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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Sex”

All the Way to Canada Just to Have an Orgasm

Curtis Sittenfeld, American Wife (2008)

Who has never looked at a couple and wondered, How did she ever end up with him? This must, surely, be close to a universal experience. And, among recent American politicians, it’s hard to imagine that any couple could have inspired that question more often than Laura and George W. Bush. How did this quiet, intelligent, book-loving librarian end up with a man who seems, at times, little more than an aging frat boy?

American Wife is Curtis Sittenfeld’s attempt to answer that question through fiction. Loosely based on the life of Laura Bush (though the action is transferred from Texas to Wisconsin), the novel tells the story of elementary school librarian Alice Lindgren, who meets Charlie Blackwell, the wastrel son of a rich political family, at a backyard barbecue, falls in love with him, and marries him after only a couple of months. To Alice’s surprise as much as anyone else’s, Charlie, a borderline alcoholic and incompetent businessman, gives up drinking, finds religion, and goes on to become governor of Wisconsin and then President of the United States. (If you’re interested in further background on the novel, Sittenfeld wrote a fascinating article about Laura Bush back in 2004, which provides some insight into how, even at that time, she had begun to see her as an ideal character for a novel.)

The real heart of the book, for me at least, was the description of Alice and Charlie falling in love. The story is told from Alice’s perspective, in the first person, and I suppose I expected that at some point Alice would offer an explanation or a justification of why she decided to marry Charlie. (This would be in keeping with Alice’s character, as other parts of the book portray her as a thoughtful, rational woman who carefully considers her options before making decisions.) But Sittenfeld does something much more unexpected and striking: she uses this portion of the book to paint a remarkably convincing portrait of the irrationality of eros. Alice falls in love with Charlie not for any particular reason or reasons, but quite simply without reason; she can’t explain it because there is no explanation, and if asked for one, she might reply, with Catullus, “nescio, sed fieri sentio”. And so the answer to the central mystery — how did she end up with him? — turns out to be another mystery, the mystery of love itself. I found the essential reticence of this answer — the insistence that some things are simply inexplicable — strangely satisfying, and all the more so because it seemed so out of character for Alice.

But What About Canada?

Part of the plot involves Charlie becoming part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, and so there are one or two references to the Toronto Blue Jays (and one to Paul Molitor, a Brewers player who went on to win a World Series with Toronto) that are just passing mentions and don’t really seem worth cataloguing. There are a couple of other passages that are a little more interesting, though.

A Distant Landmark

This scene occurs early in Alice’s relationship with Charlie, when they are kissing in his car:

Charlie pulled back an inch. “So I haven’t forgotten about what I owe you. Let’s go to my place.”
Confused, I said, “You don’t owe me anything.” And then I understood — he was grinning — and I said, “Oh, that.”
“I’m not taking no for an answer. You’ve got to claim what’s rightfully yours.”
And even though, as I drove, I felt stirrings of nervous anticipation, I also wanted to just stay forever in this limbo; I’d have been content to drive all the way to Canada, knowing that something wonderful would happen when we got there.   (163)

What Charlie “owes” Alice is an orgasm, which didn’t happen the first time they had sex. Canada, in this passage, serves as a marker of distance; it’s the furthest place Alice can imagine driving to, as if to say, I’m enjoying the anticipation so much that I’d drive all the way to Canada — and what could be further than that? — before Charlie goes down on me. Of course Canada isn’t really that far from Wisconsin — even another American location, like Texas or Florida, would stretch the anticipation out a lot longer. But because Canada is a separate country, it has an aura of distance, even if it isn’t physically further away than a lot of points in the U.S.

And perhaps we’re meant to think that Alice doesn’t really want to wait that long anyway.

Bizarre Geography Triangle

This scene takes place at Halcyon, the Blackwell family retreat on the shores of Lake Michigan (modelled, presumably, on the Bush family “compound” at Kennebunkport) when Charlie takes Alice there to meet his family for the first time:

I subsequently found myself in a conversation with Uncle Trip, also loquacious, who explained that he divided his time — for reasons of business or pleasure, I could not discern — among Milwaukee, Key West, and Toronto. This seemed to me at the time to be the oddest triangle imaginable, but really, for the Blackwells’ friends, it proved not to be particularly unusual at all. Milwaukee and Sun Valley, Milwaukee and the Adirondacks, Minneapolis and Cheyenne and Phoenix, Chicago and San Francisco. They sold textiles, or mined ore, or owned a gallery in Santa Fe, or they were consultants — this was before consulting was as common as it is today — or they had just taken a cruise around the the Gulf of Alaska, and it had, they reported, been marvelous.   (223-24)

Maybe it’s just my preconceptions showing, but I can’t help feeling that it is Toronto, specifically, that makes the original list of places seem so odd. Alice herself immediately suggests that it isn’t as odd as it seemed to her at first, and goes on to list other groupings of places, presumably representing where other friends of the Blackwell family divide their time. But there is no other Canadian location in any of these groupings, which, to me, actually reinforces the oddity of the original list. Having a place in Chicago and one in San Francisco really doesn’t strike me as that strange, but Toronto — a city in another country — that does seem out of the ordinary. And what could possibly be in Toronto? It’s not a Canadian cottage, since these people already have their place on Lake Michigan.

I suppose we’ll never know.

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Brief Encounters with Canadian Folkies

Britta Lee Shain, Seeing the real you at last: Life and love on the road with Bob Dylan (2016)

I can’t really recommend reading this book, but if you’re at all tempted, I will say this: you won’t learn much about Bob Dylan, but you will get an idea of what it’s like to be in the orbit of a truly famous person. Shain’s goal in writing the book seems to be to prove that she is not just another woman Bob Dylan slept with a few times on tour, but rather his true soul mate and the only one in his entourage who really understands him. I don’t think she succeeds in that, but she does reveal what it takes to be a part of Bob Dylan’s world. Essentially, you have to do things for him. Shain is constantly running errands for Dylan: buying him clothes, boots, walking sticks, take-out food, picking up his girlfriends at the airport and then sitting downstairs reading a book and listening to them having sex upstairs. She believes that all these things bring her closer to Dylan and prove that he can’t live without her; to an outside observer, they suggest that she is one of many people Dylan uses to take care of whatever his needs are at any given moment with no regard for them as individuals. To quote what the man himself tells her when he gives her the kiss-off, “Sometimes I do bad things.”

But that’s neither here nor there. The book contains a number of references to Canada and Canadians, most of them passing and really not of much interest, but I’ll quote a few of the ones that stood out for me.

Sorrowful-Eyed Gentleman of the Northlands

As we’ve seen in numerous posts before, references to Canadian musicians are one of the most common ways Canada slips into books by non-Canadians. Shain is no exception, and given the world Dylan moves in, it should be no surprise that in this book we encounter the Canadian folk-rock triumvirate of Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Here is Shain meeting Neil Young:

May 30 1986. Prince is at the Wiltern Theater, as part of what will later be dubbed his Hit n’ Run Tour, since most of the shows are announced just days or hours before the actual concert takes place. Carole [Bob’s wife or “main girlfriend,” I can’t remember which] gets four passes, but Bob doesn’t want to go. Ernie [Shain’s boyfriend, who works in some capacity for Dylan, I can’t remember what — it’s through him that Shain meets the great man] and I escort her, and while she’s really getting off on the music, I spend most of the show mingling in the foyer with a growing chattering mob that prefers being outside of the music hall. Afterwards, backstage, I’m introduced to Neil Young, whose sorrowful dark-eyed gaze threatens to suck the very life out of me.  (59)

Yikes — these morose Canadians! Most intriguing (to me) is the question of what Neil is doing backstage at a Prince concert, but of course Shain has no interest in that. There’s more about Neil a couple of pages later, from June 5 1986:

A beautifully polished bus is also parked — engines running — in front of the hotel, and [Bill] Graham tells me this is Neil Young’s bus, and that unlike most rockers who rent their transportation, this is actually a bus that Neil Young owns — that he’s fixed it up really cool, and that other rockers rent it from him.  (61)

We don’t tend to think of Canadians as hard-headed businessmen, but that’s an interesting portrait of a man who never lets an opportunity to make a buck slip past his sorrowful eyes.

