Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Boredom”

No One Suspects a Canadian


Nell Zink, Private Novelist (2016)

This book actually contains two works, “Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats” and “European Story for Avner Shats,” both of which could be described as exercises or experiments and both of which, as their titles make clear, have some connection to the Israeli writer Avner Shats. I’m going to consider them separately.

“Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats”

I won’t go into all the complexities of how this story was created, partly because I don’t completely understand it myself; I think it is Zink’s (extremely free) re-writing of a novel by Avner Shats called Sailing Toward the Sunset, which she sent to him in parts, by email, as some sort of friendly joke. The important information is that the main plot (of Zink’s version at least) revolves around a Mossad agent named Yigal and his love affair with Mary, a silkie from the Shetland Islands. This scene is between the two of them:

The next scene actually took place in Yigal’s bed, but I am informed by Shats that the vast majority of scenes in Israeli fiction take place in cemeteries, so we’ll say instead that Yigal and Mary were holding hands as they walked on noisy gravel past the blazing white stones and skinny cypresses of the old cemetery on the south side of Tel Aviv. They rested for a moment in the shade under an aluminum canopy, and he fetched her a cup of water. Several aisles away a funeral was going on. The naked body of a middle-aged woman, wrapped in a sheet, was slowly vanishing under half a ton of sand. Yigal lay on his back, watching a reflection on the ceiling. Mary drank with her head on a pillow, dribbling water down her chin. He turned toward her and asked, “How did you get here, anyway? Swim?”
“No, I flew. On an airplane.”
“What sort of passport?”
“How’d you get that?”
“I bought it.”   (82-3)

As a secret agent, Yigal is naturally interested in the particulars of how Mary is able to travel by plane when, being a silkie, she presumably has no “human” identification. The implication (though left unstated) of the passage is that a Canadian passport is essentially a free ticket to anywhere because, given our reputation as a nation of polite, boring mediocrities, no one would ever think that a Canadian could be engaged in any kind of nefarious activity. The Canadian passport is, therefore, a perfect cover in the espionage world, and I think we can assume that Yigal is impressed Mary has managed to get her hands on one.

(As an aside, espionage, which came up in one of our earliest posts (on John le Carré), has been experiencing a resurgence lately, featuring in our posts on Dickens, Kim Philby and James Jesus Angleton.)

The next reference to Canada comes in a section titled “‘My Memoirs’ by Nell,” which is described in the back cover blurb as “Zink’s heartrending memoir ‘My Memoirs.'” I have to admit I feel that oversells the impact of the piece somewhat, but maybe it suffered from my raised expectations. Anyway, here is the opening paragraph:

When I was eighteen, my mother and I took a trip to Greater Detroit, where my elder brother was in school. After two years on a tuba scholarship at Valley Forge Military Academy, he had chosen to attend the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. He was majoring, of course, in mathematics, but had elected, in his first semester, to study both elementary Hebrew and elementary Arabic, and his grades were suffering. In the second semester, after our visit, he accepted his tuition money from our mother and used it to buy a very large and even mysterious stereo system. I remember the amplifier well, a silver cube with a vertical row of red LEDs and one knob. His record was The Velvet Underground and Nico. I bought him Songs of Leonard Cohen, and he played them both.   (226-7)

Things really don’t get any more heartrending from there.

We obviously can’t conclude much about Canada from this reference, though it is a compliment, I suppose, that Leonard Cohen’s debut album should have a place in such an obviously limited record collection, and we could perhaps argue that, along with the Velvet Underground, it suggests the arty, avant garde tastes of the narrator’s brother.

“European Story for Avner Shats”

Though it’s only a few months since I read Private Novelist, I really can’t remember much at all about this story — in fact I’d forgotten it was even in the book until I flipped through it again to work on this post. It has something to do with a group of students — or artists? — who meet at an artist’s colony — in Italy maybe? — and there’s a love triangle? — but anyway the important point is that there’s an old man in a nursing home who has hidden away a stash of valuable art, which several characters are trying to get their hands on. The reference to Canada comes in a scene between Eyal, who is trying to get the artworks by pretending to be a historian for a shipping company, and the old man, with the old man’s daughter acting as interpreter:

But generally the old man seemed pleased to meet the art historian of a shipping company, or to have a visitor — Eyal wasn’t sure. He claimed, the daughter translated, that he had been around the Horn sixty times under sail before 1935, though not always as captain, and began to list the ships by name. Eyal tried to write down all the names. In the end, bored of repeating herself and spelling things out, the daughter asked the old man to write them down himself.
The name of the eleventh ship, between “Anne Shirley, Prince Edward Island,” and “Netochka Nezvanova, Vladivostok,” caught Eyal’s eye. It was “Come Back Alone, Tuesday.”   (276-77)

This is a clever way to arrange a clandestine meeting. Both ships are rather obvious literary jokes, though pitched at very different registers: the Russian ship is named after a Dostoevsky novel, while the Canadian ship references the main character in Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (and various sequels) which, while popular enough to draw tourists to Prince Edward Island every year, is not (I think it’s safe to say) generally regarded as a literary masterwork.

