‘Property Values’ offers an absurd, thoughtful, take on local housing
New book from local author and comedian Charles Demers balances wit and poignancy
June 20, 2018
There’s a moment in Charles Demers’ Property Values when the hapless protagonists are planning to shoot up of one of their homes, that they consider using a “Car2Share” as the getaway vehicle. That strain of uniquely Vancouver absurdity runs through the whole book.
Set, largely, in the suburban borderland of ‘Burquitlam’ Property Values tells the story of Scott Clark, a metro Vancouver native so desperate to buy his former father-in law out of his family home that he stages a gang war in his neighbourhood in the hopes of driving down property values.
Of course, Scott’s poorly-laid plans go all tits up and he finds himself in the middle of a real gang war. Along with his band nerdy friends from high school, Scott flails in his attempts to play off gangsters, reporters, and cops against one another, all in the hopes of keeping the only home he’s ever known.
Demers’ book layers its absurdist humour over a base of heartbreak. Scott’s desperation for the city around him to just slow down, to let him have his little piece, feels all too real. A moment when three thirty-somethings realize they don’t have $5,000 between them brings the drowning sensation of aspirational life in Vancouver sharply into focus. Scott’s insecure sense of his own masculinity, sizing up a biker at a coffee shop while he waits, awkwardly, for his London fog, is at once funny and painful.
It’s the comedy that kept me reading, the mad situations and bumbling overreactions that felt exactly how my nerdy friends and I would react if we stumbled into the criminal underworld. Property Values lapses, occasionally, into the unbelievable, but manages to point at the real difficulty of holding onto your home in Vancouver while still being genuinely funny.
Listen to our full interview with Charles Demers or read the abridged version below!
How did you come up with the premise for property values?
The beginning premise was that I thought it would be funny to have a group of friends who start a fake gang that find themselves embroiled in a real gang war. And the property values angle on it seemed to be the best way to string up that kinda screwball premise. The whole book flows from a fairly out there idea. When you start from that far out there it’s all about making it somehow plausible. It was a real life scenario that could engineer this wacky scenario into something resembling plausibility.
Scott seems so driven by this desired to hold on to his place in this city, do you feel that desire? Do you see it in your community here?
It’s a constant fear here, I’m a pretty good example of the way in which it’s a fear that goes beyond individual lives, because my family’s going to be fine…We’re in a co op in east van, we have 100% housing security, we pay a low monthly housing cost, we get to live in the neighbourhood we love. But cities don’t work like that, cities aren’t collections of individuals, they’re communities… Once you get into what the fabric of a city actually is, if you have a bunch of people who aren’t afraid that they’re going to be forced out, but they’re afraid that everything they love about the city will be chipped away at, then you have people who live in a kind of world where they’re always terrified of losing the city that defines them… Loaded into that is this weird Vancouver identity where most people here are relatively new to the city in relation to other cities in North America. Colonization here is a much more recent phenomenon than it is somewhere like Montreal or Toronto. On the one hand it’s not surprising that Vancouver would be the first city to acknowledge that it exists on unceded territory… Yet you have these conversations where people unironically say “the people who are from here can’t afford to stay here.” …It’s a weird little town, the real estate story really is our own even if it does take place in the firmament of these global real estate cities like London, Sydney, San Francisco, and Hong Kong, we do have our very own idiosyncratic version of it here.
Why did you include so much of Scott’s insecurity about his masculinity?
A big part of it is that we live in times and a place where young people get blocked from accessing emotional adulthood. That comes out in a number of ways. It comes out in 45-year-old men building their whole lives around video games, but it also comes out in chat room fascists inventing this whole neo-masculinist ideology. If [Property Values] was going to have an emotional core, I wanted it to be about that question. The question of whether or not Scott Clark could go from being a boy to being a man, whether there was anything compelling about that journey anymore, whether that’s a goal anyone should have, whether there’s a way to have some sense of masculine confidence without being toxic?
Scott’s group of friends ‘the Non Aligned Movement’ really resonated with me as a nerdy kid who grew up in a Canadian suburb…what inspired that crew?
I’m fascinated by this half-generation after me who have just kinda bred in the bone stuff that was all quite new when I was going through school. We always had very diverse classrooms growing up. There was never a sense that what’s natural is to be around people who look like you and what’s happening now is some sort of new thing. But I was in that first group of young people in Canadian suburbs with that situation. My cousins who are about 14 years younger are the group of people where nobody even noticed that happening, it was just taken for granted. I find it fascinating that this generation isn’t necessarily politicized, but they take for granted some fairly radical propositions from even twenty or thirty years ago. Early on in imagining the book, a friend who grew up in Coquitlam said “I love the idea of a crime novel about these Coquitlam schlubby guys.” That really kinda stuck with me and I wanted to write something about these very everyday suburban dudes.
