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Archive for the tag “French-Canadians”

The Romance of Canada 5: The Difficulties of Trans-Border Romance

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James Salter, All That Is (2013)

According to Richard Ford, “James Salter writes American sentences better than anyone writing today.” The slight preciousness of the term “American sentences” alerts you to the fact that the purpose of that particular (American) sentence is not to communicate a thought, but to impress upon you how intelligent and finely attuned the speaker is.

Which isn’t to say Salter is a bad writer; he is, in fact, a very good one. All That Is was his last novel and, given its portentous (not to say pretentious) title, it was perhaps intended to be a sort of summing up of his view of life. It’s the story of Philip Bowman, who serves in World War II, becomes an editor at a mid-sized literary publishing house, gets married and divorced, travels, has affairs, and … well, that’s about it, to be honest. The story is told in a sort of floating third person voice, which allows Salter to move among his characters, telling parts of the story from different points of view (though he never drifts far from Bowman), or pausing the narrative to give portraits of the minor characters Bowman encounters.

To the extent that the novel has a plot, it is provided by Bowman’s sex life. Salter has said that he thinks “the major axis of life is a sexual one,” and that is apparent here, as sex for Bowman (and for the other male characters) offers not just momentary bliss, but the opening up of new possibilities of existence. There are some remarkably beautiful passages in the book (not all of them — or even most of them — about sex), and Salter’s floating narrative voice allows him to achieve some stunning effects — the chapter titled “Christmas In Virginia” is a clinic (as they say), and worth reading for anyone interested in writing prose.

After a while, however, the repetitively epiphanic treatment of the male orgasm becomes a bit tiresome. Even worse, it leads Salter to write sentences like this: “The silence was everywhere and he came like a drinking horse.”

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

There are a couple of references to Canada in the novel; I’ll deal with the more substantial one first.  This comes towards the end of the book, in a chapter dealing with a character named Eddins, who is struggling to cope with the death of his wife and adopted child. The passage refers to several younger women he knows, though I wasn’t able to decide whether we’re meant to think he’s slept with them or not:

There was also Joanna, the fat girl, enormously fat with a wonderful personality who was a teller at the bank. She was good-natured, forthcoming, with a beautiful voice, but unmarried. No one would think of marrying her. She could speak French. She’d spent a year and a half in Quebec, studying. She impulsively joined a choir there the first week and he, this man, was in it. His name was Georges. He was older and had a girlfriend, but before long he dropped the girlfriend and took up with Joanna. She came back to the States, but he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave. He would come to New York on the weekend, two or three times a month. It went on for nine years. She was terribly happy and knew it would end, but she wanted it to last as long as it could and didn’t say anything. In the tenth year they got married. Someone told Eddins she was going to have a child.  (272)

That paragraph isn’t representative of Salter’s best writing, unfortunately, but it does give a sense of the casual, straightforward, and seemingly unstudied style that characterizes much of the book — I say “seemingly” because, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, the illusion of ease in writing is the most difficult thing to achieve. It’s also a good example of his way of dropping in little portraits, sometimes covering years or even decades, of characters who will never appear in the book again. (It reminds me a bit of the voiceover narration in the film Y Tu Mama Tambien, which breaks in periodically to remind us that while we are following the story of the three main characters, countless other stories are going on around them simultaneously.)

And what about Canada? Eddins lives in upstate New York, and, as we have already seen in novels by Chris Kraus and Lorrie Moore, proximity can make Canada a presence for characters who live in that region. But Salter’s attitude to Canada here is very different from what we have seen before: in torpor, the idea of crossing the border into Canada is a simple and possible one, while in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?, Canadian tourists make up most of the customers at an upstate New York theme park.

By contrast, Salter’s narrative puts the emphasis on the difficulties faced by the couple in this cross-border romance: “he was a teacher and a Canadian, he couldn’t leave.” This makes Canadian identity sound like a prison from which one can’t escape. Given the distances people immigrate in the contemporary world, it’s hard to understand how getting from Quebec to upstate New York could be such a problem, but Salter doesn’t elaborate, he simply states these things as facts. Are we, perhaps, to understand that these words are not really Salter’s, but those of Georges, and that he is making excuses to Joanna for not moving to New York with her? And yet they get married and have a child together, so clearly Georges is committed to her, and ultimately able to overcome the obstacle of the Canada-U.S. border — which is, after all, famously “undefended”.

Whatever his reasons, Salter emphasizes Canada’s status as a separate country, which sets him in contrast to many American writers, who often seem to see Canada as nothing more than an extension of the U.S. And perhaps this idea of difference is significant from the romantic point of view: we can’t say for certain from the passage above, but maybe the differences between them are part of the attraction between Joanna and Georges. “Vive la différence,” as they say.

Canadian Club

No, this is not some club, along the lines of the Mile High Club, for people who have had sex with Canadians, but rather the whisky, which comes up in a description of Kimmel, who serves in the Navy with Bowman during the Second World War:

He was dark-haired and skinny and walked with a loose gait that made him seem long-legged. His uniform always looked somehow slept in. His neck was too thin for his collar. The crew, among themselves, called him the Camel, but he had a playboy’s aplomb and women liked him. In San Diego he had taken up with a lively girl named Vicky whose father owned a car dealership, Palmetto Ford. She had blond hair, pulled back, and a touch of daring. She was drawn to Kimmel immediately, his indolent glamour. In the hotel room that he had gotten with two other officers and where, he explained, they would be away from the noise of the bar, they sat drinking Canadian Club and Coke.  (6-7)

I was left uncertain as to what sort of atmosphere Salter was trying to conjure here. Are we to think of this as a classy seduction scene, with the Canadian Club the perfect choice of the sophisticated man-about-town? Or is there supposed to be something a bit tawdry about it, with Canadian Club representing the sort of cheap liquor a man uses to get a woman drunk enough for sex? I’m not sure, but the fact that they’re mixing their Canadian Club with Coke makes me lean towards the declassé interpretation.

The Tender Wilderness

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Leigh Stein, Dispatch From The Future (2012)

Many poets – mainly insecure ones, of which there is no shortage – are in love with difficulty – or, more precisely, they are in love with the idea of their work being perceived as difficult. There is a romance to the difficult, born out of its association with genius, that makes it very attractive. But the difficulty we find in works of genius comes from an attempt to communicate genuinely complex ideas – and alas, genius is rare. For most poets, the desire to produce difficult works of genius tends to collapse into masking mediocrity with willful obscurity.

