It takes very little time to pull a house to pieces. A CAT 320C can do the job in less than an hour on a spring morning. A stray bit of metal caught in the claw of the machine flashes in the sun. A cross-section of attic is exposed: torn fibreglass insulation, lint, sawdust, ragged plywood. Take care not to stand downwind, lest you breathe in something nasty. The hard fist of the CAT is charmingly clumsy and ruthlessly efficient all at once. By 9:45 little is left of the bungalow, and the machine moves around to the north side to come at the final wall from a new angle. I stood watching this happen two weeks ago with my author, L, just a block away from her home office where I camp out on a hard drive and in a stack of two hundred and fifty–odd pages to the left of the desk-lamp.
On spring mornings such as we were still having the day L and I watched the house come down, the puddles left by the snow-melt along the curbs have a thin white carapace of ice that doesn’t melt until later in the day when the temperature hikes itself over zero. As the CAT circled what was left of the house, I watched as kids on their way to school stopped to tramp on the ice and, with relish, shatter it. Destruction can be so satisfying; it’s good to find a victimless way to practise it. Just a few days before, L had tapped the skin of ice that covered a puddle in the park with the toe of her hiking boot, and a square meter of surface had collapsed in pieces. Much like what was happening now with the remaining wall of the house. The CAT was in position; the claw reached out once and pulled, and the whole thing went to slivers.
It took ten times longer to deal with the resulting pile of trash than it took to dismantle the entire house. Trucks arrived to ferry away the trash. The CAT’s metal fist pounded and compacted the rubble, and the bucket-loads transferred to the truck-box were dense. Then there was the basement, which was another matter altogether. Work on the basement went on for days, the claw scraping, scraping, pulling with what seemed ineffectual swipes in one spot after another until eventually it would find a weakness and bring down some small section of concrete. So: destruction of the house proper, forty-five minutes, more or less; dealing with the trash and then the foundation, multiply by forty.
Maybe you’ve guessed where I’m heading with this. After all, I live inside a novel that’s full of endangered family relationships. Can we put this in my book? I said to L. She said, Don’t you think, as a metaphor, it’s a little obvious? A house — a home — being pulled to pieces. Well that would be one excuse not to use it, but I know the real the reason she won’t put this scene in my book: eight years ago she watched the demolition of a different house, and she used that demolition in a different novel, where it grew along with the story in a way that was organic to the plot and (she decided) forgivable; perhaps even powerful, though that’s for readers to decide. Fine. I admit that to put a scene like this into my story, now that the story’s mostly in place, would be somewhat forced.
And come to think of it, there’s already an endangered dwelling in my book, and it’s been there all along as the story took shape. This time, though, it isn’t up front like a demolition, it’s just there in the background, quietly making its comment. And the building in question isn’t being torn down in a single noisy scene. It’s a Vancouver condo suffering from water damage — all that rain finding its way in along the beams — and it’s rotting slowly, from the skeleton outward. It may be rescued, it may not.
When L argued that to adopt the demolition of a house as a metaphor in the novel she’s making about me would be just a little obvious, it occurred to me this was why I’d asked her to use it in the first place. Because when you see a house being torn apart, when you see it fall, with all that dramatic thumping and splintering and you notice that little piece of metal caught in the teeth of the machine and you see its persistent efforts to spread a little light around, there’s no question what you’re dealing with. You’re dealing with wreckage and the question of whether a small bright flash of hope is enough.
On the other hand, when something rots from the skeleton outward, you might not even know for a long time what the problem is. You might not even be aware there is a problem. Something’s disintegrating, but there’s nothing so obvious as fibreglass dust in the air. So for those of us standing downwind — me, my sister, my little nephew Billy — what are we breathing in? We have no idea. It makes me nervous.