Neil’s bus is mentioned once more, when Shain is on tour with Dylan in 1987:

Bob and I are hanging out on the bus, getting loaded, watching one of the twelve Elvis Presley movies Ernie has secured at Dylan’s request for the road tour. Somewhere along the line we’ve acquired Neil Young’s bus, and it’s very cool, with deer antlers up front and center, above the driver’s seat.  (119)

There’s a glimpse of the gilded lives of celebrities and their hangers-on. Nice to think our great Canadian folk hero/businessman is making a little money off Bob.

Hanging with Joni Mitchell

From a long entry dated February 21, 1987, in which Shain and her boyfriend Ernie throw a Chinese New Year party for Dylan and some of his friends:

Actress/singer Ronee Blakely, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role in Nashville, shows up, looking beautiful but incredibly vulnerable. Some say she still hasn’t gotten over her relationship with Dylan.
Joni Mitchell is here, too! Plus all the usual suspects. This is by far the most successful of the parties to date.
Joni and friends wind up sitting around in Ernie’s den until three or four in the morning, long after Ernie’s gone to bed, singing Everly Brothers songs and other hits from the 50s and 60s while I pathetically try to keep the tune.  (83)

A lot of the book is written like this: a breathless catalogue of the appearances of famous or semi-famous people, with little Wikipedia-like notes of their main accomplishments dropped in if Shain thinks the reader may not know who they are. Canadian Joni Mitchell is famous enough to just be named; Ronee Blakely is not. It is, beyond that, a nice portrait of the down-to-earth Canadian folk genius singing the night away with some friends.

(As an aside, it’s interesting to note the similarities between Shain’s writing style and the parodic diary of  the Vancouver-born aspiring actress Kim Girard in Bruce Wagner’s I’m Losing You.)

The Laborious Writing Process of Leonard Cohen

This passage, after an Italian concert in 1987, gives a sense of how people in Dylan’s inner circle spend their time. It also illustrates how completely Shain has bought into the idea that a person’s value is based solely on how well they satisfy their “star”:

Dylan will be in rare form tonight, playing lengthy and cohesive harmonica intros to rarely performed classics like ‘License To Kill.’
After the show, Ernie and I go to an Italian eatery and buy tons of takeout antipasto for the bus ride — Bob has a thing for sausage — along with several bottles of Chianti. When Ernie has the time and is focused on working for Bob, he does go out of his way to make sure Dylan’s pleased.
While Bob cools off in his quarters at the rear of the bus, Ernie tells the rest of us the story of Dylan’s meeting with Leonard Cohen after Cohen’s Wiltern Theater show in ’85. He says that when Dylan complimented Cohen on the song ‘Suzanne,’ Leonard confessed that it took him five years to write it.
Later, Cohen told Dylan how much he liked ‘License To Kill.’
‘It took me five minutes,’ Bob crowed.  (169-70)

Poor Leonard. But perhaps we can learn something about the painstaking character of Canadian writers, constantly insecure about their work and doing everything they can to ensure they make their songs as good as they can be, versus the more casual approach of Americans who, in tune with their national spirit of exceptionalism, just assume that they’re entitled to the world’s attention?

A Mysterious (Canadian?) Woman

This passage relates to Dylan’s role in the film Hearts of Fire:

October 1986. Production of Hearts of Fire moves to Ontario, Canada, where Ernie rents a house for Dylan. Problems arise, I’m told, when Carole wants to join him, since Bob is occupied with another woman.  (73)

Exciting, I suppose, to think Dylan was living in Ontario in 1986. No doubt Canada was being used as a cheaper stand-in for some American location in the movie. We never hear about this other woman again; is she Canadian? Has she written a book about her experience with Dylan? Maybe she should — not everyone has slept with a Nobel Prize winner.

In Rome in 1960, Everyone Drank Canadian Whisky

Alberto Moravia, Boredom (trans. Angus Davidson) (1960)

I suppose it would be glib to say that this novel induced in me the state alluded to in its title, but I’m afraid I did find it heavy going in certain stretches. Boredom is the story of a failed painter from a rich family who becomes obsessed with a young woman named Cecilia — they become lovers, but then he begins to suspect that she is having an affair with an actor, and that whenever she leaves his apartment, she goes straight to the actor’s. As part of this growing obsession, he takes to following Cecilia around and spying, first on the apartment building where she lives with her parents, and then on the actor’s apartment, hoping to catch her in the act, so to speak. In this passage he is sitting in a restaurant that has a large front window through which he can watch the entrance to the actor’s apartment building:

…the house in which the actor lived was framed in black marble and stood out against the white facade like an obituary notice on the page of a newspaper, but I immediately discovered that a bottle of whisky displayed in the window concealed at least half of it. It was quite possible that Cecilia might slip in or out of the house without my being aware of it, through the half of the door that I could not see. I tried moving my chair, but then I could not see the door at all because it was completely hidden by a large box of English biscuits. I wondered whether I could possibly put out my hand and remove the bottle; but I saw I could not do so without making the barman suspicious. In the end I decided to get rid of the embarrassing object by acquiring it. It was true that the barman might well have a similar bottle in reserve and would therefore not give me the one from the window, but I had no other means of achieving my aim. I called out: “I want that bottle there.”
He came over at once, a young, tough-looking man, thin and very pale, with one noticeable feature — a harelip which was ill concealed beneath a drooping black mustache. He asked, in a deep, confidential tone of voice, “The bottle of Canadian whisky?”
“Yes, that one.”
He bent forward, cautiously took the bottle from the window and appeared to be making a move to replace it with another standing near it. I said hastily, in a commanding voice: “Let me see it.”     (202)

I apologize for such a long quote, but as you can see just from that passage, it sometimes takes Moravia a while to get to the point (by which I mean, in this case, the reference to Canada), and he seems to delight in recounting every little twist and turn in the thoughts of his narrator, who is characterized by a state of endless indecision and self-questioning. Just to relieve the suspense you are no doubt feeling, I’ll let you know that the barman then gets called away by another customer, and so does not replace the bottle, leaving our narrator free to observe the apartment building door unobstructed.

As for the Canadian whisky, I don’t think it has any particular significance here, nor do I think we can discern anything about Moravia’s ideas about Canada from it, beyond the fact that the country produces its own whisky, distinct from American varieties. It’s noteworthy that Canadian whisky would be for sale in a restaurant in Rome in 1960 — clearly the export business was doing well. But given the general description of the restaurant, it seems that, if anything, Canadian whisky represents a cheap type of liquor that would be available in lower-end places rather than, say, a classy choice that would be served at parties given by the upper crust of Rome society.

In terms of Moravia’s literary style, the decision to specify Canadian whisky does have a certain significance, in that it shows his interest in rendering everything he describes in the most precise detail possible. I’m not sure the scene would read any differently if the bartender simply said, “That bottle of whisky?” but telling the reader that it is Canadian whisky does add another layer of specificity to the moment, which contributes to the sense of a reality described at a very particular and, to use a horrible contemporary term, “granular” level.

