Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Cleanliness”

Montreal Cool, Toronto Uncool (Yawn)

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Tao Lin, Taipei (2013)

Taipei, by Tao Lin, is very difficult to get through. Every time I picked it up and started to read, my mind immediately began drifiting to all the more enjoyable things I could be doing with my time, like mowing the lawn, or cutting my fingernails, or having some teeth pulled. The book follows a young novelist, Paul, as he kills time before his book tour, goes on his book tour, loses one girlfriend, marries his new girlfriend, and “ingests” (a favourite word) significant amounts of drugs. (The title presumably refers to the visits he pays to his parents in Taipei, though I suspect it was really chosen for the cover design possibilities it offered when juxtaposed with Lin’s name – see above.)

I assume the novel is autobiographical, not because I know anything specific about Tao Lin’s life and can trace parallels to it in his work, but just because the book seems to have been written by someone who wanted to expend as little effort as possible on writing it, and I can’t imagine he would have bothered to invent anything. Lin’s goal seems to be to write about uninteresting people and events in the most uninteresting way possible, and in that he succeeds admirably. Taipei takes dullness to a level that, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t read it myself. And maybe, in his refusal to impart the slightest bit of interest to his writing, Lin is a harbinger of a coming literary revolution: “The New Affectlessness,” perhaps?

The novel has been both praised and attacked, which I won’t really get into, but I do recommend reading Lin’s own whinging defence against one of his critics (quoted here – scroll down just past the screen caps of the two tweets), in which he essentially argues that people shouldn’t be allowed to criticize his writing because if critics or reviewers convince readers that he’s a bad writer, it might interfere with his ability to support himself and his aging parents with the money he makes from writing.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t even bother to defend his work on artistic or aesthetic grounds, but instead makes this strangely practical, almost careerist argument – all in a very hurt, passive-aggressive tone, as if trying to shame anyone who criticizes him into guilt-induced silence. His whole line of thinking seems to spring from the idea that it is his natural right to support himself as a writer, and that no one should be allowed to criticize him because it might deprive him of the money he expects to earn. Personally, I would make the opposite argument: if you can’t produce a genuinely good book, then you don’t deserve to be able to support yourself, or anyone else, with your writing; you should find another profession.

Of course, there are always too-clever-by-half types who are eager to spin out theories (or, as Lin would call them, “framework-y somethings”) to demonstrate that the badness of a book like Taipei is actually what makes it great: it “perfectly captures the anomie of directionless 20-somethings,” or it “questions everything we think we know about how novels can be good,” or it “[insert your own gasbag theory here]”.

But doing so falsifies the experience of actually reading the book. When you’re not reading Taipei, it’s possible to think of it as some sort of conceptual experiment, and to convince yourself that Lin is deliberately challenging and overthrowing your expectations. In fact, spinning out such theories is more enjoyable and rewarding than actually reading Taipei. But pick it up and read a few more pages, and all theorizing evaporates as you are once again submerged in the weirdly punitive ennui the book engenders, as if you were falling in slow motion down an endless flight of stairs in a monotonously ugly building.

But on to Canada.

An Accidental Mishearing

The first reference to Canada comes during a long, early section of Taipei in which Paul wanders around New York, takes drugs, and goes to parties and bars with various acquaintances. He seems to be trying to find a new girlfriend, though he goes about it in an odd (and ultimately unsuccessful) way. This conversation involves Laura, one of Paul’s “prospects” who doesn’t pan out:

Laura said something seemingly unrelated about cooking.
“You should cook for me,” said Paul distractedly.
“You won’t like it – it’ll be dense and unhealthy.”
“I like pasta and lasagna,” said Paul, and thought he heard Laura ask if his computer was in Canada and was nervous she might be confusing him for another person. “What computer?”
“You said your computer was getting fixed in Canada.”
“Oh,” said Paul. “Kansas, not Canada. Yeah, it’s still there.”  (46-7)

So much for Canada as a high-tech centre for computer repairs. I don’t know that we can conclude much from this passage; “Kansas” and “Canada” do have (phonetically) identical first syllables, and it’s thoughtful of Tao Lin to remind us of that.

