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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the month “June, 2014”

Canada’s Gift to the Fashion World: The Canadian Tuxedo

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Brian Hiatt, “The Rise of the Black Keys,” Rolling Stone (January 19, 2012)

As a general rule, I try to focus on references to Canada in books, but occasionally I’ll come across a mention in a magazine or other piece of pop-culture ephemera (is anything really ephemeral anymore?) that is just too good to ignore. This is one of those moments.

I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled on this Black Keys article, and it’s a few years old now, but it opens a door into a part of Canadian identity that we haven’t really dealt with here before, so it seemed worth considering. This is from the very opening of the article, when the author does his obligatory description of how cool the subject of the article is:

No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden – least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach’s looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says “parking-lot attendant” as much as it does “rock star” (“I’m not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo,” he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans) – and he carries himself with an almost wilful lack of flamboyance.

He’s so cool, he’s good-looking, he’s wildly successful but at the same time totally down to earth – and he’s wearing denim-on-denim! It’s actually Auerbach himself who identifies his look (if someone so cool and down to earth can even be said to have a “look”) as “the Canadian tuxedo,” showing that, among our many other accomplishments, our nation has also left its imprint on the fashion world.

Is this something to be proud of? It’s hard not to feel that there is something disparaging about the term “Canadian tuxedo,” as though we Canadians are such unsophisticated hicks that jeans with a jean jacket is the closest we can come to formal wear. And the line about “at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans” – that “at least” seems to indicate that the Canadian tuxedo is a horribly unfashionable look, but the version of it that Auerbach is sporting isn’t quite as awful as it might be. (Note that, for the cover shoot, he swapped the denim jacket for the more conventional rock-star leather.)

And why is this look referred to as “the Canadian tuxedo”? Is it, in fact, a way for Americans to make fun of Canadian fashion sense? According to GQ magazine, the story is a little more complicated than that, and involves Levi’s, Bing Crosby and a Vancouver hotel. (Needless to say, there are other explanations floating around on the Internet.)

But, contrary to its ostensibly scruffy and lower-class reputation, the denim-on-denim look is one of this spring’s hottest fashion trends, having made appearances all over at Fashion Week in Paris. And, predictably, there’s a website devoted to images of people in Canadian tuxedos – including Beyonce and Barack Obama.

So our humble contribution to the fashion lexicon is clearly hitting the big time.

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Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

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Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

I tend to think of Renata Adler as a journalist rather than a novelist; she is perhaps best known for her legendary takedown of Pauline Kael in the NYRB, and used to write for The New Yorker. She also wrote novels, however, and this one is apparently a sequel of sorts to Speedboat, which I haven’t read. Pitch Dark doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s a fragmented narrative which isn’t as interested in recording a sequence of events as it is in capturing the shifting thoughts of a woman after the break-up of a long-running affair with a married man.There is a lot of repetition, a lot of going back and cycling through things, each time in a little more detail – the overall effect, for the reader, is of watching as events and emotions are gradually illuminated and the pieces of the story fall into place.

For the first reference, I’ll quote a little more than the mention of Canada, just to give a sense of the book’s style:

The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.
The turning point at the paper was the introduction of the byline.
Here’s who I knew in those days: everyone.
Everyone?
Well, not everyone in the world, of course. But a surprising number and variety, considering the lonely soul I was when I was young, and the sort of recluse I have since become.
“It’s really too much. I can’t tell you who they’ll seat next to you,” Claire said, after dinner, at the guarded island villa. “Wives, Canadians. They sit you next to anyone.” Also, “The daughter married an octoroon. A baboon. I don’t know.”  (49)

When I first read this I thought it was a reference to seating on an airplane. (For some reason, the use of “seat” as a verb makes me think of airplanes.) But I think it’s really about who you’re seated next to at a dinner party. The speaker seems to be a wealthy woman of leisure (“guarded island villa”), accustomed to eating out and with nothing much to think about other than who sits beside her.

As for the reference to Canadians, even my generally sunny outlook on life can’t convince me that it’s a compliment. The statement that “[i]t’s really too much” makes it clear that the people being discussed have offended her with their seating plan; the example of “Canadians” (coupled with “wives”) seems to suggest that these two categories of people are composed of utterly uninteresting and undistinguished individuals who have either nothing, or too much of no interest, to say, and that enduring a meal beside them is pure torture. This fits neatly into a pre-existing stereotype of our country: that it is – and we are – boring.

