The Repellent Cleanliness of Vancouver
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!