We could, if we wished, draw some rather pointed conclusions about the standing of Canadian literature in the international imagination. Apparently, when Zink asks herself, “What would be a literary name for a Russain ship?” she immediately thinks of Dostoevsky; when she asks herself the same question about a Canadian ship, she comes up with Anne Shirley (rather than, say, The Cat’s Eye or The Del Jordan or The Stone Angel — though the latter might be tempting fate as a ship’s name). Canada, we are forced to admit, is not known for producing writers of Dostoevsky’s standing, but rather for what is essentially a children’s book.

On the other hand, this may be the first time Lucy Maud Montgomery has been mentioned in the same sentence as Dostoevsky. So that’s progress.

Neil Young, the Bard of Boring Suburbanites


Meg Wolitzer, The Interestings (2013)

This novel begins with a group of teenagers forming a clique at a summer arts camp and naming themselves “the Interestings,” and then follows the course of their lives into adulthood. (The set-up reminded me, weirdly perhaps, of what I’ve heard about this book, though I haven’t actually read it. I wonder if it mentions Canada….) Jules Jacobson, the central character, is a bit of an outsider in this group (she feels lucky to be included), and her experiences and perceptions are at the heart of the book, though it goes on occasional tangents to focus on other characters.

There are no direct references to Canada as a country, but there are a couple of references to Canadians that seem worth mentioning; they even pick up on figures we have come across before.

1. Leonard Cohen

The first relates to Jonah Bay, one of “the Interestings” and the son of Susannah Bay, a famous folksinger who seems to be loosely modelled on Joan Baez. Barry Claimes, another folksinger and a friend of Susannah’s, has been struggling, and failing, to write his own original songs. He begins inviting Jonah over to his house, where he plies the child with hallucinogens, hands him a guitar and records whatever comes out of his mouth. Claimes then works Jonah’s spontaneous, drug-fuelled compositions into songs, which he presents (or, you might say, “claims” — ha-ha) as his own.

At this point in the novel Jonah has figured out that something is wrong in this relationship with Barry, but Barry keeps phoning him:

Barry called him back a dozen times, and Jonah didn’t realize that he could simply not answer. Each time the phone rang, Jonah answered. And each time, Barry Claimes said he cared about him, he missed him, he wanted to see him, Jonah was his favorite person, even including all the folksingers he had known — even including Susannah and Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and Richie Havens and Leonard Cohen.  (126)

Leonard Cohen, the lone Canadian, simply appears in a list of folksingers; there is no comment on the fact that he is Canadian, or on Canada as a country; we simply notice a Canadian taking his place in that particular pantheon.

To me, however, the reference to Cohen seems a little odd. This scene in the novel takes place in 1970; certainly Cohen had put out albums at that time, and was known as a folksinger, but was he really a figure that people would think of in the same breath, so to speak, as Joan Baez and Pete Seeger? (Contrast, for example, Graham Nash’s reference to him as “Joni’s Canadian friend” in his memoir, which suggests that, to Nash at least, Cohen wasn’t well-known.) Cohen has endured and his reputation has grown over the intervening time, and especially since the 1990s (even in Russia), and I wonder if his appearance here is more reflective of the time the novel was written (2010-2012, presumably, given that it was published in 2013) rather than the time it takes place.

2. Neil Young

The second Canadian reference occurs when Jules is on the phone with her best friend, Ash, discussing Ash’s brother Goodman. At this point in the novel, it is 1976:

From the next room Jules could hear her sister Ellen’s roaring blow-dryer, and the same Neil Young album that seemed to be on autoplay, with the singer’s thin voice now singing, “There were children crying / and colors flying / all around the chosen ones.”  (169)

Jules’ sister, obviously, is listening to After the Gold Rush (released in 1970). I suppose this idea of irritation at a sibling’s taste in music expresses one of the universal truths of human life: I have heard my father make the same complaint about his sister, although in that case it was Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” that she was listening to over and over.

What is interesting here, I think, is the question of what liking Neil Young says about a person. To Jules, Ash and her brother Goodman represent everything she yearns for in life: they live in New York City, their parents are wealthy and sophisticated, and they are brought up in a world of art and culture. By contrast, Jules despises her own life outside New York in an ugly house with her dull sister and widowed mother, which to her is the very definition of everything boring and suburban.

Neil Young’s music is associated with Jules’ sister — that is, with the stultifying absence of culture in suburbia — rather than with Ash and her family in New York City. This Canadian musician, then, represents the dull, middle-of-the-road, and vaguely irritating musical taste of the suburban bourgeoisie, which is what Jules yearns to escape. (This is notably different, by the way, from Neil’s totemic position as a culture hero to current American hipsters.)