There seems to be an issue of, if not class, precisely, then of status, tied up in this as well; behind Claire’s statement lies the unspoken assumption that being seated next to interesting or important people is an indication that you are also considered important; being seated next to “wives” or “Canadians”, on the other hand, shows that you are an afterthought rather than a significant guest. And so sitting next to a Canadian doesn’t involve only the torture of a boring evening; it’s also a form of social insult. Life in high society is tantamount to warfare, and dull Canadians are its skillfully deployed ordnance.

Later in the novel, there is a cluster of references to Canada in a section in which the narrator is looking for a place to rent – the implication is that she wants a secluded place where she can escape after her affair has ended.

To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island…. I mentioned wanting to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Gavin said he had friends who had a place on an island off Vancouver. Maybe I would like to rent it.  (105)

Here, Vancouver is merely a place marker, giving a sense of the location of the island they are talking about. A description of the island follows:

The island had a rain forest. One flew to Vancouver, from there to another island, then took the ferry; two islands later, there one was. No worry about hospitals, there was a military installation there of sorts, the nearest observation post for Siberia. Siberia, I said. Well, yes, the island was six hundred miles, in fact, from Vancouver. There was a car there, I should pick it up from their friend the Danish baron.  (106)

One of the characteristics of Adler’s narrator is that she is persistently worrying at things, mentally going back over experiences, questioning, trying to read into events and comments. This is the process that is beginning here, as she finds out more about this island retreat, and it begins to seem a little less appealing than it did at first. Suddenly, it is a long way from Vancouver – and Vancouver itself has become richer in meaning than it was when it was first mentioned: no longer simply a place marker, it has now come to represent the last outpost of civilization, and we sense that proximity to Vancouver has suddenly become desirable.

Then the presentation of Graham Island begins to take on a darker cast:

Well, I called the Dutch baron, and his accent seemed instantly recognizable to me. I thought, What was this German pretending to be a Dane doing on an American island, six hundred miles from Vancouver, which is the nearest outpost to Siberia. I thought, a war criminal. My state of mind. I still resolved to go. It was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Two nights before I left, however, I had a thought. I had begun to worry a bit about the isolation. I called the owners of the house. I reached the wife. How far, I asked, how far from their house was the nearest neighbouring house. Oh, she said, not far. You can see it from the window. It’s just up the hill actually. A very interesting house. Built and owned by a Haida. Of course, he leases it now. The first trace of a hesitation in her voice. To the government of Canada. She distinctly paused. As a retreat. I said, A retreat. She said, Yes. But there are never more than six. I did not ask six what. She said, Alcoholic. Indians. Well, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.  (106-7)

There are several difficulties – or at least oddities – in this passage. First, the transformation of this “baron” from Dutch to German to Danish is very rapid and somewhat difficult to understand; he could certainly be a German pretending to be Dutch, but then how does the idea that he’s (pretending to be) a Dane arise? Is this an intentional error meant to convey the narrator’s confused state of mind?

And then there is the reference to Graham Island as “an American island”. In fact, Graham Island is a Canadian island, off the coast of British Columbia and part of the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands (now a popular tourist destination). Although close to Alaska, it is definitely part of Canada – is this, again, some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the narrator?

Regardless of these issues, a couple of distinct ideas about Canada emerge. First, we have the common idea of a remote wilderness – it contains a rain forest, it is “beautiful, and quiet,” which no doubt means sparesely populated, the sort of place where one can escape from the pressures of modern life and retreat into peaceful solitude. And yet as the narrator seeks further details, a more menacing element emerges, first in the form of the possible war criminal – admittedly we can’t say that he is a war criminal, as the narrator herself admits that her “state of mind” has suggested this inference – and then the Haida house, being leased to the Canadian government as a retreat.

This, finally, is the breaking point for the narrator; when she learns the nature of this house she states, “I couldn’t do it.” Yet this seemingly unequivocal statement is followed immediately, and characteristically, by one that adds a layer of ambiguity: “Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.” What, precisely, does this mean? Our country’s treatment of first nations people is certainly one of the greatest stains on our collective conscience; does the narrator feel that, in living on the island, she would be implicitly condoning a history that she finds morally repugnant? Or is it that she feels the occupants of this retreat would be unpleasant neighbours who would compromise the peaceful solitude she is seeking? It’s hard to say, though the phrase “Maybe I should have done it” – if we read it to mean, Maybe I should have been more open-minded and not pre-judged the situation – seems to suggest the latter. But her attitude is difficult to interpret.

