Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “June, 2013”

Sex with a Canadian? No thanks!

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Alan Glynn, Limitless (originally The Dark Fields) (2001)

I confess I only read this book after watching the film version with Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. Does that make me a bad person? Perhaps. And as you can see from the photo, I even read the movie tie-in edition with the cheesy film poster on the cover and the actors’ names displayed at the top while the author’s name is relegated to the bottom. Shameless!

The book was originally published under the title The Dark Fields; I was going to seek out a copy with that cover to try to make myself look more intellectual, but in the end I couldn’t be bothered. The film edition was published by Faber, the legendary British publisher where T.S. Eliot worked, so I felt if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me. (Even established British publishers with high literary reputations have to cash in now and then if they want to keep the doors open and the lights on.)

The first reference to Canada is actually a reference to our old friend Canadian bacon. The main character, Eddie, has been given a pill by his ex-brother-in-law, Vernon, who used to be a coke dealer and has now moved into higher-end pharmaceuticals. The pill is (and here I quote the back cover blurb) “a sort of Viagra for the brain,” and the first hit has worked such wonders for Eddie (he cleans his apartment and alphabetizes his CD collection in one afternoon!) that he goes to visit Vernon to try to score some more. Before selling him the pills, Vernon sends Eddie out to pick up his dry cleaning and some breakfast:

“Get me a toasted English with scrambled eggs and Swiss, and a side of Canadian bacon, and a regular coffee. And whatever you want yourself.” (45)

A couple of pages later Eddie is in the elevator on his way back up to Vernon’s apartment:

I was alone in the elevator and toyed with the idea of appropriating one of Vernon’s strips of Canadian bacon, but decided against it on the grounds that it would be too sad, and – with the suit on a wire hanger –  also a little difficult to manoeuvre. (49)

I would love to know what it is about Americans and Canadian bacon. Admittedly, any type of bacon will have a seductive aroma in an enclosed space; still, the image of this New Yorker in an elevator, desperate to steal some of his dealer’s Canadian bacon, seems like a real compliment. The dealer could well be pissed off if he noticed some of his Canadian bacon was missing, and yet it’s so tempting that Eddie is only able to resist when he considers that the physical contortions required to steal the bacon while holding Vernon’s suit render it essentially impossible anyway.

To pick up the story, Eddie returns to the apartment and finds Vernon shot dead; he calls the police, and later on one of the cops picks up the breakfast bag:

He opened it and took out the items inside – the two coffees, the muffin, the Canadian bacon, the condiments – and laid them out along the table in a line, like the fragments of a skeleton displayed in a forensics laboratory. (57)

Talk about obsessive repetition: those two words, Canadian bacon, ring like a chime through these pages of the novel – or is it just that my ears, always alert for Canadian references, hear it that way?

We’ve come upon a reference to Canadian bacon before, in Edward St Aubyn’s Bad News; and as in that book, Limitless also involves a drug user ordering a breakfast that includes Canadian bacon. Does Canadian bacon have some sort of connection to the drug culture in the U.S.? Is it known as a favourite food of addicts? Or is this just coincidence?

A bit later in the novel, when regular use of the MDT pill has begun to unlock Eddie’s mental potential, Canada crops up again:

After a while, a few friends of Dean’s arrived and we all had dinner together. There was a middle-aged couple I’d met once before, called Paul and Ruby Baxter, who were both architects, and a young Canadian actress called Susan. Over dinner, we discussed lots of subjects, and it quickly became apparent to everyone present, myself included, that elaborate, scarily articulate views on just about everything were going to be emanating from my end of the table. (77)

The fact that Susan is Canadian doesn’t seem particularly germane; it’s more like a detail attached to a name to add a touch of specificity to a minor character. And I suppose one does meet Canadian actresses in New York. On the following page:

Neither was it my imagination, a bit later, when Susan started flirting with me, casually brushing her arm against mine, holding my gaze. (78)

I got pretty excited at this point – a sex scene with a Canadian seemed to be in the offing. Would there be some outré sexual position that only Canadians know? Would she scream “Mon dieu!” instead of “Oh God!” Would she demand that the air conditioning be turned way up to simulate conditions in the igloo where she lived in her ice-bound homeland?

Alas:

I was able to side-track [Susan] by returning to the Bruckner-Mahler debate with Paul…. An increasingly bewildered Dean went home some time after two, as did Susan. (78)

Eddie sounds like a bit of a pill, doesn’t he? Why does he want to “sidetrack” her? A Canadian actress is flirting with him, and he’d rather argue the relative merits of Bruckner and Mahler?

Does he reject her because she’s Canadian? Later in the book he has an affair with a Frenchwoman, and he has sex with several women who are presumably American, as well as (possibly) one Mexican woman, so he’s obviously up for it with women of other nationalities. And yet the Canadian actress meets only rejection. How insulting.

