Talking Points – On rereading Hearts of Flame
There is the book itself on the shelf –sitting there amongst the many, with my name on the spine. I lift it off. It has a certain weight. Its cover and design are freshly pleasing. A made object, appreciated anew.
Then there is sitting down to read. I enter its world. It is oddly –“hauntingly” is the usual the word for this- familiar, but there are no ghosts; the book is noisy and in my face. It takes place in a country I once knew intimately but now explore with surprise on every page. These people- Blair Bowker the single mother with her fearful daughter, Berenice the Filipino nanny with her ability to find lost treasures, Max Ostriker the Bay Street lawyer who longs to be odd—were with me daily for three years. I shut the door and went away and now I have yanked it open and walked back in on them.
They are 40. They feel old, poor babies. As if it is all over for them. No wonder. They came of age at the end of the ’60s. They’ve been partying for twenty years. Their past is all one glorious midnight gig at Mount Norquay, when the band broke up and they all, as westerners were wont to do in those days, moved east.
They live in Toronto, where they still insist they’re outsiders. They wait on subway platforms, sway in the wind in the glass towers and walk the ravines of Toronto The Good. They are held up by its subway jumpers. In the YMCA fitness centre they indulge in public “self-gossip” as Blair calls it. We would call it over-sharing. They have mechanical telephone answering machines. Simplicity presses replay and makes up dances to the sound of her mother’s message saying, “I am not available to answer your call”.
Mind you the characters feel change coming. Publishers are hiring focus groups, always a sign of trouble. A certain fin-de-siecle feeling has set in, a decadence; the drugs, the debts are taking their toll. Ruby wonders how she is supposed to stay in business when everyone is “Spent. Literally and figuratively.” She who has always been ahead of the game says, “I can feel it, you know? Something’s coming. Some…downturn.” Blair says she is not buying a single thing this fall: “No money. I’m sick of being a consumer anyway.”
I kind of miss the Toronto they knew. The little café The Lighthouse keeper’s Cottage at Toronto Island, destroyed in the expansion of the island airport? At Summerhill station the clock face on the old train station, hands ripped off and without numerals, giving the same wordless message always. The clock now has hands and a “Vintages” liquor store underneath.
It’s funny about that word. Because in its day, this was probably the most contemporary novel I ever wrote. It is set in and reflects the three years in which I wrote it—the end of the 1980s, era of excess, the fashion scene thriving, the gossip columnists scribbling. Strange then to see that today, it recreates a bygone time. It is vintage. My god, just like that, Hearts of Flame has become a historical novel.
It’s been fabulous, if a little tiring, to reconnect. I remember all those intense conversations about feelings. I guess because the personal was political we had to call each other to task relentlessly. I love the tropes: Be odd on your own time. You’ll never find a nice girl in a trunk. Why is the worst question.
But the past really is past. The Hearts of Flame gang is confrontational and vocal. Ruby and co. demand intimate secrets from friends. They wring their hands over an affair with an “m-squared”. A dinner party is only fun if there’s a big argument. Everyone takes a stand, moral or otherwise. They’re baby boomers before they knew their name- old enough to grab the tail end of the sixties, all over the seventies, reaping the spoils of the eighties, and facing up to the consequences as the nineties hove into view.
We’re different now.
It has been, as they say, a trip.