Why this tendency to lean on obscurity as a substitute for difficulty? Many poets just don’t have anything that profound to say, and that makes clarity tremendously risky. If you express yourself clearly, there is a good chance someone – perhaps a lot of people – will find what you’re saying trite or shallow, which would only confirm the insecure writer’s fear that they have nothing interesting or original to say. If you’re a poet, then, and you’re not certain that you have anything interesting to say, how much safer it is to express yourself in the most obscure way possible. When people are confronted with a poem that is clear, they tend to evaluate its “sense”; when they’re confronted with a poem they find obscure, they may assume that the writer is saying something that is too complex for them to understand. Obscurity thus becomes the perfect cover for vacuity.

The poems in Leigh Stein’s collection, Dispatch From The Future, read as if they have been studiously composed to avoid making conventional sense. As you read them, you often feel, over a stretch of lines, that there is a narrative taking shape or an idea being developed; and then there will come a sudden wrenching aside of the poem into another, seemingly unrelated direction, as if the poet has caught herself making sense and veered sharply into the thickets of obscurity out of fear that she might reveal something – or worse, reveal that there is nothing to reveal.

There are two references to Canada in two different poems. Though both references are passing ones, I’ll quote the poems in their entirety – partly for context, and partly because I find it disrespectful to both poets and poems to chop out a little chunk a few lines long.

Try A Little (Canadian) Tenderness

Here’s the first:

Katharine Tillman vs. Lake Michigan

Mitsu flips a lot of coins. Katharine told me that once
she was in the middle of a tantrum and a coin
told him he should love her, and yet, he wasn’t
satisfied so he went to the dictionary and closed
his eyes and found a word and when she asked
what word he found, the only thing he would tell her
was that he was one step closer to the secret
of the universe. Can you tell me what it rhymes with,
she asked him. Is it a verb? Is it a country? Have I
been there? Will you write its name on my back
while we sit on the pier and watch the blue dusk
chase the sun to Jersey? The last time I ever
saw Katharine she asked me the name of the lake
in the distance and I said Michigan and she said
she’d heard of it, and then she showed me the diaries
she kept when she lived under the overpass
near Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
when all she had was a travel Scrabble set and
the reason she’d run away. Milan Kundera
has a lot to say about our tenuous insignificance.
When he wants to decide something he, too,
flips a coin, but in his case heads is Little Rock,
Arkansas, and tails is Little Rock, Arkansas, and
it’s just a matter of who to blindfold and bring with
on his motorcycle. On page one hundred and seven
of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, I get lost
driving Katharine to the airport. On page one hundred
and forty nine, Tereza dreams that they take her away.
After I see Katharine for the last time I don’t go home;
I go to Prague and it’s 1968 and the man I love won’t
touch me; he just holds an empty gun to my temple
and even though we both know it’s empty there’s the small
comfort that the worst thing that could possibly happen
would be the thing I want most. Mitsu says the secret
of the universe is obvious in any planetary shaped
object you can find on the floor of a parking garage.
Katharine says how. I say I want to move to Canada;
the only tenderness anyone can get around here
is in the time it takes him to untie my wrists.  (22-23)

Several elements in this poem recur throughout the book and seem to mark points of interest  (“obsessions” might be more apt) for Stein: women in peril, usually at the hands of men; references to Milan Kundera (a writer who seems sophisticated when you’re 18); suicidal thoughts and the desire for death.

I’m not going to attempt to interpret the whole poem – you can tackle that yourself if you’re so inclined. Canada appears at the very end, as a place to which the speaker wants to move. She doesn’t explicitly say why, but if we take the next two lines as explanatory (and that seems to me the most reasonable way to read them), then her desire to move to Canada comes from the feeling that there is not enough tenderness in her life in the U.S., and moving north of the border might be a way to find some.

This idea of searching for tenderness in Canada represents yet another iteration of the familiar American idea that Canada is a gentler, more pacifist nation than the U.S., and that those seeking to escape the violent, martial side of the American character (represented in this poem by the man who apparently keeps the speaker tied up most of the time) can do so here.

You Can’t Have Paris (But You Can Have Canada)

On to the second Canadian reference:

Choose Your Own Canadian Wilderness

My favourite book is the one with the woman
who wears a balaclava every time she goes
under the viaduct because it’s Canada, and
because she’s married to a man who loves
her sister, and because if her family found her
under the viaduct, she would lose everything;
more than that, she would lose the end of the story
he began. Il était une fois, he said, there are rugs
made by children who go blind and turn
to crime, and/or rescuing sacrificial virgins
from the palace the night before the sacrifice.
Turn one page if you want to be the woman,
listening to the story, but you’ll have to
keep the hat on. Turn three if you’d rather
be a girl alone in a bed, waiting. I was
always that girl: you’re alone and
they’ve already cut out your tongue
and in the morning they’ll take you
to the top of a high hill, so what can you
do but follow the blind boy, watch
as he puts the body of the strangled guard
in your bed, in your place, follow as he leads
you through the air ventilation system and over
the palace walls? I never chose any other way
because what could the woman do but love him
and listen to a story that wasn’t about her.
After you get over the walls you run
through the darkness, the darkness that isn’t
darkness to the blind boy because of his blindness,
the silent darkness to you who can’t describe it,
you run until you turn the page, but then instead
of safety, a valley, and the woman under the viaduct
puts her skirt on and goes back home and you think
you’ve ended up in the wrong story, but months later
she gets a phone call saying the man was killed
in the Spanish Civil War and that’s the end
because the only person who knows
what happened to you is dead.   (45-46)

The title of the poem refers to the “Choose Your Own Adventure” series of children’s books (which are another recurring reference/obsession for Stein – she even mentions “the great R.A. Montgomery” in a couple of poems), and the poem itself recalls the format of those books with its “turn one page if … turn three pages if…” conceit. The direct association of Canada with the idea of “wilderness” should surprise no one at this point – we are, by now, quite familiar with the fact that many Americans think of our country as little more than an uninterrupted band of forest topped with an uninterrupted band of tundra.

The idea of choice does, however, complicate this impression: apparently there are different Canadian wildernesses, which are distinct enough from one another that a person could make some sort of choice among them. But the poem itself never explains the differences.

And then we have “the woman / who wears a balaclava every time she goes / under the viaduct because it’s Canada”. Presumably when we are told the woman wore a balaclava “because it’s Canada,” we are meant to understand, “and Canada, as everyone in the United States knows, is cold all the time and therefore the wearing of balaclavas is essential in order to prevent your skin from instantly freezing the moment you step outside” (or something along those lines). So Canada is cold – another common idea.

