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Archive for the tag “Montreal”

The Idea of a Commonwealth, and a Poem About Montreal

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Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday: A Memoir (2012)

Gil Scott-Heron’s memoir is a bit of an odd book: he originally wrote it to chronicle the time he spent as part of a tour with Stevie Wonder advocating making Martin Luther King Day a national holiday (hence the book’s title) rather than as a conventional memoir. In the course of writing about the tour, however, he ended up writing about his childhood and youth as well. The process shows through in the structure of the book, which begins with Stevie Wonder, then suddenly leaps back in time to his parents and his childhood, and then gradually works its way forward to Stevie Wonder again, with various jumps and detours along the way. The book doesn’t really touch on the last years of his life at all (see below).

His relationship with his mother is powerfully conveyed, and his experiences as a campus activist and young author trying to get published are sharp and often amusing. And of course there are the backstage anecdotes you expect from a book like this – smoking gigantic joints with Bob Marley and so on. He seems to have stumbled more or less by accident into being a musician, by way of writing poetry and then making what would now be called “spoken word” albums – at least based on what he describes in the book.

If you’re a fan of his music, it’s definitely worth reading. There are even a couple of references to Canada.

That Sophisticated Land to the North

This passage is from a description of Scott-Heron’s father, Gil Heron, who, we have already been told, “was originally from Jamaica”. It describes him at the time he met Scott-Heron’s mother, Bobbie, in Chicago:

Gil Heron was young, exotic, and worldly, a veteran of the Canadian Air Force. He was also physical and athletic, and went all out when he competed. The Aries fire lit up his face and made it glow. The joy of winning brought a smile that made you feel like you were standing in a bright, warm sun. Sometimes he was romantic and sometimes thoughtful, brooding over the quality of his competition and teammates who couldn’t get the ball to him when they were pressed. He loved to talk about soccer, past games, teammates, opponents ridiculed as their pointless, desperate pursuit of him always ended the same way: Goooooaaaaal!  (19-20)

Heron played soccer in the United States until:

…the Scottish national team visited Chicago for a “friendly” match, an exhibition game, and were impressed. In fact, after the game members of the coaching staff spoke to him and made an informal offer for him to come to Scotland to play. He was, after all, already a citizen of the commonwealth.
My mother and father separated when I was one and a half years old, when Celtic, in Glasgow, Scotland, offered him a formal contract. My father decided to take an opportunity to do what he had always wanted to do: play football fulltime, at the highest level, against the best players…. To play with Celtic was also a Jackie Robinson-like invitation for him. It was something that had been beyond the reach and outside the dreams of Blacks. (21-22)

The way the words “veteran of the Canadian Air Force” immediately follow the word “worldly,” as if to provide an explanation, implies that his time in the Canadian Air Force is part of what has given him this air of worldliness, and we can be flattered by the idea that spending time in the Canadian armed forces turns you into a sophisticated cosmopolitan. At least to Scott-Heron’s mother, at that time, Canada was not the boring provincial backwater we see in some portrayals, but rather an exciting and perhaps slightly romantic country.

Beyond that, it’s fascinating to see how the idea of a larger commonwealth citizenship, one that transcends nationality, runs through the passages about Scott-Heron’s father: though from Jamaica, his family immigrated to Canada (easier because both were commonwealth countries?) and he joined the Canadian Air Force; later, when an opportunity arises to play soccer in Scotland, being a citizen of the commonwealth smooths the way again. (Heron became the first Black player to play for Celtic – you can read his Wikipedia entry for a little more information about him.)