Toronto vs. Montreal

When Paul’s book tour reaches Canada, Taipei revives the Toronto vs. Montreal debate that we’ve come across before, though in a somewhat lazy and conventional fashion. Paul visits Montreal first:

In Montreal, three days later, beneath a uniformly cloudy expanse, which glowed with the same intensity and asbestos-y texture everywhere, seeming less like a sky than the cloud-colored surface of a cold, hollowed-out sun, close enough to obstruct its own curvature, Paul walked slowly and aimlessly, sometimes standing in place, like an arctic explorer, noticing almost no other people and that something, on a general level, seemed familiar….
The sky had darkened and was now almost cloudless, like it had been gently suctioned from an interplanetary pressure system. As a red truck, clean and bright as a toy, passed on the street, Paul realized Montreal, with its narrower streets and cute beverage sizes and smaller vehicles, reminded him of Berlin.  (118-19)

At least you can tell he’s trying. The first passage is typical of what happens when Lin revs himself up for some “serious writing”: words quickly get the better of him, and the clauses pile up like cars in a dense fog, apparently ungoverned by even the most rudimentary grasp of the rules of syntax, until the rush of words collapses, exhausted, in an apparently random full stop. Lin writes like someone who decided to become a writer without bothering to go through the intermediary stage of learning the skills that are required to be a decent writer – such as the ability to use words to express thoughts and emotions in a clear and memorable way. (Our current cultural moment, where blog engines (like this one) make it easy for anyone to simply “be a writer,” facilitate this sort of democratization of literature – or is it the destruction of literature? Or are those just two different terms for the same process?)

On the positive side, we can see several conventional ideas about Montreal being worked through here.

First, it’s interesting to note how that reference to an “arctic explorer” sneaks in – why specifically an arctic explorer? Couldn’t a jungle explorer, or a desert explorer, also stand in place and not notice any other people? But of course Lin is an American visiting Canada, which means he has a preconceived notion that Canada is cold, and so his mind goes automatically to an arctic explorer. (Canada is north of the U.S., so Montreal must practically be in the Arctic – right?) The statement that there are “almost no other people” gives the impression that Montreal – one of Canada’s largest cities – is actually a frozen, depopulated wasteland.

In the next paragraph Montreal appears as a quaint miniature imitation of a real city, with a “toy” truck, smaller vehicles, and “cute” beverage sizes – all in contrast to the U.S., where cars and portion sizes are big – as is everything else. The use of the word “clean” touches on another idea about Canada that we’ve noted before, and then we wrap up with the comparison to Berlin, settling on the common idea that Montreal feels like a European city – “European” being a marker of coolness, hipness, and other qualities that cities aspire to.

Then the tour moves on to Toronto:

Paul arrived in Toronto the next night on a Megabus, then rode two city buses to the apartment of a Type Books employee and his girlfriend and slept on a sofa…. He walked to a cafe near Type Books and asked on one of the two threads on 4chan about him that, for some reason, had appeared in the last two days – and, with two to four hundred posts each, 90 to 95 percent derogatory, were the two longest threads on him that he’d ever seen – if anyone in Toronto could sell him MDMA or mushrooms within two hours. Someone named Rodrigo, who’d recently moved here from San Francisco, Paul discerned via Facebook, emailed that he could get mushrooms and maybe MDMA but not until after Paul’s reading.  (124)

This portrayal of Toronto as the kind of place where you can’t get drugs when you need them plays into a typical image of the city as dull and puritanical – usually, as here, in comparison to our more free-wheeling, fun-loving compatriots in the carefree, European-style city of Montreal. A similar impression comes across, for example, in Keith Richards’ account of his adventures in Toronto, where the police just aren’t up on how world-famous rock stars live. There seems to be a general view of Toronto as a large city with a very provincial outlook.