Without question, however, there has been a development in the idea of Canada: as the passage begins, Adler’s narrator sees it as nothing more than a quiet wilderness where she can escape her problems; within a couple of pages, however, Graham Island has changed from a fantasy getaway into a real part of the real world, complete with its own real-world problems that grow out of the difficult history and politics of Canada itself. (One could say, in fact, that the isolation and solitude that originally attracted Adler’s narrator to Canada are the same factors that attracted the other residents, and it is the presence of those other residents that ultimately convinces her not to go. Further proof of Marvell’s dictum, “Two Paradises ’twere in one / To live in Paradise alone.”) The passage questions and complicates obvious notions about Canada, and ends up providing a more nuanced and complex portrait of our country than we often see.

But before I go on too long, I will recall the following sentence from Pitch Dark:

So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time. (43)

Indeed.

Retired Quebecoises on a Pornographic Rampage

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Michel Houellebecq, Platform (2001)

The main character in this novel, (coincidentally?) named Michel, is typical of Houellebecq’s narrators: a lonely, disconnected, middle-aged man with a boring but well-paid job who wanders through life seething with misanthropy and sexual frustration. In this case, however, he goes on a vacation in Thailand, where he meets Valerie, a much younger woman who works in the travel industry and who, somewhat improbably, falls for him and becomes his lover when they return to Paris.

The first reference to Canada comes just after Michel and Valerie have sex in her childhood bedroom while visiting her parents for a week-end:

On a shelf, just above the Bibliotheque Rose series, there were several little exercise books, carefully bound. “Oh, those,” she said. “I used to do them when I was about ten, twelve. Have a look if you like. They’re Famous Five stories.”
“How do you mean?”
“Unpublished Famous Five stories. I used to write them myself, using the same characters.”
I took them down: there was Five in Outer Space, Five on a Canadian Adventure. I suddenly had an image of a little girl full of imagination, a rather lonely girl, whom I would never know.  (139-40)

This is not a reference to Canada as it is, but rather to Canada as it might exist in the mind of a young French girl: a distant, mysterious, exciting and probably slightly dangerous place where heroic children would go to have an adventure. It is completely innocent of reality.

It also seems a bit out of date; as a character, Valerie is in her mid-twenties when the novel takes place in 2000-2001, so she would have been born around 1975. She says she wrote the stories when she was 10 or 12, which means they were written in the mid-eighties. Now, admittedly, large areas of Canada were an unoccupied wilderness at that time – large areas of Canada are an unoccupied wilderness now – but there were also major cities, railroads crossing the country, radio stations, TV channels, air travel, the CN Tower (tallest free-standing building in the world at that time) – in short, all the markers of a modern industrial nation, which makes the 1980s seem a bit late in the game for Canada to be playing the role of uncivilized wilderness where European children go for adventures.

On the other hand, we can give Valerie credit as an early practitioner of Enid Blyton fan fiction.

The second reference is somewhat more bizarre and requires a lengthy quotation. At this point in the novel Michel, Valerie, and Valerie’s boss Jean-Yves have gone to stay at a resort in Cuba. Valerie and Jean-Yves work for the same travel company, and they are in the process of expanding the company’s offerings to include a chain of resorts catering to European sex tourists. (Needless to say, it was Michel who originally suggested this idea.) The trip to the Cuban resort constitutes “research” for the sex resorts.  This passage begins by describing some of the other guests at the resort and then spins off into one of Michel’s pornographic fantasies:

As I was heading back to my table, having obtained, with extreme difficulty, my fourth cocktail, I saw the man approach one of the neighbouring tables, occupied by a compact group of fifty-something Quebecoises. I had already noticed them when they arrived: they were thickset and tough, all teeth and blubber, talking incredibly loudly. It wasn’t difficult to understand how they had managed to bury their husbands so quickly. I had a  feeling that it wouldn’t be wise to cut in front of them in line at the buffet, or to grab a bowl of cereal that one of them had her eyes on. As the aging hunk approached the table, they shot him amorous glances, almost becoming women again for the moment. He strutted extravagantly in front of them, accentuating his coarseness at regular intervals by gestures through his swimsuit, as though to confirm the physical existence of his meat n’ three. The Quebecoises seemed thrilled by his suggestive company; their aged, worn-out bodies still craved sunshine. He played his part well, whispered softly into the ears of these old creatures, referring to them, Cuban fashion, as “mi corazon” or “mi amor.” Nothing more would come of this, that was clear – he was content to arouse some last quivers in their aging pussies – but perhaps that was sufficient for them to go home with the impression that they had had a wonderful holiday, and for them to recommend the resort to their girlfriends. They had at least twenty years left in them. I sketched out the plot of a socially aware pornographic film entitled Senior Citizens on the Rampage. It portrayed two gangs operating in a resort, one a group of elderly Italian men, the other of pensionettes from Quebec. Armed with numchucks and ice picks, both gangs submit naked, bronzed teenagers to the most vile indecencies. Eventually, of course, they come face to face in the middle of a Club Med yacht. One after another the crew members, quickly rendered helpless, are raped before being thrown overboard by the bloodthirsty pensionettes. The film ends with a massive orgy of pensioners, while the boat, having slipped its moorings, sails straight for the South Pole.  (154-55)

Hard to know where to begin with that; these “bloodthirsty pensionettes” (“pensionette” seems to be roughly equivalent to “pensioner” or “retiree” here) from Quebec are certainly a long way from the polite, humble Canadian we’ve encountered elsewhere. The only reference to Canada that remotely compares with this is the description of Canadians, and French-Canadians in particular, as “big ruthless swine” in Bolano’s 2666 – but even there, that opinion was expressed by a character sometime between the First and Second World Wars.

This passage about the Quebecoises reads so neatly as a catalogue of misogynistic stereotypes that it almost seems like parody: the women are “tough,” they are “all teeth and blubber” and prone to violence at the buffet table; apparently they have somehow killed off their husbands, either directly or simply by driving them to an early grave through the sheer force of their abominable personalities. The reference to the bowl of cereal seems a little weak – wouldn’t it make more sense if the contested food item were more desirable (and redolent of violence), like a hunk of rare beef? But maybe the point is that they’re prepared to fight for even the most inconsequential food.  

Does this track some perception of Canadians in general, or French-Canadians in particular? Are Quebeckers looked down on by vacationers from other countries at tropical resorts, or are they considered rude or unpleasant guests? Does some segment of the French population harbour a prejudice against French-Canadians? (They certainly didn’t in Proust’s Time Regained.) Does this passage even represent prejudice against Quebeckers, or is it simply misogyny directed at women who happen to be from Quebec?

Whatever the case regarding general anti-Quebec prejudice, Michel clearly finds these (Quebec) women weirdly threatening, and his fear and revulsion at them takes over his train of thought and turns it towards the “socially aware pornographic film” that he outlines in his mind. By making the Quebec pensionettes carry out acts of overt sexual violence in his film scenario, he seems to be trying to justify the fear and sexual horror he instinctively feels while watching them interact with the Cuban man and his “meat and three” (which perhaps should be “meat and two“?).

Ultimately, it seems the unpleasant character ascribed to these “Quebecoises” is related less to their being from Quebec, and more to the fact that they are old, and therefore sexually undesirable, women – not really a group for which Michel, in the novel, expresses much sympathy. (He seems to hold to Seidel’s dictum: “A naked woman my age is just a total nightmare.”) For him, there is really only one woman – one person, if you come to that – that he views with any genuine affection, and that is Valerie, who, being a gorgeous woman in her twenties who will do anything to satisfy him sexually, can seem like little more than a middle-aged man’s pornographic fantasy.

The Neil Young Connection

Of course, there has to be a Neil Young connection. Apparently, among his other accomplishments, Houellebecq also co-wrote the article on Neil Young for something called the Dictionnaire du Rock:

Coauteur d’une notice sur Neil Young dans le très recommandable Dictionnaire du rock dirigé par Michka Assayas….

That’s a passing mention from an article about Houellebecq; if you want to give your French chops a workout, you can read the entire Neil Young entry; according to Wikipedia, Houellebecq wrote the second half, so maybe you’ll be able to tell when his distinctive style kicks in.

We may as well wrap up with a Neil Young song; here’s one in a slightly Houellebecqian mode:

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