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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Provincialism”

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

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Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

I tend to think of Renata Adler as a journalist rather than a novelist; she is perhaps best known for her legendary takedown of Pauline Kael in the NYRB, and used to write for The New Yorker. She also wrote novels, however, and this one is apparently a sequel of sorts to Speedboat, which I haven’t read. Pitch Dark doesn’t exactly have a plot; it’s a fragmented narrative which isn’t as interested in recording a sequence of events as it is in capturing the shifting thoughts of a woman after the break-up of a long-running affair with a married man.There is a lot of repetition, a lot of going back and cycling through things, each time in a little more detail – the overall effect, for the reader, is of watching as events and emotions are gradually illuminated and the pieces of the story fall into place.

For the first reference, I’ll quote a little more than the mention of Canada, just to give a sense of the book’s style:

The truth was, there was something in the ice cube.
The turning point at the paper was the introduction of the byline.
Here’s who I knew in those days: everyone.
Everyone?
Well, not everyone in the world, of course. But a surprising number and variety, considering the lonely soul I was when I was young, and the sort of recluse I have since become.
“It’s really too much. I can’t tell you who they’ll seat next to you,” Claire said, after dinner, at the guarded island villa. “Wives, Canadians. They sit you next to anyone.” Also, “The daughter married an octoroon. A baboon. I don’t know.”  (49)

When I first read this I thought it was a reference to seating on an airplane. (For some reason, the use of “seat” as a verb makes me think of airplanes.) But I think it’s really about who you’re seated next to at a dinner party. The speaker seems to be a wealthy woman of leisure (“guarded island villa”), accustomed to eating out and with nothing much to think about other than who sits beside her.

As for the reference to Canadians, even my generally sunny outlook on life can’t convince me that it’s a compliment. The statement that “[i]t’s really too much” makes it clear that the people being discussed have offended her with their seating plan; the example of “Canadians” (coupled with “wives”) seems to suggest that these two categories of people are composed of utterly uninteresting and undistinguished individuals who have either nothing, or too much of no interest, to say, and that enduring a meal beside them is pure torture. This fits neatly into a pre-existing stereotype of our country: that it is – and we are – boring.

There seems to be an issue of, if not class, precisely, then of status, tied up in this as well; behind Claire’s statement lies the unspoken assumption that being seated next to interesting or important people is an indication that you are also considered important; being seated next to “wives” or “Canadians”, on the other hand, shows that you are an afterthought rather than a significant guest. And so sitting next to a Canadian doesn’t involve only the torture of a boring evening; it’s also a form of social insult. Life in high society is tantamount to warfare, and dull Canadians are its skillfully deployed ordnance.

Later in the novel, there is a cluster of references to Canada in a section in which the narrator is looking for a place to rent – the implication is that she wants a secluded place where she can escape after her affair has ended.

To begin with, I almost went, instead, to Graham Island…. I mentioned wanting to go somewhere, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Gavin said he had friends who had a place on an island off Vancouver. Maybe I would like to rent it.  (105)

Here, Vancouver is merely a place marker, giving a sense of the location of the island they are talking about. A description of the island follows:

The island had a rain forest. One flew to Vancouver, from there to another island, then took the ferry; two islands later, there one was. No worry about hospitals, there was a military installation there of sorts, the nearest observation post for Siberia. Siberia, I said. Well, yes, the island was six hundred miles, in fact, from Vancouver. There was a car there, I should pick it up from their friend the Danish baron.  (106)

One of the characteristics of Adler’s narrator is that she is persistently worrying at things, mentally going back over experiences, questioning, trying to read into events and comments. This is the process that is beginning here, as she finds out more about this island retreat, and it begins to seem a little less appealing than it did at first. Suddenly, it is a long way from Vancouver – and Vancouver itself has become richer in meaning than it was when it was first mentioned: no longer simply a place marker, it has now come to represent the last outpost of civilization, and we sense that proximity to Vancouver has suddenly become desirable.