There is also an undeniable tone of exasperation in the description: the record “seemed to be on autoplay,” the singer has a “thin voice,” and perhaps most of all, Jules’ sister is listening to it with her hair dryer on (providing a version of the “vacuum cleaner continuo” suggested by another Canadian, Glenn Gould?) — it’s hard to ignore the implication that listening to Neil Young is no pleasure. The fact that he is Canadian is never directly expressed in the novel, but could the American stereotype of Canadians as rather dull and unadventurous lie behind this choice of Neil Young as representative of boring taste in music?

(Alternatively — and if we wanted to try to salvage a bit of Neil’s reputation here — we might observe that Ellen is listening to an album, which originally came out in 1970, in 1976. This might suggest that it is not Neil Young himself whose music is dull and suburban, but only that Ellen’s taste is rather behind the times.)

Regardless of that, the presence of both Leonard Cohen and Neil Young in the novel shows again the extent to which Canadian artists and performers are woven into the cultural texture of American life, something we have noticed before in books by Lorrie Moore and Dave Van Ronk, to name just a couple of examples.

3. The Music

Here is Leonard Cohen live in 1970, to give an idea of what his music sounded like at that particular point in time:

And here is “After the Gold Rush,” with Neil’s voice admittedly sounding thin even by his rather attenuated standards:

The Romance of Canada 3: David Lodge Insults Us


David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)

I’ll warn you at the outset, this one may sting a little. I’ve included it as part of the “Romance” series because the book is subtitled “An Academic Romance,” but the idea of romance at issue in this novel is that of Chretien de Troyes or Ariosto, not the “romanticism” of Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.


I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. It was recommended to me in graduate school by someone I didn’t have tremendous respect for, and so I didn’t read it out of suspicion of the source, so to speak. As always happens in these cases, all I managed to do was deprive myself of a reasonably enjoyable book.

Small World — the second in what is now called Lodge’s “campus trilogy” — is a satire of academic life in general and, in particular, of academic conferences. The main characters are almost all academics, and they spend all their time jetting around the world from one conference to the next, where they argue, drink and sleep with one another.

To give his narrative some shape, Lodge has superimposed on it several different quest narratives, the main one being Persse McGarrigle’s quest for Angelica, a beautiful girl he meets at a conference and whom he then pursues around the world for the rest of the book, always one step behind her. Lest anyone miss the point, many of the characters are provided with names that signal their function in the novel or their relationship to characters from romance: Sybil Maiden, for example, an elderly woman who has prophetic fits; or Arthur Kingfisher, past wunderkind of the field of literary theory who has withdrawn into himself due to impotence and writer’s block (the Fisher King with a hint of King Arthur) and who only recovers when Persse (Percival) asks an ambiguous (and “healing”) question at — where else? — the MLA conference.

All of that, of course, is beside the point for our purposes; what we really want to know is, what does it have to say about Canada?

As you would expect in a novel where most of the characters spend their time flying around the world, there are several passing references to Canada that don’t say anything about the country but are just place names. There are also a couple of mentions of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most famous literary critic, which give us a sense of what a significant intellectual presence Frye was among literary academics in the late 70s and early 80s: both The Anatomy of Criticism and his ideas about romance as a genre are referenced approvingly here.

And with that short paragraph, we’ve taken care of the neutral and positive side of Canada in this novel. There are several other passages which give a more focused picture of Canada and Canadians, and in those, I’m afraid, Lodge — or his characters — don’t have much good to say.

A Land of Windswept Exile

In this scene, Howard Ringbaum and his wife Thelma are flying from Canada (where he works) to England for a conference. Howard has been trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Thelma to have sex with him on the plane so that he can join the “Mile High Club,” which he has heard about from a younger colleague, and his bitter reflections following his failure lead to some thoughts on Canada and how he ended up there:

The same characteristic trait, displayed in a party game called Humiliation devised by Philip Swallow many years before, cost Howard Ringbaum dear — cost him his job, in fact, led to his exile to Canada, from which he has only recently been able to return by dint of writing a long succession of boring articles on English pastoral poetry amid the windswept prairies of Alberta….  (91)

Here we get an image of Canada as a windy, desolate wasteland, almost comically unsuited to the sort of sophisticated cultural life required by academics. Ringbaum explicitly thinks of his position in Canada as an “exile,” and so living in our country is construed as so bad it can serve as punishment for a misdeed.