And does “Il etait une fois,” which is the French equivalent of “Once upon a time,” appear here because of some half-buried notion that everyone in Canada speaks French? It’s difficult to say for certain, but the possibility hums in the air.

From there Stein drops Canada, but ultimately, a reading of the poem returns us to the question of the title. Why did Stein give the poem that particular title? In what sense is anyone in the poem choosing a Canadian wilderness?

I don’t think there is necessarily a linear link between the title and the body of the poem, nor does there need to be. To me, the title is of a piece with what follows.  There is a bleakness, verging on despair, in the implication that while you can choose your own Canadian wilderness, you can’t choose anything other than a Canadian wilderness – you can’t choose your own Parisian arrondissement, for example, or your own cottage in the Lake District – it’s just one Canadian wilderness or another.

Likewise the poem, which seems to be about women caught in threatening narratives that offer no escape or resolution, creates an overall sense of repetitive hopelessness, and the idea of choosing a Canadian wilderness is emblematic of that hopelessness. This is quite different from the idea of Canada in the previous poem: there, Canada represented a hope for refuge from the man who kept the woman tied up; here, there doesn’t seem to be any possibility of escape, except perhaps to some Canadian wilderness, which is apparently not a very appealing prospect.

More Annoying French-Canadian Tourists

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Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994)

I read this novel because, years ago, I saw a woman reading it on the subway and I was intrigued by the title. It’s probably the second-best book I’ve discovered that way (after I Am A Cat), though that’s not a great compliment since the others I can recall are The Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (great title, mediocre book) and Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree (an aesthetic disaster, but weirdly fascinating from a “people actually read this” perspective).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? begins with the narrator, Berie (short for Benoite-Marie, of course) and her husband in Paris, and returns to this framing device from time to time. Most of the novel, however, is told in extended flashbacks and concerns the relationship between  Berie and her best friend, Sils, as they go through adolescence.  The set-up feels rather familiar in that the narrator is more withdrawn and observant (the “writer type”), whereas Sils is wilder and more adventurous; the style is given to the kind of metaphors and imagery that earn praise in writing workshops.

There are actually numerous references to Canada in this book – too many for me to catalogue them all – but they fall neatly into two general categories, some dealing with French-Canadians, and some with the role Canada played for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era.

1.1 Exotic Canadian French

One thing I like about Lorrie Moore: she didn’t make me wait long for a reference to Canada. This passage comes in the book’s opening pages:

Although no voice was ever plain in our house – not really. Even if it took practically my whole life, until the summer I was fifteen, for me to see that. There were fancinesses: Years of my mother’s Canadian French slipping out only in the direst of lullabies.  (6)

The word “fancinesses” suggests that, as a young girl, Berie was fascinated by a certain exotic sophistication in her mother’s Canadian French. And what are these dire lullabies, we are left to wonder? Traditional French-Canadian songs, perhaps, detailing folk tales of murder and revenge? Or has the word “direst” been chosen not to convey any actual meaning, but simply to provide a striking contrast with “lullabies”?

1.2 French-Canadian Tourists

Berie and Sils both have summer jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale-themed amusement park in the upstate New York town where they live:

I was an entrance cashier. Six thousand dollars came through a single register every day. Customers complained about the prices, lied about their children’s ages, counted out the change to double-check. “Gardez les billets pour les maneges, s’il vous plait,” I would say to the Canadians.  (10)

On the next page:

In summer the whole county was full of Canadian tourists from over the border in Quebec. Sils loved to tell stories of them from her old waitress job at HoJo’s: “I vould like zome eggs,” a man said once, slowly looking up words in a little pocket dictionary.
“How would you like them?” she’d asked.
The man consulted his dictionary, finding each word. “I would like zem … ehm … on zee plate.”
That we were partly French Canadian ourselves didn’t seem to occur to us. Sur le plat. Fried. We liked to tell raucous, ignorant tales of these tourists, who were so crucial to the area’s economy, but who were cheap tippers or flirts or wore their shirts open or bellies out, who complained and smoked pencil-thin cigars and laughed smuttily or whatever – it didn’t matter. We were taught to speak derisively of the tourists, the way everyone in a tourist town is.  (11)

For reasons of geography, the Canadians Berie speaks to are all actually from Quebec, so perhaps we should cut Moore some slack on the way she seems to conflate “Canadians” and “French-Canadians.”  Still, it’s hard not to feel that she must consider Canada a fairly insignificant country if she so blithely elides the difference between Francophones and Anglophones and speaks of us as if we all spoke French.

The general attitude to French-Canadians is one of contempt – though it’s a fairly benign contempt compared to, say, Michel Houellebecq’s attitude to Quebec tourists. But it’s difficult not to notice a slight whiff of stereotype coming off the page, as if Moore were playing to her (largely American) readership’s preconceived notions of what French-Canadians are like: the use of “z” for “”th”, the open shirts and bellies – by the time we reach the pencil-thin cigars and smutty laughs, these tourists have begun to sound like moustache-twirling cartoon villains.

The fact that Berie and Sils mock the tourists despite being partly French-Canadian themselves adds a level of irony to these passages, but it also points to a certain truth: making fun of people who share their background is a way for the girls to distance themselves from their own French-Canadian heritage and confirm their identity as (proudly unhyphenated) Americans.

1.3 Blood, The Inescapable

Yet Berie continues to refer to her French-Canadian background, as in this description of herself and her brother:

The thick pelts of our eyebrows shrieked across our faces, some legacy of the Quebec fur trade.  (29)

The reference to the fur trade harks back to a classic (and familiar) idea of Canada as a wilderness nation to be exploited for its natural resources, but the meaning of the sentence is a little opaque. The use of the verb “shrieked” is an excellent example of “writing workshop style,” where so much focus is placed on the search for “colourful” or “expressive” verbs that regard for sense becomes secondary. It’s also not clear how thick eyebrows are a legacy of the fur trade; did the voyageurs develop extra-thick eyebrows to protect themselves against the cold? Is there some suggestion that they interbred with beavers or other fur-bearing animals, leading to thicker eyebrow hair in their descendants? The sentence sounds nice if you read it once, but the more you try to parse it, the less sense it seems to make.