Then the presentation of Graham Island begins to take on a darker cast:

Well, I called the Dutch baron, and his accent seemed instantly recognizable to me. I thought, What was this German pretending to be a Dane doing on an American island, six hundred miles from Vancouver, which is the nearest outpost to Siberia. I thought, a war criminal. My state of mind. I still resolved to go. It was somewhere else, somewhere beautiful and quiet, on the sea. Two nights before I left, however, I had a thought. I had begun to worry a bit about the isolation. I called the owners of the house. I reached the wife. How far, I asked, how far from their house was the nearest neighbouring house. Oh, she said, not far. You can see it from the window. It’s just up the hill actually. A very interesting house. Built and owned by a Haida. Of course, he leases it now. The first trace of a hesitation in her voice. To the government of Canada. She distinctly paused. As a retreat. I said, A retreat. She said, Yes. But there are never more than six. I did not ask six what. She said, Alcoholic. Indians. Well, I couldn’t do it. Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.  (106-7)

There are several difficulties – or at least oddities – in this passage. First, the transformation of this “baron” from Dutch to German to Danish is very rapid and somewhat difficult to understand; he could certainly be a German pretending to be Dutch, but then how does the idea that he’s (pretending to be) a Dane arise? Is this an intentional error meant to convey the narrator’s confused state of mind?

And then there is the reference to Graham Island as “an American island”. In fact, Graham Island is a Canadian island, off the coast of British Columbia and part of the Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands (now a popular tourist destination). Although close to Alaska, it is definitely part of Canada – is this, again, some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the narrator?

Regardless of these issues, a couple of distinct ideas about Canada emerge. First, we have the common idea of a remote wilderness – it contains a rain forest, it is “beautiful, and quiet,” which no doubt means sparesely populated, the sort of place where one can escape from the pressures of modern life and retreat into peaceful solitude. And yet as the narrator seeks further details, a more menacing element emerges, first in the form of the possible war criminal – admittedly we can’t say that he is a war criminal, as the narrator herself admits that her “state of mind” has suggested this inference – and then the Haida house, being leased to the Canadian government as a retreat.

This, finally, is the breaking point for the narrator; when she learns the nature of this house she states, “I couldn’t do it.” Yet this seemingly unequivocal statement is followed immediately, and characteristically, by one that adds a layer of ambiguity: “Maybe I should have done it, but I couldn’t.” What, precisely, does this mean? Our country’s treatment of first nations people is certainly one of the greatest stains on our collective conscience; does the narrator feel that, in living on the island, she would be implicitly condoning a history that she finds morally repugnant? Or is it that she feels the occupants of this retreat would be unpleasant neighbours who would compromise the peaceful solitude she is seeking? It’s hard to say, though the phrase “Maybe I should have done it” – if we read it to mean, Maybe I should have been more open-minded and not pre-judged the situation – seems to suggest the latter. But her attitude is difficult to interpret.

Without question, however, there has been a development in the idea of Canada: as the passage begins, Adler’s narrator sees it as nothing more than a quiet wilderness where she can escape her problems; within a couple of pages, however, Graham Island has changed from a fantasy getaway into a real part of the real world, complete with its own real-world problems that grow out of the difficult history and politics of Canada itself. (One could say, in fact, that the isolation and solitude that originally attracted Adler’s narrator to Canada are the same factors that attracted the other residents, and it is the presence of those other residents that ultimately convinces her not to go. Further proof of Marvell’s dictum, “Two Paradises ’twere in one / To live in Paradise alone.”) The passage questions and complicates obvious notions about Canada, and ends up providing a more nuanced and complex portrait of our country than we often see.

But before I go on too long, I will recall the following sentence from Pitch Dark:

So there is this pressure now, on every sentence, not just to say what it has to say, but to justify its claim upon our time. (43)

Indeed.