A Cutting Put-Down

Things only get worse. Later in the novel, the subject of a trip to Vancouver comes up between Rudyard Parkinson (a professor) and Felix Skinner (an academic publisher):

“They’re giving me an honorary degree in Vancouver next week. It didn’t really sink in, when I accepted, that I’d actually have to go there to collect it.”
“I say, what a bore,” said Felix Skinner sympathetically.  (156)

The phrase “What a bore” could be taken to refer to Vancouver — indeed, ideas of boredom do seem to track fairly closely with references to Vancouver in world literature — but it could also simply refer to the tedium of flying to distant places to receive honorary degrees, and we need not take it as a direct insult to Canada. A few pages later, however, Rudyard Parkinson goes to Vancouver to get his degree, and we get this:

He began bitterly to repent of the vanity which had prompted him to accept this perfectly useless degree, flying ten thousand miles in three days just for the pleasure of dressing up in unfamiliar robes, hearing a short and probably inaccurate panegyric in his honour, and exchanging small talk afterwards with a crowd of boring Canadian nonentities at some ghastly reception or banquet where they would all no doubt drink iced rye whisky throughout the meal.  (162)

There really can’t be any doubt about that one: Canadians are conceived of as dull, unsophisticated bumpkins, and the idea of spending any time in their company is tantamount to torture. There is so much caught up in those three words, “boring Canadian nonentities,” that they almost seem to summarize the world’s idea of our country — not just the word “boring,” since we’ve grown moderately comfortable with the idea of our own dullness, and have even started to take a certain pride in it in some ways — just another word for “peace, order and good government” you might almost say. But “nonentities” — that word contains so much, because of course the Canadians in the novel — though we never get to know them as characters — are fighting against this very characterization. By giving an honorary degree to a well-known British academic, by having him come to their university to receive it, the Canadians are trying to raise their own profile in the academic world, trying to become something other than nonentities. And yet they can’t: even their guest of honour, who should be well-disposed towards them, sees the trip as a nuisance and the people he meets as precisely the nonentities they don’t want to be.

From Lodge’s perspective, and for most of his readers, this episode in Vancouver would be just another example of his satirizing of the academic world. As a Canadian, however, I find myself reading it “against the grain” (to borrow a term from literary theory): instead of snickering at the Canadian academics, I sympathize with them, and feel a sort of embarrassed pity at the way their desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (such a Canadian desire) is so casually dismissed.

The good news about Vancouver, however, is that, while being there may be torture, it is a torture that is easily forgotten, at least based on Parkinson’s thoughts two pages later:

Vancouver, of which he had in any case seen little except rainswept roads between the airport and the University, had already faded from his memory.  (164)

The association of rain with Vancouver is not surprising, and the conclusion of the sentence seems to say a lot about Canada: it may be dull, but at least it is eminently forgettable.

A Final Nod to Newfoundland

There’s one other reference to Canada, spoken by Philip Swallow to Joy, who becomes his lover for part of the novel:

Philip squeezed her knee. “You are my Euphoria, my Newfoundland,” he said.  (222)

This is obviously a reference to the Donne poem which was the subject of our first ever Wow Canada post; it is also, of course, a characterizing detail, since it makes sense that a university professor would quote Donne to his lover. Lodge has even modernized the spelling to match the name of our easternmost province.

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs


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.
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)


Gateless Gates and Canadian Intertextuality (Paul Muldoon Part III)


Paul Muldoon, Madoc: A Mystery (1990)

Please note the page numbers refer to the edition of Poems 1968-1998 pictured above.

An Attempt to Provide Some Context

Would anyone be so bold as to claim that they understand Madoc: A Mystery? I certainly won’t. The title is, in this case, perfectly apt: it is a mystery. However, I feel like I ought to attempt to provide at least a rough sketch of the book’s “plot” (for lack of a better term), in order to present the reference to Canada in some sort of context. So here goes.

Madoc: A Mystery contains a few independent short poems at the beginning, but is mostly the long, title poem. It is divided into short sections, each titled with the name of a philosopher in square brackets. I’m not a profound student of philosophy, but it seemed to me that the section titles went in roughly chronological order, i.e. the earliest sections of the poem have the names of the Pre-Socratics as their titles (Pythagoras, Heraclitus), and by the end we’re at least brushing up against the contemporary (Habermas, Kristeva). The title refers to Madoc, a mythical Welsh prince who supposedly journeyed to America in the 1100s and founded some sort of Welsh tribe there. Robert Southey wrote a poem about him called, somewhat predictably, Madoc.

Muldoon’s poem takes, as its jumping-off point, a plan by Coleridge and Southey to leave England for America and form a “pantisocratic” society in Pennsylvania. They never actually made the trip to North America, of course, but Muldoon begins by imagining that they had, and placing them, along with some other characters (including a talking, syphlitic horse named Bucephalus) in America in the late 1700s and early 1800s. As the poem proceeds, it also draws in historical figures who actually were in America at the time, including Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and the explorers Lewis and Clark.

I should make clear that the book is really more concerned with American history than Canadian; to the extent that you can tell where it takes place, it takes place in the U.S., and the other “characters” who appear are mainly American. Canada does, however, make one notable appearance.

The Reference to Canada

I’m going to quote four consecutive sections from the poem, as I feel like they are all part of the reference to Canada.


‘And the devil was pleased for it gave him a hint
for improving the prisons of…’


Coleridge stops in his tracks. A Seneca
wearing only a breech-

and a skunk

bonnet and cradling an arquebus
has just stepped out

from behind a beech.
Coleridge is genuinely perplexed.