There is also this intriguing passage, about Berie and her husband Daniel when they’re in Paris:

At night, Daniel is tired from the medical conference he is here at the Institut de Genetique to attend. As a researcher he is mostly, recently, interested in the Tay-Sachs gene we both carry – what Jews and French-Canadians have in common.  (70)

This is a reference to Tay-Sachs disease, caused by a genetic mutation that occurs in both both Ashkenazi Jews and French-Canadians. Curiously, early studies of the diesease led to the fascinatingly named (though now discredited) “Jewish Fur Trader Hypothesis,” which, in a weird way, seems to gather together several of the threads of Moore’s ideas about Canada.

Over all, Berie’s relationship to Quebec is one of forcefully trying to impose distance on something that remains inescapably close; the girls affirm their identity as Americans by mocking the Canadian toursits, but at the same time, from her eyebrows right down to her genes, her French-Canadian heritage is something that Berie cannot evade.

2 The Perfect Place to Dodge the Draft

Much of the flashback portion of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? occurs in the summer of 1972, in the era of Nixon and Vietnam, and in that context Canada plays another important role for the characters in the novel. The following passage is a description of Sils’ mother:

She was a sweet and guilt-ridden mother, exhausted from her older sons (their loud band practices in the basement; their overnight girlfriends; their strange, impermanent, and semiannual treks across the border to Canada to avoid the draft, though their numbers were high….  (14)

Canada is mentioned several more times in the same context, as Berie refers to Sils’s brothers being “in Canada again” (20) or “just back from Canada” (89). It is, of course, a fact that many Americans came to Canada to avoid the draft. This particular form of escape is also connected to a larger idea of Canada as a more pacifist country where Americans opposed to the war in Vietnam could go to avoid being forced to serve. So Canada is tied up, by virtue of its proximity, not only in the U.S. economy (as Berie notes above), but also in American politics and its ramifications.

There are also a couple of references to the music of the period that we might take note of:

…the country was in upheaval, there was Vietnam and draft dodging and rock music and people setting themselves on fire. Laws seemed to be the enemy. So we dispensed and dispatched, ceased and desisted: we made up our own rules, and they were loose. We were inventing things, starting over, nothing was wrong. Tin soldiers and Nixon coming.  (34)

And this description of Sils just after she has had an abortion:

Joni Mitchell was keening “Little Green” on Sils’s record player. Sils listened to that song all the time now, like some woeful soundtrack. The soprano slides and oos of the song always made us both sing along, when I was there. “Little green, be a gypsy dancer.” Twenty years later at a cocktail party, I would watch an entire roomful of women, one by one and in bunches, begin to sing this song when it came on over the sound system. They quit conversations, touched people’s arms, turned toward the corner stereo speakers and sang in a show of memory and surprise. All the women knew the words, every last one of them, and it shocked the men.  (91)

It’s noteworthy that in two separate passages where popular music is connected with the idea of the ferment of the times and with the personal struggles of the characters, the music that speaks to them is by Canadians: Neil Young’s “Ohio” and Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green.” Despite Canada’s apparent insignificance as a country, individual Canadians have played a role in writing the soundtrack to the American experience of the twentieth century.

The Music

When content permits, I like to wrap up with music. Here is Joni Mitchell’s “Little Green”:

And here is “Ohio” as performed by CSNY:

Retired Quebecoises on a Pornographic Rampage

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Michel Houellebecq, Platform (2001)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Neil Young Connection

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

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

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

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

Easterbrook and King Both Speak Canadian!

22_Z_In[1]

Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 22, 2014)

The Super Bowl is almost here, which means that soon I’ll no longer have the help of football writers to pad out these columns – so I might as well take advantage of them while I can. Gregg Easterbrook seems to have a thing for Canada – he can’t stop mentioning us – and here he goes again, in his TMQ column following the conference championship games:

Denver’s other touchdown came on a really pretty goal line zed-in to Demaryius Thomas – the zed-in is the Canadian version of a z-in.

Well, that’s interesting. Based on a Google search, it seems this play (see the diagram at the top) is commonly referred to as a “z-in” not a “zed-in” (under the name “22 Z In”, it was a staple of Bill Walsh’s West Coast offence when he was in San Francisco). So why does Easterbrook go out of his way to type it out as a “zed-in”?

That’s how we would pronounce “z-in” in Canada, of course, as opposed to “zee-in,” which one would think would be the standard U.S. pronunciation. Is Easterbrook trying to make his Canadian readers feel at home? That seems unlikely, given his history of glacier references. He is originally from Buffalo, which is close to the Canadian border – perhaps, through some sort of linguistic influence by proximity, the play is pronounced “zed-in” up there rather than the more typically American “zee-in”?

Or is Easterbrook just seizing the opportunity to take another dig at one of his favourite targets – Canadians?

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (Jan. 21, 2014)

By an odd coincidence, Peter King’s MMQB column touches on related subject matter. While in Denver covering the AFC championship, he attended a hockey game (hockey – this column just oozes Canada!) between the Devils and the Avalanche:

b. Of course, one of the highlights during the game was noticing the back of No. 24 for the Avalanche: CLICHE. A forward. Marc-Andre Cliche, from Quebec. So, brilliant me, I’m at the game with our Robert Klemko, and Cliche goes into the penalty box, and I say, “Cliché in the sin bin! How perfect is that?!”

c. But the dream soon died. The PA announcer, calling out the penalty, pronounced the last name “Cleesh.” Bummer.

That question mark/exclamation mark combo is exactly the way it appears in King’s column; apparently hockey is so exciting it makes him toss punctuation around like a drunk 13-year-old on Twitter.

As for the name, I thought “Cleesh” might just be the American PA announcer’s mispronunciation, but a quick Google search doesn’t turn up any instances with an accent on the “e” (though, curiously, “Andre” sometimes has an accent and sometimes doesn’t). Perhaps the family got tired of the jokes  and dropped the accent – the opposite of the famous case of Egbert Sousé.

I’m not sure these two references tell us anything new about perceptions of Canada, but they do offer further confirmation that American sportswriters have an idea that their neighbours to the North speak strangely (“aboot” etc.), and that this is an appropriate subject for jokes at our expense.

In a related note, the Montreal Canadiens are now putting accent marks on players’ names on the backs of their jerseys. If only Colorado would follow suit, Peter King would have one less thing to be confused about.