The final reference to Canada comes at the very end, when Eddie is on the run from agents of a shadowy pharmaceutical company; I’m pleased to say I could almost feel this one coming as he described driving north out of New York and into Vermont in a rented SUV:

I stopped at the Northview Motor Lodge at around ten o’clock. There was no point in driving any further. It was pitch dark now, and where was I going to go in any case? On up to Maine? New Brunswick? Nova Scotia? (339)

Up to this point in the novel, Eddie has never left New York City, with the exception of one brief foray into New Jersey. Now, desperate to escape, he has driven all the way to Vermont, and he clearly feels that’s enough.

Canada represents a destination so far away that it’s not even rational to go there; it’s hard to miss the growing tone of incredulity as the question marks pile up at the end of this passage, as if to say no one could expect a New Yorker – even a desperate New Yorker on the run – to go as far as New Brunswick or, God forbid, Nova Scotia. It’s like another country up there.

And so we have Canada according to Alan Glynn’s Limitless:

1. We make good bacon, but

2. no one wants to have sex with us, and

3. any thinking man would await death at the hands of pharmaceutical company thugs in the relative civilization of Vermont before he would run the risk of facing whatever mysterious dangers await in the obscure hinterlands of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

Canada sounds limited indeed.

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The Repellent Cleanliness of Vancouver

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E.L. Doctorow, Sweet Land Stories (2004)

I had never read Doctorow before, but I picked this up after watching the Jessica Chastain film Jolene (the trailer is pretty much the film in miniature), which is based on one of the stories in this book. It made no mention of Canada, but another story, “Baby Wilson,” did.

In “Baby Wilson,” a woman kidnaps a newborn from the hospital and she and her boyfriend (the narrator) go on the run with it; they soon return the baby, but because the police are still searching for the kidnappers they flee north from California, ending up in Alaska. But they visit Canada along the way:

Vancouver is a squeaky-clean town, like all of Canada that I have ever seen – glass office buildings the colour of the sky, the waterside filled with flag-flying yachts and motorboats, the downtown without litter of any kind, and everyone going about their business so as not to disturb anyone else. Not a town you want to stay in very long. (52)

The first thing I notice about this description of Canada is that it’s very urban – glass offices, a downtown – we’re a long way from the wilderness described by, say, Sylvia Plath (in fairness, she was camping).

Even more exciting, though, it picks out a common idea about Canada that we haven’t really encountered before: that it is almost freakishly clean. Americans in particular are known to comment on the absence of litter in our cities, perhaps being accustomed to more obvious signs of urban blight. (I think Peter Ustinov once described Toronto as “New York run by the Swiss,” and the narrator of “Baby Wilson” seems to have a similar view of Vancouver.)

Everything sounds great, at least to my Canadian ears, until we come to the kicker in the last sentence:

Not a town you want to stay in very long.

Ouch! Why wouldn’t a person want to stay in such a clean, well-regulated place? The narrator doesn’t say it explicitly, but it isn’t hard to pick out the implication: Vancouver – like the rest of Canada – is boring – at least if you’re a freedom-loving American accustomed to snatching babies from hospitals, going on the lam, and ultimately fleeing the country. Such excitement just isn’t welcome in Vancouver.

A Digressive Anecdote

This talk of cleanliness reminds me of an amusing story I heard about Night Heat, a “gritty crime drama” that was filmed in Toronto but I think meant to represent an unnamed U.S. city (it became the first Canadian show to air on a U.S. network). They were shooting a scene in an alley, and the director complained that the alley looked too clean, so he got the crew to spread garbage around to give it a more “authentic” look. They then broke for lunch, and when they came back found that some good citizens had cleaned the alley up again. (This could well be apocryphal – I can’t even remember where I heard it – but even if it’s false, it’s a story that feels like it could be true because it conforms to pre-exisiting ideas about Canada.)

Returning (Somewhat) to the Point, Such As it Is

The part about people trying not to disturb each other takes us back to the common idea of Canadian politeness, which is at least as old as Dickens. And it’s noteworthy that Vancouver is described as a “town” and not a “city.” So much for that urban vision of Canada we thought was emerging! Is Vancouver – Canada’s third-largest city – simply not big enough to register as a true city to an American? Or is it just an element of the narrative voice: the first-person narrator in this story has that slightly-ungrammatical, vaguely-lower-class-yet-still-expressive-and-often-poetic tone so common in contemporary American fiction, much of it written by upper-middle-class creative writing professors who seem desperate to sound like anything but upper-middle-class creative writing professors.

There’s a further, slightly puzzling reference to Canada in the following paragraph:

Then I bought Karen an opal engagement ring and a gold wedding band for one thousand Canadian, though we didn’t actually get legally married till we were settled in this town in Alaska…. (52)

(In passing, note the use of “till” for “until” with reference to the above comments on narrative voice.)

It’s interesting that the narrator takes pains to point out that they got married in Alaska, not Vancouver, as if, to an American, getting married in Canada wouldn’t quite count. The word “legally” sharpens this point; aren’t Canadian marriages legal?

Perhaps there is a subsumed reference to same-sex marriage here. Court decisions began legalizing it in various Canadian jurisdictions in 2003; in 2004, San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom made it legal in that city. Does the (Californian) narrator feel that, because same-sex marriages are legal in Canada, all marriages performed in the country are somehow tainted? No doubt that would be reading too much into a passing reference. But then, that’s what we’re all about here!

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