Montreal In Verse

Scott-Heron often drops little (or sometimes large) chunks of verse into his narrative as a way of telling his story. A visit to Montreal for a concert inspires one of his longer poetic passages:

Montreal, November 7, 1980

I had no choice aside from moving quick
An ex-country hick whose image was city slick
The last one they would’ve ever picked
When I was in school doing my weekend stick
Compared to my classmates I couldn’t sing a lick
And through record store windows when they saw my flick
On the cover of an LP they wished for a brick
Because it wasn’t just out there it was actually a hit
And what they were wondering was what made me tick
It was that in spite of themselves they could all feel it

In reality I was heading for work
In the back of a cab I was changing my shirt
My Mickey Mouse was saying it was five to eight
So theoretically I was already late.
Next to me in the backseat were my daughter and my wife
And I’d probably say never been happier in my life.
Light rain was falling on the Montreal streets
And I slipped on my shoes and leaned back in the seat
As we pulled up to the Forum where the Canadiens played.
Tonight: “Stevie Wonder” the marquee proudly displayed
But not a word about me or my “Amnesia Express”
But I was feeling too good to start getting depressed.

It was only four days since I had found out for sure
That Stevie wanted me opening the rest of the tour.
News of Bob Marley’s illness was a helluva blow
I thought. And the eight o’clock news came on the radio
It looked like a sellout though the weather was damp
And fortunately no cars blocked the underground ramp.
As the cab took the curves beneath the old hockey rink
I was lighting a Viceroy and still trying to think
Of how Hartford had sounded and the tunes we should play;
Made mental notes of the order and felt it was okay

Keg Leg, my man, stood near the security line
‘Cause I never had I.D. and couldn’t get in sometimes
I was carrying Gia as we moved down the hall
And I nodded and smiled as I heard my name called.
Things were getting familiar and I was finding my niche
But I didn’t want to give producers any reason to bitch.
I told my brother to get the band ready at eight o’clock
And it was damn near ten after when I moved into my spot
James Grayer gave me a smile and tapped his Mickey Mouse
The lights went down and the crowd perked up
Because I was finally in the house.   (262-3)

To clarify a couple of points: Gia is Scott-Heron’s daughter, the “Amnesia Express” is the name of his backing band, and he got his place as the permanent opener on Stevie Wonder’s tour when Bob Marley became too ill to perform and had to drop out. And a Mickey Mouse, I assume from the context, means a watch: interesting as Mickey Mouse watches were one of the items of desirable Americana mentioned in Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, which we considered recently.

I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this poem; there are a couple of local references (the Forum, the Canadiens) but other than that it focuses on what is going through Scott-Heron’s mind on the cab ride; he’s not making statements about Montreal or the impression it creates on him. And perhaps that’s just the point: to Scott-Heron, Montreal is just another city, another stop on the tour, and the fact that it is in Canada isn’t even particularly meaningful to him.

Except for the fact that it is Montreal, and not some other city, that he chooses to memorialize in verse.

Left Unsaid (Unrelated to Canada)

It seems difficult to leave this book without glancing at the question of what Scott-Heron leaves out. There are some oblique references in the final chapter to not being allowed into his mother’s apartment, but nothing is ever clearly explained. I do recall reading a harrowing article about him in The New Yorker years ago, however, and I managed to track it down: called “New York Is Killing Me,” it is a portrait of Scott-Heron a year or two before his death.

It’s not a pretty picture, obviously, but if you’re thinking of reading The Last Holiday, the article makes a useful companion piece in terms of filling out the story of the latter part of Scott-Heron’s life.

The Music

Of course, there has to be music. “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” is Scott-Heron’s most famous song, but we’ve already featured it, so I’m going to put up my personal favourite, “Home Is Where the Hatred Is”:

I also like this one, which is a little closer to his “spoken word” roots:

And finally, we might as well have Scott-Heron’s tribute to a couple of jazz greats:

And that’s that.

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A Refuge to the North … or an Enemy?

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Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (2004)

Although it’s at a notably higher literary level, this novel, like Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, is an “alternate history.” The Plot Against America imagines what would have happened in the U.S. had Charles Lindbergh run against and beaten Roosevelt in the 1940 election and not only held the U.S. out of the Second World War, but tacitly supported Hitler and begun to introduce anti-Semitic measures in the U.S. The story centres on “Philip Roth,” a boy growing up in Newark, New Jersey during the Second World War, and his parents, his brother Sandy (who briefly becomes a Lindbergh supporter) and his cousin Alvin.