After the reading, Paul goes back to Rodrigo’s apartment with Alethia, a young writer who is going to interview him while he’s on MDMA:

In Rodrigo’s apartment, a few hours later, Paul searched his name in Alethia’s email account – signed in on Rodrigo’s tiny, malformed-looking, non-Macbook laptop – while she was in the bathroom and saw she had pitched an article on him, two months ago, to the Toronto Sun, which had not responded, it seemed. Paul and Rodrigo each swallowed a capsule of MDMA.  (125)

Again, we have the impression of Toronto as a place that isn’t quite as cool as it might be – people actually find ways to manage with non-Macbook computers! The reference to the Toronto Sun is particularly amusing, as it indicates that either Alethia or Lin himself knows nothing about newspapers in Toronto; the Sun is essentially a tabloid which features right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news, endless sports reporting, and pictures of scantily clad women (check out today’s edition). It’s not a newspaper that would ever feature a story on any sort of writer, much less a self-conscious hipster like Tao Lin. Perhaps this is based on a real event and, in writing it down, Lin has simply confused the Toronto Sun with the Toronto Star, a paper that might at least consider a story on Lin.

But this story of the duelling Toronto-Montreal readings has (unusually for Lin) a moral element, in which Toronto is ultimately punished for being a narrow-minded city that doesn’t offer visiting authors the free access to drugs they require. Back in New York, Paul goes online to read some reviews of his two readings:

On Halloween afternoon, in the library, Paul read an account of his Montreal reading, when he was on two capsules of MDMA, describing him as “charismatic, articulate and friendly.”
He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as “monosyllabic,” “awkward,” “stilted and unfriendly” within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.  (128-9)

So Montreal gets bathed in the warmth of Paul’s drug-induced charms while Toronto has to suffer through the monosyllabic, stilted version of the author that emerges when he is sober.

The Nuggets of “the Saskatchewan”

The final reference to Canada occurs while Paul and Erin, having got married on a whim in Vegas, go to Taipei to visit Paul’s parents. To pass the time they take various drugs and then film themselves wandering around Taipei doing whatever occurs to them. At this point they are filming a fake documentary about a McDonald’s restuarant in Taipei, in which they claim that the chicken nuggets are actually made out of children:

“Yeah,” said Erin. “And actually for some … if you pay extra you can get a little bit of a tooth, from an actual child, and you can also get it memorialized, in a locket.”
“If a country pays extra, their nuggets get more gelatin?”
“Yes,” said Erin. “The quality is just slightly raised.”
“I heard that Canada did that,” said Paul.
“Um, just the Saskatchewan. They’re the prime testing markets. Because they eat … they primarily eat teeth there. That’s their diet, I didn’t know if you knew that.”
“The Weakerthans wrote an album about that, right?”
“Yeah, they-” said Erin.
Fallow?” said Paul.
Fallow,” said Erin confidently.
“That was about the teeth-” said Paul.
“The Saskatchewan teeth crisis,” said Erin.  (196)

There’s no real information about Canada contained here, of course, but it does reveal a certain American attitude to Canada in that Paul is just looking for a place to attribute something outrageous to, and he settles on Canada – which Erin immediately modifies to “the Saskatchewan,” as if it were a region, like “the Midwest,” and not the province “Saskatchewan” – which is a place Americans have heard of but know so little about that they will believe almost anything they’re told about it. The added specificity of Saskatchewan is probably just because it’s the strangest Canadian place name they can think of on the spur of the moment.

The Weakerthans are a Canadian band, though actually from Manitoba, not Saskatchewan – but I’m sick of the “garbage-y nothingness” (to coin a Lin-ism) that is Taipei, and I don’t want to think or write about it any more.

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Even the Geese Can’t Stand It!

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Derek Mahon, Night-Crossing (1968)

I am once again indebted to Professor Ronald Marken’s essay on references to Canada in Irish poetry,* this time for bringing Derek Mahon to my attention. (You can read parts of the essay through Google Books.)

Two poems in Night-Crossing (Mahon’s debut collection) mention Canada, and each shows a different perspective on our country, one familiar, one not. We’ll begin with the familiar.

