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Archive for the tag “Politeness”

It’s Glacier Season in Canada!

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Gregg Easterbrook, “Tuesday Morning Quarterback” (Nov. 26, 2013)

As you may have guessed if you visit this space occasionally, I read a fair bit (too much) about football during the NFL season. Every week I tell myself that I won’t write about football columnists here, and then every week I read something that is too good to resist.

Next week I’m definitely going to write about something literary. But I just can’t let this, from Gregg Easterbrook’s latest Tuesday Morning Quarterback column, slip by. He’s talking about the Saskatchewan Roughriders and their victory in the Grey Cup:

Underdog Hamilton trailing host Saskatchewan 24-3 in the second quarter of the Grey Cup — Canada plays its title game in November, before glaciers cover the fields — the Tiger-Cats faced third-and-goal, the CFL equivalent of fourth-and-goal, on the Rough Riders’ 3.

He hasn’t noticed that Roughriders is one word – a discussion we’ve had before – but at least he’s conversant in the basics of three-down versus four-down football.

But glaciers? Really? Have we come no further than that? Do Americans still have so little notion of what Canada is actually like that mainstream columnists can get away with jokes about glaciers advancing across our country every December? And this from a writer who believes in global warming and so must be aware that glaciers are actually retreating, not advancing.

Yes, America, it’s true – glaciers cover Canada every winter. But just like Canadians themselves, Canadian glaciers are so polite that they stop 1.6093 km (one mile, for your convenience) away from the US border so that you won’t be bothered by the massive sheet of ice that covers our northern land for four months every year.

I like Gregg Easterbrook’s column – I don’t always agree with him, and I could do without the sci-fi references, but overall I think he’s an intelligent and insightful writer and a well-educated man. And yet, when it comes to Canada, this well-educated and intelligent American instantly sinks to the lowest cliche available to make a joke at our expense. Really, it’s a bit dispiriting.

I suppose that’s what I get for reading too many football columns.

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Scandal in Canada? Impossible!

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

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

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

Ha ha ha.

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

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

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

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

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

e. Rob? That’s sort of a big deal.

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

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

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

Toronto: City of Grandmas

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Willy Staley, “Talk,” The New York Times Magazine (September 15, 2013)

The following is from an interview with the rapper Earl Sweatshirt in The New York Times Magazine:

You were just in Toronto. How was that? It was crazy. Canadians are weirdos, though. They are so nice – overbearing nice, like grandmother nice. Toronto is like a city of grandmas.

The rapper Drake is from Toronto. Is he grandma nice? Due, Drake is grandma nice. He was at Frank Ocean’s show in L.A. and got into an argument with Tyler, the Creator’s mom. I left and came back in the room, and she was apologizing to him for how she came at him, and he was saying: “It’s all love. I love you, Mom. I love moms.” Drake loves moms.  (12)

The idea that Canadians are “nice” is not in itself particularly noteworthy, especially coming from an American; this  perceived “niceness” is a close cousin to the “politeness” which we already know we’re famed for south of the border. But then comes the twist: “overbearing nice.”

That’s a new one. Canadians aren’t just nice; we’re overbearingly nice. Here our niceness takes on a bit of an edge, as if its purpose isn’t to make other people feel comfortable, but rather to get our own way, like a grandmother who uses a sugary, wheedling tone to compel you to do what she wants. From this point of view, niceness becomes a type of power play.

This may illuminate the anecdote about Drake which follows, and which on the surface seems to make no sense. If Drake is from Toronto, and Torontonians are nice, then we would expect the story to lead to Drake apologizing to Tyler, the Creator’s mother – or to focus on his being so nice that he never gets in an argument with her to begin with. In fact the opposite happens: the story ends with Tyler’s mother apologizing to Drake. What does it mean?

Arguably, the anecdote simply comes out of the question about Drake, which comes out of the question about Toronto, and isn’t meant to suggest the more self-serving corners of our national niceness.

But if we accept the general notion that everything means something, then we might be inclined to suggest that this story reveals how Canadian niceness becomes overbearing. Drake doesn’t directly win his argument with Tyler’s mother; instead, through a sort of conversational jiu-jitsu, he is so nice to her that at the end of the argument she apparently feels so bad about having argued with such a nice guy that she is compelled to apologize to him, thus giving him a form of victory – at which point he continues to overwhelm her with niceness.

Perhaps Canadians are like the Greeks in Horace’s famous line:

Graecia capta ferum victorem cepit (Epistles II.i.156)

We accept being conquered so nicely that we make our conquerors feel bad about it, and thus ultimately win a stealth victory over them. Some idea along those lines seems to lie behind Earl Sweatshirt’s description of us as “overbearing nice” and gives us an interesting new perspective on Canadians: nice on the surface, but underneath that, consciously using our niceness as a way to get what we want. This is, at least, a little more interesting and nuanced than the more usual image of us as overly polite pushovers.

