In Shilo Jones’s brilliant debut novel, we find Jasminder Bansal in a Vancouver strip club, visiting her ex-boyfriend, Sim. Seated on a red velour sofa in his office, the pair are talking about—what else?—the state of the city. Sim has been forced to pay bribes to keep his city permit, and he’s not happy. “This town wants to play it both ways,” he grumbles. “Wants to be all upstanding and self-righteous and condemn my club, but at the same time, they wanna get paid.”
“It’s the lying that gets me,” he adds. “Be up front about it. Admit what you are.”
This critique of Vancouver is at the centre of the book, which is both a highly cinematic crime saga and a deeply literary outing. Jones—a long-time Vancouver resident who now lives in Kelowna with his wife and son—says he wanted to probe the social disorder in the city, and the ways in which our myths about ourselves obfuscate the truth.
“[There was] just a growing sense of dissatisfaction, and a sense of a discrepancy between how I was living the city—and how others were feeling about living in the city—and how the city was presenting itself to me, and us,” he tells the Straight.
“Vancouver is a town where basically every week we hear about some kind of ingenious, very creative new way to launder money, and yet when we think about the city, that’s not something we think about first.…Even though these stories are very, very common, it doesn’t seem to have penetrated the public consciousness.
“I was curious about that,” he adds. “Why isn’t our art, and our writing, dealing with this?”
His answer to that question is On the Up. Its charged plot centres around a shady condo property deal, throwing together Jasminder, an aspiring investigative journalist who shares a one-bedroom apartment with her mother; Carl “Blitzo” Reed, a drug addict and founder of a green investment firm; and Mark Ward, an Afghanistan vet who’s abandoned a wife and child in Thailand to repay a debt to his crime-connected brother.
It’s a study in extremes, juxtaposing the stunning beauty of Lotusland with the darkness of its underworld, the yogi self-help culture clashing with naked greed. “Some of the scenes were incredibly hard to write,” Jones says. “Scenes of misogyny and racism and toxic masculinity and violence. As a writer I had to sit down and ask myself ‘Does this feel real? Does this feel truthful? Does it feel necessary?’ And the answer to those questions was yes.”
Jones, who called Vancouver home for 15 years, was born in Bella Coola, B.C., where he lived on an isolated rural acreage as a child, devouring library books to stave off boredom. When his family eventually moved to the Lower Mainland, a Grade 9 teacher encouraged his hunger for literature, pushing him to read dystopian, satirical, politically engaged books by authors like Dostoyevsky and Orwell, and giving his experience as a “classic disaffected suburban youth” historical context. It proved a turning point.
Growing up in “not the best neighbourhoods”, Jones says he saw what happened to peers who weren’t so lucky. “I know people who never had those beneficial things happen to them, and their lives turned out very, very different,” he reflects. “And so it’s kind of like ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’…There’s just these fluky events that occur in a life that can dramatically alter the course.”
Jones headed to the University of Victoria after high school, but dropped out of the creative-writing program after two years. “I didn’t feel like I had the stories,” he says. “I didn’t feel like I had things that were vital and important to say.” He went to work instead, labouring as a tree planter and stonemason.
He eventually found his way back to school, this time to Simon Fraser University, and completed a BFA. Then he and his wife travelled for a year and a half, heading to India, Africa, and Southeast Asia. While overseas, he randomly picked up a copy of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight's Children. Reading the book’s introduction, which detailed the creative process, was the first time Jones felt like the writing life was something he could actually commit to.
And so, when he returned to Canada, he enrolled in UBC’s MFA program and began developing On the Up. For Jones, it was important to highlight the stories of people caught in the city’s vise, particularly working-class youth—the humanity behind the headlines. “I didn’t see a lot of these issues represented, or explored, in contemporary fiction in Canada,” he says.
Still, Jones is quick to point out that he loves Vancouver, and misses it a lot. “I don’t think you can write a novel that’s this closely and carefully engaged with a time and place without feeling very deeply about your subject,” he says. “But I do think that Vancouver has done a really nice job of controlling its narrative, and sanitizing itself.”