Hollywood: It’s All About Canada

WagnerCover

Bruce Wagner, I’m Losing You (1996)

My introduction to Bruce Wagner came through the TV miniseries Wild Palms, which I watched long ago and from which I remember three things:

1) A rhinoceros standing in an empty swimming pool

2) Robert Loggia reciting “Running to Paradise” by Yeats

3) This bewitching cover of the William Faulkner novel of the same name, which I’ve never read

Since then, I’ve been aware of him as a writer of dark, satirical Hollywood novels, none of which I had actually read – until now. I’m Losing You certainly fits what I imagined as the Bruce Wagner template: lots of amoral power-mongers and desperate losers whose dreams of “making it” in Hollywood lead to their own downfall, all sprinkled with liberal doses of drug use and sex.

But who cares about that stuff? What really matters is that this novel has more references to Canada than any other American novel I’ve ever read. So many that I keep wondering if Wagner is actually a Canadian. (If he is, I can’t find any evidence of it.)

For the first time, in fact, there are so many references to Canada that I’ve divided them into sections for ease of reading.

The Heartbreaking Story of an Aspiring Starlet

In the second section of the novel, titled “Women in Hollywood,” we meet Kim Girard, a waitress who dreams of being an actress. And guess where she’s from:

Often, at the strangest moment {usually smack in the middle of reciting the Specials}, my mind toggles back to Vancouver and the friends and family I left behind; and I am temporarily sidetracked by that sinking homesicky feeling – penny dreadful!  (73)

Yes, an eager young Canadian who has left the relative safety of Vancouver to make it in the wilds of Los Angeles. Is this a cliché, or is it something so common that it has come to seem like a cliché? I’m not sure, but the Canadian actress is a type we have run across before. And since Kim is a recurring character in the novel, we can use her career to chart the path of an (admittedly fictional, but perhaps representative in some sense nevertheless) aspiring Canadian actress, and to draw some conclusions about what a major American author thinks of Canada and Canadians.

Kim befriends another young starlet-wannabe, who goes by the name Jabba:

We went to an NA meeting after and I asked Jabba about her dad. She usually sees him around the holidays and said if I didn’t go back to Vancouver, maybe we could all have Turkey Day together. I told her I would really like that {which I would}.  (82)

I hate to be the sniping variety of critic who, as Jonathan Swift says, does nothing but point out a writer’s faults, but I can’t help but feel that Wagner, like Homer before him, may have nodded here. Canadian Thanksgiving occurs at least a month before American Thanksgiving, so it’s difficult to see why Kim, who is Canadian, would be going back to Vancouver to see her family at the same time Jabba is having Thanksgiving with her father.

Kim changes her name to Kiv Giraux, and an agent gets her an audition for a role in a remake of Pasolini’s Teorema, of all things:

I suspected as much from the start because they seemed to be actively casting other things while I was there, such as PICKET FENCES. {I was hoping to see DAVID KELLEY and MICHELLE but that they would even be there was naive on my part. Guess I’m still the majorly starstruck Vancouver girl. (102)

As a Canadian not yet hardened in the ways of Hollywood, Kiv is excitedly dreaming of running into what Wagner calls “Big Stars”. As an aside, one of the curiosities of reading this novel is seeing which stars who were famous then still have currency now (“MICHELLE,” above, clearly referring to Pfeiffer) and which have been forgotten (Hello, “LAURA DERN”. What’s new, “MADELEINE STOWE”?).

To express her thanks for the audition, Kiv has sex with the agent (Canadians are so polite!), something that even she seems to recognize as a bit of a cliché:

I didn’t want him to think sleeping together was the “prize” for getting me the audition – that would be SOOOO Hollywood.  (102)

Kiv doesn’t get the part, and loses her job as a waitress as well:

Diary, I cried and cried and for the first time thought of returning to B.C. (110)

Not only does Wagner know Vancouver, he knows which province it’s in! Kiv finds work in a strip club, which leads to another Canadian reference:

I’ll tell Ursula to ask if Blockbuster has it when she picks up EXOTICA {{CIRCA 1995}} {{EXOTICA}} takes place in a strip club – we’re viewing it as part of our Research}}.  (122)

I wonder whether Wagner was actually thinking of the Canadian connection when he worked in the Exotica reference; it’s nicely done if he was, since whenever Atom Egoyan makes a movie, any Canadian who listens to the radio or watches TV is bombarded with news about it.

Working in a strip club is, of course, the first step on the predictable downward path of our Canadian ingenue; soon she’s being moved into an apartment by her boyfriend, Troy Capra, who just happens to be a porn director – though she convinces herself that the apartment is a step on the road to legitimate stardom:

The doorman told us GOLDIE once lived here during her ascent … as did JAMI GERTZ, THERESA RUSSELL … LILSA EILBACHER, COURTNEY COX and DAPHNE ZUNIGA. Also KIM CATTRALL {a fellow underappreciated Canadian, especially in TICKET TO HEAVEN {{CIRCA 1981}} }  (125)

Kiv’s extreme naïvete must be obvious by now, though it’s a bit more difficult to determine whether Wagner sees this as a Canadian characteristic, or if he would have a similar attitude if Kiv were from, say, Oklahoma, or even his own home town of Madison, Wisconsin. It strikes me as true and almost touching (Wagner can be touching when he chooses) that she would take encouragement from the fact that another Canadian, who had achieved dreams similar to hers, lived in the building she was moving into.

Kiv’s career path, of course, leads to porn, and soon she’s being interviewed by Troy for a “Starshot Skinscape” episode on the Adult Channel:

(Kiv Giraux lies on a blanket, sunbathing…. She is topless. Troy interviews her from OFF-CAMERA…. A supered title: THE FOXXXY NETWORK’S STARSHOT #10 – XXX-FILE GIRLS….
Where from?
Vancouver.
Beautiful place. Lots of television production up there now.
Maybe I should go back!
We don’t want to lose you just yet. That’s close to Seattle, isn’t it?
Vancouver? Uh huh.

What kind of acting have you done, Kiv?
Mostly stage. Various productions in Vancouver. But I came to Hollywood so I could get experience in front of the camera. (CAMERA ZOOMS on bush) My plan is to cross over, like Traci Lords-
(138-41)

The naïve Vancouverite still hasn’t woken up to reality. And note how nicely Wagner captures that irritating American habit of always relating to Canadian cities by finding out what American city they’re closest to. The reference to TV production in Vancouver intrigues me: I seem to recall there being protests in Hollywood about how much production work was moving to Canada. I don’t know if that was around the time of this novel or if it was later, but certainly the impression of Canada as a nondescript double of the U.S. where American films and TV shows can be shot on the cheap lies behind Troy’s remark. And could the fact that a lot of productions were happening in Canada at the time the novel was written be the reason there are so many references to Canada in the book?