There are countless references to Canada throughout the novel – far too many for me to catalogue them all – but they divide neatly into three larger categories.

1. A Centre of Resistance

In the novel, Lindbergh’s election platform essentially boils down to “A vote for Roosevelt is a vote for war”; Lindbergh himself is portrayed as an enigmatic figure who campaigns by flying across the country in his plane and repeating this one essential campaign idea in three-minute “speeches” wherever he lands (it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the novel was published in the middle of the George W. Bush era). This conversation is between Philip and his brother Sandy:

“He’s going to be president,” Sandy told me. “Alvin says Lindbergh’s going to win.”
He so confused and frightened me that I pretended he was making a joke and laughed.
“Alvin’s going to go to Canada and join the Canadian army,” he said. “He’s going to fight for the British against Hitler.”
“But nobody can beat Roosevelt,” I said.
“Lindbergh’s going to. America’s going to go fascist.”  (25-26)

When Lindbergh wins the election and keeps the U.S. out of the “European war,” Alvin goes to Canada, joins the army, loses a leg fighting, spends months in a Canadian army hospital in Montreal, and eventually returns to Newark to live with Philip’s family.

There is an interesting commentary on the idea of America as the “land of the free” in this part of the novel, given that Americans who want to fight against Hitler have to go to Canada to do so. Since Canada never rebelled, it is still tied to Great Britain in a way the U.S. no longer is, meaning there is no question whether Canada will enter the war on the British side. The U.S., being “free,” has more autonomy to stay out of European conflicts, and yet in the novel this apparent freedom is inverted, with the U.S. supporting a dictator and ultimately moving towards dictatorship itself, while Canada, though technically under the colonial yoke, so to speak, is fighting for freedom.

This leads to a further inversion of expected tropes about Canada: in general, we are portrayed as a less war-like nation than the U.S. In this case, it is Canada that is going to war and the U.S. that is remaining out of it, and yet because the war is seen as a just one, and the reason for U.S. neutrality is not principled pacifism but rather support for fascism, Canada’s willingness to fight appears like a virtue within the context of the novel.

There are a number of other references to Canada when Alvin comes up in the story, but none really expand on the essential idea in this passage; they simply reiterate it. There is one other moment about Alvin that might be worthy of note, however:

As a handicapped veteran he was eligible for further benefits should he choose to remain in Canada, where foreign volunteers into the Canadian armed forces, if they wished, were granted citizenship immediately upon discharge. And why didn’t he become a Canuck? asked Uncle Monty. Since he couldn’t stand America anyway, why didn’t he just stay up there and cash in?  (122)

I believe this is the first time we’ve come across the term “Canuck” to refer to Canadians. It seems, in this instance, to have an edge of disdain to it, as if it were almost a slur. A couple of other conventional ideas of Canada are also present in this brief passage: the words “up there” convey again the obvious fact that Canada is to the north of the U.S., and in the mention of “further benefits” we might see a hint at Canada’s vastly superior health care system.

2. A Place of Refuge

By far the most common representation of Canada in the novel is as a “haven” for American Jews to escape to as the situation in the U.S. under Lindbergh becomes increasingly intolerable. The theme is sounded very early in the novel, and recurs pretty well all the way through; I will only focus on a few characteristic examples.