A Cozy Home for Plagiarists

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Flann O’Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

At Swim-Two-Birds is a “metafictional novel,” full of literary gamesmanship (gamespersonship?) and excerpts from books both real and imagined – including, I believe, an essentially complete version of the Irish epic Sweeny Astray. (I say that on the basis of having read Seamus Heaney’s translation.) There is something to flatter pretty well any style of literary poseur; Classical poseurs such as myself, to pick one example close to my heart, will delight in jokes like the following:

They met two decadent Greek scullions, Timothy Danaos and Dona Ferentes, ashore from the cooking-galley of a strange ship.  (101)

I’m not sure how to even begin summarizing this novel in such a way as to make the context of the following quote clear, but I’ll give it a shot. The main character is a university student who lives with his uncle and apparently spends little time studying, and a great deal of time out with his friends, drinking and regaling them with excerpts from a novel he is writing. The student’s novel, which makes up much of the book, is about an author named Dermot Trellis and a group of characters he has invented for a novel he is writing; the characters, however, are offended by what Trellis wants them to do in the book, and so they begin plotting to overthrow him and gain their freedom. With the help of Trellis’ son Orlick (conceived when Trellis rapes a female character immediately after creating her for his novel), they begin a new novel in which Dermot Trellis is brutally assaulted and dragged across the Irish countryside, almost to the point of death, and then put on trial for his crimes in a court in which the characters from his novel are both the witnesses against him and the judges.

Got that? Okay, good.

The reference to Canada comes during the trial, when William Tracy, another author and a rival of Trellis, gives evidence:

Is there any other incident which occurs to you explanatory of the character of the accused?

Yes. During his illness in 1924 I sent him – in a charitable attempt to entertain him – a draft of a short story I had written dealing in an original way with banditry in Mexico towards the close of the last century. Within a month it appeared under his own name in a Canadian periodical.

That’s a lie! screamed Trellis from his chair.   (200)

So Trellis is being accused of plagiarism – one of the worst allegations that can be levelled at an author, hence his angry reaction. But, given that the novel takes place in Ireland and the main characters are, presumably, Irish, why the reference to a Canadian periodical?

I think the implication here is twofold: first, Trellis is understandably eager to prevent Tracy from detecting his plagiarism, and he’s afraid that if he publishes Tracy’s story in a journal in Ireland or England, Tracy will see it and recognize the theft. Accordingly, he publishes it in a place that he considers so obscure that Tracy would never read a journal from there – if it even occurred to him that journals could be produced in so backward a place: Canada!

(This plan has clearly gone awry, and raises the intriguing question of what Canadian literary journals would have been available in Ireland in 1939?)

Second, it’s hard not to feel that aspersions are being cast on the stringency of the editorial policies at Canadian magazines of the day. Granted, if a story comes in the mail, an editor will tend to assume that the name on the first page is the name of the author; and yet there is an implication of poor quality and general carelessness here, as though Trellis’ subterfuge would never have passed in a journal in the UK, but is the sort of thing one can get away with by practising on the innocence of those distant colonials in Canada.

The overall impression of Canada, then, is of a distant, slightly wild and unregulated place, where almost any sort of literary crime will pass unnoticed. It is an outpost with literary pretensions but without the real knowledge or expertise to produce anything of reliable quality, and filled with rubes who can be imposed upon by even the most rudimentary subterfuge.

Conclusion of the discussion of the reference to Canada. 

Biographical Reminiscence of How I Came to Purchase this Book (in the Style of Flann O’Brien)

I had, at that time, a group of friends of a decidedly literary bent.

Collective Description of this Group of Friends: Literary, musical, mildly disputatious, garrulous.

We determined among ourselves on the formation of a sort of a Society, or a Club, the purpose of which would be to read the honey-sweet words of the finest and most illustrious authors, and then to meet together in a selected public house to consume spiritous liquors and engage in pleasant colloquy, occasionally verging into mild disputation, on the interpretation and relative merits of said works. Beyond that, this embryonic Club had a further purpose, which was to offer lightsome, frolicsome (not to say gay) diversion from our days, which were spent drearily enough in the employ of [Note: I have here removed the name of the company on the advice of my attorneys]  – a formalizing, in a way, of the kind of discussions we would indulge in surreptitiously around the office and which we desired to carry on beyond its confines, so that we could more freely debate the relative merits of different authors, discuss the finer points of the iambic pentameter or the dactylic hexameter, regale one another with humorous excerpts from the various manuscripts we all had in progress at the time, and occasionally come out with melodious though melancholy staves which we had composed in our idle moments, along the lines of the following:

I sit here, heartsore, at my desk;
this job, it not at all fulfils
the dreams that animated my youth;
it barely pays the bills.

