Wow – Canada!

Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Success”

Easterbrook Shows Toronto Some Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Back In Those Old Folky Days

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Dave Van Ronk (with Elijah Wald), The Mayor of MacDougal Street (2005)

Although it was published quite recently, Dave Van Ronk’s memoir deals mainly with the subject matter you want it to deal with: his time on the Greenwich Village folk scene of the late 50s and early 60s. The book is the basis for the recent Coen Brothers film Inside Llewyn Davis, though having read the book, I have to say they started with pretty good source material and made a sorry hash of it. (If you’ve seen the film, you may be forgiven for wondering how much of the narrative came straight from the cover photo, with the cat nervously poking its head out of the doorway behind Van Ronk. The same image appears on the Inside Dave Van Ronk album cover.)

Based on the book, and also his appearance in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I suppose you would call Van Ronk a “raconteur.” Given that the book is written “with” Elijah Wald, it’s hard to know how much of the shaping of the anecdotes – and the book is really just a string of anecdotes – has been done by Van Ronk himself and how much by his amanuensis, though in the Afterword Wald makes it sound as though he essentially wrote the book in Van Ronk’s “voice”. Whatever the details behind its creation, it makes amusing reading, rolling along from one story to the next with a pleasant rhythm.

There are numerous references to Canada, and to famous Canadians like Joni Mitchell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Leonard Cohen, some of which are just passing mentions that don’t reveal too much. I’m going to try to pick out a few that I think illustrate some larger idea about our country, or that are just interesting for one reason or another. This one is part of a series of stories about Van Ronk’s friendship with Reverend Gary Davis:

Like most geniuses, Gary had his eccentricities, and one that sometimes drove me crazy was that he had his own sense of pitch. We were playing once at a concert in Canada, and he did his whole first set with the low E string about a quarter tone flat. It was driving me crazy, because every time he hit that note it was booming off-key, so on the break I borrowed his guitar on some excuse and surreptitiously tuned that string. He came back for the second set, started into a song, and just stopped dead, looked a little perplexed, and tuned that string right back down to where it had been.  (137)

I don’t know that we can conclude a whole lot about Canada from this, but it’s an entertaining story, and a decent example of the sort of thing you’ll encounter if you decide to read the book. Van Ronk makes no mention of whether the Canadian audience was as bothered by this out-of-tune string as he was; perhaps it was some sort of joke Davis liked to play on the philistines north of the border? But, at least in Van Ronk’s telling, it sounds habitual.

Those Competitive Canadians

This next passage is about a sort of “changing of the guard” on the Village folk scene as it became more popular:

…musicians began streaming in from all points of the compass: [Tom] Paxton from Oklahoma, Len Chandler and Phil Ochs from Ohio … Ian and Sylvia from Canada, Dylan from Minnesota … but with very few exceptions, my old friends who had been huffing and puffing all of those years to become professionals were nowhere to be seen. Basically, what I think happened was that the New York singers simply were not as competitive as the newcomers. You do not stick it out in this line of work unless you are fiercely driven, and most of the New Yorkers, while they might have had the talent, did not have that competitive drive.  (150)

Well, that’s a first: I don’t think I’ve ever come across a reference to Canadians being more competitive and driven than New Yorkers, but there it is – Ian and Sylvia, those fiercely competitive Canadians, driving the meek New Yorkers out of the Gaslight and taking their jobs (and dreams of folky stardom) away. This is certainly an unusual view of Canadians, contrasting with our more customary polite, almost meek image.

Of course, the Canadians are lumped in with singers from several locations in the U.S., as well, so they are only a part of a wave that washed the New Yorkers away – but still. And that’s another thing….

Canada – Just Another Place in the U.S.

It’s also noteworthy that in that list, Canada is mentioned alongside Oklahoma, Minnesota and Ohio, as if it were just another American state, rather than a separate country. The same thing occurs a bit later:

I was hosting the Tuesday night hoots at the Gaslight, as well as sometimes doing a week as a headliner there or at Folk City, and for variety I was making occasional forays into the hinterlands. I got to Tulsa and Oklahoma City for a couple of weeks, and I was going to the West Coast, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, Canada.  (171)

There it is again, Canada lumped in with a list of U.S. place names as if we were just another American location – and the equal of a mere city this time, not even a state, as we were in the earlier list. (We saw something similar, incidentally, in Ted Hughes’ description of his camping trip with Sylvia Plath.) And Canada comes last in the list, as if to suggest that we are the most obscure of the “hinterlands” Van Ronk visited.