A Final Question

One final issue arises: why is the question about Toronto even asked?

As a professional musician, Earl Sweatshirt must travel all over the world. Why is the fact that he was just in Toronto of interest? Why does Staley ask specifically what he thought of it? He sounds like a typically insecure Canadian journalist, forever asking foreign celebrities, in a tone of desperate hope, “What do you think of Canada?”

Still, he makes a point of discussing Canada – and if you go to the online version of the article (linked above), you’ll see the headline is “Earl Sweatshirt: ‘Canadians Are Weirdos'”, as though Earl Sweatshirt’s opinion of Canadians were the main point of the interview, and the one most likely to catch people’s attention and make them stop and read.

Could it be our neighbours to the south are beginning to find us as fascinating as we always dreamed they would? We can fantasize.

Canadian Lemmings, New Yorker Cartoons and Plato

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

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

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

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

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

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

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

Slightly Philosophical (feel free to skip)

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

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

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

Giving The New Yorker Its Due

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Bit About Lemmings

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

Disney Nefariousness

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

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

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

Here’s a clip:

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

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.

The Repellent Cleanliness of Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a town you want to stay in very long.

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

A Digressive Anecdote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Politeness Run Rampant

Canadian Standoff cartoon from The New Yorker

Roz Chast in The New Yorker (November 26, 2012)

Do you get it? They’re Canadians, so they’re so polite that neither one of them can bear to get on the elevator before the other one. They’re just going to stand there insisting that the other go first until finally the elevator doors close and it departs, leaving them behind, trapped in the vicious cycle of you-first-ism. Hilarious!

The cartoon itself is based on one of the most tired cliches about Canadians – that we’re excessively polite, to the point that if you step on a Canadian’s foot, the Canadian will apologize. The word “standoff” adds point to the joke: presumably we are meant to understand that an American standoff would be considerably more bloody than this. And so, in addition to politeness, the cartoon refers to broader stereotypes, which we’ve already canvassed, about Canadians being pacifists, as opposed to our more martial neighbours to the south.

Is it funny? Is there a subgenre of humour about Canadians in the U.S., like Newfie jokes up here? Would the average reader of The New Yorker pause, read this cartoon, and then burst out laughing?

It’s hard to imagine, partly because I think the idea of Canadians being excessively polite is something Canadians are more aware of than Americans.

Of course, the debate about whether New Yorker cartoons are even intended to be funny is so common it has even made its way into pop culture. Perhaps a New Yorker reader would look this one over, shrug, and mentally consign it to the dustbin of impenetrable obscurity.

Which raises another interesting possibility – but dare I even suggest it? Yes, I dare. Perhaps the cartoon isn’t aimed at Americas at all. Perhaps it’s aimed at … Canadians.

After all, I read it. The editors of The New Yorker must be aware that a certain percentage of their readership is Canadian. Perhaps, every once in a while, they slip in a Canadian-themed cartoon, just as a sly wink in our direction, a way of letting us know that they know we’re here, and they appreciate our taking the time to read their magazine. I didn’t exactly burst out laughing when I read it, but I did feel that uniquely provincial frisson that comes with seeing Canada mentioned in an American publication.

This, perhaps, is the essence of Canadian insecurity: we’re flattered to think that a magazine like The New Yorker would bother to publish a cartoon about us, even if it is a cartoon based on cliches.

A Fresh Hope Squandered

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit (1857)

Nevertheless, the brave little creature did so fix her heart on her brother’s rescue, that while he was ringing out these doleful changes, she pinched and scraped enough together to ship him for Canada. When he was tired of nothing to do, and disposed in its turn to cut even that, he graciously consented to go to Canada. And there was grief in her bosom over parting with him, and joy in the hope of his being put in a straight course at last.

‘God bless you, dear Tip. Don’t be too proud to come and see us, when you have made your fortune.’

‘All right!’ said Tip, and went.

But not all the way to Canada; in fact, not further than Liverpool. After making the voyage to that port from London, he found himself so strongly impelled to cut the vessel, that he resolved to walk back again. Carrying out which intention, he presented himself before her at the expiration of a month, in rags, without shoes, and much more tired than ever. (pp. 79-80)

This was the novel that finally changed my mind about Dickens. In my foolish (and, alas, largely wasted) youth I thought of him as a sentimental populist who had churned out massive, painfully dull novels with an eye on feeding his legion of children (he got paid by the page, I was eager to point out) rather than literary merit. I had always liked Great Expectations, but I thought of it as a bit of an outlier.

