Andrew F. Sullivan’s The Marigold features a brief epigraph attributed to Rob Ford: “Everything is fine.” Those three words would be a lot more convincing coming from Jane Jacobs or perhaps even Drake, but coming from the late Toronto mayor, they smack of comedy, irony, and foreboding.
Unfolding in the near future, this portrait of a municipal dystopia centres on climate-ravaged Hogtown, pockmarked by construction sites and prone to flooding. Transit is a malodorous mess, with subway riders “slipping past soaked commuters and the homeless” and the infrequent streetcar “running without an operator, stupid enough to almost drown itself under the Dundas underpass.” Mismanaged and underfunded, the city has offloaded many services to Threshold, a powerful data brokerage that subjects citizens to increasing levels of surveillance. All the while, a toxic mould known as the Wet is “burrowing its way through the foundations of the older buildings.” This catches Threshold’s attention along with that of Stan Marigold, the heir of an eighty-eight-storey condo, the supposedly luxurious Marigold, which is succumbing to the fungus.
Things are decidedly not fine, and before long the mould evolves from mild irritant to full-fledged catastrophe. The drama plays out through the eyes of multiple characters, including a rebellious public health professional, a spunky teen, an in-over-his-head ride-share driver, and a practitioner of ancient sacrifice. The Marigold moves at a steady pace, following Torontonians as they get closer to the truth about the Wet and assume great risk in their close encounters with the flesh-eating substance that, siren-like, lures victims so that it might incorporate their bodies and minds into a single mass of humanity, a soup of consciousness.
Sullivan has a taste for the urban grotesque, a talent for noticing what is ugly about the present. Also disparaging of modern cities, his debut novel, Waste, featured numerous wandering characters with needs unmet by the urban domain. In this sense, his writing recalls that of the English novelist J. G. Ballard, another smooth purveyor of nightmarish cityscapes. Both writers depict propulsive disaster and ask questions about the psychology of built environments, the effects of modern technology on human well-being, and social progress.
With a crumbling, mould-ridden condominium at its heart, The Marigold brings to mind Ballard’s High-Rise, in which residents of an affluent building become heralds of chaos. In Ballard’s case, vague class allegiances among households devolve into tribal violence and physical disarray. That novel ends with a deflating Freudian appraisal: when we are left to our own devices, the id rules the day. Similarly, The Marigold showcases our potential for blind destruction. Even with his cheaply built development falling apart and the Wet proliferating, Stan can think about just one thing: the construction of Marigold II, a 100-storey tower “with a golden halo, a shining monument for some desperate legacy.” His attitude is one of grisly selfishness. “Ethics were a frill, an add-on after the money had been made and shadows paid,” he thinks. “To make money, you had to take advantage.”
Stan makes a good villain. Occasionally, his libidinous and untrammelled nature might seem more apt for pre-Thatcherite Britain (when Ballard composed High-Rise) and less appropriate for late-stage capitalism, with corporate sponsors controlling under-resourced governments, a precarious gig economy, and all the attendant isolation, uncertainty, and scarcity. Sullivan actually furthers Ballard’s project by focusing so much on the systems and institutional forces that bring out the worst in people.
The Wet is both the cause and the effect of such externalities — a calamity that will snowball according to its own self-annihilating logic. At times, it reads as a metaphor for the climate crisis: the result of individuals taking more than their fair share. It also speaks to COVID-19, with its ability to mutate and dodge defences: “The thing about innovation is it’s not just for people.” Elsewhere, the Wet seems to stand for big data and the algorithmic manipulation of our deepest desires. Like the decentralized Threshold, it has “amassed all the fears and hopes and dreams and little nagging concerns of the bodies it has swallowed, the brains it has consolidated.”
But, unlike many algorithms, the Wet does not harness fears to sell products, and it doesn’t really make people sick either. Its modus operandi is simply to reproduce: “A great and powerful thing. A collated collection of souls and memories, all bleating to become one.” After spending time in Sullivan’s Toronto, filled with lonely people, the reader may wonder if the “unmitigated growth” of the Wet is, above all, an antidote to modern individualism.
This slightly hokey story ends in a dark and destructive fantasy, with Sullivan’s satirical prose taking on a streak of solemnity. The Wet — clearing the streets, seeping through windows, gorging on the city — wipes out a whole universe of mistakes, leaving behind an amorphous, lamentably soggy new beginning.