The Proust Comparison

Finally, I’ll just add that this entire book reminded me of the portions of In Search of Lost Time in which the narrator is agonizing over the question of whether Albertine has been unfaithful to him, and he becomes obsessed with figuring out the when, where and with whom of her numerous affairs. I’m thinking mainly of the “Captive” and “Fugitive” sections (which are, of course, a repetition of the pattern of Swann and Odette’s relationship in Swann’s Way), which I have to admit are some of my least favourite parts of Proust, so perhaps that’s why this novel didn’t really appeal.

Toronto, City of Boring Professorial Peccadilloes

Christopher Reid, Nonsense (2012)

The reference to Canada appears in the long narrative poem, “Professor Winterthorn’s Journey,” which makes up the opening section of the book. It’s about a retired literature professor who, following the death of his wife, goes “on a whim” to a conference in some unnamed, presumably European city in order to … see what’s new in his field? reconnect with old colleagues? get away from his own grief? give Christopher Reid an excuse to write a poem? The reasons aren’t completely clear.

It turns out that Professor Winterthorn, despite his frequent protestations of love for his wife and sorrow at her death, has carried on a number of affairs behind her back, mainly with colleagues at conferences like this one. (So perhaps we can add another option to the list of possible reasons for his trip?) At this point in the poem he is having dinner with a woman with whom he had an affair in Budapest; this is what leads to the little catalogue of affairs in which Canada features:

And before? Before Budapest?
Stockholm, Toronto, Buenos Aires —
Seven steps is all it takes
to trace the series
back to where it began.

A dance of seven steps
with pauses, sometimes of years, between:
how international,
how lightsome and how notional
his infidelity had been!

Yet that’s a living, breathing,
emphatically present
woman sitting and eating there.
And his wife was one more present than that:
till she began to disappear.

Or he did.

What happened?     (41)

What indeed? I’m not sure that question is ever really answered, but in this little catalogue of the locations where Winterthorn’s affairs have taken place, we can at least be mildly exicted to see Toronto included. Presumably the cities have been chosen to represent places where academic conferences are held, since Toronto and Stockholm don’t seem like the sort of cities one would automatically associate with romance. And the choice of Toronto will be particularly striking to Canadians, who tend to think of Montreal as our country’s city of “romantic love” — an opinion shared by U.S. President Warren Harding, to name just one. It’s hard not to feel that any love affair occurring in Toronto must have been of a rather grey and banal type — although perhaps that’s the point. Are we meant to think of Winterthorn’s affairs as rather drab and uninteresting, with the choice of Toronto, rather than Montreal, being intended to emphasize this?

That interpretation probably suggests Reid spent a lot more time thinking about adding Toronto to that list than is really likely.

For those interested in such things, the passage also gives a glimpse of Reid’s style. The drift from the concrete to the vague is characteristic. As can be seen, he seems to favour short lines of no particular metre, enlivened by occasional rhyme but not anything so onerous as a regular rhyme scheme.

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

salterall

James Salter, All That Is (2013)

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

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

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

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

Okay then. Let’s move on.

Love Across the Border

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Club

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

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

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

Sex, Drugs, Classical Music … and Canada, Of Course

tindallcover

Blair Tindall, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs and Classical Music (2004)

This is a strange book. I suppose you could categorize it as a memoir and not be too far off; it also seems to purport to be an “exposé” of the dark side of the classical music scene, though it really isn’t, or not to any great extent. There’s very little in the way of a narrative thread running through the book: much of it concerns Tindall’s own life, of course, but she often drops her story for long disquisitions on the history of classical music in the U.S., the lives of particular performers, and so on. As a result, the book ends up being a heterogeneous mix of personal anecdotes, social history, and op-ed type passages on “the state of classical music.” If I had to sum it up in a word, I would call it “lumpy”.

When I got to the end of the book and found out that Tindall had become a journalist, the book’s form – or maybe I should say, its lack of consistent form – made a little more sense to me: it’s more like a lot of articles on various topics related to classical music strung together without much of an organizing principle. And when I looked up a few of her articles online, there were definite parallels with the book, suggesting that perhaps some repurposing had gone on. That said, a lot of the personal anecdotes are interesting or amusing enough to be worth reading, and the portrait of the life of freelance classical musicians in New York, which hovers somewhere between subsistence and poverty, is sharply drawn and affecting.

And, of course, there are a few references to Canada to make it all worthwhile. The first comes in a description of one of Tindall’s fellow students at the North Carolina School of the Arts:

Next door to me was Kristin. She’d brought her French horn from a Montana town of 250, where, at best, girls returned home to a husband and farm after attending a local college. One snowy night, pianist Lili Kraus had played eighty miles away in Great Falls, the only big town between Billings and Calgary.   (22)

The passage on a general level speaks to the cultural desolation that exists outside major cities. Interestingly, however, Canada is not mentioned as an example of some kind of wasteland, as often happens with American authors; rather, Calgary represents one outpost of civlization at the far end of the musical desert in which Tindall’s roommate has grown up. I think we can take that as a compliment.

The next reference to Canada is simply a brief mention in a performance itinerary about Tindall’s friend (and sometime lover), the pianist Sam Sanders:

By April, Sam hit the road with Itzhak, traveling to Dallas, Quebec and across the Midwest.  (182)

There’s an interesting pattern of decreasing specificity there: Dallas is a city, Quebec a province, and the Midwest a region that encompasses several states. Ordinarily it’s Canada that is treated in the vaguest way in lists like this and U.S. locations that are named more specifically, but here the one Canadian location actually occupies the middle position, and it is “the Midwest” that is treated like a vast expanse of nothingness.

So that’s a nice step up for us. Of course it would be Quebec that the famous Itzhak Perlman includes on his tour.

And finally, there is this, which was definitely the most interesting Canadian reference in the book:

Schlepping back from a gig in Jersey, I held my instruments tightly while passing through Port Authority. The bus station had long been known as a magnet for crime. However, today it felt safe, even bucolic, as Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik echoed down empty corridors. New York had discovered “musical bug spray,” a term coined by Northwestern University professor Robert Gjerdingen. The technique was first used in 1985 to chase away loiterers at a Canadian 7-Eleven. The trend spread as Pavarotti cleared out Denver parking lots, Chopin thwarted Toronto thugs, and an endless loop of Mozart blared across a Florida slum….
I thought about the message of the Port Authority’s Mozart. It was 1994, and the sound of classical music had become offensive enough to be used as an effective weapon against crime.  (205)

Tindall doesn’t seem to think the trend towards using classical music to chase away loiterers is anything to be proud of, but at least in this somewhat questionable area, Canada can claim to be a leader. This passage also reflects an idea of Canadian cities that runs counter to their usual image of being much “safer” than American cities: even Toronto, it turns out, has thugs.

Personal Reminiscences

In an example of what Northrop Frye might have called the “pre-critical response,” I have to confess a particular fondness for that paragraph because I experienced what it describes first-hand. In the mid-90s, when I used to travel to the wilds of Scarborough to work, I had to take a bus from Kennedy station (apologies for the Toronto references for those who have no idea what I’m talking about), and during that time the TTC, in response to a couple of stabbings, instituted exactly the program Tindall is describing at Kennedy: in an attempt to make the station feel inhospitable to the sort of people who stab other people, they started piping in classical music (I think it was mostly Beethoven) all day. And so every morning, while I waited for my bus, I was treated to some music.

(Of course in the age of the iPod/iPhone, when anyone who wishes can walk around permanently cocooned in whatever music they choose, this “musical bug spray” idea would never work. But those were different times.)

What were the results? I don’t personally recall feeling any “safer” in the station, but then I was only waiting around there in the mornings, and the stabbings likely occurred at night. I don’t think anyone else got stabbed while the classical music was being played, so I suppose it “worked,” in some sense. The program didn’t last very long though – I think after a month or two at most the station was silent again. No doubt non-stop Beethoven was driving the TTC employees crazy and they complained about a “poisoned work environment” or something like that.