Canadian Pacific

From famine, pestilence and persecution
Those gaunt forefathers shipped abroad to find
Rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean,
And staked their claim and pinned their faith.
Tonight their children whistle through the dark,
Frost chokes the windows. They will not have heard
The wild geese flying south over the lakes
While the lakes harden beyond grief and anger –
The eyes fanatical, rigid the soft necks,
The great wings sighing with a nameless hunger.   (27)

At least in its opening, the poem portrays Canada as a country offering hope to those who are bold (or desperate) enough to leave the old world of Europe for the new opportunities offered by North America. We’ve come across this idea before in Dickens and Basil Bunting, to name just two; but from the fifth line on the poem takes a distinct turn, undercutting the promise implicit in the opening. Frost is “choking” the windows and the lakes are “hardening”, suggesting the advancing cold and dark of a harsh Canadian winter; and the wild geese, wiser apparently than the (Irish?) immigrants who came to Canada, are heading South to avoid the cold. As the last line suggests, these residents (I can’t helping assuming that they are Canada Geese) have been left “hungry” by our northern land and are heading for warmer climes, taking advantage of a freedom denied to the people huddled around the meagre fires in their frost-choked cabins on the snowswept prairies below (I’m extrapolating a bit there).

A cruel irony lies at the heart of the poem: the immigrants left their homeland hoping for a better life in Canada, but they arrive only to find that even the geese (the Canada Geese, no less!) can’t stand the winter and are heading south at the first opportunity.

And what of the title? Professor Marken has some intriguing remarks:

…”Canadian Pacific,” which is the name of one of our transcontinental robber-baron railroads.  But, in the minds of those who might have no knowledge of Canadian railroading, “Canadian Pacific” might just as likely refer to the far western coastline of our country, not to mention the hardly-disguised and crucial implication that Canada herself – in this view of her – is seen as “pacific,” a place of peace.*

The idea of pacifism is particularly suggestive, perhaps setting us in contrast to our more martial neighbours to the south, and continuing what Professor Marken sees as a general idealizing trend in treatments of Canada in Irish poetry.

For Canadian readers, the obvious reference to the Canadian Pacific Railway remains. Of course, the Canadian Pacific Railway runs from east to west, not north to south – but still, the idea of movement is central to the poem: the people move ever westward, the geese fly south, all restlessly searching for something that can satisfy the hunger they feel.

And now, a poem that offers a different view of Canada:

April on Toronto Island

Once more to the island after the spring thaw –
A qualified silence, old snow under the
Boardwalks, for the winter dies hard.

The winter dies hard, and a last wintry reluctance
Clutches the splintered birches. There is
Nothing among the boarded-up houses,

Nothing along the lakeshore but bird-bones and fish-bones
Greasy with diesel oil, and the clapboard
Church of Saint Andrew-by-the-Lake.

There is not even a bird, although there are bird noises
And the growl of commerce, muted by empty
Distance, where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.
But the slick water mourns for its vanished
Ice like a lost child for its mother.

Another ferry pulls away from the landing-stage,
The lighthouse blows its now redundant
Fog-warning over the rocks and

Slowly, in ones and twos, the people are coming back
To stand on the thin beach among the
Washed-up flotsam of the winter,

Watching the long grainers move down to the seaway.
Their faces dream of other islands,
Clear cliffs and salt water,

Fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation –
Grace caught in a wind or a tide, our
Lives in infinite preparation.   (30)

In the course of a few pages of Night-Crossing, we have apparently endured the winter that was just beginning in “Canadian Pacific” and moved into what passes for spring – a spring strongly marked, in the first few lines, by the lingering traces of winter.

We have also traded a rural setting (that would be my interpretation, at least) for an urban one, or perhaps near-urban; one of the fascinating elements of the poem is the way it portrays Toronto Island as a sanctuary of the wilderness that persists in close proximity to a growing city (note my deft avoidance of the word “liminal”). And so we have the “splintered birches” and the “bird noises,” but also the “growl of commerce,” though that is, for now, “muted by empty / Distance.” And we have the repetition of the word “nothing” in the description of the island, as though suggesting that it remains outside the influence of urbanizing humanity (except for that church). The point of view of the poem seems to be that of people returning to the island for the first time after the winter and looking uneasily back at the growing city across the water and the changes it is bringing about in the landscape and the environment. Those on the island are beginning to notice the effects of these changes: it is their shore where the “bird-bones and fish-bones / Greasy with diesel oil” wash up with the rest of the “flotsam of the winter,” it is their field of vision that is invaded by the “grainers” that “move down to the seaway.”