He unclasps and dabbles
in the portmanteau

for which Southey and he drew lots.
He brandishes John Eliot’s

Algonquin Bible
and quaveringly intones the name of ‘Manitou’.

The Mohawk, as he turns out to be, goads
and bullies

him through the gateless gates
of Canada

and into
the formal gardens and unfathomable fountains

of this, the summer palace
of the Old Man of the Mountains.


Up a spiral staircase with precisely two hundred and thirty-three
steps, each conjured from the living rock.


Through the hoopless hoop of a black rainbow.


To the room where Thayendanegea, Joseph Brant,
appears to him as in a dream,

his head shaved but for a scalp-lock
adorned with a white

feather, his bearskin
robe, his shirt a calico

set off by a solid brass

gorget, his sword-stick with its brass ferrule.
He offers Coleridge tea and scones,

erves and clotted cream.

He folds his arms: ‘Would
you say you came here of your own free will?’  (225-7)

That gives a sense, anyway, of what the book is like. It will take a wiser head than mine to determine the relationship between the philosophers in the titles and the content of the sections, but I will note three things: Coleridge is described as “perplexed” and the most famous book by Maimonides is the Guide for the Perplexed; the number of steps (233) is a number from the Fibonacci Sequence; and the question of free will is one that was extensively considered by Aquinas (though also by numerous other philosophers). Could it all be that straightforward?

But let’s get to the good stuff – one of the most exquisitely suggestive descriptions of Canada I’ve come across, and all conveyed in so few words:

…the gateless gates
of Canada

I’m torn here; I’ve reached that point one sometimes reaches with poetry where trying to explain why something is beautiful simply drains the beauty from it. This image of Canada as a country separate from the U.S. and yet not clearly marked off as such seems to me to speak quite compellingly about the wilderness our country once was, and the mystery and strangeness it once possessed for Europeans. Of course this idea is immediately undermined by the description of “formal gardens” that follows, and ultimately leads to tea and scones with Joseph Brant.

And what of Brant? Born in what is now Ohio, he is technically an American; however, he fought on the Loyalist side (i.e. for the British) during the American Revolution (a subject that came up recently), and lived the later part of his life and died in Canada, and so has come to be associated with our country as well. I think the tea and scones here must be a nod to (or a mockery of?) the fact that Brant’s lifetyle in Canada was apparently very much that of an English country gentleman – he certainly appears somewhat dandified in this passage. And his question, which ends this sequence, has undeniable resonance for a country of immigrants like Canada, a country that people choose to come to – even if they feel to some extent that they have been pushed to it by circumstances in their homelands, just as Coleridge here is “goaded and bullied” across the border. (One could almost read the sequence as a fable of immigration.)

Wow – Canadian Intertextuality

There’s one more reference to consider, which isn’t directly to Canada, but related to our work here at Wow – Canada!:


It moulders now in the double-dusk
of the valise,
along with a copy of Voltaire’s
L’Ingenu;   (230)

The Ingenu involves a Frenchman who was raised in Canada by the Huron and, as we have already noted, contains numerous references to Canada. Muldoon probably mentions it here simply because its subject matter relates to that of Madoc: A Mystery, but for us, this passage represents the exciting first instance of what we might call “Wow – Canada intertextuality”: a book that refers to Canada and also refers to another book that refers to Canada. So a big moment.

In Conclusion

I want to enjoy those two lines one more time:

…the gateless gates
of Canada


A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

The March 30, 2014 episode of CBS’s 60 Minutes features a story on Michael Lewis’ new book, Flash Boys, which involves a Canadian trader, Brad Katsuyama. While working at RBC, he figured out how a quirk in the speed at which trades reach different trading centres was allowing high-frequency traders to make significant profits by essentially front-running the orders of regular traders. He ultimately started his own exchange (! – I didn’t even know you could do that) with the goal of making trading more fair and transparent.

The piece is interesting to watch on its own merits, and it ties in nicely with the more “scientific/technological” side of Canada we’ve been noticing lately, but I couldn’t help wondering, as I sat through it, whether it would provide a glimpse into American attitudes towards Canadians. There is a certain tone of condescending surprise that runs throughout the piece, as though it’s remarkable that Canadians have even heard of the stock exchange, never mind figured out how it works. And then there’s this quote from the host, Steve Kroft, at about the 11:50 mark (11:30 in the YouTube version at the top):

That’s when Katsuyama, a conformist even by Canadian standards, decided to do something radical.

“Even” is the key word in that sentence, suggesting that we Canadians are extremely conformist to begin with, and Katsuyama is, if such a thing is possible, an extremist when it comes to conformity. This seems to me a classic American stereotype about Canadians, one in which they define themselves as the bold, entrepreneurial, free-thinking North Americans and us as their polite, boring, status-quo neighbours to the north. Could this perception be rooted all the way back in the phenomenon of United Empire Loyalists during the American Revolution and our decision to remain a British colony rather than striking out on our own?