Note: I have here excised some ten or twelve further stanzas, feeling that their juvenility might render them somewhat embarrassing.

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. According to a set of very abstruse and precisely worked-out rules guaranteed to ensure that we only brought our minds into contact with the finest things that had been thought and written through the centuries of endless struggle waged between Art and The Darkness, it was eventually determined that At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien (pseudonym of Brian O’Nolan) would be the work that would mark the first stage of our Society’s journey towards Enlightenment.

Note: I have here taken the advice of legal counsel and removed a long passage descriptive of the lengths I went to seeking a copy of the above-named novel, on the grounds that it might be construed as libellous of persons still living. 

Resumption of Biographical Reminiscence. When I opened the door of this establishment and stepped into its shadowy interior, the light from the street behind me poured – poured is the only word – slowly in, as if it possessed a viscosity, it poured like mellow-glowing syrup slowly into all the dusty dingy corners of that venerable bookstore and spread a pale honeyed light on the serried volumes crammed on the shelves, their spine-colours faded several shades lighter than their cover-colours despite the best efforts of the shielding gloom around them. The door closed; the shadows gulped down the light; and out of the restored darkness, as if himself restored to courage now that the light had passed, a little man sprang up at me.

Description of the man: Short, rotund, bearded and bespectacled, something gnome-like, though not at all gnomic, about him.

Can I help you find anything? he asked. I replied that I was in search of a copy of At Swim-Two-Birds, by Mr. Flann O’Brien, nom de plume of Brian O’Nolan. At these words his eyes grew wide, his jaw slackened, and a most peculiar expression overtook his countenance.

Nature of the expression: Amazement, delight, intermingled with a hint of suspicion and trepidation, as a child receiving a gift they fear they will not be allowed to keep.

Wow, he said, and followed that one word with a long pause. Sorry, it’s just – in all the twenty-five years I’ve worked here, this is the first time anyone has ever asked about a good book. Mostly people come in asking for crappy bestsellers.

Okay, I said, I’ll let you enjoy the moment.

Thank you. He let the silence stretch on.

Nature of the silence: Past lengthy, past uneasy, on the cusp of departing the realm of the uncomfortable and entering into the realm of the weird and perhaps disturbing.

At last, seeing really no other alternative, I chose to arouse him from reverie with a sharp query, along the lines of, So, about the book? At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien, actually christened Brian O’Nolan, or, more correctly, Brian O Nuallain?

Oh, right. Sorry, we haven’t got it.

Pause to allow readers to formulate their own philosophical reflections on how the ships of our dreams inevitably founder upon the reefs of reality.

At that moment I abandoned my afore-stated plans [Note: the afore-stating of these plans was part of the passage excised for legal reasons] to find a rare, exquisite first edition of At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, ne Brian O’Nolan, in a dusty corner of some little-visited used bookstore, the sort of physical object that would have delighted my literary companions and made both it and, by extension, myself, the object of many pleasingly envious exclamations, and instead bought a cheap paperback copy at a big-box bookstore. Conclusion of the foregoing.

Those Ghastly Colonials

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Nancy Mitford, Love in a Cold Climate (1949)

Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford’s sort-of sequel to The Pursuit of Love, doesn’t just mention Canada – it features a Canadian as a major character, and both raises and then undermines a number of common ideas about our country and its citizens. The novels share several features: like The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate is again narrated by Fanny; again has very little to do with Fanny’s life, but is rather the story of one of her acquaintances, Polly; and again makes ample use of the Mitford family in the guise of the Radletts. Many of the characters from the earlier novel recur, though seen from slightly different angles, as it were.