I really do think Americans sometimes forget we’re a whole separate country: we’re so close, and so similar, that they just lump us in as the “fifty-first state,” so to speak.

The Joni Mitchell Saga (In Three Parts)

Joni Mitchell is a significant presence in the book, and overall Van Ronk is very complimentary about her – there’s even a photo of him with his arm around her(!), so apparently they were friends. I’m not going to quote every drop of her name, but I will pick out three references that seem to illuminate something larger about Canada.

1. Typical Insecure Canadian

The major references to Mitchell kick off with this fascinating portrait of Canadian insecurity and our tendency to evaluate ourselves based on the opinions others have of us:

My favourite Patrick Sky story happened right around the time he recorded that album [A Harvest of Gentle Clang]. It was 1965, and we had been invited to appear on a Canadian television show called Let’s Sing Out, which was their version of Hootenanny. They were filming at a college in Winnipeg, and Patrick and I happened to be on the same plane out of Buffalo…. All the tech people were running around, setting up lights and patting us down with powder puffs and that sort of thing, and over in a corner, sitting by herself on a folding chair, was this lovely blonde lady. She was playing a guitar and singing to herself, just warming up, and I don’t know how it happened, but after a few minutes everything was completely quiet and everybody had just formed a semicircle around her. It was Joni Mitchell, and she was singing “Urge for Going,” and that was the first time I ever heard it or her. It was simply magical, and by the middle of the second verse, you could hear a pin drop. She finished, and there was just this silence, utter silence.
Then Patrick turns to me, and loudly says, “That sucks!”
As it happened, that was the highest compliment Patrick was capable of bestowing, but of course Joni had no way of knowing that. She later told me that she went back to Detroit in tears and told Chuck, her partner and husband, that the great folksingers from New York didn’t like her music, and she briefly considered quitting the business.  (174-75)

First, notice how the Canadian TV show is described as “their version of” an American TV show. This is a very common way of thinking about us among our neighbours to the south: they don’t consider us distinct, but rather as a slightly altered version of themselves, so anything Canadian is described as being “the Canadian version of” something American.

But more important, obviously, is the effect the opinions of these two New Yorkers had on Joni Mitchell. This is an absolutely classic expression of Canadian insecurity: it makes no difference how famous you are or how much success you have in Canada, you don’t mean anything until you succeed in the U.S. And this isn’t just an opinion held by Americans (though no doubt they would feel that way too, if they ever gave a thought to Canadians who weren’t famous in America); what is so telling about this passage is how completely Mitchell has internalized the idea that it’s the opinions of Americans that matter. She is there, after all, to appear on a Canadian television show – a show that these Americans have taken the trouble to fly north to appear on, so it clearly isn’t nothing, and the fact that she’s appearing alongside them suggests that she is more or less their equal.  But the high opinion of the people who run Let’s Sing Out means nothing when put up against criticism from those two giants of the New York folk scene, Patrick Sky and Dave Van Ronk.

And yet, show of hands: Who’s heard of Patrick Sky? Who’s heard one of his songs? And what about Joni Mitchell – who’s heard of her or heard one of her songs? I can’t see your hands out there, but I think I can guess the results of that little survey. So even a very talented Canadian who went on to incredible popular and commercial success could be led to question her own value by two Americans who (not to be rude) didn’t ultimately add up to that much on the music scene.

Just to give you a sense of what they were laughing at, here’s a remarkable version of “Urge for Going” recorded for a Let’s Sing Out program in Sudbury (not Winnipeg) – it even features the “Let’s Sing Out” theme song before Mitchell’s performance, which reminds us that “there’s room for all in the hootenanny hall” – a typically inclusive Canadian sentiment:

2. The Three Titans of Folk

Joni Mitchell’s name crops up again in a discussion of how musicians learn their craft:

There are some very good young musicians on the folk scene [today], but they will get to be fifty years old without having as much stage experience as I had by the time I was twenty-five. As a result, they will naturally mature much more slowly than the Dylans and Joni Mitchells and I did.  (121)

I just love the way he casually lumps himself in with Dylan and Joni Mitchell, as though when people talk about the folk music boom of the 60s, the first three names on their lips are Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and … Dave Van Ronk. Somehow, I just don’t think Van Ronk has quite that level of popular recognition. On the other hand, it is a great compliment to Canada to see Mitchell mentioned alongside Dylan.