The Music

Since the book is about music, it seems a shame not to include a little. Here is Mozart’s Oboe Concerto, just to give a sense of what Tindall’s instrument (did I mention she’s an oboist?) sounds like:

“An ill wind that no one blows good,” as a repeated joke in the book has it.

One of Tindall’s boyfriends has a particular fondness for Mahler’s Fifth; here’s a version conducted by Leonard Bernstein, who also features in the book:

Though I find this version by von Karajan more compelling, particularly the first movement:

Bonus Pop-Culture Tie-In

Mozart in the Jungle has recently been used as the basis for a TV series by Amazon. I haven’t watched it, but here’s the trailer:

My impression, based on that, is that the show bears little relation to the actual content of the book, but really just uses the subtitle as the jumping-off point for a largely fictionalized narrative. Still, it might be fun.

Leonard Cohen, Keanu Reeves, and a Canadian Woodpecker Go to Russia…

sorokincover

Vladimir Sorokin, Ice Trilogy (Bro, Ice, 23,000) (trans. Jamey Gambrell) (2008)

In general I try to get to the Canadian content as quickly as possible, but in the case of this long and complex trilogy, there’s really no way to talk about specific elements of the book without first providing some context. Hence the first two, Canada-free sections.

Plot Summary

Okay, strap yourself in.

Originally, there was nothing but 23,000 rays of celestial light. By vibrating in primordial harmony with one another, these 23,000 rays of light created the entire universe. But then they made a mistake: Earth. Or more specifically, they accidentally created water on the surface of the Earth. By reflecting the 23,000 rays of light, the water captured them; the rays of light became trapped in tiny organisms living in the water and could not escape. And so, as the process of evolution took place over millennia on Earth, the rays of light were constantly reincarnated in various life forms, until ultimately they ended up trapped in the bodies of 23,000 humans. But none of these humans was aware that they held within themselves one of the 23,000 rays of light that had created the universe.

Got it so far? Good.

In 1908, the Tunguska Event occurred – that’s a fact. But in this novel the Tungus meteorite, which exploded over Siberia, was sent from space because it contained a chunk of celestial ice, which was destined to reawaken the 23,000 rays of light and remind them of their true purpose.

The first to be awakened is Bro, a directionless student living in Moscow who joins a scientific expedition to try to find the Tungus meteorite and instead discovers a chunk of primordial ice largely buried in the permafrost; when he slips and falls, hitting his chest on the ice, his heart is awakened and he understands that he is one of the 23,000 rays of light, and that his purpose is to find all the other people who have rays of light trapped inside them and awaken the light so that all 23,000 of them, working together, can destroy the Earth, free themselves from their human bodies and return to space where they will vibrate harmoniously in eternal happiness.

He quickly finds a woman who also has one of the rays of light trapped inside her; he awakens her heart, and she becomes Sister Fer. Together, Fer and Bro found what becomes known as The Brotherhood of the Light, and devote their lives to finding and awakening the hearts of the 23,000.

At this point, as you can probably see for yourself, some logistical problems begin to arise. For starters, how does one identify the specific 23,000 people who currently have rays of celestial light trapped inside them? The good news is that all Brothers and Sisters of the Light have blonde (or at least light-coloured – some turn out to be redheads) hair and blue eyes, so that disqualifies a large segment of the earth’s population right off the bat.

Still, it leaves a lot of potential Brothers and Sisters.

And then, the process of awakening a sleeping heart is rather laborious: each blonde, blue-eyed person must be tied up, stripped to the waist, and then struck repeatedly in the centre of the chest with an ice hammer, which is a piece of wood with a chunk of celestial ice tied to it using the skin of an animal that died a natural death. If the heart of the person struck does contain a ray of celestial light, the heart will awaken and speak its true name; that person then joins the Brotherhood of the Light. If the person is just a normal human, they either fall into unconsciousness or die.

The other issue is one of time. Obviously, it takes a long time to track down the 23,000 true Brothers and Sisters using this chest-hammering technique. And while the rays of celestial light are themselves immortal, their human bodies are not: when a Brother or Sister dies, the celestial ray leaves them and becomes reincarnated in a newborn, who must then be found and hammered by the Brotherhood in order to awaken that particular ray again.

Really it’s exhausting just thinking about it.

Bro and Ice tell the story of the founding and growth of the Brotherhood; in 23,000, a new conflict begins to develop as some regular humans, and particularly blonde, blue-eyed people who have been hammered and found not to contain rays of celestial light (“empties,” as they are called) begin to try to figure out why they were attacked and start investigating the Brotherhood. 23,000 eventually turns into a “race against time” plot that will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen an action film, as Olga and Bjorn, two “empties,” rush to try to stop the final Great Circle in which the Brotherhood will destroy the Earth and regain their true nature as celestial light. At one point, they even attempt to escape from a building using that incredibly trite action movie cliche, the convenient air duct system.

Literary-Critical

The books that make up the Ice TrilogyBro, Ice and 23,000 – were originally published separately in Russia, but this NYRB edition (pictured above) collects them all in one volume. The title character of the first novel, Bro, is born in Russia in 1908, on the day the Tungus meteorite explodes above Siberia, and he lives through much of Russia’s turbulent 20th century. This book on its own is a remarkable portrait of one person’s delusion gradually taking over his life and the lives of people around him – I say “delusion,” but within the context of the novel “enlightenment” would perhaps be a better word, since we are never given an outside perspective on the events of this book. Bro narrates it in the first person, and as the novel proceeds you become more and more enmeshed in his point of view. Bro is what we might call a “cult founder,” not that different from other charismatic lunatics who have managed to win themselves a group of fanatical followers. The fact that large parts of the novel take place during the era of Stalin and Hitler, and that one of the Brotherhood’s techniques is to infiltrate existing power structures, including the Nazi party and the Soviet bureaucracy, offer obvious possibilities for satirical readings, and certainly the way the Brotherhood develops in parallel with these other ideologies is significant.

A similar pattern plays out in the later books: in Ice, which takes place mainly in the 1990s, the Brotherhood seems to have reorganized itself into a mafia-like organization; by the third book, it has become a corporation that manufactures video games, among other things. The rise of the Brotherhood to a position of power and influence in society, and its utter ruthlessness in pursuing its own goals, could be read as a commentary on any ideology or philosophy that uses ends to justify means.

The style of the books also seems to change, in keeping with the time period in which they are set. Bro is told in a very lyrical, elegant style, particularly in the first half or so. As Bro drifts further from humanity, the style becomes stranger, but also weirdly hypnotic: when he starts referring to regular humans as “meat machines,” for example, the initial reaction is one of alienation from his viewpoint; but as he repeats the term “meat machine” over and over, and starts to describe basic human behaviour in terms that would suit a visitor from another solar system, it all becomes weirdly compelling, and you start to feel as if you really are nothing more than a machine made out of meat.

The style of Ice is much choppier, using short declarative sentences and little imagery, and in 23,000 the style shifts again, towards something almost genre-based – by the end it reads like an outline for an action movie. No doubt read in Russian these differences would be more obvious, and perhaps recall particular eras and styles of Russian literature.

At Last, Canada

There are no references to Canada in Bro, but there are several in Ice. The opening sections of this novel follow three characters as they are kidnapped, Ice-hammered and then released by the Brotherhood, and the changes that take place in their lives as they at first try to deny the idea that they are members of the elect, but gradually come to accept it as their destiny. These first three references are not actually to Canada as a country, but rather to Canadian cultural figures.