This passage relates to the Roth family taking a vacation in Washington D.C.:

The trip had been planned back when FDR was a second-term president and the Democrats controlled both Houses, but now with the Republicans in power and the new man in the White House considered a treacherous enemy, there was a brief discussion about our driving north instead to see Niagara Falls and to take a boat cruise in rain slickers through the St. Lawrence River’s Thousand Islands and then to cross over in our car into Canada to visit Ottawa. Some among our friends and neighbors had already begun talking about leaving the country and migrating to Canada should the Lindbergh administration openly turn against the Jews, and so a trip to Canada would also familiarize us with a potential haven from persecution.  (44)

That encapsulates the essential idea; there is an interesting moment that somewhat complicates this image of Canada as a safe haven, however. In the course of their vacation in Washington (in which the Roth family is turned out of a hotel and suffers various other forms of discrimination), Philip’s father gets into an argument by loudly praising Roosevelt in front of some Lindbergh supporters, one of whom calls him “a loudmouth Jew.” This is the father’s attempt to calm down Philip’s mother after the incident:

“Honey,” my father told her, “we ran into a screwball. Two screwballs. We might have gone up to Canada and run into somebody just as bad.”  (66)

This is, I believe, the only moment in the novel that hints at Canadian anti-Semitism; the rest of the time, an uncomplicated image of Canada as a “haven from persecution” is maintained, though at this time anti-Semitism would likely have been as prevalent here as in the U.S.; without the Lindbergh administration’s tacit approval, however, it might not have been expressed as readily, and that seems to be the key idea in Roth’s conception of our country.

As the novel proceeds, escaping to Canada recurs as an increasingly likely possibility:

[My mother] explained to Sandy and me that her paycheck would contribute toward meeting the larger household bills occasioned by Alvin’s return while her real intention (known to no one other than her husband) was to deposit her paychecks by mail into a Montreal bank account in case we had to flee and start from scratch in Canada.  (112)

So there we see flight to Canada as a prospect the Roths are seriously considering, and even beginning to prepare for. Things go a step further when some friends of the Roths’, the Tirschwells, actually make the move:

It was then that [my father] learned from Shepsie Tirschwell, whom he visited up in his booth after the show, that on the first of June his old boyhood friend was leaving for Winnipeg with his wife, his three children, his mother, and his wife’s elderly parents. Representatives of Winnipeg’s small Jewish community had helped Mr. Tirschwell find work as a projectionist at a neighborhood movie house there and had located apartments for the entire family in a modest Jewish neighborhood much like our own. The Canadians had also arranged a low-interest loan to pay for the Tirschwells’ move from America….  (194)

What strikes us here is the generosity of the Jewish community in Winnipeg, which is willing to do so much to help an American family move there. This suggests a strong community spirit, which indicates that Canada is a more communal, less individualistic nation than the U.S. It also reveals that Canadian Jews are aware of how dire things are becoming for Jews in America under Lindbergh. And in the passing mention that the Jewish community in Winnipeg is “small,” there is a suggestion that Canada is a less cosmopolitan and diverse nation than the U.S., but at the same time, almost counterintuitively, a more tolerant and welcoming one.

Tension over the question of moving to Canada eventually erupts in the Roth marriage:

“You don’t see Shepsie sitting around writing letters and waiting for the worst to happen,” [my mother] said. “No,” he replied, “not Canada again!” as though Canada were the name of the disease insidiously debilitating us all. “I don’t want to hear it. Canada,” he told her firmly, “is not a solution.” “It’s the only solution,” she pleaded. “I am not running away!” he shouted, startling everyone. “This is our country!” “No,” my mother said sadly, “not anymore. It’s Lindbergh’s. It’s the goyim’s. It’s their country….”  (226)

The linking of Canada, which has always been presented as a haven, to a type of disease, is meant to demonstrate the anger in the father’s tone, I think, rather than to be a reflection on the nature of the country itself. But the question of whether to flee the U.S. or to remain and struggle to “save” it is central to the book, and we might draw parallels between that question and the idea of moving to Canada that was sometimes raised, albeit jokingly, by some Americans after George W. Bush won a second term, and again when Mitt Romney was running against Obama.