3. Hinterland Songstress

Later on, Van Ronk mentions Joni Mitchell in reference to the fact that, unlike Mitchell and Dylan and so many others, he rarely wrote or sang his own songs:

There were unknown songwriters like Joni Mitchell out in the hinterlands, and there was a grapevine that reached all around the country, so as far as new songs went, I was surrounded by an embarrassment de richesse.  (207)

Now, to be fair, there are probably parts of New York City that Van Ronk would consider “hinterlands,” but still, there’s that word again: Joni Mitchell, a Canadian, is off in the hinterlands. I think it’s just coincidence that Van Ronk’s idiosyncratic French (he was quite the autodidact, apparently) comes up in the same sentence as a reference to Canada, though perhaps there’s something going on subconsciously.

And Now, Some Music

Having talked so much about music, we might as well wrap up with some actual music: “Hesitation Blues,” which is one of Dave Van Ronk’s better-known (maybe?) songs. To start us off, here is Jelly Roll Morton’s version; I think at the beginning you can hear him say that he didn’t write the song:

Next, here is Reverend Gary Davis’ version – it’s fascinating to hear how he works the audience:

Here is Van Ronk doing his version:

And finally, if you’ve hesitated here this long, you might as well check out this relatively recent Jorma Kaukonen/Hot Tuna version, just to see that the tradition goes on:

 

The Humble Canadian Takes On Wall Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canada: Centre of Advanced Science

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Nathaniel Rich, “The New Origin of the Species” (NYT Magazine, March 2, 2014)

Is it just me, or does the mammoth in that cover photo look an awful lot like Snuffleupagus?  (It’s in the eyebrows.) Or did it just never occur to me before that Snuffleupagus is a mammoth, but without tusks?

Anyway….

I thought, in connection with Paul Muldoon’s references to his brother’s advanced agricultural science studies in Guelph, that it would be worthwhile just to take note, in passing, of a reference to the role played by Canada in the re-creation of extinct species in an article from the New York Times Magazine.

For context, Ben Novak, one of the central figures in the article, is an ecologist obsessed with the idea of resurrecting the passenger pigeon. Beth Shapiro is sequencing the passenger pigeon’s DNA; Novak applied for a job at her lab but was rejected, which led him to McMaster. Hence the word “instead” at the beginning of the quote; unable to find a job in the U.S. (that centre of the scholarly universe), he had to settle for Hamilton:

Novak instead entered a graduate program at the McMaster Ancient DNA Center [sic] in Hamilton, Ontario, where he worked on the sequencing of mastodon DNA. But he remained obsessed by passenger pigeons. He decided that, if he couldn’t join Shapiro’s lab, he would sequence the pigeon’s genome himself. He needed tissue samples, so he sent letters to every museum he could find that possessed the stuffed specimens. He was denied more than 30 times before Chicago’s Field Museum sent him a tiny slice of a pigeon’s toe. A lab in Toronto conducted the sequencing for a little more than $2,500….  (29)

There are a few points worth drawing out here, but first, if you’re using the proper name of an institution like the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, you should at least spell it the way the institution spells it. And in Canada, we spell “centre” with an “re,” not an “er.” It’s so typically American to casually impose their spelling conventions on us. They see themselves as the centre of everything, and it never occurs to them that other countries might have their own way of doing things.

The reference to McMaster, introduced by that loaded “instead,” does make it sound a bit like a consolation prize, as if Novak would have much preferred to stay in the U.S. if he could have – but let’s not let ourselves slide into the muck of being aggrieved and offended.