Borenboim is a Moscow businessman; this scene describes how he is accosted as he comes home, just before he gets Ice-hammered:

Borenboim didn’t move. The butt of a silencer was pressed against his cheek. It smelled of gun oil.
“You didn’t get it? I’ll count to one.”
Borenboim pushed the door with his hand. He entered the dark foyer.
A hand in a brown glove extracted the key from the door. The man followed Borenboim in, immediately closing the door behind them.
“Turn on the light,” he ordered.
Borenboim groped for the wide button of the switch. He pressed it. The lights in the whole five-room apartment lit up at once. Music could be heard: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
“On your knees,” said the man, poking the gun between Borenboim’s shoulder blades.  (285-6)

And when Borenboim comes home several days later, after he is released from the Brotherhood clinic that treats people when their hearts have first been awoken by the Ice Hammer:

Borenboim unlocked the door of his apartment. He entered and turned on the light.
The music started up: Leonard Cohen as usual.  (309)

So clearly an appreciation for Leonard Cohen has reached Russia – which isn’t really surprising, as he is probably one of our better-known musicians, and one of the few who has a truly global reputation.

Another character, Lapin, is a young student living in Moscow. After he gets Ice-hammered, he turns to sex and drugs to try to escape the power of the realizations that his awakening heart is forcing on him. In this scene he is at the apartment of a friend who supplies him with heroin, and we find a reference to another Canadian cultural figure, though perhaps not someone we would automatically expect to be popular in Russia:

Lapin and Ilona lay naked in the overfilled tub. Ilona was sitting on Lapin and smoking. His penis was in her vagina. She moved slowly. In a state of semi-oblivion, Lapin opened and closed his eyes.
“But the main thing…is, I mean…He doesn’t understand anything about craft…the actor’s craft…” Ilona mumbled rapidly through dry lips. “Keanu Reeves is fabulous, too, I get off on him because he can do a love scene honestly, but he seems so hot and cool and all…and I really, you know…well I just don’t believe him…not even a smidgen…and I mean what the fuck should I pay money for if I don’t believe the actor, I mean, if there’s no belief…Oy, your balls are so hard!”
She moved sharply. Water splashed over the edge of the bathtub.  (336)

Yes, the reputation of Keanu Reeves extends at least as far as Moscow. I don’t know that we can conclude a lot from this, as both Leonard Cohen and Keanu Reeves have reached their global audiences through the American record industry and through Hollywood movies, respectively; they really represent the global reach of American entertainment, and there’s no reason to think their popularity is in any way connected to their being Canadian. The characters in the novel – and Sorokin himself – may not even be aware that they are Canadian.

A Canadian Woodpecker

By the end of Ice, the Brotherhood has transformed itself into The ICE Corporation. Among other things, they manufacture what seems to be a virtual reality/video game device: users strap it onto their bare chests and put on a helmet, and then a little hammer strikes them repeatedly with a small chunk of ice. An entire section of the novel is devoted to testimonials from users of this device, along the lines of what one might find in an advertising brochure. Essentially, as the hammering goes on, each user remembers a powerful dream from their childhood, begins to cry, and then is overwhelmed by a vision of spreading light.

This is from one of the testimonials:

I remembered how, in my childhood, when I lived in the provinces, a huge woodpecker inhabited a grove near us. No one had ever seen such an enormous woodpecker – neither Father nor the neighbours. Big and black, with white fuzzy claws and a white head. Everyone went to the grove to look at the huge woodpecker. Finally someone said that it was a Canadian woodpecker, that it wasn’t native to any part of Russia. Apparently the bird had flown out of the zoo or someone bought it and didn’t take care of it. He worked like clockwork, tapping incessantly. And so loudly, so resoundingly! I would wake up from his tapping. And I’d run out to watch him. He wasn’t afraid of anyone, he was busy with his own affairs. We got so used to the black woodpecker that we started calling him Stakhanov. And then one of the delinquents from the next street over killed the woodpecker with a stone. And hung him upside down from a tree. I cried so hard. Perhaps it was that very day that I became “green”… And suddenly, remembering the dead woodpecker and staring into the dark, I began to cry.  (459)

What is remarkable about this Canadian woodpecker is, first of all, its size, and the fact that people come to look at it, and that it becomes a sort of neighbourhood celebrity with its own name, seems to suggest that it is much larger than any Russian woodpecker. The idea that Canada is a large country is one we have come across before, so the association of large size with a Canadian bird is not particularly unexpected; it does seem a little strange in Russia, however, which is also a geographically large country.

The second remarkable aspect of this woodpecker is how loud it is: we are told it taps constantly, and loudly enough to wake people up, and perhaps we are meant to infer that its violent death (at the hands of “delinquents”) is the result of people who are fed up with being unable to sleep due to its incessant pecking.  In this the woodpecker seems rather un-Canadian: our reputation for politeness suggests that we are a quiet people who would not want to disturb others, so this offensively loud Canadian woodpecker is a bit of an outlier.

A Random Canadian Empty

There is one further reference to Canada, this time in the final novel, 23,000. Much of this book centres on Olga and Bjorn, two “empties” who, having survived the hammering, have begun to investigate the ICE Corporation to try to find out why they were attacked. They go to China to meet with a man who claims to have information about the ICE Corporation, but they are captured by the Brotherhood and taken to an underground prison factory. Here, “empties” who have come too close to discovering the secrets of the Brotherhood are kept in captivity, butchering the dead dogs whose skin will be used to make the ice hammers. (I don’t make it up, I just report it.)

This reference is to an unnamed Canadian who is among the prisoners with illnesses serious enough that they are taken out of the factory and executed:

Yesterday there had been an obligatory monthly medical checkup, the goal of which was to detect the seriously ill. As a rule, their fate was decided quickly – a few days later the guards would lead them away forever. In the bunker slang this was called “the ascension.” Olga had witnessed three such “ascensions”: an Irishman who had gone mad, a Hungarian woman who had slashed her veins open, and a Canadian with a serious form of asthma.  (652)

This unnamed Canadian is what we might call an “ornamental Canadian.” The idea behind the whole novel is that the 23,000 Brothers and Sisters of the Light are scattered all over the world, but in fact the narrative takes place almost entirely in Russia, with some parts in Germany and China and a little bit in New York. So the reference to the Canadian here is of a piece with the other nationalities referenced in this passage and a few mentions of people in other countries scattered throughout the novel: it is essentially lip service to the idea that Brothers and Sisters can be found anywhere, though in fact almost all the characters are Russian. The Canadian here is cosmetic in the sense that he or she is not an actual character, but is just named by nationality as if to check off a box: yes, the Brotherhood has searched for Brothers and Sisters in Canada as well.

And yet it seems essential that a book titled Ice Trilogy must at least mention of Canada, doesn’t it? I would have been offended if it hadn’t.

And Now, Some Music

Although “Suzanne” is the Leonard Cohen song that’s mentioned in the book, it seems almost trite, somehow, to post it here, since pretty much everyone in the world already knows it. I’ll post a favourite of mine instead, from the same album as “Suzanne”:

And just in case you’re up for a slightly bizarre Leonard Cohen experience, here’s Beck’s Record Club doing a sort of hip-hop-influenced version of “Master Song”:

Here’s the original for comparison:

And since it seems slightly less cliche, here’s a live version of “Suzanne” by Nina Simone – it takes a couple of minutes to really get going, but it’s worth sticking around:

Oh, fine, here’s the original “Suzanne” as well; this is presumably what plays when Borenboim turns on the lights in his apartment:

And that’s enough.

Is Canada the Brains of North America?

LockwoodMotherland

Patricia Lockwood, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals (2014)

As Willie Nelson observes somewhere or other, “You can’t write a song if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Fortunately, poetry has outgrown such trite restrictions. In fact, for many contemporary poets, it would seem that having nothing to say – or having arrived at the conclusion that there’s no point in trying to say anything because saying something is embarrassingly unhip – is not a disqualification, but rather the base camp from which the writing of poetry sets out.