In Roth’s vision of the U.S. under Lindbergh, things become increasingly dire, ultimately leading to the outbreak of racially motivated riots in American cities. In a passage about riots in Detroit we come across the final reference to Canada as a safe haven:

By nightfall, several hundred of the city’s thirty thousand Jews had fled and taken refuge across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, and American history had recorded its first large-scale pogrom, one clearly modeled on the “spontaneous demonstrations” against Germany’s Jews known as Kristallnacht….  (266)

This shows how ugly the situation has become in the U.S., but doesn’t in any way change or advance the impression of Canada, which is still seen as an escape from the American anti-Semitism that is now running rampant. And so, with the exception of the one mention of possible anti-Semitism in Canada by Philip’s father (which is purely speculative), these parts of Roth’s novel actually present a very sustained and consistent view of Canada as an open, tolerant nation which is eager to welcome Jewish families fleeing persecution in the U.S.

3. A Stealthy Enemy (Contains Spoilers)

I generally think “spoiler alerts” are a bit absurd – Romeo and Juliet gives away the ending in the first 14 lines, after all – but since they seem to be part of online writing protocol, I will warn you that in this section, it’s not possible for me to discuss the references to Canada without “giving away” parts of the book’s ending, which, if you read exclusively to be surprised by plot twists, may spoil the novel for you. If a book doesn’t lose all interest for you as soon as you know what happens towards the end, you can safely read on.

The plot takes a major turn late in the novel when President Lindbergh, flying across the country on one of his speaking tours, simply disappears. No trace of him or of his plane is ever found. The Vice President, Burton Wheeler, becomes Acting President; Roth portrays him as even more of an anti-Semitic fascist than Lindbergh – or perhaps I should say as a more open anti-Semitic fascist. In any case, the situation becomes significantly worse for Jews in America.

For our purposes, the most interesting point is that Wheeler and his confederates in the American government immediately begin to hint that Canada is somehow involved in Lindbergh’s disappearance. The implication seems to be that the U.S., by opening hostilities with Canada, will create headaches for the British (we have already been told that “Canada had become virtually [Britain’s] only source of arms, food, medicine and machinery” (88)) and make it easier for the Nazis to win the war in Europe.

There are a number of passages in the closing chapters that link Canada to Lindbergh’s disappearance and cause escalating tensions between the U.S. and its northern neighbour. The following is a news item about a “German intelligence report” (I should note that this part of the novel is written in the form of archived news reports and not Philip’s first-person narration):

No sooner had the president taken off for Washington than he was unable to make contact with the ground or with other aircraft and had no choice but to capitulate when the Spirit of St. Louis was corralled by high-flying British fighter planes, which forced him to deviate from his course and to land, some hours later, at an airstrip secretly maintained by international Jewish interests across the Canadian border….  (309-10)

And in the next paragraph:

…Secretary of the Interior Ford is demanding that Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada, conduct an intensive search on Canadian soil for President Lindbergh and his captors.  (310)

Things quickly escalate:

Second, House Republicans introduce a bill calling for a declaration of war against the Dominion of Canada should Prime Minister King fail to reveal the whereabouts of America’s missing president within forty-eight hours.  (315)

And then:

In Buffalo the mayor announces his intention to distribute gas masks to the city’s citizens, and the mayor of nearby Rochester initiates a bomb shelter program “to protect our residents in the event of a surprise Canadian attack.” An exchange of small-arms fire is reported by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on the border between Maine and New Brunswick, not far from Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island in the Bay of Fundy.  (317)

Canada’s continuing association with Great Britain (note “Dominion of Canada”) is here turned against it by the U.S. administration, which uses it to claim that Canada is, at best, being used by the British to stealthily attack the United States or, at worst, is actively working against U.S. interests. The quick escalation in these passages, and the way anti-Canadian sentiment catches fire, stirred up by American political leaders, seems to suggest that the U.S. is in the grip of some sort of mass hysteria. As well, it might again remind us of events during the George W. Bush administration when, shortly after 9/11, American politicians began to suggest (absent any apparent evidence) that terrorists were streaming across the undefended Canadian border into the U.S. to stage attacks against American targets.