There’s moments in the book that made me laugh just out of sheer absurdity, but on second thought they don’t seem like too much of a stretch from reality, did you think of the humour as coming from an absurd place when you wrote it?
There are moments in this book that are absurd, but I feel like we live in fundamentally absurd times…It is absurd to live in a city where, just seeing the reaction to the school tax thing, people are talking about their “home savings” I mean nothing of the sort has taken place! People’s houses, by accident of international monetary capital flows have quintupled in value and it’s an absolute windfall. A tornado blew a bunch of apples into your yard and then when somebody says ‘hey, can we use some of those to make sauce to feed children’ people go ‘I grew these apples with my own hands!’ …To hear people talking about that as though it’s some hard-won plucky Ellis Island story, that they came with the rags on their backs and started some kind of textile concern, it’s fundamentally absurd. The absurdism, the black comedy, comes from real life. Its how I think about the space that I’m in.
There’s a sadness, and a desperation, to the characters underneath the humour, why did you decide to lay that in? How do you weave darkness and comedy together?
I come from a family that uses humour as a way of understanding all the various traumas that we’ve faced. So I don’t tend to think of pain and comedy as altogether being different streams. These are characters that lost the thing that they had — the innocence and safety of childhood — but they haven’t been given something to replace that. That’s supposed to be the journey we take as human beings, to be cared for, then to spend years caring for, and then to be cared for on the way out. That’s the natural way of things and anything that happens to disrupt that is traumatic. I lost my mother very young, I lost mine younger than Scott did in the book, but I find it hard to inhabit the mind of a character who hasn’t experienced something on that order of magnitude, on that order of loss. He is a guy who for whatever reason, that three part arc to life… he’s been blocked out of that.
You refer a lot to what ‘getting by’ means in Vancouver, what does that mean to you?
One of the things that happens with adulthood is that you change that definition, that you define it upwards… I look back and think all I wanted at the beginning of my career as a writer or comedian is to have enough to have a roof and some food and I’ve been lucky enough to be able to do that for a number of years. So you start thinking it’s that and a vacation or it’s that and being able to go out to restaurants now and again, or it’s that and maybe we get a little cabin on one of the gulf islands. That used to be very normal…I think getting by is a question that gets answered a lot of different ways… Maybe getting by means living somewhere where you can access your church or temple or mosque in reasonable time. Maybe getting by means working close enough to home that you don’t spend all your free hours on the highway away from your family. I think it’s a whole big matrix of questions that go into the bigger question of what getting by means… Where we seem to be coming to a head of some sort of crisis in this city is that more or less nobody’s conception of getting by seems possible anymore. You walk down the street and all you see are help wanted signs. That used to be a sign of a healthy economy …what that actually reflects is an inability to house the working class in the city anymore. It’s also happening at the upper end of professional life where universities can’t recruit professors the way they used to and firms can’t afford to bring anybody here because you have to raise their salaries… Cities are places where a bunch of different definitions of what it means to make it come together and contradict each other. But the scary thing is that we seem to live in a time when nobody’s idea of how to make it seems possible anymore.
What do you think it is about property in Vancouver that’s captivated so many people’s interests and imaginations?
Part of it is that we no longer do anything else…we’ve essentially become a company town. In the way that small towns in B.C. were once lumber towns or coal towns, we’re a real estate town. It makes as much sense for us to be fixated on real estate as it does for people in Michigan to be thinking about cars or people in Seattle to be thinking about aerospace. The difference is, and one of the main intellectual ideas that I’m driving at in the book is the contradiction…that we have these homes and they are these absolutely intimate places. They’re where we make love with our partners and where we fight with our partners. They’re where we teach our children to walk and host friends and family, the place we feel safest and most secure. But they’re also the biggest economic question of our life, either they’re the biggest investment we make in our lives or they’re the biggest line item on our budget… Any scenario in which having a home is not just something straightforward is going to shoot right through the heart of people because it’s the biggest money related question you’ll ask yourself and it’s one of the biggest personal questions you’ll ask yourself…I think that for the foreseeable future, that question of housing…particularly in places like Vancouver…its going to be one of the places where the fundamental anxieties of economic and social life are going to be played out.