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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Canada: Meh?

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

Samantha Henig, “The Meh List,” New York Times Magazine (January 20, 2013)

So Canada is on the “meh” list. As you can see from the photo above, this is for things that are “not hot, not not, just meh”; in other words, things that arouse a response no more visceral than a shrug of the shoulders or a muted sigh. Isn’t it a little bit harsh to relegate a whole country to this list? Things like orange Starbursts and panini I can understand; particularly something like panini, which has been trendy for so long that it has now become tiresome. But Canada? We are, after all, a country that most Americans probably know almost nothing about; how can we have become ubiquitous enough to merit such aggressive disinterest?

And to add insult to injury, we place sixth on a list of seven; so, not only are we “meh,” but we’re not even particularly “meh”; we’re less “meh” than January and downward dog; we’re less “meh” than orange Starbursts, for God’s sake. We can’t even excel at being uninteresting.

(And even more stinging, every time I type the word “meh” I can’t help noticing that it contains “eh,” our national intrjection. It’s as if this whole thing has been carefully calibrated to be as insulting as possible.)

It’s especially hurtful considering that, just a couple of months ago, we were being lauded in the New York Times for our willingness to welcome left-leaning Americans in the event of a Romney victory in the presidential election. Now that the danger has passed, it’s safe to sneer at us once again.

Even stranger, though, is the fact that Canada is actually praised in another part of the paper, in an article titled “Inequality Is Holding Back The Recovery”; and it’s written by Joseph E. Stiglitz, no less, a Nobel laureate in economics and so perhaps a slightly more authoritative voice than Samantha Henig:

Our skyrocketing inequality – so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” – means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. (New York Times Sunday Review, January 20, 2013, p. 8)

Now that’s more like it. Canada – land of more opportunity than America! Doesn’t sound so “meh” to me. And notice we’re mentioned first in this list – ahead of France and Germany, and even ahead of Sweden. In my experience, when Canada is mentioned in this context, we always seem to be trailing behind Sweden, and perhaps another Scandinavian country as well, almost like an afterthought. But not this time.

Take that, Samantha Henig.

Our Lake Ontario … or Theirs?

We the Animals cover

Justin Torres, We the Animals

Justin Torres, We The Animals (2011)

Manny and Joel were flunking, so when a man paid my father to drive a package up to Niagara Falls, it was me Paps took out of school fro two days; it was me he brought along for company. We drove for four hours; Paps didn’t say much, just that we were headed east, around Lake Ontario, hugging the shore. We stayed in a dusty motel room, and in the morning Paps took me to see the falls….  (98)

If you’re curious to know what sort of writing is coming out of the big U.S. writing workshop programs (and, really, why would you be?), then this novel will give you a sense of it – both the good and the bad – and all in only 120 pages! (The Acknowledgements section – which is as long as some of the chapters – mentions the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Bread Loaf conference, among others, and thanks a number of well-known, and doubtless well-connected, authors.)

Even over such a short distance, the self-consciously “poetic” and “writerly” style goes from intriguing to grating as the plot, such as it is, meanders – I was going to say in circles, but that would suggest some sort of patterning; more like in a series of shaky spirals that eventually make their uneven way off the page and into the mist of the reader’s disinterest.

And does it even contain a reference to Canada? I have to admit that it’s impossible to be sure from the book itself. The narrator’s family lives in upstate New York, and the Niagara Falls referred to could easily be on the American side; there’s no specific reference to crossing the border. But my instinctive nationalism is such that when I read the words “Lake Ontario” I immediately thought “Canada!” Only after a few seconds of more sober reflection did I recall that, like most lakes, Lake Ontario has two sides, and in this case the other side is in another country entirely.

In this chapter, after showing the narrator the falls, the father leaves him and disappears for most of the day, presumably to deliver the mysterious “package” referred to in the quoted passage. The set-up suggests there is something shady or illegal about the delivery,  and I like to imagine it involves crossing and re-crossing the Canadian border, and so is a reference to Canada, which represents unknown, mysterious, and probably criminal errands – all the things we see but don’t understand about our parents.

But I could easily be mistaken.

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