Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Politeness”

No One Suspects a Canadian

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Nell Zink, Private Novelist (2016)

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

“Sailing Toward the Sunset by Avner Shats”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“European Story for Avner Shats”

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?

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Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.

 

Canada: You Can’t Leave Fast Enough

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Patience Agbabi, Telling Tales (2014)

This book is a re-working of The Canterbury Tales, in which each poem presents a contemporary version of one of Chaucer’s stories. Agbabi covers a wide range of poetic styles and voices, from the rhymed couplets of the “Prologue” to the rap battle of “Sir Thopas vs Da Elephant” and along the way shows not only her mastery of form, but also conveys a multiethnic, polyphonic vision of England.

I suppose it’s not surprising that some of the individual poems appealed more to me than others; I think most readers would feel the same way, though of course the ones they preferred would vary. For me, “Joined Up Writing” (The Man of Law’s Tale) was a standout, its linked stanzas being not only brilliantly executed, but also a clever commentary on the act of writing itself, which is at the centre of that particular tale; “What Do Women Like Bes’?” (The Wife of Bath’s Tale) is a fitting successor to its original (what greater praise than that?); and “That Beatin’ Rhythm” (The Merchant’s Tale), composed largely from song titles, works remarkably well, and also recalled for me one of my favourite lines in all of Chaucer: “Gan pullen up the smock, and in he throng.”

The Flight From Canada

Each poem has a fictional author’s name attached, usually some sort of pun or play on the name of the tale-teller in Chaucer, and then at the end of the book we find “Author Biographies,” in the manner of the “Contributor’s Notes” section at the end of a journal or anthology. This is one more clever touch in what is already an immensely witty book, and it is in these author’s notes, rather than in the poems themselves, that we find the book’s only reference to Canada:

Yves Depardon: is a French-Canadian Professional Speaker and Business Coach living in Soho, Central London with his long-term partner. He’s published 20 self-help books and six novels, including the multi-million bestseller, Young, Free and Sinful (Impress, 2007). He regularly uses poetry in his presentations. His ‘love2Bme’ lectures attract a 2,000-strong online audience.  (116)

The transformation of Chaucer’s Pardoner — one of literature’s most compelling hypocrites — into a motivational speaker and self-help author is an inspired choice. I’m not sure why Agbabi chose to make him a Canadian, other than the punning connection between the name “Depardon” and the Pardoner, but I suppose it’s a kind of compliment that anyone thinks a character of such vertiginous hypocrisy could come from our country, and it’s certainly a sharp contrast with the usual image of Canadians as polite and uninteresting. (Though, based on our reading of Michel Houellebecq and Lorrie Moore, perhaps we can say the world has a slightly different impression of French-Canadians than it does of Canadians generally?)

In terms of ideas about Canada, Depardon’s biography contains an interesting reversal that I don’t think we’ve seen before. Immigration to Canada from the UK, and the possibility of a new beginning that Canada offers to immigrants, is something we’ve come across in authors like Charles Dickens, Basil Bunting and Derek Mahon, to name a few. All these writers convey the same view: that leaving the UK for Canada will offer a fresh start and open up a range of new possibilities that can’t be found in the “old country.”

In Agbabi’s book, though, the relationship between the old world and the new is switched; Depardon is from Canada, but he has left it for England, where he has found fame and fortune as a motivational speaker and author. There is no explanation of this, but behind it must lie some idea that Canada is no longer the land of opportunity it once was, and that Canadians whose families might have immigrated from Europe a century or more ago are now making their way back to Europe from North America in search of the same sort of opportunities that brought their ancestors in the other direction in the first place.

The Poetry

Because Canada isn’t mentioned in the poems, I didn’t have the chance to quote any of the actual poetry; in lieu of that, here are a couple of videos of Patience Agbabi reciting parts of Telling Tales. Here’s the Prologue:

And here is her take on the Wife of Bath:

 

Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From

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Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.

Becoming?

Almost?

But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

So Polite It’s … Creepy

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P.C. Vey, “Whack A Canadian,” from The New Yorker (February 23 & March 2, 2015)

I have to admit there are moments when even I grow tired of thinking about Canada. And I suspect that most people have even less tolerance for Canada-related thinking than I do. In fact, people in general probably find thinking about Canada rather wearying, even at the best of times.

There is one group of people, however, who have demonstrated time and again that, when it comes to thinking about Canada, they are indefatiguable. Who are these people, you ask?