A bit later, Troy and Kiv go to look at a mansion together:

As Troy approached the surreal structure, Kiv’s hickish oohs and aahs broke the quixotic spell. With great annoyance, he walked to the car and waited.  (187)

So we’re hicks now. What Troy responds to here is the provincialism Canadians are so often accused of: Kiv is an unsophisticated girl who is embarrassingly impressed by a tacky Hollywood mansion.

And at this point, Wagner drops his Canadian character: Kim Girard has become Kiv Giraux, and gone from waitress and aspiring actress to stripper to porn star. Wagner apparently feels he has traced her downward career arc far enough to let us extrapolate the rest, should we care to. Through her, we get a look at how Hollywood views young hopefuls from Canada: as naïve dreamers whose fantasies of stardom can be used to make them serve the ends of those who understand how Hollywood really works.

Miscellaneous Canadian References

There are several other references to Canada that don’t involve Kiv Giraux, which I’ll catalogue for the sake of completeness.

Toronto vs. Montreal

Another character, a screenwriter named Katherine Grosseck, introduces a conflict that any Canadian – or should I say any Torontonian? – will recognize:

What the fuck am I doing here? I mean, besides going to dailies and jacking the director’s ego. Well, that’s what I get for exec-producing. Hate Toronto, always have. The only thing good about it is Leonard Cohen, and he’s from Montreal, n’est-ce pas?  (128)

Ouch! This is such a clever and spot-on put-down of Toronto, so perfectly calibrated to hit at one of the city’s biggest insecurities, that you would almost think the character was a Montrealer herself. And I love the slide into French at the end of the sentence.

But now we get into the bizarre part: Bruce Wagner was married to Rebecca de Mornay from 1986 to 1990. The same Rebecca de Mornay who was “romantically linked” (to use the odious tabloid phrase) to Leonard Cohen in the early 90s, and to whom Cohen’s 1992 album The Future is apparently dedicated.

On the basis of those personal details alone, we can assume that Wagner must be aware of Cohen; and that’s not even mentioning Cohen’s longtime residence at a monastery on Mount Baldy near Los Angeles, studying Buddhism (though Wagner is apparently more of a Castaneda fan), and the presence of his music in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers (as well as the afore-mentioned Exotica).

So perhaps the reference is just a tribute to Cohen’s career renaissance in the early 90s, when he seemed to become a part of pop culture for a few years. Given the context, though, it’s hard not to think there is some kind of personal resonance to the reference as well. If nothing else, it’s a nice shout-out to a guy who was bedding your ex not long before the book was published.

A Deceptive Non-Torontonian

This is a strange one. The following conversation takes place between Bernie, an aging producer who wants to resurrect a zombie movie franchise he made in the 70s, and Pierre Rubidoux, a young producer at Showtime who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, and who pretends to be interested in Bernie’s films:

“Your son’s a helluv’n agent,” said Pierre….
“Taught him everything I don’t know. Say, you and Donny didn’t go to school together, did you?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“He grew up with a Rubidoux-Jesus, I think it might have been a Pierre!”
“I know two other Pierre Rubidouxes. We get each other’s mail.”
“The mother was Clara,” he said, irresolute. “You’re not related?”
“Not that I know of. Were they from Toronto?”  (176)

Not to unnecessarily regurgitate plot, but what lies behind all this is that Bernie killed Pierre’s mother while driving late one night, and Pierre is now using his power at Showtime to take some kind of strange Hollywood revenge on Bernie. And so when he says he’s not the Pierre Rubidoux who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, he’s lying.

Canada comes in here as what I would read as a slightly desperate element in the lie. Pierre doesn’t want Bernie to figure out that he’s the son of the woman he killed, so he has to pretend to be a different Pierre Rubidoux. As an American, he apparently has some idea that Rubidoux, because of its French origin, could conceivably be a Canadian name; Toronto probably being the only city in Canada he can name, he brings it in to try to make the lie convincing, though in fact Montreal would be far more believable here.

This is ironic, given that Wagner has already shown some awareness of the cultural conflict between Toronto and Montreal; Pierre’s mistake seems to have been introduced here as a way of undermining Pierre, or signalling to the reader that he has ulterior motives.

And this, I think, is a first: an American author is using ignorance about Canada as a way to make his readers mistrust one of his characters. I have to admit, I never thought I’d see that. (Though perhaps I’m over-interpreting? Always a danger.)

We’re NOT All Named After Provinces

This is from a dinner event:

On Rachel’s left was an overweight, attractive Canadian called Alberta. Mordecai, the lovestruck schlemiel with braces, hovered breathlessly, too nervous to sit beside [Rachel]; he took a  chair by the great Province.  (248)

Just to be clear, all Canadians are not named after provinces. I love this reference, though: the fact that a Canadian (and she’s attractive despite being overweight) is named Alberta is funny, but bringing in a character named Mordecai right after it is priceless. Given the familiarity Wagner has already shown with Montreal culture, I assume he’s intentionally referring to Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s most famous writers, and, like Wagner, a satirist, though in a somewhat different vein. And then he rounds it off with Mordecai sitting next to the “great Province” – particularly hilarious since it’s difficult to imagine Richler ever being “close” to Alberta in any way.

There’s another reference to Alberta:

[Mordecai] probably got [Rachel’s] number from Alberta, the portly yenta. Rachel called her Alberta, Canada, but never to her face.  (292)

Another joke on her size, which is perhaps also a play on the American idea of Canada as a geographically vast nation.

Incidentally, I seem to recall a character named Bobby Ontario in the film Blue Valentine (if you haven’t seen it, I feel it’s my duty to mention that the trailer doesn’t even begin to suggest the harrowing despair that can be conjured by watching the film – don’t be deceived into thinking it’s some sort of indie rom-com) – I’m not sure if that really counts as a reference to Canada, though, because it could just be a name.  Likewise, there’s a Leadbelly song about a woman named Alberta:

But again, there’s no suggestion that her name bears any relation to the Canadian province. In I”m Losing You, on the other hand, it’s obvious that Wagner is aware of the connection, and playing on it. How common is it for people to have the same names as Canadian provinces?