As for the evocative title, if it has led you to hope that the novel is all about how to get naked and stay warm in a snowbank, I’m afraid I must disappoint you: the “cold climate” of the title refers to England (which must make any Canadian laugh, but anyway).

On to the story: Polly is the beautiful but cold daughter of Lord and Lady Montdore, and the first half of the novel concerns Lady Montdore’s attempts to marry her daughter off to a suitable bachelor. One of Lady Montdore’s great disappointments is that the family’s beautiful country house, Hampton, cannot be inherited by Polly, but instead will go to Cedric Hampton, a young relative the family has never met from – wait for it – Nova Scotia.

Here is Lady Montdore laying it out:

‘Oh, dear, oh, dear! Now, if only we were a French family, they seem to arrange things so very much better. To begin with, Polly would inherit all this, instead of those stupid people in Nova Scotia – so unsuitable – can you imagine Colonials living here?’  (271)

And similarly, a few pages later:

‘The young man from Nova Scotia simply gets Hampton and everything in it, but that is an Aladdin’s Cave, you know, the furniture, the silver, the library – treasures beyond value. Boy was saying they really ought to get him over and show him something of civilization before he becomes too transatlantic.’  (281)

And this:

‘Sad, isn’t it, the idea of some great lumping Colonial at Hampton!’  (367)

Here we can see the English aristocracy’s attitude to Canada: “stupid people … so unsuitable … Colonials.” The incredulity implied by the question at the end of the first passage makes it clear that Canadians are viewed as simply not good enough to live in a stylish English house.

The second passage continues in the same vein, with the reference to showing the Nova Scotian something of civilization indicating that no one thinks there’s any civilization to be found in Canada; no doubt it’s essentially a wilderness inhabited by people not much better than animals. Only Europe can provide civilization – and there we see the one ray of hope. The boy from Nova Scotia is not beyond recovery; if he could just be rescued from Canada and brought to Europe in time, perhaps the touch of civilization could smooth out his savage nature (“too transatlantic”) and make him someone who might not be welcomed, but could at least be tolerated, in the drawing rooms of society.

I don’t want to summarize the entire plot here – too labyrinthine – but, for the sake of comprehension, I’ll hit the high points: Polly disappoints her parents by marrying her uncle, Boy Dougdale (who has also been her mother’s lover, apparently – let’s hope Park Chan-wook doesn’t make a film adaptation). In response to this inappropriate marriage, her father cuts her out of his will entirely:

‘Of course lots of people say Polly isn’t Lord Montdore’s child at all. King Edward, I’ve heard.’
‘It doesn’t seem to make much difference now, whose child she is, because he’s cut her out of his will and some American gets it all.’  (383)

This is one of the most remarkable references to Canada I’ve come across. Without even mentioning Canada, it says so much about us: even in fiction, we get taken for Americans.

In the second half of the novel we actually meet Cedric Hampton, the Nova Scotian who will inherit all of Lord Montdore’s estate, and this is where things get particularly interesting. Mitford sets us up with a few more references along the lines of what we’ve come to expect:

‘Now, fancy moving in Canada. You’d think one place there would be exactly the same as another, wouldn’t you?’  (397)

And this:

Words dimly associated with Canada kept on occurring to me, the word lumber, the word shack, staking a claim…. How I wished to be present at Hampton when this lumberjack arrived to stake his claim to that shack.  (399)

So there he is again: our old, and seemingly inescapable, friend, the Canadian lumberjack. The passage is a miniature summary of how a well-off young Englishwoman of the time would think of Canada – ironically so, it turns out, because then we meet the “lumping colonial,” the “lumberjack,” Cedric Hampton himself, and things take a turn for the unexpected:

There was a glitter of blue and gold across the parquet, and a human dragon-fly was kneeling on the fur rug in front of the Montdores, one long white hand extended towards each. He was a tall, thin young man, supple as a girl…. He was flashing a smile of unearthly perfection….  (401)

It turns out that this nominal Canadian has not been living in Canada for years; in fact, as he says himself:

‘…kindly Nature has allowed a great sea-fog of oblivion to rise between me and Nova Scotia, so that I hardly remember one single thing about it.’  (406)

He’s been living in Paris, depending on the kindness of Barons, involved with a “selfish” German “boy” named Klugge; he is “kind and thoughtful and affectionate, like a charming woman friend” (413); he turns out to be a member of quite a different tribe from what we were led to expect:

‘Aesthetes – you know – those awful effeminate creatures – pansies.’  (420)

For us as Canadians, Cedric’s actual appearance, when compared to what everyone expects of him before he arrives, marks a significant shift in the perception of Canadians in the English novel, and brings about an equally remarkable shift in the views of the English aristocrats in the book – for Cedric becomes like a son to the Montdores, especially Lady Montdore, who at the beginning of the novel loathes the very idea of his existence. He turns out to be a sophisticated aesthete with an extensive knowledge of art, architecture, poetry, fashion, furniture, personal grooming – pretty well any subject of interest to society ladies with more money and time than they know how to spend. He charms every member of high society he meets, usually by seeming to have an intimate knowledge of, and deep interest in, whatever subject the other person is most fascinated by. He is a glittering chameleon, always exactly what the other person wants him to be.

This seems to suggest that Mitford had a view of Canadians quite a bit more nuanced than many of her compatriots had – or even have today. In part the intention of the novel is satirical, of course; she builds up expectations of a coarse, unsophisticated Canadian, and then shifts the direction of the novel by introducing a completely different sort of character. And Cedric’s sophisitication is the product of his time in Europe, not in Nova Scotia – though really it’s the product of time in Europe combined with his innate nature, which suggests Canadians aren’t doomed to never be more than lumberjacks; we have at least the potential to understand and appreciate the finer things, so long as we are brought into contact with the improving influence of European civilization.

There is also the idea that “blood will out” to consider – Cedric’s mother was a Canadian woman, but his father was a member of the English aristocracy, and perhaps we are meant to understand that it is the aristocratic half of his background that makes the life he creates for himself possible.

Nevertheless, the story of Cedric Hampton represents a fascinating reversal of the view of Canada taken by Dickens, say, or Basil Bunting, as a land of new opportunity for Englishmen; in the case of Cedric, it is his leaving Canada and coming to Europe that opens up a social and cultural world where a person with his aesthetic and theatrical inclinations can succeed and become an adored figure of high society – something that surely never would have happened in Halifax or Dartmouth, where he might well have simply withered away.

The Menace of Ontario

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Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm (1932)

I might as well begin by confessing that I came to this book through the film, which I saw years ago and don’t remember much about, other than the line, “I saw something nasty in the woodshed.” The novel itself, according to the back cover blurb, is “a dazzling parody of the earthy, melodramatic novels” that were popular around the time Gibbons wrote it. It takes place in a village called Howling, has characters with names like Aunt Ada Doom (she’s the one who saw something in the woodshed) and Starkadder and … well, you probably get the idea, and if you don’t, you can always read the book (or watch the movie).

Canada doesn’t play a large role in the novel, alas, but we do get in for a quick one-liner:

‘Curious how Love destroys every vestige of that politeness which the human race, in its years of evolution, has so painfully acquired,’ reflected Flora, as she leaned out of the carriage window and observed the faces of Bikki and Swooth. ‘Shall I tell them that Mig is expected home from Ontario tomorrow? No, I think not. It would be downright sadistic.’  (31)

It’s hard to draw too much out of that reference, but the fact that telling them Mig is returning would be “sadistic” indicates that no one wants to spend any time in her company; the fact that she’s returning from Ontario would seem to suggest that Canada is a sort of catch-all for unwanted, awful relatives, who are sent there so decent people don’t have to put up with them, except on the rare and much-dreaded occasions when they return to visit.

In the context, Canada is probably meant to call to mind associations of wildness and a lack of civility – a colonial wasteland where the civilizing touches that make English life so refined are unheard-of. This is hardly unusual; in fact, it was probably a fairly common view of our country even as late as 1932 – and even as late as today, perhaps? – but it’s hard to feel that Gibbons put much thought into the reference; it’s more of a throwaway.