Why, New Yorker cartoonists, of course.

For them, it seems, jokes about Canadians are an inexhaustible well of hilarity, one whose brackish waters they go back to draw from again and again. Above is a recent example; if you can’t read the caption at that size, it says, “I just want to apologize beforehand if you miss.

I have already laid out my Platonic theory of New Yorker cartoons, and I’m not going to go through it again here; you can click on that link and consult it if you like. The cartoon above represents yet another iteration of what is perhaps the most common type of Canadian New Yorker cartoon: “Canadians are so polite that….” So polite, in this case, that we would apologize in advance to someone who might fail to whack us on the head with a mallet.

The precise joke in this particular cartoon is a little elusive, at least for me; at first I thought it meant, “I want to apologize in case you miss because I’m so polite that I will feel bad for you if you fail to hit me and therefore don’t win a prize.” After further reflection, though, I think the joke is actually based on the idea that Canadians are so polite that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. Read in that way, the joke means something more along the lines of, “As a polite Canadian, I plan to apologize if you hit me on the head with that mallet, but I’m actually so excessively polite that I want to apologize in advance just in case you miss me and leave me with no reason to apologize later” – as if apologizing for suffering physical violence were such a thrill for Canadians that we don’t want to lose any opportunity to do so.

Either way, the cartoon suggests that Canadians are so polite that it is weird, and perhaps beginning to border on the creepy.

There are even visual similarities between this cartoon and previous Canada-related cartoons in The New Yorker. For comparison, here are a couple we’ve looked at before. The “Canadian Standoff” cartoon:

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

And the “Canadian Lemmings” cartoon:

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In all three, the word “Canadian” appears prominently, paired with something already familiar to readers: a standoff, lemmings, and replacing the word “mole” in the game Whack-A-Mole. All three cartoons are also by different artists, which suggests either that these ideas about Canada are so common that all Americans share them, or that these cartoons are being generated according to some proprietary New Yorker “polite Canadian” cartoon template.

But there’s really nothing new in any of that.

What is new is the strange undercurrent of violence in the “Whack A Canadian” cartoon, which is essentially about an American (presumably) who is going to attempt to clobber a Canadian with a mallet as part of a carnival game. In other Canada-related New Yorker cartoons, Canadians have been portrayed as if they were slightly weird relatives: a little different from Americans, but harmless, really, and maybe even a bit lovable on account of our odd foibles. What accounts for the edge of viciousness in this cartoon? Are our southern neighbours beginning to turn against us? Are we so polite that we have transformed politeness into a form of passive aggression that needs to be combated with direct violence?

Or perhaps there’s another issue here – is the cartoonist frustrated at not being able to come up with anything but another “polite Canadians” cartoon, and so he is subliminally taking out his anger against us, as if it were Canada’s fault that his inspiration had flagged? Or perhaps the Canadian cartoon was imposed on him by New Yorker Cartoons Editor Robert Mankoff, who seems to have a fondness for this sort of Canadian joke, and the violent attitude against the Canadian in the cartoon is just the expression of the cartoonist’s attitude towards his material?

Or is it just a cartoon, and I’m a hyper-sensitive Canadian reading way too much into it?

Let’s Get Away From It All

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Siobhan Wall, Quiet Paris (2013)

Imagine, for a moment, that you find yourself in Paris and, for some reason, rather than enjoying the constant stimulation provided by that fantastic city, you are feeling overwhelmed by it. (Perhaps this is something like Stendhal Syndrome?) You need to get away from it all.

Siobhan Wall’s book, Quiet Paris, is dedicated to solving this unexpected dilemma: it’s a catalogue of places you can go in Paris when you need to get away from the fact that you are in Paris – quiet places where you can avoid the crowds that throng the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame and all the other “must-sees” on the average tourist’s list. (There’s also a Quiet New York and a Quiet London, but no Quiet Toronto as far as I can see – no need, I suppose.)

Can you guess what’s included among those quiet, unfrequented locations that offer a respite from the non-stop Parisian action?

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That’s right: the Canadian Cultural Centre. Shockingly, no one ever seems to go there.

Here’s the write-up:

This often overlooked cultural centre has a very inviting first floor exhibition space where stimulating exhibitions of Canadian art are shown. Twice a year, elegant 18th-century rooms are filled with two- and three-dimensional images by contemporary artists who work in a variety of different media.  (132)

Lovely, charming, sounds wonderful. Where else in Paris are you going to find two-dimensional images?