The reference to Roosevelt’s summer home on Campobello Island (a Canadian island, part of New Brunswick) is a fascinating one: though nothing is stated explicitly, the fact that he “summers” (love that verb) in what is technically part of Canada seems to be a way for the Wheeler administration to further link Roosevelt to the British and “Jewish interests” that are supposedly responsible for Lindbergh’s abduction.

All of this leads to the following exchange between Philip and his mother when she tells Philip he won’t be going to school because “the situation has further deteriorated”:

“I want to know why there’s no school, Ma.” “Must you know tonight?” “Yes. Why can’t I go to school?” “Well … it’s because there may be a war with Canada.” “With Canada? When?” “No one knows. But it’s best if you all stay home until we see what’s going on.” “But why are we going to war with Canada?”  (353)

This passage, when contrasted with the ones above, sets up the central dichotomy of Canada in this novel: the Jewish characters view it as a safe haven, while the pro-Nazi Americans see it as a threatening British puppet state looming immediately to the north.

Philip’s response to his mother seems designed to point up the absurdity of the view of Canada held by the Wheeler administration and its allies. When Philip says, “With Canada?” it’s important to note that the word “Canada” (bolded for emphasis above) appears in italics in the text. The italics convey Philip’s incredulity at the idea that the U.S. could possibly be going to war with Canada, their quiet, peaceful, polite neighbour to the north. (Similar markers of incredulity were used in Howard Jacobson’s treatment of Canadian anti-Semitism). The closeness of the Canada-U.S. relationship, and the tendency of Americans to view Canadians as essentially milder versions of themselves, may be part of the reason Roth chooses this particular development for the final phase of his novel. It’s as if he’s saying that Americans must truly be in the grip of some kind of collective insanity if they are willing to go to war with an inoffensive little nation like Canada.

The final line above, “Why are we going to war with Canada?” seems to beg the obvious question: why would anyone? And the idea that lies behind it – that it is impossible to imagine anyone going to war with Canada – offers a neat summary of the general idea of Canada that comes across in Roth’s novel: as a safe, orderly, tolerant nation, in sharp contrast with the U.S., which progressively descends into insanity over the course of the book.

4. Bonus: Canada’s Nazi Figure Skater

There is one other interesting reference to Canada, which doesn’t really fit in with the others but seems worthy of note simply for its oddity. Though most of the Jewish characters in the book are portrayed as strongly anti-Lindbergh, Philip’s Aunt Evelyn and her husband, Rabbi Bengelsdorf, support Lindbergh and essentially become collaborators once he is in power. The following quote comes from Aunt Evelyn’s description of a party she attended at the White House where von Ribbentrop, Hitler’s foreign minister, was the honoured guest:

[von Ribbentrop’s] known to be an excellent dancer, and he is, it’s true – a perfectly magical ballroom dancer. And his English is faultless. He studied at the University of London and then lived for four years as a young man in Canada. His great youthful adventure, he calls it.  (213)

Ribbentrop did, in fact, live in Canada; here are the details, courtesy of Wikipedia:

Fluent in both French and English, young Ribbentrop lived at various times in Grenoble, France and London, before travelling to Canada in 1910.

He worked for the Molsons Bank on Stanley Street in Montreal, and then for the engineering firm M. P. and J. T. Davis on the Quebec Bridge reconstruction. He was also employed by the National Transcontinental Railway, which constructed a line from Moncton to Winnipeg. He worked as a journalist in New York City and Boston, but returned to Germany to heal from tuberculosis. He returned to Canada and set up a small business in Ottawa importing German wine and champagne. In 1914, he competed for Ottawa’s famous Minto ice-skating team, participating in the Ellis Memorial Trophy tournament in Boston in February.

It sounds like he actually had a significant life in Canada, even participating in a quintessentially Canadian sport, ice skating. In terms of the reference in Roth’s novel, it’s worth at least noting the use of the word “adventure,” as the idea that Europeans think of Canada as a romantic land of adventure is one that has come up before.

