Alligator’s virtues as part of my ongoing primer to the Newfoundland novel. Today, I’ll be going a little bit further indepth. This is partly for selfish reasons. In a few weeks I’ll be presenting a paper on Alligator at the 2014 Congress of the Social Sciences and Humanities (happening this year at Brock). ACCUTE (Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English) is running a special panel on the urban turn in contemporary Canadian literature, and my paper on Alligator will be part of this panel.

Moore has routinely been described as belonging to a cohort of Newfoundland writers who have turned from a vision of Newfoundland as a rural and homogenous society to one of Newfoundland as urban and cosmopolitan. I have no qualms with this characterization – it’s an accurate one, to my thinking. However, my paper argues that the urbanism in texts like Alligator is not linked to a recent demographic shift, but is rather an elaboration on a cultural and economic situation that was already the case, and had been the case for some time. Newfoundland, we understand through Moore’s writing, “was always already cosmopolitan and international.” [1]

This is, perhaps, an unexpected conclusion. The idea of Newfoundland as only recently, incompletely, and uncomfortably urban is a powerful and pervasive one. Often, St. John’s is depicted in both homegrown and mainland media with a picture of the Battery or Quidi Vidi in isolation, out of context; both look quaint and appear village-like, as if the ‘true’ St John’s were a handful of colourful saltbox houses sprinkled along cliffs and in-between weather-worn boulders. There is no sense that the dense core of St. John’s is a space “as urban as lower Manhattan,” as Wayne Johnston puts it in his recent The Son of a Certain Woman. And yet, according to Statistics Canada, Newfoundland is the most urban of the four Atlantic provinces, and a majority of Newfoundlanders have lived in ‘urban’ rather than ‘rural’ environments since 1961.

Water Street before Confederation.

Water Street (St. John’s) before Confederation.

Recent Canadian literature is often understood as dealing with Canada’s process of “citification”, of becoming urban. Within literary studies, the classic metaphor for euro-diasporic Canadian society has been the garrison: ‘classic’ Canadian literature is imagined as a small-town literature, depicting insular and mostly-homogeneous communities engaged in the ongoing process of building walls between themselves and a threatening outside world–both the potentially lethal nature world and the chaotic shifting mixture of peoples and cultures that are ‘other’ to the imagined-as-homogeneous society that’s found within the garrison’s walls. Canada’s 21st century urban spaces are conceived as being in opposition to this garrison mentality; the shifting spaces and permeable boundaries of cosmopolitan and transnational urban space disrupts and destabilizes the garrison, removes it from its position of prominence as the metaphor that structures an understanding of Canadian literature.

But if Moore’s Urban Newfoundland style reveals an “always already” urbanity, rather than a recent trend or demographic shift, then does her work, and Alligator in particular, fit into this perceived process of “citification” in Canadian literature? Well, it doesn’t. It’s my contention that, instead, in novels like Alligator, we encounter a deep and, crucially, pre-Canadian history of cosmopolitan urbanism, offered to the reader through an entirely different structural metaphor: not the garrison but the port.

Alligator is, at its core, the portrait of a port city. A port city is an inherently globalized environment, necessarily a space characterized by transient and trans-national people who live in it or pass through it. It is, by its very nature, a ‘mixed’ environment. What better port city to set up as a counter-example to the Canadian garrison than St. John’s? St. John’s is already the site of one failed national project (the Newfoundland one), and it is one of the (contentiously, perhaps the) oldest European-founded city in Canada–yet it only became a Canadian city within living memory; it is a city that has at its core an impossible-to-resolve pair of superlatives: both the newest and the oldest.

Alligator deploys St. John’s long history as a port city in a self-aware, post-modern fashion, where history and heritage are narrative and aesthetic creations of the present moment. It models in St John’s an urbanism that is about flux and the “give” that exists within a system like a city. Alligator also employs gothic tropes–most notably, the ghost of 19th century Newfoundland nationalist Archbishop Fleming and a city-wide infestation of an invasive species of larval worm–to suggest that such urbanism has a long history in St. John’s, and is also inscrutable, transformative, in flux. In short, the urbanism of Alligator is, primarily, a gothic urbanism. The ghost of romantic Newfoundland nationalism returns not to reassert its validity, but to reveal both its inauthentic and unstable nature. In doing so, it can’t help but likewise reveal the inauthentic and unstable nature of the Canadian nationalism that has overwritten it. At the same time, the larval worms, the alien presence of unknown origin, an uncanny presence beyond comprehension, are munching away on the fabric of the historic city. In the novel’s last sentence the worms emerge from their cocoons to erase the now-incomprehensible nationalist rantings of the ghost of the 19th century Archbishop with wings that are pointedly reminiscent of blank pages.

If Newfoundland is depicted in literature as rural, provincial, anchored in the past, resolutely English or Anglo-Irish in character, then it can be absorbed into the traditional structural narratives of the Canadian nation state despite its belated and ambivalent entry into Canadian Confederation – it becomes a cluster of yet more garrisons that reinforce, rather than complicate or contradict, the dominant national narrative. But if Newfoundland, through its port city of St. John’s, asserts a cosmopolitan, transnational history that runs older and deeper than Canada’s, asserts itself as bridging a pre-national past with a post-national future, then teleological master narratives about garrisons versus cities no longer square so neatly. This is, I argue, precisely what Alligator does.

[1]  Herb Wyile paraphrasing an argument made by Susanne Marshall in a 2008 special issue of Studies in Canadian Literature that focused on Atlantic Canadian writing.


One thought on “Newfoundland Urbanism in Lisa Moore’s Alligator

  1. My Newfoundland reading is shamefully limited, but one of the things I loved most about Alligator was that it felt totally familiar to me, in a way other Newfoundland writers don’t. I’m familiar with rural Newfoundland as a concept, but this book took place on streets and in bars that I know.

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