Wall does what she can to sell the Canadian Cultural Centre to her readers – and if you really were looking for a place to get away, it’s probably perfect – but for anyone who wants to boost Canadian culture overseas, it’s hard to ignore the subtext.

All this apparent praise comes in a book that is specifically devoted to guiding people to places where they can avoid crowds. (This isn’t Must Sees Paris after all.) Put simply: the only reason the Canadian Cultural Centre is in this book is that no one in Paris (whether a Parisian or a tourist) would ever dream of going there. Wall doesn’t give a reason, but I think it’s fairly simple to infer: in a city with as many cultural attractions as Paris, no one has any reason to visit the Canadian Cultural Centre; there’s too much other culture going on for Canadian culture to even be worthy of note. (If the art exhibitions were really so “stimulating,” they would attract crowds, and the Canadian Cultural Centre wouldn’t be in this book at all.)

And those opening words, “This often overlooked cultural centre….” As a Canadian, it’s hard not to feel that our entire culture – perhaps even our entire nation – is somehow summed up in those two words: “often overlooked.”

Special Bonus: Rank Self-Promotion

I do occasionally write about things other than references to Canada in books by non-Canadians. In case anyone is curious, here’s an article I wrote about the Canadian poet Daryl Hine:

http://www.partisanmagazine.com/reviews/2015/4/26/what-about-daryl-hine

Extra Special Bonus: Music

To make up for that, some Paris-related music. Here’s Ella Fitzgerald singing Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”:

Bud Powell’s “Parisian Thoroughfare” (supposedly written before he had ever been to Paris):

I’m not sure why that one has been labelled “incomplete”: I think that’s the standard studio recording. You can hear Powell say “Okay cut it” right at the end, which seems to indicate he felt the piece was complete.

And there’s just time to squeeze this one in before the end of April:

Lovely version with a great band, including Paul Quinichette and Clifford Brown.

The Humble Canadian Takes On Wall Street

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Michael Lewis, “The Wolf Hunters of Wall Street” (NYT Magazine, April 6, 2014)

I hadn’t really planned on spending any more time on Brad Katsuyama, but then the NYT Magazine landed on my doorstep on Sunday morning. The copy under the “Meet Brad” headline reads:

He’s a humble Canadian trader who happened to figure out exactly how the stock market was rigged. Now Wall Street may never be the same.

We learned from 60 Minutes that Katsuyama was a conformist even by Canada’s rigorous standards for conformity; now we discover that he’s also “humble.” I understand that Michael Lewis probably didn’t write the copy on the cover of the magazine; I also understand that it’s trying to set up a “David and Goliath” type narrative that is intriguing enough to make you open the magazine and read the article; but “humble”? Really? This is the man who may revolutionize Wall Street, and the best adjective they can apply to him is “humble”? Not “clever”? Not “brilliant”? Not “bold”? Not “crusading” – I like crusading. The Crusading Canadian – it even alliterates. But no – he’s a Canadian being featured in an American publication, and so he must conform to the pre-existing American stereotypes about Canadians: he must be polite, he must be quiet, he must be conformist, he must be humble.

And then there’s that phrase, “happened to figure out.” My recollection from watching the 60 Minutes report was that Katsuyama and his team actually put a significant amount of time and effort into figuring out how other people were managing to front run their trades. It required doggedness, ingenuity, creative thinking, a refusal to give up or to accept being told that was just how the system worked – in short, it took the opposite of humility and conformity. But here, on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, all that effort is elided, and we’re told Katsuyama “happened to figure it out,” as if by some happy accident.

Now that I’ve finished complaining about the cover, the article itself is actually quite fascinating. It goes over some of the same ground as the 60 Minutes report, and also reveals some new aspects of the story. Most of all, Lewis paints a very compelling picture of Brad Katsuyama as a person who felt forced by circumstance to take action for something that, for lack of a better word, could be called “principle”.