Patricia Lockwood falls into this category: it’s difficult to say that any specific poem of hers is “about” something (with perhaps one major exception). The materials of life and, in particular, popular culture are certainly present in her work, but they enter in an oblique or tangential manner, and her poems don’t appear to be addressed to things external to themselves in a conventional way; rather, they seem more interested in the makings of poetry itself – they are about language and metaphor and the odd jumps thought can take; they are enactments and illustrations of their own construction; they show off their seams and sutures rather than trying to disguise them. Some are extended riffs that repeat the same idea, the poet seeming to look on with amusement as the idea becomes more outrageous with each iteration (see the second poem below).

Most gratifyingly, Lockwood seems to have a minor obsession with Canada. We’ve considered her work before; this collection contains two poems that explicitly (and I used that word advisedly – consider that your NSFW warning) refer to Canada. Here’s the first (minus the proper line indentations, which I haven’t been able to maintain online):

Search “Lizard Vagina” and You Shall Find

A higher country has a question, a higher
country searched and found me, and the name
of the country was north of me, Canada.
When I think of you I think up there just as I
think when I think of my brain, my brain
and the bad sunning lizard inside it. Today
you searched “lizard vagina,” Canada. It is so
hugely small if you can imagine it; it is scaled
it is scaled so far down. It evolved over many
millions of years to be perfectly invisible to you;
and so you will never see it, Canada. Here is
some pornography, if it will help: tongues flick
out all over the desert! Next time try thunder
lizard vagina. That will be big enough for even
you, Canada. You have one somewhere
in your hills, or else somewhere in your badlands.
Perhaps someone is uncovering a real one right
now, with a pickaxe a passion and a patience.
Ever since she was a child she knew what she
would do. She buttons her background-colored
clothes, she bends down to her work;
keep spreading,
Canada, she will show you to yourself.
Your down there that is, my Up There. Oh South oh
South oh South you think, oh West oh West now West
say you. The pickaxe the passion and the patience
hears, pink tongue between her lips just thinking.
The stones and the sand and the hollows they watch
her. The tip of her tongue thinks almost out loud,
“I have a brain am in a brain brain suns itself in lizard
too. Where would I be if I were what I wanted?”
Has a feeling finally swings the pickaxe- the passion-
and the patience-tip down.  (3-5)

Canada plays such a large role in this poem that we could almost say it is “about” Canada, or at least about the speaker’s thoughts about Canada – except that we have already disposed of the idea that poems are “about” anything. But given the frequent use of “you” and “Canada” in apposition to one another, we can at least say the poem is addressed to Canada.

The speaker’s actual ideas about our country, however, aren’t especially unique. In the opening lines, there is a cluster of words and phrases associated with Canada: “higher,” “north of me,” “up there” – ideas which seem typically American, and also rather pedestrian, since Canada is, after all, directly north of the U.S. It’s mildly interesting to see how “up there” shades into the brain, as if to suggest Canada is a more rational or intellectual nation than the U.S.

The line “that will be big enough for even / you, Canada” picks up on another common idea, that Canada is geographically large; the same idea occurs (among other places) in Sylvia Plath’s poem “Crossing the Water,” where the size of trees is conveyed by saying that “their shadows must cover Canada”.

But none of this comes as news.

The real crux of the poem, at least for our purposes, is the question of why Canada would search “lizard vagina” in the first place. And yet here, just when the question, “What is she really saying about Canada?” becomes most urgent, the answer becomes most elusive. Why would Canada search “lizard vagina”? Why would anyone? I can’t say I know.

One can, however, consult a list of what Canadians searched for in 2013 (the book was published in 2014, so I’m assuming 2013 would be the most relevant year) – even without “lizard vagina,” the results are somewhat dispiriting.

The Fifty-First State?

Canada also makes an appearance in a later poem, though we’re peripheral rather than central in this one.

Revealing Nature Photographs

In a field where else you found a stack
of revealing nature photographs, of supernude nature
photographs, split beaver of course nature photographs,
photographs full of 70s bush, nature taking come
from every man from miles around, nature with come back
to me just dripping from her lips. The stack came
up to your eye, you saw: nature is big into bloodplay,
nature is into extreme age play, nature does wild inter-
racial, nature she wants you to pee in her mouth, nature
is dead and nature is sleeping and still nature is on all fours,
a horse it fucks nature to death up in Oregon, nature is hot
young amateur redheads, the foxes are all in their holes
for the night, nature is hot old used-up cougars, nature
makes gaping fake-agony faces, nature is consensual dad-
on-daughter, nature is completely obsessed with twins,
nature doing specialty and nature doing niche, exotic females
they line up to drip for you, nature getting paddled as hard
as you can paddle her, oh a whitewater rapid with her ass
in the air, high snowy tail on display just everywhere.
The pictures were so many they started to move. Let me
watch for the rest of my natural life, you said and sank down
in the field and breathed hard. Let me watch and watch
without her knowing, let me see her where she can’t see me.
As long as she can’t see me, I can breathe hard here forever.
See nature do untold animal sex, see nature’s Sicko Teen
Farm SexFeest, see her gush like the geyser at Yellowstone,
see the shocking act that got her banned in fifty-one states including
Canada. See men for miles around give nature what she needs,
rivers and rivers and rivers of it. You exhale with perfect
happiness. Nature turned you down in high school.
Now you can come in her eye.  (33)

That might be my favourite poem in the whole book, and it mentions Canada. Sometimes, things just work out.

Canada is the fifty-first state being referred to here – as the phrase “fifty-one states including Canada” makes clear. It’s sad, obviously, being demoted from an independent nation to an add-on to the U.S.; this does, however, represent another typical American attitude – that Canada is essentially the same as the U.S. and not really anything more than a geographical extension of their country. Perhaps we can tell ourselves that Lockwood is parodying that idea rather than presenting it straightforwardly.

So, what can we conclude overall about Lockwood’s view of Canada? Despite the excitement of a poem literally directed towards us, we don’t get much new: Canada is up north, Canada is big, Canada is (perhaps) a more rational nation than the U.S. – the old “peace, order and good government” idea – but at the same time it’s so similar to the U.S. that it’s really just another state. Though Lockwood seems to be considered one of America’s exciting new poets, her ideas about Canada are rather retrograde.

But there’s another Canadian reference worth considering…

Canada as Marketing Device

What is perhaps this book’s most interesting reference to Canada is not in the book at all, and was probably not even written by Lockwood; instead, it comes on the back cover:

LockwoodBack

In case you can’t read that, the second line says, “Is America going down on Canada?”

What does this mean in the context of back cover blurbery?

The purpose of back cover copy, obviously, is to get people intrigued enough to buy the book. And sex sells, as they say, so it’s not surprising that there would be a reference to sex on the back cover. (In fact, all the questions on the back cover have at least a tangential relation to sex.) Which means that someone, somewhere (in the Penguin marketing department, presumably) decided the question of whether the U.S. is performing oral sex on Canada (along with questions about deer porn and Whitman’s tit pics) might make people want to buy the book.

Which is a striking enough thought in itself: are Americans really so interested in the issue of Canada-U.S. (sexual) relations that this line would make them more likely to purchase a poetry collection? It’s certainly a flattering thought.

But even more striking are the sexual roles in which our countries are placed. In the book itself, Canada is the fifty-first state, which suggests that Americans unconsciously feel a certain power over, and ownership of, us. On the back cover, however, the standard power relation between Canada and the U.S. is reversed. Canada isn’t the passive one, trying to please the U.S.; instead, our big, powerful neighbour to the South is going down on us. This suggests that Canada has some sort of power, some mysterious, irresistible appeal, that makes the U.S. want to please us. But what is it?