Hard to say, but whatever its source, the attitude clearly persists: Canadians are the human equivalent of a dull grey suit, forever masking ourselves and our true feelings, never stepping out of line, never doing anything unexpected but always plodding steadily along without really going much of anywhere.

On the other hand, according to the 60 Minutes report, it took a Canadian – not to figure out what was going on, since apparently other people had figured that out, at least to some extent, but it took a Canadian to actually make the effort to stand up to the vested interests and try to change an unfair system. This phrase, also from Kroft, sums it up nicely:

You beat speed by slowing down?

I suppose Americans would consider that a very Canadian approach to heroism.

Scandal in Canada? Impossible!


Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (November 12, 2013)

Just a brief note on a sentence from Gregg Easterbrook’s most recent Tuesday Morning Quarterback column:

If it’s any consolation, government hanky-panky is international. There is a corruption scandal in Canada, hard as the phrase “Canadian scandal” seems to be to write.

Ha ha ha.

Easterbrook is playing on the impression – general among Americans? – that Canada is simply too nice and polite – or too boring – a country to have a scandal, or at least a scandal that can measure up to the fantastic scandals that the U.S. routinely produces. And, granted, the Senate scandal that Easterbrook links to doesn’t have the salacious fascination of, say, the troubles of Anthony Weiner or Eliot Spitzer.

But hasn’t Easterbrook noticed that Canada is curently in the throes of a scandal that is consuming media attention, not only up here, but around the world? (That last article, incidentally, is typically Canadian in its attitude toward international media attention: we’re horrified that the world is laughing at us, but at the same time, it’s hard not to notice a certain excitement in the catalogue of headlines we’re getting in more glamorous cities like London and New York.)

How far do we have to go to shed our goody-two-shoes image?

Based on his earlier reference to Canada, it’s clear that Easterbrook’s impressions of our country form a fairly small cloud hovering around the idea that we’re boring and excessively nice. So perhaps he just refuses to believe that such things can occur here. Or perhaps he’s too focused on football to pay any attention to Toronto city politics. But in another corner of the football journalism world, we rated a small notice this week:

d. I suppose we shouldn’t laugh at Toronto mayor Rob Ford, but every time I hear the tape of him talking about smoking crack, I can’t help it. Ford: “Have I tried it? Probably in one of my drunken stupors. Probably approximately about a year ago.” And then, basically, apologizing, wanting life to go on as before.

e. Rob? That’s sort of a big deal.

f. Doesn’t Rob Ford look exactly like Chris Farley’s slightly older brother?

Clearly, Canada can produce a captivating scandal after all. The issue isn’t us: Canadians can be just as corrupt and venal as people of any other nationality. And while it’s a banal observation, I’ll make it anyway, just for the record: once impressions about national character take hold in people’s minds, they’re remarkably hard to shake, even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. No matter what we do, a lot of Americans will always think of Canada as that quiet, dull nation to the north, full of people so polite they apologize every time someone steps on their foot.

At least we’re doing what we can to shake that image.

Peace, Health Care and Doughnuts


Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (October 1, 2013)

Ah, Tim Horton’s: that glowing beacon of Canadian identity.

We’ve already discussed the (aborted) Canadian connection of the TV series “The Bridge”, of course, but in one of those curious instances that proves great minds think alike (or fools seldom differ?), Gregg Easterbrook, in this week’s “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” column, has hit on the same thing:

FX’s “The Bridge” is a remake of a Scandinavian television show about a crime at a bridge between Denmark and Sweden. Before centering the remake on a bridge between Texas and Mexico, producers first proposed using the bridge between Detroit and Windsor, Ontario. A hyper-violent crime drama about U.S.-Canadian relations — there’s no minimum to the potential ratings of that concept. A cross-border tunnel between a Texas ranch and a Mexican cartel’s hideout, used to smuggle heroin, figures in “The Bridge” plot. If the Detroit-Windsor setting had been chosen, it would have been a tunnel into a Tim Horton’s doughnut shop, used to smuggle government-financed Canadian prescription drugs.

Packed into that one small paragraph (which is illustrated with the Tim Horton’s photo above) are a number of typical clichés about Canada. The main idea – that Canada is a totally uninteresting place and that a crime drama about our country would serve no other purpose beyond that of a soporific – comes through clearly in the phrase about there being “no minimum to the ratings potential” of the idea. Clearly, Easterbrook sees Canada as a squeaky-clean, law-abiding place where nothing bad ever happens. It’s almost enough to make one ashamed of our peaceful nation. You feel like crying out, “Hey, we have crime too, you know!” But what’s the point?

But Easterbrook really distinguishes himself in the last sentence, where he manages to bring in a reference to our “government-financed” health care system, and also Tim Horton’s doughnuts. Health care, needless to say, has come up before, but the doughnuts idea is a new one. The corporate overlords at Tim Horton’s must be thrilled to see that their brand is indelibly associated with Canada in the minds of Americans – or are they?