Health Care – Again

This passage comes from a section near the end about a scriptwriter dying in hospital:

Total care! Get real – that’s what they were talking about – and who paid? Medicare? Medicaid? I’ll tell you who: nobody! Nobody paid for total care, total care was for the rich! For English and Canadians, and the Swiss!  (301)

Slightly less amusing than some of Wagner’s other references, but this is an idea that has come up before with American authors: that Canada is a haven of free, socialized medicine, where everyone enjoys the kind of health care that, in the U.S., only the rich can afford.

What Does it All Mean?

This is what baffles me. Is it possible that an American author set out to write a wicked, satirical novel about Hollywood, and just happened to pack it full of references to Canada? (Admittedly, once you get a character from Vancouver in there, it accounts for a few of them; still, there are a lot of references that have nothing to do with Kim/Kiv.)

Did Wagner just have Canada on his mind for some reason? Does he have a close friend from Montreal? Does he pick a random foreign country to refer to in each of his novels as some sort of OuLiPo-style challenge for himself?

I’m not familiar enough with his work to give the last option an official stamp of approval, but my preferred explanation is along those lines: I think events in his personal life (i.e. Leonard Cohen) brought Canada to his attention and, as some sort of bizarre joke, he built a series of references to our country into his novel. Perhaps someone more clever than I can see a pattern lying behind these references to Canada and make it all make sense.

Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

Swine, Swine, Swine

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666

Roberto Bolano, 2666 (2004)

From “5: The Part About Archimboldi”:

“Americans are swine, of course. And Canadians are big ruthless swine, although the worst swine from Canada are the French-Canadians, just as the worst swine from America are the Irish-American swine.” (642-3)

This comes from a page-long catalogue in which pretty well all the nationalities of the world are said to be swine. The lines are spoken to Hans Reiter by his father when Hans is a boy, in the 1920s or 30s; Hans will grow up to become the mysterious writer (Reiter = Writer?) known by the pen-name Archimboldi.

Since Canadians are “swine” just like the English, Welsh, Scots, Bavarians, Russians and so on, we can’t really draw any particular inference from this. It’s unfortunate that our French-Canadian brethren come in for even harsher treatment; at the same time, the idea of Canadians as “big” and, in particular, “ruthless” is a surprising one; aren’t we normally supposed to be polite to a fault? And so, while our presence in the catalogue is clearly meant as an insult, it’s hard not to take it as a back-handed compliment; we actually sound rather impressive and dangerous, instead of just dull and anodyne, which is more what we’ve come to expect.

I bought 2666 after reading the first couple of pages, which are about a group of literary critics obsessed with the mysterious Archimboldi. Based on that, I expected the novel to be a satirical romp through the field of literary criticism; what I got was – well, something quite different. The literary critics at the centre of the first section never appear in the novel again; in fact, their only purpose seems to be to travel to Mexico, where the main story begins to take over. With each passing section the novel is drawn, almost as if by an irresistible force acting against its will, toward “the crimes,” the brutal murders of women in the fictional Mexican city of Santa Theresa (presumably based on the murders in Ciudad Juárez), until the fourth section is completely taken over by a catalogue of the murders. The fifth section seemingly moves outward again, narrating the life of Hans Reiter/Archimboldi, but at the end of that section he, too, is drawn to Santa Theresa, as though the events there have a universal significance that makes them unavoidable. All of life, Bolano seems to suggest, is inevitably drawn into this vortex of death; but perhaps that’s a bit grandiose; to put it another way, it is impossible to avoid grappling with the events in Santa Theresa/Juárez; they are central to an understanding of modern life and tell us something we cannot ignore.

The novel ends with Reiter/Archimboldi leaving for Mexico, and never completely resolves the questions it has raised. This open-endedness made the rumours that an unpublished sixth part of 2666 had been found among Bolano’s papers after he died rather bewitching – there’s an undeniable appeal (at least to me) in the idea of a final section where “everything is explained”. But perhaps the uncertainty of the current ending is precisely what Bolano wanted; my impression is that he’s not a writer who traffics in tidy resolutions.

A word (or two) on epigraphs

The novel’s epigraph quotes a line from Baudelaire’s poem “Le Voyage” in Fleurs du Mal – “An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – and that seems to sum up the novel and Bolano’s view of contemporary life as well: we are all trapped in such a mind-numbingly pointless existence that the truly horrifying comes as a bizarre sort of relief. The line seems worthy of further contemplation:

An oasis of horror in a desert of boredom

The more I think about that quote, the more profound it seems. (I had similar feelings about Willa Cather’s My Antonia, which I bought because of the Virgil quote at the beginning (“Optima dies prima fugit”) and, while I enjoyed the novel, I felt it never quite lived up to its epigraph. Those four words say so much; more, perhaps, than Cather’s entire book.)

Likewise, that Baudelaire quote sums up the contents of Bolano’s novel so completely that, at times, I wonder if 2666 is a book with an epigraph so perfectly chosen that it renders the novel itself superfluous; everything in the book seems to simply amplify and illustrate the contents of Baudelaire’s single line.

Canadians: The Decaf of North America?

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Ben Schott, “Java Jive,” The New York Times (Sunday, February 10, 2013)

I’m not sure how legible that image is; it shows part of “Java Jive,” an “Op-Chart” by Ben Schott (he of the Original Miscellany, various spin-off miscellanies, and related products. One can only assume the world is better for having so many miscellanies in it.)

But returning to “Java Jive,” it’s essentially a glossary, giving definitions of barista terminology from coffee shops across the U.S. It’s mostly unremarkable: for example, a “crushtomer” is a customer on whom a barista has a crush, and “spro” is a common abbreviation for espresso. Nothing earth-shaking there.

But then we come to the entry for Gimme! Coffee (locations in New York City and the Finger Lakes) pictured above, and what do we find? Why, this:

CANADIAN
A decaf Americano.

FRENCH CANADIAN
A CANADIAN with an extra shot of decaf.

Ouch! I try not to take these references to Canada personally, but … ouch!

First of all let me state, for the record, that I have never in my life ordered a decaf Americano. I regard coffee primarily as a palatable caffeine delivery system, and don’t really see the point of decaf.

But I don’t think the idea here is that Canadians are always ordering decaf Americanos. Call me paranoid, but I think something more insidious is at work.

The real joke is this: Canadians are to Americans as decaf is to “real” coffee; that is, lacking in punch, kick, force and power. By now we can recognize this as a recurring trope: Canadians are essentially the same as our neighbours to the south, only less warlike, more polite, and more socialist. In short, we are weaker, less interesting Americans.