Canada as Hipster Talisman

Canada plays a large role in Lockwood’s book, and is prominently featured on the back cover, because Lockwood is a hipster, and American hipsters are obsessed with Canada.

The evidence for this has been mounting for a while – just the examples we’ve considered here include Lockwood herself, Tao Lin, Michael Robbins, Leigh Stein, and a series of New Yorker cartoons (proto-hipsterism). And even beyond the borders of our little website, there are facts that can’t be ignored: Canadian Ryan Gosling is essentially the ultimate male hipster, there is a hipster record company called Secretly Canadian, and so on. Now seems an opportune time to take up the question directly: why is Canada so significant to American hipsters?

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

But simply standing apart isn’t enough; the essence of hipsterism is using your appearance and your interests to convey to everyone else the fact that you stand apart from mainstream American culture. There’s no point in being a unique individual if no one notices; you must also appear to be a unique individual (and in some cases, no doubt, the appearance comes ahead of the reality by a significant distance), and appear so in a graphic enough way that everyone around you recognizes your uniqueness. This is what hipsters strive so hard for, growing beards and getting tattoos and piercings and waxing their moustaches and buying music only on vinyl and making their own clothes and whatever else they do – and what they strive so hard to achieve, Canadians have already achieved simply by being Canadian.

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

(As a side note: The subconscious yearning, on the part of American hipsters, to be Canadian was perhaps best expressed in this map that circulated a few years ago:

usofcmap

In it, we see how the “hip” parts of the United States – essentially the Northeast, part of the Midwest and the West coast – have unilaterally attached themselves to Canada, abandoning the rest of the U.S. to “Jesusland”.

My recollection is that this map began to circulate after the re-election of George W. Bush, and that at the time it represented a desire on the part of more moderate, left-leaning Americans to escape from what they felt was their country’s slide into religious conservatism and overseas war-mongering. From that perspective, it represents a typically American view of Canada as a more moderate, progressive and pacifist nation, still similar enough to the U.S. to make a merger easy, but different in precisely the ways that Kerry voters wished their own country could be different. Some even became – or at least claimed to have become – willing to rush into the warm, moderate embrace of their snow-bound neighbour to the North.

But even beyond its immediate political context, the map represents a statement by a certain portion of the U.S. (essentially, the part of the nation that contains most of the hipsters) that they are not a part of mainstream America, but more open-minded, more liberal, more multicultural – in short, that they are more like Canadians than Americans.)

For hip Americans, Canada is like a distorting mirror that shows them, not who they actually are, but the image of the unusual, exciting person they want to be. In other words, the simplest definition of a hipster would be, “An American who wants to be Canadian.”

The Agonies of the Writing Process

Coming full circle at last, here is the Willie Nelson song that contains his thoughts on the necessity of a writer having something to say:

I’ve always thought of it as a portrait of Willie wrestling with writer’s block, but no doubt there are other possible interpretations.

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

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Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

This book is not so much an autobiography or memoir as a series of anecdotes strung together, and how much you enjoy it (or don’t) may depend on how much of an admirer of Graham Nash you are. Graham Nash is certainly an admirer of Graham Nash: he never misses an opportunity to tell you how great one of his songs is, or how well he performed at a particular show or studio session.

The focus of the book is really on the music he made and the musicians he worked with; there are tangential references to sex and drugs, but if you’re looking for a lurid portrayal of the debauched rock star lifestyle (and why not?), look elsewhere, because you won’t find it here.

You will, however, find a lot of references to Canada. I suppose that’s not surprising, given that Nash had a lengthy (by his standards) affair with Joni Mitchell and was in (and out of) a band with Neil Young for decades. I’m not going to catalogue every single one, since they aren’t all particularly interesting; instead, I’ll pick out a few of the more characteristic ones.

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

This passage describes how Nash met Joni Mitchell for the first time, while he was on tour with the Hollies in Ottawa, of all places:

Eventually, she invited me back to the place where she was staying, the Chateau Laurier, a beautiful old French Gothic hotel in the heart of town. Her room on the seventh floor was out of this world, literally: It had a beautiful steepled ceiling, walls made of stone with gargoyles hunched just outside the windows. Flames licked at logs in the fireplace, incense burned in ashtrays, candles were lit strategically, and beautiful scarves had been draped over the lamps. It was a seduction scene extraordinaire.  (116)

Joni then seals the deal by … grabbing a guitar and playing some songs. Nash is suitably impressed:

I never knew anyone could write like that. There was pure genius sitting right in front of me, no doubt about it. I was awestruck, not only as a man but as a musician. I thought I knew what songwriting was all about, but after listening to Joni’s masterpieces, one after the next, I realized how little I knew. She was twenty-four years old. My heart opened up and I fell deeply in love with this woman on the spot.

We spent the night together. I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. It was magical on so many different levels. The next day we woke up at two in the afternoon and I realized I was in hot water. I’d put in a wake-up call with the hotel’s front desk, but somehow misplaced putting the receiver back in the cradle. The Hollies had already checked out of their hotel without leaving details about our itinerary. I only knew they’d be somewhere in Winnipeg. I had no idea where they were staying or playing or how to get there. Our gig was only a few hours off. Somehow, I got the details and found a flight to Winnipeg. Traumatic, but worth every minute of it.  (116-17)

Wow! Who knew that two musical icons of the 60s first met and fell in love in Ottawa?

And Ottawa, contrary to its usual reputation as monotonously grey and cold, provides a wonderful atmosphere for romance – the “French Gothic” hotel with gargoyles perched outside the window, the fireplace, the steepled ceiling – the Chateau Laurier sounds like the enchanted castle in a fairy tale, where the lovely princess leads her bold knight. Perhaps Ottawa is just different enough from other places Nash had been to lend his night with Joni a magical quality – or maybe it was all Joni.

And then, alas, the quotidian reality of Winnipeg calls, and the idyll comes to an end. Mitchell and Nash would eventually end up living together for several years in California.

Square, Straight Canadians

Later, there is a description of Joni Mitchell’s parents that gives us, perhaps, a sense of the typical Canadian upbringing of the time:

I’d met her [Mitchell’s] parents, Bill and Myrtle Anderson, a few months before this. Joan and I had gone to visit them in her hometown, Saskatoon – a nice suburban house, not posh but very clean, stark white walls. I can’t describe what Joan’s room looked like because I wasn’t allowed within twenty feet of it. Bill and Myrtle were a very straight, religious couple, and they weren’t about to let a long-haired hippie sleep with their daughter under their roof, that was for sure. It surprised the hell out of me. It wasn’t like she was a virgin, not even close. But just to make sure, they put me in a downstairs bedroom, separating us by a floor, and made it clear I’d need an army behind me if I tried to sneak up there.  (140)

“Not even close” – ouch! We almost pity these poor, prudish Canadian parents, valiantly trying to protect the sanctuary of their daughter’s honour, not realizing it’s been conquered and sacked countless times before. They’re just so out of touch with the realities of life in the major U.S. centres – an ignorance perfectly summed up in the single word, “straight,” which seems to capture so much of what Nash sees in Canada, and Canadians, at this time.

Genius Joni

There’s also this description of the crowd backstage after Mitchell’s first solo show at Carnegie Hall:

There was a great backstage scene after the show. Crosby was there, and David Blue, and Joni’s Canadian friend Leonard Cohen….  (141)

I find that description of Leonard Cohen endlessly amusing – “Joni’s Canadian friend”.

It does, however, raise a couple of points of interest: first, that in a music scene that was based largely in California and New York, an Englishman like Nash, at least, was aware of who the Canadians were, and used their nationality to mark them off and associate them with one another.