And doesn’t that, in a way, say more than anything else could about the position Canada occupied in the author’s mind? Ontario was a distant place brought in to add point to a joke; having served its purpose, it was promptly forgotten.

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.

Canadian Xenophobes

Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford

Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels (1960)

Let me just note, for those not already familiar, that this book is published by New York Review Books, a fantastic source of hard-to-find books (though in hunting down the link I find Dead Souls is their featured title, which is actually fairly ubiquitous. Oh the cruel ironies of life!) They also have a great children’s series.

Anyway….

There are a couple of points of interest here; let’s tackle the meatiest first.

We sailed for New York on February 18, 1939, on the Canadian ship SS Aurania. (p. 198)

Perhaps only a Canadian would note the irony implicit in this: Mitford and her husband, Esmond Romilly, sailed on a Canadian ship, but of course they weren’t going to Canada – no, they were on their way to a far more glamorous and exciting destination – New York. Their brush with Canada was merely a means to get somewhere else.

A description of the voyage follows:

Our fellow passengers were Canadian tourists, and Polish refugees who had managed to get on the immigration quota. Since there was little to liven up the voyage, we devoted our attention to taking sides in the continuous battle that raged between these two groups.

Some of the Canadians had taken it upon themselves to preserve the Anglo-Saxon purity of the steerage class bar from the “foreigners”. The bar was small, generally crowded, and stuffy. A group of Canadians generally managed to monopolize it early in the evening. “This place stinks of polecats,” they said loudly when some of the immigrants tried to come in. Esmond, assuming his most super-English-upper-class-public-school manner, escorted a group of Poles through the Canadian phalanx. “I really must apologize for these ghastly Colonials. They’re virtually uncivilized. Too bad we couldn’t have sailed on an English ship.” For once he was enjoying outsnobbing the snobs.

For a country that now prides itself on welcoming immigrants, this doesn’t make the most charming reading. Romilly’s comments about the Canadians play on the standard trope of colonials taking on the characteristics of the wild land they have settled, becoming more savage than the cultured sophisticates who remained home in the mother country. And putting on his most upper-crust attitude is the perfect touch; even today, most Canadians are cowed by the mere sound of an English accent. A cockney could proclaim himself a lord in Toronto and be met with bows of obeisance.

No insight is given into the motivations of the Canadians, but this sort of imposition of inferiority tends to work in a chain i.e. the English make the Canadians feel inferior; the Canadians then have to find someone (in this case, Polish refugees) that they can make feel inferior in their turn; and so it goes until the person at the bottom is left screaming at his child or kicking his dog. Perhaps the Canadians were acting out the contempt they had just been treated to on their tour of Europe. If so, Romilly’s joke about uncivilized Colonials must have twisted the knife with particular sharpness.

Moving on….

Romilly’s decision to join the Armed Forces to fight in the Second World War while he and Mitford were living in the United States brought about another brush with Canada:

[Esmond] was exultant at being in a position to arrange the details of his own participation in the war. Had he been caught up in the English conscription he would have found himself at the mercy of officialdom, with nothing whatsoever to say about what branch of the services he would join. As things stood, he was free to steer as clear as possible of the more tradition-bound centers of the armed forces. He decided to leave immediately for Canada, there to volunteer for the Air Force.

Notice that the reason for enlisting in Canada is entirely negative – he doesn’t particularly want to be part of the Canadian armed forces, he just wants to avoid English conscription. Romilly was the nephew, by marriage, of Winston Churchill, and to him Canada is nothing more than a useful backwater that provides him with some much-desired obscurity.

The Tedium of Vancouver

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

Plenty of people invited me to their houses, but they didn’t seem much interested in me. They would fling me a question or two about South Africa, and then get on their own affairs. A lot of Imperialist ladies asked me to tea to meet schoolmasters from New Zealand and editors from Vancouver, and that was the dismallest business of all. Here was I, thirty-seven years old, sound in wind and limb, with enough money to have a good time, yawning my head off all day.  (pp. 7-8)

The Thirty-Nine Steps begins with the narrator and (improbably lucky) hero, Richard Hannay, describing how bored he is roaming around London with nothing to do. Then a mysterious stranger accosts him at his door, and adventure ensues….

