Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

adlercover

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.

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