Toronto, here, is not the typically clean, sterile Canadian city we have seen elsewhere; instead, it seems almost threatening, as the poem presents the side effects of its “progress.” One of the most striking and revealing images in the poem is of Toronto as a city,

…where the downtown skyline

Stands out like the first draft of a new civilization.

In that single line I count three words associated with the idea of “newness”: “first,” “draft” (I suppose they really form one syntactical unit) and the word “new” itself. The idea of a new civilization has promise, but “first draft” makes it all sound rather haphazard and provisional, as if there is no real plan behind the development that is occurring. The islanders seem to be wondering whether the people and organizations who are building the city have any idea what they’re doing, or what effect they’re having on their surroundings.

This presents us with a more “modern” view of Canada than we are accustomed to: our country may once have been an unspoiled wilderness, but human action is quickly changing that.

The final three stanzas turn to dreams of escape, and recall the image of the geese flying south at the end of “Canadian Pacific,” though again the people don’t have the same freedom: they stand on the beach, dreaming of other, more beautiful sea-coasts (an idealized memory of the homes they have left? Or some new, imagined paradise?) not threatened by urban encroachment and free of the washed-up winter flotsam that pollutes Toronto. Their dreams are, in fact, of an unspoiled wilderness of the sort that the city is now beginning to threaten. 

And yet again there is an irony here, because isn’t that dream of “fields brighter than paradise in the first week of creation” exactly what the immigrants of “Canadian Pacific” found in the “rough stones of heaven beyond the western ocean” – and didn’t it leave them as dissatisfied as the geese flying south? The two poems about Canada are an ambivalent commentary on the basic human feelings of desire and disappointment, elegantly captured in the final line of “April on Toronto Island.” They also form a dyad within the larger collection, commenting on and referring to one another, and raising questions about what exactly our country is: land of opportunity? Unspoiled wilderness? Polluted industrial horror? Some combination of all three?

As a writer, Mahon doesn’t present a simple view of Canada – he doesn’t see it as “one thing,” as writers often do when they make passing references to it. Rather, he sees the complexity of a country moving from the rural into the modern, urban age.

Digression: On the Education of Poets

The following is not a quote from Mahon, but from the back cover blurb of Night-Crossing:

After graduating he spent two years in Canada and America, working as, successively, a university lecturer, Xerox operator, warehouseman, bookstore assistant, and English teacher.

I think there are two main species of poet biographies that appear on book jackets; the first, and probably more common now, is the Curriculum Vitae style, which rattles off MFA programs, workshop residencies, and publications in obscure journals. By contrast, the second seeks to prove that although the author may be a poet, (s)he is no “mouse of the scrolls” ( to borrow Pound’s phrase), but has lived and worked in the “real world”; in these bios, references to things like factory work, adventure tour guiding, retail, a stint in advertising or as a prison guard, are de rigeur – in short, the more something sounds unlike what a stereotypical poet would do, the more prominent it is in the bio. Mahon’s bio clearly fits into the latter category – it practically screams, “Look at all the adventurous, un-poet-like stuff this guy has done. He can operate a Xerox machine! (How quaint that sounds now.) He even worked in a warehouse! Not your typical poet, this.” And here, too, Canada, plays its role, providing a hint of the exotic, and perhaps (to a reader in the U.K. in 1968) a suggestion of toughness as well, as if no shrinking-violet poet could have survived and thrived in the wilderness of Canada, as Mahon clearly has.

 *From The Internationalism of Irish Literature and Drama, ed. Joseph McMinn. Irish Literary Studies 41, Colin Smythe, Gerrards Cross, 1992, pp. 193-208. Originally presented as a Plenary at the Seventh Triennial Conference of the International Association for the Study of Irish Literature, University of Ulster, Coleraine. 1988.

 

The Repellent Cleanliness of Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a town you want to stay in very long.

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

A Digressive Anecdote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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