As for a high-ranking Nazi having lived in Canada (before he became a high-ranking Nazi, of course), I have to admit I had no idea. I suppose Ottawa and Montreal (understandably) don’t do anything to publicize the connection in their tourism materials.

Montreal: The Only Canadian City Worth Mentioning

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Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, An Index (2012)

All the poems in this book relate in one way or another to the death of the poet’s lover, who, according to the back cover, disappeared while hiking a volcano in Japan. (Volcanoes, apparently, were an interest of his.)

The only reference to Canada comes in the long title poem, which is organized by the letters of the alphabet; under each letter there is a list of words beginning with that letter that are connected to the poet’s relationship with her lover.

This is the entire section on the letter “V”.

V

VANISH, dematerialize. Poof! How does one sail
to the land of vanished things? And what colour
does your flag have to be to get back?
VOLCANOES, we visited many: Vesuvius looming over Naples
like a history of violence and Pompeii’s ash
packed around a man-shaped hollow. The perfect cone
of Stromboli. Cloud-forests sweating around Poas,
its caldera cupping an aquamarine lake of boiling acid.
Thira’s thin crescent rising from the sea. A Mexican church
half-submerged in basalt. A cobbled path of fractured granite
descending into the North Atlantic. I thought I understood
your longing – it looked so much like mine.
VOLKSWAGON,
Golf (green), from Salt Lake City to Omaha in a day.
You were so angry because I’d stayed up late
the night before and couldn’t drive the first shift.
Later that summer, Duluth, Sault Sainte Marie,
Montreal, Marblehead. Harry Potter on tape,
your son asleep in the back with his feet on my lap
and his head resting on your guitar.
Golf (red), I could see you coming from so far
down the snowed-in road. Me at the bus station
freezing my ass off. You cranked the heat,
plucked off my wool cap, put your mouth over my ear.
VOW, I think as much now about the ones we failed to make
as the ones we faithfully kept.   (57)

The reference to Canada is a passing one, simply placing it on the itinerary of a road trip. A Canadian will naturally read Sault Ste Marie as the city in Ontario, but in fact there is also a Sault Ste Marie in Michigan, directly across the river from the one in Ontario – or perhaps they are better thought of as one city that straddles the Canada-U.S. border. So the mention of Sault Ste Marie alone can’t be considered definitively Canadian.

Once we come to Montreal, however, I think we can be certain. We can also guess at the outline of the trip: from Duluth, driving east along the southern shore of Lake Superior, then crossing into Canada at Sault Ste Marie, more or less straight across Ontario and into Quebec to Montreal, then back across the U.S. border and southeast to Marblehead in Massachusetts. So they would have passed through a significant chunk of Canada if that is the route they took.

In spite of that, Montreal is the only Canadian city to rate a mention: this book is yet another piece of evidence (along with recent examples such as Warren Harding’s love letters and Tao Lin) that Americans perceive Montreal as an exciting, romantic, interesting city, but see the rest of Canada as nothing more than a slightly blander extension of the United States. Having passed through Montreal is worth mentioning; having passed through Toronto, however, is not.

Other than the implicit judgement that Montreal is the only Canadian city that deserves to be named, there’s no real comment about Canada, so it’s hard to draw conclusions: our nation features here simply as a place that Americans occasionally journey through on their way to other places. In fact, Lindenberg makes no distinction between the naming of Canadian and American places and never explicitly mentions having crossed a national border. Duluth and Montreal appear equally in the list, as if the national divisions between us did not exist at all, which only adds to the sense that Americans see Canada as just an extension of their own country.

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.