This is a bit rich when you consider the origin of the Americano. According to my extensive research, the Americano came into being when American soldiers in Italy in the Second World War added hot water to the espresso they were served there in order to more closely approximate the weak, watery brew they were accustomed to at home. So if Americans are just weaker Italians, and then Canadians are just weaker Americans … and where does that leave the French Canadians?

Here lies, to me, the most interesting crux of the joke. A French Canadian is a Canadian with an extra shot … but an extra shot of decaf. In Canada, we’re accustomed to hear about how French Canadians – or at least Montrealers – are so much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the rest of us, with a passion for art and literature and public intellectualism English Canada can only regard with sick, pathetic envy. (We hear this mostly from Montrealers who live in Toronto.) This seems to fit with the “extra shot” idea: a French Canadian is a Canadian, only with an added dash of alluring intrigue.

But the extra shot is an extra shot of decaf; it’s more blandness piled on top of something that was already rather bland; it’s an extra dose of dullness. This presents a view of French Canadians directly opposed to what we’re used to: they’re just like other Canadians, but a little more blah.

As a side note, one of the eager young writers on staff here at Wow Canada Publications Inc. suggests that a “Canadian” should actually be what we up here call a “double-double,” i.e. a coffee with two creams and two sugars (a common order at Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain purveying vile coffee and uninspired doughnuts to rushed commuters and named after – what else? – a hockey player. I try to outrun the cliches, but they keep catching up.)

If it were up to me, a Canadian would be a quad espresso – my personal Starbucks order, on the rare occasions when I buy coffee out. But that’s neither here nor there.

Adventures in a Parisian Male Brothel

TIme Regained by Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust, Time Regained (1927)

Clients could be heard enquiring of the patron whether he could introduce them to a footman, a choir-boy, a negro chauffeur. Every profession interested these old lunatics, every branch of the armed forces, every one of the allied nations. Some asked particularly for Canadians, influenced perhaps unconsciously by the charm of an accent so slight that one does not know whether it comes from the France of the past or from England. The Scots too, because of their kilts and because dreams of a landscape with lakes are often associated with these desires, were at a premium.  (p. 164)

This passage enumerates the preferences of clients at a gay brothel in Paris in 1916, when foreign servicemen were in France fighting the First World War. The reference to the “charm” of their accent makes it clear the narrator is referring specifically to French Canadians, but I think all of us, Anglophone and Francophone, can take pride in knowing our countrymen “were at a premium”. Does this mean the brothel charged extra for sex with French-Canadian soldiers? If so, what a compliment.

The connection of the French-Canadian accent to “the France of the past” also reminds me of the story of French Canadian soldiers in the Second World War. Apparently in some more remote French towns the people still spoke a form of French that was outdated and difficult for contemporary Parisians, but perfectly intelligible to French-Canadian soldiers, because in Quebec certain older forms of French had been preserved from the time when people immigrated.

I have no idea now where I picked up that story (high-school history class?), or even whether it’s true or not. And yet it has lodged in my mind.

But perhaps the most pressing question the Canadian asks about this scene is: is it true? Did French-Canadian soldiers in the First World War work as prostitutes in Parisian brothels, and did their accent make them desirable? Hard to say, but we’ll marshal what evidence is available.

In Marcel Proust: A Life, Jean-Yves Tadie describes the real-life brothel that provided the model for the one described in Time Regained (see pp. 670-674 in Tadie’s book). There is no specific reference to French-Canadians (and a scan of the index found no entries under Canada, French-Canadian or Quebec), but there is this suggestive sentence: “Proust always remained loyal to the principle that he could not describe something unless he had seen it” (p. 672). The proprieter of the brothel, Albert Le Cuziat, was one of what Tadie calls Proust’s “informants,” and he let Proust spy on his clients so that Proust could describe their behaviour in his novel. And preferences for certain nationalities of servicemen seems like just the sort of delicious detail Proust could have picked up from hanging around the brothel and then used in his book.

We could, if we were so inclined, extrapolate these circumstances, and Proust’s preference for basing his fiction on fact, into an assumption of truth here. But are we so inclined?

Madge’s Mad World

Life with My Sister Madonna by Christopher Ciccone

Christopher Ciccone with Wendy Leigh, Life with My Sister Madonna (2008)

OK, fine, I read it. What can I say? I grew up in the Age of Madonna, and I was curious. I thought this book, being written by her brother, might offer some striking insight into the inner workings of the most fascinatingly self-reinventing pop star since Bob Dylan. (Or should I use the pretentious Greenblattism “self-fashioning” and thus attempt to lend a patina of intellectualism to this trashy pursuit? No, I won’t bother.)

As is always the case with books like this, I was disappointed; somehow, they’re never as shocking and trashy as you imagine. Ciccone (i.e. Christopher, the Lesser Ciccone) is more interested in whining about how Madonna ignores him, bitching about Guy Ritchie and his walk-in closet, and bragging about the time he spent doing drugs with supermodels than in offering insight into his sister. Or perhaps the problem lies deeper – perhaps this is a book written by an author not intelligent enough to comprehend his subject?

The full cover, when you see it, seems to suggest this:

Full Cover of LIfe with My Sister Madonna

The Lesser Ciccone is on the back, while Madonna is on the front but moving out of the frame, as though leaving him behind, slipping from the net of words in which he seeks to entrap her and eluding his understanding. And note her expression, the classic “Come on … Get lost” look of seduction that leads inevitably to rejection. Maybe you can judge a book by its cover.

Whatever; the point is, it mentions Canada:

We Ciccones may be afraid to confront our emotions, but little else fazes us. After all, we have pioneer blood in our veins and are proud of it. In 1690, my maternal ancestors, the Fortins, fled France and sailed to Quebec, then a complete wilderness, and settled there. Quintessential pioneers, they wrested a life for themselves and their families out of that wilderness. (p. 24)

The weak generalization about being “afraid to confront our emotions” is sadly characteristic of the sort of low-grade psychobabble that riddles the book.

What jumps out at me in this passage, though, is the word “then”; that is to say, Ciccone recognizes that Quebec is no longer a complete wilderness, even though it was in 1690. (Quebec City was founded in 1608, population of 550 in 1665, but it would hardly have been a bustling metropolis by 1690, so I suppose he’s right in the main, we won’t quibble.) This is a refreshing change from the opinion, sometimes encountered among Americans, that Canada is still a complete wilderness and buried in snow 365 days a year. So props for that.

Most thrilling of all, Madonna’s relatives lived in Canada before finding their way to the U.S. Madonna is practically Canadian! Think of all the Juno awards she could have won….

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