It’s important to point out that Katsuyama lives and works in the United States, and that the story is very much about the American financial system – there’s really not a whole lot about Canada in most of the article. In the introductory paragraphs, however, we are treated to some key ideas about our humble little nation to the north:

Before the collapse of the U.S. financial system in 2008, Brad Katsuyama could tell himself that he bore no responsibility for that system. He worked for the Royal Bank of Canada, for a start. RBC might have been the fifth-biggest bank in North America, by some measures, but it was on nobody’s mental map of Wall Street. It was stable and relatively virtuous and soon to be known for having resisted the temptation to make bad sub-prime loans to Americans or to peddle them to ignorant investors. But its management didn’t understand just what an afterthought it was – on the rare occasions American financiers thought about it at all.  (28)

Stability, (relative) virtue, resistance to temptation – these are classic merits that Americans associate with dull, conservative old Canada. And I love that phrase, “by some measures,” as if to say RBC likes to call itself the fifth-largest bank, but no one really believes it. The Canadian financial system is being firmly put in its place here. When Katsuyama arrives in New York, Lewis makes him sound rather naive:

It was his first immersive course in the American way of life, and he was instantly struck by how different it was from the Canadian version. “Everything was to excess,” he says. “I met more offensive people in a year than I had in my entire life. People lived beyond their means, and the way they did it was by going into debt. Debt was a foreign concept in Canada. Debt was evil.”  (28)

Canadians sound rather schoolmarmish here, horrified by loud voices and the very concept of borrowing money. But this passage is also funny for the way, in describing a stereotypical Canadian who’s shocked at the freewheeling American way of life, it smuggles in Canadian stereotypes about Americans – that they’re all loud, brash, offensive, and racking up an insane amount of debt to make sure their lifestyle keeps up with their incessant bragging. Canadians, and Canadian banks, need to be insulated from such offensive behaviour:

The RBC trading floor had a no-jerk rule … If someone came in the door looking for a job and sounding like a typical Wall Street jerk, he wouldn’t be hired, no matter how much money he said he could make the firm. There was even an expression used to describe the culture: “RBC nice.” Although Katsuyama found the expression embarrassingly Canadian, he, too, was RBC nice.  (28)

These opening few paragraphs are like a high-speed tour through American ideas of what it means to be Canadian, all building towards this final, central concept of how nice (close cousin to polite) we are. In this telling, even Canada’s largest bank doesn’t care how much money it makes; all it cares about is making sure everyone is nice. Niceness is the archetypal Canadian virtue, the quality from which all our other characteristics spring; everything begins with everyone being nice. We didn’t make bad sub-prime loans – that wouldn’t be nice. We don’t act offensively – it’s not nice. We don’t go into debt – debt’s not nice. And we certainly don’t give jobs to jerks – jerks, after all, aren’t nice.

The table of contents page of the magazine has a photo of Katsuyama and his wife at home playing with their kids; the signs on the wall in the background seem to fit so perfectly with the image of Katsuyama in the story that it’s hard not to wonder whether the photographer hung them there before taking the picture:

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The idea of Canadian virtue that the article trades in is summed up in those five words: “Play Nice.” “Share Your Toys.” Clearly, RBC’s “no-jerk” policy extends all the way to the Katsuyama playroom.

A Canadian Conformist Tries to Reform Wall Street

60 Minutes, March 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

You beat speed by slowing down?

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

Unguarded Doesn’t Mean Defenceless

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Mark Oppenheimer, “The Not-So-Lonely City” (NYT Magazine, Jan 19, 2014)

This issue of The New York Times Magazine contains several references to Canada, mostly in a story by Emily Bazelon about Anonymous-type groups trying to prevent online bullying, which discusses the Rehtaeh Parsons case at some length.

But the reference to Canada that jumped out at me came in a story about Keith Hampton, a Canadian who is now a professor at Rutgers. The article was about Hampton’s study of how people use public spaces; this is from the author’s description of Hampton:

Tall and broad with a warm charm, unguarded in that Canadian way, Hampton has become a star in a subfield that lacks a proper name: He studies how digital technology changes our lives.  (35)

First, let’s tip our hats to a Canadian who’s doing well enough to be considered a “star” by The New York Times, even if only in a field that doesn’t have a name. And doesn’t that, in itself, seem very Canadian? He’s willing to be a star, but being a star in a well-known field might seem like an attempt to attract attention, so he’s become a star in a field without a name – this is Canadian success in its classical form, real and present, but simultaneously slightly retiring and diffident.

But the phrase, “unguarded in that Canadian way” – what does that mean? Do Americans see Canadians as “unguarded”? I would have thought the opposite, as our well-known politeness can easily slide into a formality, or even a stiffness, that makes us come across as somewhat cold, distant, or, at the extreme end, closed-off.