Warren Harding Gets Lucky – in Montreal

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Jordan Michael Smith, “All the President’s Pen” (The New York Times Magazine), July 13, 2014

An interesting article in the The New York Times Magazine outlines future President Warren Harding’s extramarital affair with Carrie Phillips, and includes selections from letters he wrote to her over the course of the affair and afterwards. A few of them are quite steamy (or “NSFW,” if you prefer), including the following, in which the man who would one day be President is so overwhelmed by his feelings that he actually launches into verse:

Jan. 28, 1912

I love your poise
Of perfect thighs
When they hold me
in paradise…

I love the rose
Your garden grows
Love seashell pink
That over it glows

I love to suck
Your breath away
I love to cling –
There long to stay…

I love you garb’d
But naked more
Love your beauty
To thus adore…

I love you when
You open eyes
And mouth and arms
And cradling thighs…

If I had you today, I’d kiss and fondle you into my arms and hold you there until you said, ‘Warren, oh, Warren,’ in a benediction of blissful joy…. I rather like that encore discovered in Montreal. Did you?  (32)

Whoa! It’s a little difficult to discern exactly what went on in Montreal, but that’s a very suggestive reference. What was this “encore” they “discovered”? Based on the context, I think we have to assume it’s sexual. But was it a new position? A new technique?

Alas, the wording is just vague enough that knowledge of the specifics probably passed from the earth with the participants – though perhaps that’s as it should be. If nothing else, it leaves us free to speculate.

One of the chronological notes in the margin of the article offers some context for the reference to Montreal, at least, if not for exactly what went on there:

1911-13: In the fall of 1911, Carrie left her husband behind in Marion and traveled with her daughter to Berlin. She returned around Christmas and spent New Year’s Eve with her lover in Montreal, where they made love at the stroke of midnight; a moment Harding would revisit again and again in his letters.  (33)

So apparently Montreal played a key role in their relationship, and whatever sexual dynamite they discovered there lived on in Harding’s memory … forever? And of course, it would be Montreal – Warren Harding’s erotic discoveries are just one more addition to the accumulating legend of Montreal as Canada’s sexy, swinging, European-style city, while Toronto remains the staid banker’s paradise it has always been.

It occurs to me, re-reading the letter above, that “Warren” must be one of the least sexy names in the world. As for Harding’s poetic gifts, I simply quote the work; I will leave the reader to judge its value. I must say I think there’s a certain artistry – or perhaps I should say an attempt at artistry – in the way the final stanza carries the verb “open” from “eyes” (which is so banal it’s absurd – he loves her when she opens her eyes?) to “thighs”. This suggests that Harding at least had some understanding of the way poetry worked, even if his attempts to replicate it weren’t always completely successful.

Easterbrook Shows Toronto Some Love

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Gregg Easterbrook, Tuesday Morning Quarterback (August 19, 2014)

I’ve already whined extensively in this space about Gregg Easterbrook’s rather stereotypical references to Canada (doughnuts and health careadvancing (not receding!) glaciers, and our generally squeaky-clean image), so it seems only fair to pick up on it when he actually says something complimentary.

The following passage is from his AFC Preview column, where he discusses the possible relocation of the Buffalo Bills to either Toronto or Los Angeles:

Toronto, North America’s fourth-largest city, is a cosmopolitan boom town with every major sport except the NFL. Doesn’t it make sense to relocate the Bills?

“Cosmopolitan boom town” – I like the sound of that. It’s especially gratifying to see the word “cosmopolitan” applied to Toronto, since we who live here are much more accustomed to hearing how Montreal is so sophisticated and cosmopolitan, while Toronto is essentially a hick town with tall buildings.

Of course, there are caveats: this quote is from a football column (though one written by a serious journalist), and so its views on cosmopolitanism should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. As well, it’s important to remember that Toronto is being described as a “cosmopolitan boom town” in comparison to Buffalo – which drains much of the power from the compliment, though it also reminds us that, to our neighbours to the south, our cities can look like remarkable success stories.

Perhaps Toronto’s perceived cosmopolitanism exists only in relation to collapsing American cities; within Canada, we’re still running a distant second to Montreal. Still, it’s nice to know that we can appear cosmopolitan, even if you have to go to Buffalo to see it. We’ll take what we can get.

 

Hollywood: It’s All About Canada

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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.

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