The reference to Canada, however, does not feature anywhere in the 130 pages of adventure; it appears in the two pages of boredom that open the novel.

Vancouver, along with New Zealand, is clearly meant to represent a far-flung outpost of the Empire where nothing of any interest could ever occur. Meeting with editors from Vancouver, then, is a byword for tedium.

Put another way, Buchan (or Hannay?) is assuming a typical attitude of superiority, which those in the mother country direct towards the colonies, and sneering down on Canada; such attitudes are common, but not particularly interesting.

This attitude of superiority is crowned, however, by one of those exquisite ironies that fate occasionally manufactures.

What is it? In 1935, Buchan (as Lord Tweedsmuir) was named Governor General of Canada – that same provincial outpost he had casually derided in his fiction. In what must rank as an archetypal example of the humble Canadian habit of repaying cruelty with kindness, British Columbia even named a provincial park after him. He remained Governor General until his death in 1940, when he received a state funeral in Canada.

It’s all true – go ahead, Wikipedia him.

One can only hope the years changed his opinion.

Racquet Racket

Open by Andre Agassi

Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography (2009)

There are two references to Canada to be catalogued, one comic, the other tragic. We’ll begin with the Aristophanic, then proceed to the Sophoclean.

The court at the Canadian Open feels impossibly small, which makes the opponent look bigger. Wheaton is a big guy, but here in Canada he looks ten feet tall. (p. 192)

We can dispatch this one briskly, as the tropes present in the passage are common: Canada is small, provincial, and second-rate; anyone who comes here from the United States will naturally seem huge in comparison to the stunted surroundings.

Moving on….

I hack my way through the tournament, seemingly on a collision course with Pete [Sampras], but I falter in the semis against Greg Rusedski, from Canada. My mind hurries back to Vegas, hours ahead of my body. (p. 242)

Agassi is referring to a tournament in early 1997 in San Jose. It seems anodyne on the surface, but what Canadian tennis fan’s heart doesn’t freeze at the words “Greg Rusedski, from Canada”?

Born in Montreal, raised in Canada and nurtured by the Canadian tennis system (such as it was), Rusedski was probably the best men’s tennis player this country has so far produced. But, as any Canadian who watched his early career with so much passionate hope will know, in 1995 he chose to exercise the right he had by virtue of his mother being British, and switched his allegiance to play for Britain.

That was in 1995; the match Agassi refers to was in 1997; so why does he say Rusedski is “from Canada”? He is still originally “from Canada,” I suppose, but shouldn’t he be called “formerly from Canada”? Or “the ex-Canadian”? Or “the Canadian by birth but Briton by choice”? Or “the Briton of convenience”? Or ….

Does Agassi simply mean he was born in Canada? Or perhaps he doesn’t really care Rusedski has changed his tennis citizenship? Is it possible that such things don’t loom as large for non-Canadians as they do for us? Or is this some sort of subtle put-down, like a refusal to refer to a newly created baron by his just-acquired title?

1997 was also the year Rusedski made it to his only Grand Slam final, at the U.S. Open. Had he remained Canadian, he would have been the only Canadian ever to make it to a men’s singles final at a Grand Slam.  I remember rooting for his opponent, the Australian Pat Rafter, with all the ferocious ardour I would have poured into cheering for Rusedski had he still been a Canadian.

And I suspect I wasn’t alone. Confronted with Rusedski, Canadian tennis fans felt the sort of exquisite agony of rejection that only the self-haters can know: rage at Rusedski for rejecting us, but at the same time an impossible-to-deny feeling, somewhere deep down, that he was probably right to choose Great Britain over us.

Perhaps the tennis gods, if they exist, pitied our despair and rendered their judgment. Rusedski lost in four sets.

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