And yet here is an American who speaks of being “unguarded in that Canadian way,” as though as though our unguardedness were such a well-known characteristic that it could simply be taken for granted. It makes us sound so open and carefree, like the sort of big, brash people we’ve always dreamed of being but could never quite become.

Unless it’s just a subsumed reference to our undefended border … or a way of saying we’re defenceless without our more militaristic neighbour to the south?

How Canadian, this over-analyzing of a complimentary reference until it begins to sound like an insult. Enough! We are unguarded, in the best sense of the word. Thank you, Mr. Oppenheimer.

Neil Young and Contemporary Poetry, Part II

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Patricia Lockwood, “What Is The Zoo For What” (The New Yorker, Oct. 28, 2013)

We continue our look at Neil Young’s appearances in contemporary poetry with this poem from a recent issue of The New Yorker:

What Is The Zoo For What

The word “zoo” is a zoo for the zoo.

A fountain is a zoo for water, the song
is a zoo for sound, the harmonica
is a zoo for the breath of Neil Young,
vagina is a zoo for baby.

Baby, girl baby, is a zoo for vagina.

The rose is a zoo for the smell of the rose,
the smell of the rose rattles its cage,
the zookeeper throws something bleeding
to it, the something bleeding is not enough,
a toddler fell into the cage of the rose,
the toddler was entirely eaten. His name
was Rilke, it was in all the papers.
A Little Pine Box is a zoo for him now,
it said in all the papers.

Then all the kids started doing it. Falling
into the violet’s cage, approaching the cave
where the smell of violets slept, getting
their whole head clawed off by it.
Neil Young did it to a buttercup
and his face got absolutely mauled.

The music that was piped into the zoo
let all the longing escape from it
and it ran riot over the earth, full
of the sight and smell of a buttercup
rearranging the face of Neil Young,
attacking pets at random, attacking
me in my bed as I slept, attacking
the happy wagging ends of my poems.

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

I’m going to leave it there.

The first thing that struck me about the poem was, Why does it even mention Neil Young? The poet needs the name of a well-known harmonica player, but surely, for any contemporary American poet, there’s someone a little closer to hand than Neil Young? No, not Toots Thielemans. I’m thinking, of course, of the bard of Hibbing, Minnesota himself: Bob Dylan.

Why not mention Bob here? Has Neil Young eclipsed him as the iconic harmonica-blowing folkie in the contemporary pop culture imagination? (And if so, what a victory for Canada!) Does the poet simply prefer Neil’s music to Bob’s? Is is for the slant rhyme with “song” that “Young” provides? The last is perhaps the best reason, though rhyme doesn’t seem to be a major goal of Lockwood’s; in fact, she uses direct repetition in places where one might expect rhyme – if one expects anything at all. (Though there is a fascinating music in “violets slept … clawed off by it … buttercup.”)

But notice how, once she lets Neil Young into her poem, she can’t get rid of him. The reference to Neil’s harmonica seems like a throwaway, and the poem appears to be moving off in another direction, with children getting attacked and devoured by flowers (or the smells of flowers?) – and then suddenly there’s Neil again, getting mauled by a buttercup. And there he is again in the next stanza, his face now not “mauled” but “rearranged” by the buttercup.

At this point Lockwood seems to realize that Neil Young is taking over her poem, and we get that odd little two-line stanza:

Can I put Neil Young in a poem.
Will he get trapped in there forever.

Neither of these apparent questions actually ends with a question mark, but we’ll try to answer them anyway. Yes, you can put Neil Young in a poem, but no, he won’t get trapped in there forever; in fact he’ll take over your poem, make it all about him, and then roll off down the open road with his old friend, the white line. And how refreshingly un-Canadian that behaviour is; considering how often we’re saddled with the reputation of being overly polite, it’s rather exciting to see a Canadian behaving badly, even if only by overstaying his welcome in a poem that seems to want to be about something else.

A Further Reference

I was doing some “research” for this post on Patricia Lockwood’s Twitter page, and I couldn’t help but notice this:

LockwoodTweet2

The context is that she tweeted about giving her parents weed brownies; someone replied that that was illegal, and she replied with the tweet that mentions Canada. I’m not sure how much I want to read into this remark – is it just absurdist humour, or does some idea of what Canada is like lie behind it? That our country itself is somehow fond of spreading misinformation? That we’re overly respectful of parents? That we live in a socialist nanny-state with laws regulating every aspect of interpersonal behaviour?

I think I’ll just leave it alone.

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