A recent article suggests Tim Horton’s expansion into the U.S. is a failure; could the brand’s connection to Canada, and our uninteresting, crime-free image, be part of the problem? Perhaps doughnuts just taste better when the threat of death feels a little more imminent.

At least Easterbrook spells it “doughnut” rather than “donut”, coming down on the right side of that heated debate.

Canadian Lemmings, New Yorker Cartoons and Plato


Robert Leighton, The New Yorker, August 5, 2013 (p. 26)

I don’t know if you can read the speech bubbles in the image above; it’s a crowd of lemmings on the edge of a cliff, and they’re all saying, “After you,” “After you.”

Of course, as you can see from the banner, they’re Canadian lemmings, which means they’re so polite they never get around to actually jumping off the cliff; they just stand there “after-you”ing each other until … who knows? Until a fox comes along and devours them? Until they all die of starvation? Until the melting of the polar ice caps renders jumping into the ocean to drown moot?

As far as American impressions of Canada go, there isn’t a whole lot to be drawn from this; we already know that excessive politeness is one of the main traits people from other countries attribute to Canadians. What’s really striking about this cartoon, to me,  is that it shows what a remarkably narrow view The New Yorker (or its Cartoons Editor, Robert Mankoff, at least) seems to take of Canadians. Why do I say that? Because in November 2012 – not even a year ago – they published this cartoon by Roz Chast:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

We’ve already discussed it on its own, of course, but when you put them side by side, the similarities are striking. Both use a banner to alert the reader that the cartoon is depicting a Canadian form of something the reader already recognizes (readers will have pre-formed notions of what lemmings do and what a stand-off is); both involve a situation where one character has to make an initial move so that another (or others) can follow; both have the phrase “After you” in speech bubbles; and both are only funny in the context of the idea that Canadians are so polite as to be functionally paralyzed in situations where one person has to take the initiative.

In fact, the cartoons are essentially identical; the only difference is that the two humans in the Chast cartoon have been replaced by a group of lemmings in the one by Leighton.

Slightly Philosophical (feel free to skip)

Perhaps we should look at this from the point of view of Plato’s theory of forms: is it possible that there are only a certain number of New Yorker cartoon jokes, and they are just executed in different ways? The joke, in its essence, would be like a Platonic form, and the cartoon based on it would be its temporary expression in the material world. So for these two cartoons, the essential joke (the Platonic form) is, “Canadians are excessively polite.” Each cartoon illustrates the joke in a different way, but the joke itself remains the same (just as various carpenters can build good and bad beds, but the Platonic form of “bed” remains unchanged).

If I had more time and energy, I might be inclined to go through my copy of The Complete Cartoons of The New Yorker to see if I could identify, say, 50 essential jokes that come up over and over in slightly different form. These jokes would be timeless and unchanging, but the different expressions of them (the individual cartoons) could include references to the culture at the time they were created.

The more I think about it, the more bewitching this idea seems. But alas, I have not world enough and time to undertake a massive thematic analysis of New Yorker cartoons.

Giving The New Yorker Its Due

As an aside, let me say that everyone on staff here at Wow – Canada! loves The New Yorker generally, and we are all particularly fond of the cartoons. More than that, we’re thrilled to see our humble little country getting mentioned at all. And yet, as Canadians, we wouldn’t mind seeing a slightly more nuanced portrayal of our nation. Is that so much to ask?

And in fairness, The New Yorker does print cartoons that relate to Canada where the joke is based on something other than Canadians being polite, as a quick Google search will show. Here’s one by Liam Walsh that I was going to write about but never got around to:


The caption reads, “What part of Canada that I know nothing about are you from?”

This one trades on the idea that Canada is an obscure place Americans know nothing about, but here the (Brooklyn hipster?) partygoer is mocked for his ignorance. I can’t help noticing the Canadian’s outfit, though; of course we all wear plaid shirts, all the time. (Or is the cliché Canadian clothing a part of the joke?) And here’s one by Donald Reilly:


The caption reads, “You seem familiar, yet somehow strange – are you by any chance Canadian?”

I like this one. It’s based on a fairly common idea – that Canadians and Americans are essentially the same – and yet the phrasing of the caption and the set-up suggest that we’re just different enough to have a vaguely defined romantic allure for Americans (though not for Eddie in Limitless). Certainly Canadians have the sense that Americans don’t see us as significantly different from them; whether we agree, and whether we feel whatever differences we do have make us more attractive, as suggested by the cartoon, is up for debate. (The idea that Quebec is sexy, as opposed to Canada in general, might be more widespread.)

And here’s one by Peter Steiner that manages a unique Canadian double: including both health care and Mounties:


The caption reads, “We’re borrowing the best features of the Canadian system” – which apparently means doctors dressing up as Mounties. Ha!