My wanderings through the world of picaresque novels, however, eventually brought me to Pickwick Papers and Nicholas Nickleby, and I began to appreciate that side of Dickens. I made one or two unfortunate detours that seemed to confirm my earlier opinion (I’m looking at you, David Copperfield) but then I came to Little Dorrit and I was, as they say, changed.

Little Dorrit has the gallery of Dickensian characters, running the gamut from high to low, that you would expect, and the combination of pathos and humour that Dickens does so well. But the commentary on high finance and politics (and the connections between the two) remain incisive in the age of Bernie Madoff and bank bailouts (see the chapter “In which a Great Patriotic Conference is holden”), and the scenes in the Circumlocution Office would do Pirandello or Ionesco proud.

But returning to the passage quoted above.

The “brave little creature” is Amy Dorrit, the heroine of the novel and the “Little Dorrit” of the title. Tip is her brother, a ne’er-do-well for whom she can’t quite bring herself to relinquish hope.

Here Canada represents a land of opportunity where those who have failed to succeed in England can get a second chance, outside the rigid social and class system that controls so much of English society and makes upward mobility difficult. Of course the implication is that getting ahead in the New World will still require hard work – anathema to Amy’s brother Tip.

And Dickens, it’s worth noting, actually knew something of Canada, having visited it on his North American trip in 1842. (This doesn’t make him a “Canadian writer;” I’m always irritated by the slightly desperate way we Canadians claim as our own any famous person who happens to live here for a while. I think of Malcolm Lowry as the classic example: essentially a nomadic Englishman, but we try to possess him by virtue of his having lived in Vancouver for a few years.)

The following quotes are from Dickens’ book American Notes:

In the spring of the year, vast numbers of emigrants who have newly arrived from England or from Ireland, pass between Quebec and Montreal on their way to the backwoods and new settlements of Canada. If it be an entertaining lounge (as I very often found it) to take a morning stroll upon the quay at Montreal, and see them grouped in hundreds on the public wharfs about their chests and boxes, it is matter of deep interest to be their fellow-passenger on one of these steamboats, and mingling with the concourse, see and hear them unobserved.

The vessel in which we returned from Quebec to Montreal was crowded with them, and at night they spread their beds between decks (those who had beds, at least), and slept so close and thick about our cabin door, that the passage to and fro was quite blocked up. They were nearly all English; from Gloucestershire the greater part; and had had a long winter-passage out; but it was wonderful to see how clean the children had been kept, and how untiring in their love and self-denial all the poor parents were. (Chapter XV)

Dickens had witnessed first-hand the journey Amy hopes Tip will take. Note particularly the reference to the “backwoods and new settlements of Canada” – clearly nothing is going to be easy. Dickens conceived of Canada as Montreal and Quebec precariously perched in a sea of wilderness – which at the time was probably a fairly accurate impression.

Here are his parting words on Canada:

But Canada has held, and always will retain, a foremost place in my remembrance. Few Englishmen are prepared to find it what it is. Advancing quietly; old differences settling down, and being fast forgotten; public feeling and private enterprise alike in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system, but health and vigour throbbing in its steady pulse: it is full of hope and promise. To me – who had been accustomed to think of it as something left behind in the strides of advancing society, as something neglected and forgotten, slumbering and wasting in its sleep – the demand for labour and the rates of wages; the busy quays of Montreal; the vessels taking in their cargoes, and discharging them; the amount of shipping in the different ports; the commerce, roads, and public works, all made TO LAST; the respectability and character of the public journals; and the amount of rational comfort and happiness which honest industry may earn: were very great surprises. The steamboats on the lakes, in their conveniences, cleanliness, and safety; in the gentlemanly character and bearing of their captains; and in the politeness and perfect comfort of their social regulations; are unsurpassed even by the famous Scotch vessels, deservedly so much esteemed at home. The inns are usually bad; because the custom of boarding at hotels is not so general here as in the States, and the British officers, who form a large portion of the society of every town, live chiefly at the regimental messes: but in every other respect, the traveller in Canada will find as good provision for his comfort as in any place I know. (Chapter XV)

The phrase here that seems most relevant to the mention of Canada in Little Dorrit is “full of hope and promise” – Dickens saw Canada as a land of new beginnings, especially for the poor.

But let’s note, in passing, some of the other words and phrases that come up:

“advancing quietly”

“nothing of flush or fever in its system”

“steady pulse”

“respectability”

“rational comfort and happiness”

“cleanliness”

“safety”

“politeness”

How many common ideas of Canada are already here! We’re polite, we’re steady, we’re respectable, we’re not fiery – at the end of this paragraph one already has a strong sense of Canada as very nice, really, but a little … well … dull, no?

Still, it’s what you would call an “overall positive review,” which is about the most one can hope for.

Too bad about the inns.

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