But even beyond that, Cohen is not given an identity of his own: he’s not the poet Leonard Cohen, or the singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen, or even the Canadian poet or the Canadian singer/songwriter: he’s just a Canadian who is friends with Joni Mitchell.

This might partly be due to the fact that Nash knows Mitchell, and so he sees other people in relation to her. But the way he portrays Cohen as just a sidelight to Mitchell is also part of a larger, recurring element in the book, which is Nash’s admirable respect for what he repeatedly calls Mitchell’s “genius”. To Nash, Joni isn’t just a woman he had an affair with: she is a truly great artist in her own right and someone who, through her talent, demonstrated to him how much farther he could go in songwriting, and who serves as an example and inspiration to him throughout his career (though he very modestly (and correctly, from what I’ve heard) says he never wrote anything as great as her best songs). Like Dave Van Ronk, Nash regards Mitchell as one of the leading songwriters of her time, and demonstrates how much of an influence this Canadian woman had on the development of the singer/songwriter tradition.

It’s interesting to hear Nash describe the influence Mitchell had on him as a writer when we consider, for example, Lorrie Moore’s portrayal of the music of Joni Mitchell versus that of CSNY in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? In that book, CSNY, an all-male group, are connected (through their song “Ohio”) with the public world of war, politics, and the general social ferment of the times, whereas the music of Mitchell, a woman, is connected much more with the personal sphere and with the concerns of women – one might almost say it provides the soundtrack for types of experience that are shared and understood exclusively by women. Nash, however, makes no such distinction: he never suggests that Mitchell’s music is somehow feminine or “for women,” only that he admired her brilliance and did all he could to learn from it.

Bad Joni

But the course of true love never runs smooth, as someone or other once remarked, and it’s not all roses for Nash and Mitchell. Here’s a scene of an argument they had:

“You keep slagging America after it gave you all this opportunity,” she said. “Why are you biting the hand that feeds you?”
Like us, Joni was opposed to Nixon and the war, but she didn’t think it was fair to throw hand grenades from the side of the stage. We argued, and she ended up pouring a bowl of cornflakes and milk over my head. I was stunned – to say nothing of being pissed.
There was a maid in the room. I turned to her and said, “Would you kindly leave?” Then I put Joni over my knee and I spanked her.
Needless to say, it was one of the more interesting moments in our relationship.  (180)

Mitchell here seems to be showing some North American solidarity, as a Canadian defending the U.S. against the attacks of an Englishman. Does this indicate some subliminal Canadian desire to free ourselves from our subservient relationship to the UK (the past) and form closer ties with the U.S. (the sexy, exciting future)? If we wanted to stretch a point, we might see Nash’s violent response as expressing the attitude of the colonial overlord determined to assert its continued dominance over its overseas possession by chastising it for daring to offer an opinion contrary to what the colonial overlord expects….

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

In addition to Joni Mitchell, there is (unsurprisingly) a lot about another Canadian: Neil Young, who, over the years, has temporarily turned CSN into CSNY, though never stuck around for too long. The following passage describes a party where David Crosby took Nash to meet Stephen Stills, though it ends up being more about Young:

I knew all about Stephen Stills. I was totally into Buffalo Springfield. Allan Clarke had given me their album, which I’d carried throughout our [i.e. the Hollies’] tour of Canada. I practically played the grooves off that record. The word on the grapevine was the group was about to break up. The problem, apparently, was with their lead guitar player, Neil Young. He often turned up late for gigs, or not at all. He didn’t show at Monterey Pop, flat-out refused to play an important showcase on The Tonight Show, all of which frustrated the hell out of Stephen. He’d had enough of Neil’s shit. Besides, Stills was a guitar virtuoso in his own right and wanted the lead guitar position of the Springfield for himself. Looking back, it’s doubtful Neil ever wanted to be part of a band. Here’s an illustration that’ll put it in perspective: David and Stephen saw A Hard Day’s Night and knew exactly what they wanted to do. Neil didn’t give a shit about A Hard Day’s Night. He saw Don’t Look Back (twice) and took that as his role model. Neil always wanted to do what Dylan did: be an individual, a great songwriter, an interpreter of his own music. You couldn’t do that in a group, a lesson I’d learn about Neil much later in the game.  (113)

Notice the skilled use of foreshadowing at the end of that paragraph.

There’s a lot of information and opinion there, obviously, but what’s interesting from our perspective is the portrayal of Neil Young as an individual who can’t or won’t be part of a group: in Nash’s view, he seems very much the opposite of what one expects of a Canadian, given that our country is supposed to be more cooperative (socialist?) than the U.S. Here Young appears as the classic American loner, despite the fact that he’s actually Canadian.

The book also contains a little history lesson on how CSN became CSNY: apparently, Ahmet Ertegun suggested adding Neil Young to the CSN lineup to bring more “heat” to their live performances. Crosby agreed; Stills, despite bad memories of Buffalo Springfield, came around, but Nash was unconvinced, and so he insisted on meeting Young, one-on-one, for breakfast:

Turns out Neil Young was a funny motherfucker. I knew he had this dark, looming presence, a scowl and a loner tendency. But Neil was funny. Now, maybe he understood that I was the group’s lone holdout where he was concerned and he was on his best behaviour, but at the end of breakfast I would have nominated him to be the prime minister of Canada.  (161)

Breakfast? Really? This is what world-class rockers do: they meet for breakfast, like high school girls scarfing down pancakes while rehashing the details of last night’s drunken party?

At least Nash shows some familiarity with Canadian politics: he knows we have a Prime Minister (being British helps there, I suppose). No doubt he knows prime ministers are actually elected, and that Canada doesn’t seek nominations for the office from rock stars.

Back to Joni

Later on, Nash and Crosby are trying to pull together songs for an album:

And there was always something to write about Joni. When we were still a couple, I’d spent some time with her in British Columbia, where she had a little stone house on a beach. It was a place where she was indeed bouncing off boulders and running on the rocks, so I wrote “Mama Lion” to capture that snapshot.  (224)

So Mitchell not only inspired Nash to develop his own songwriting skills, but she also continued to provide material for him to write about long after their relationship ended. The stone beach house carries a suggestion of idyllic solitude that is not surprising to find associated with Canada.

The Absent Goldfish

We get another glimpse of Canadian narrow-mindedness in the description of Nash’s tour in support of his 1980 solo album, Earth & Sky:

Despite all of that, I had to get it up to promote the album. There was a two-month tour, mostly small theatres, just a trio, nice and laid-back to complement the songs. Leah Kunkel, Cass’s sister, opened for me. The only other participant was Joey the Goldfish, who swam in his bowl onstage throughout all forty-eight shows except the show in Canada, where thanks to immigration I replaced the real fish with a slice of carrot.  (273)

What? I really can’t figure that out, but apparently Canadian immigration officials refused to let a goldfish cross the border. Here we are portrayed as almost hysterically focused on protecting our homeland from the dangerous influence of marauding foreign rock stars (and their pets) – though I suppose, given the RCMP’s experience with Keith Richards, we aren’t totally to blame. The only notable result of this championing of security was that the Canadian audience (note it sounds like there was only one show in Canada – is that an insult or a mercy?) was forced to stare at a lump of carrot floating in a bowl of water, rather than a goldfish, which no doubt drastically reduced the entertainment quotient of the concert.

The Music

On to the good stuff. This is Joni Mitchell singing “Willy,” a song she wrote about Nash (“Willy,” apparently, was his nickname):

Here is “Our House,” which is Nash’s song about living with Joni Mitchell in Laurel Canyon:

And here is a conversation with Nash (via the Library of Congress) that covers some of the same material as the book:

So if you don’t want to take the time to read it, that at least gives you a taste.

Warren Harding Gets Lucky – in Montreal

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

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

Jan. 28, 1912

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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