Still, it’s hard not to feel that all these cartoons are based on clichés about Canada and Canadians.

A Bit About Lemmings

When I read the headline, “Canadian Lemmings,” on the Leighton cartoon that we began with, I have to confess that my first thought was, “Canadian lemmings? No such thing.” Painful as it is for me to admit, I was wrong; and worse,  I was schooled by a New Yorker cartoon based on a tired cliché about Canadians. According to no less a source than Hinterland Who’s Who (pause while Canadians of a certain age smile wistfully), there are several species of lemmings that are native to Canada.

Disney Nefariousness

The most shocking part of the Wikipedia entry on lemmings (which, needless to say, I consulted while researching this post) was not the assertion that they don’t actually commit mass suicide (which has been their ticket into the public imagination and is obviously a key idea behind Leighton’s cartoon), but rather this:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to CalgaryAlberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.[13]

Yikes! So Disney captured Canadian lemmings and then fired them off a cliff with a turntable (remember those?) just to promote the idea that they commit mass suicide? Now that’s shocking. And to turn the turntable into an engine of death – thankfully we’ve all switched to mp3 now, a much less menacing technology. No one’s using their iPhone to launch rodents off cliffs.

Here’s a clip:

If you look closely at the part that shows the lemmings “jumping” off the cliff, you’ll notice that you never actually see one jump; what you see is a bunch of lemmings at the edge of a cliff, and then other lemmings flying off the cliff from out of the frame (no doubt launched from the turntable). I don’t know if I would have picked up on that if I hadn’t known the scene was staged; the brain tends to want to make connections, and I think most people would unconsciously assume the lemmings were jumping even though they never actually witnessed one jump.

Canadians: Boring or Bastards


Tina Fey, Bossypants (2011)

This book seems to be a cross between a memoir and a humour book; it’s difficult to say precisely what it is. It’s not exactly crammed with profound insights into the human condition, but it does have some funny passages. And, excitingly for us here at Wow Canada!, Fey’s life in the world of comedy has involved a few brushes with Canada and Canadians.

Here she is discussing the Second City comedy group:

There’s a Second City in Chicago and one in Toronto, and between the two they have turned out some mind-blowing alumni, including John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Dan Aykroyd, Chris Farley, John Candy, Catherine O’Hara, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Steve Carrell, Amy Sedaris, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert.(81)

Nice to see the Canadians getting name-checked – by my count, 5 out of 12 comedians mentioned in that list are Canadian – nearly 50% – suggesting Northern roots to a lot of American comedy. This reminds me of a TV special I watched years ago – I think made by the CBC – called The Canadian Conspiracy. The idea was that Canadian comedians were working together to take over the American comedy system, and as I recall it featured a sweaty Eugene Levy confessing all the details of the “conspiracy” in an interrogation room.

The following passage refers to Fey’s first meeting with Saturday Night Live producer (and Canadian) Lorne Michaels:

I could have never guessed that in a few years I’d be sitting in that office at two, three, four in the morning, thinking, “If this meeting doesn’t end soon, I’m going to kill this Canadian bastard.” (121)

It’s at least moderately exciting to think of a Canadian as a bastard, if only because it conflicts with our more expected polite image.

In the following passage, Fey is asked in an interview (around the time of her famous Sarah Palin impersonation on SNL) what she would do if the McCain-Palin ticket won the election:

I said in a joke-y, actress-y voice, “If they win, I will leave Earth.” It was clearly a joke about people who say stupid things like that. No matter what your political beliefs, everyone knows some loudmouth: “If Bush wins, I’m moving to Canada.” “If Bush wins again, I am seriously moving to Canada.” (224)

This idea of Canada as a place where Americans can escape from the unpleasant realities of American politics has arisen before.

The italics in the first instance seem to mark Canada off as a strange, distant place; the fact that someone would do something as extreme as moving there indicates their horror at the idea of Bush as President. Of course in the second quote it’s “If Bush wins again,” indicating that they didn’t actually move to Canada the first time – because things are never so bad that any American would actually choose to move to Canada, right? They’d rather endure Bush and hope for better next time.

And the last mention of Canada, in a passage about  how Fey & her family spend their holidays:

Our annual pilgrimage from one set of in-laws to the other happens every December 26, or, as they call it in Canada: Boring Day. (245)

I can’t get much out of that one – is it just the idea that Canadians are boring? – an idea so tired, by the way, that it is itself boring. Or is our Boxing Day shopping frenzy just not frenzied enough to impress someone hardened by the outlet malls of suburban Pennsylvania?

Overall, I feel like this book gives a reasonably positive impression of Canada: we’ve produced some great comedians, and Lorne Michaels may be a bastard, but he’s a successful bastard. American loudmouths threaten to move here without ever really intending to because our country is just too far-off and obscure – but as Fielding says, let them know, to their confusion, that we don’t really want them anyway.

So there.

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