Instead, let’s focus on the positive aspects of Canada we learn about here. First, McMaster apparently has an institution that’s a leader in the field of sequencing the DNA of extinct animals. Did you know that? I didn’t. And second, there’s a lab in Toronto that, for a moderate fee, will actually sequence the DNA of an extinct animal for you if you simply send them a sample. I had no idea I lived in such a hub of cutting-edge science. I’m surprised people aren’t breaking into museums, stealing bits of dinosaur bone, and mailing them off to the lab every day so they can create their own dinosaur theme parks. We could be at the centre of the species resurrection revolution – which, according to this article, is proceeding apace.

Unguarded Doesn’t Mean Defenceless

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our Greatest Export: Neil Young

Two references to Neil Young from two very disparate sources; I think of Neil as so much a national icon that a reference to him is essentially a reference to Canada as a whole.

Carlos Reygadas, Post Tenebras Lux (2013)

Unfortunately I can’t find an actual film clip, only these “intellectuals” from The Guardian rattling on, but if you look/listen closely at the very beginning of the segment you’ll hear one character ask for a  Neil Young song; the woman at the piano then launches into “It’s A Dream” from Young’s 2005 album Prairie Wind.

I haven’t seen the entire film (though I did watch the trailer), so I have no idea whether the song runs through it or plays a larger thematic role, or whether it’s just a bit of music in a single scene. I have seen Battle in Heaven, also by Reygadas; no Neil Young that I recall,but I did spend a lot of time staring at the blank, affectless faces of non-actors (Reygadas is somewhat of the Bresson school) feeling that I was supposed to conjure for myself the emotions the characters were feeling rather than watch the (non)actors express them. This grew tedious after a while.

Moving on to another part of the universe…

Peter King, “Monday Morning Quarterback” (May 6, 2013)

From the “Tweets of the Week” section of Peter King’s NFL column at si.com:

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“Randy called me and said.’..Got mashed potatoes…can’t get no T-Bone!!!..’.so I said we’ll float that rent fer a little bit n keep rockin’ ”

 @jimirsay, the owner of the Indianapolis Colts.

I’ve been told Irsay gave $75,000 to keep a Colts-themed bar in Indianapolis, the Blue Crew Sports Grill, alive. Kudos to him for that.

Jim Irsay, owner of the Indianapolis Colts, is a well-known fan of classic rock, and according to Wikipedia he “has a habit of quoting rock music”. (You can get a glimpse of his conversational style in this profile and see some of his guitar collection here.) So apparently people who know Irsay know that quoting rock lyrics is the perfect way to communicate with him; and if you use Neil Young lyrics, even slightly obscure ones, he’ll still understand what you mean. (Though it’s impossible to tell whether the Neil Young quote was used by “Randy” when speaking to Irsay or whether it’s just Irsay’s way of summing up the situation; I’m inclined to think the latter.)

So we have a Mexican art-film director and a billionaire NFL franchise-owner, connected by their love for the music of a Canadian: Neil Young. That indicates the remarkable reach of Young’s art and its ability to connect very different people, and shows how deeply it has seeped into the North American cultural consciousness. It makes you wonder whether a lot of his fans even know he’s Canadian; and that, somehow, seems like a very Canadian definition of success.

And now, a little music. Here’s the album version of “It’s A Dream”:

Here’s Patti Smith covering the song in, of all places, Ottawa (I’m still a bit ticked off that she wasn’t the opening act when I saw him last fall in Toronto; she clearly opened for him in Ottawa, as well as at most of his other shows around that time):

And here’s “T-Bone” – be warned that it’s not his most lyrically inventive song – from the oddly titled re•ac•tor album:

And finally, with thanks to Craig Proctor, here’s the encore he did when I saw him; a rare performance of “Helpless” by Crazy Horse. The critics sneered, but we cheered:

On the High Seas with Doc and Sauncho

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)

Do you have a book sitting on your shelf that you read a long time ago and thought was one of the most amazing books ever written, and that you’re always meaning to reread, but every time you pick it up and flip it open, perhaps ruffling through the pages and watching your lovingly penciled marginalia flash by (you don’t use ink, do you? Or worse, a highlighter?), perhaps spreading it open at that familiar first page and beginning to read the first words of the first sentence of the first paragraph – and a jolt of something like fear stops you? You’re afraid that after all these years the book won’t measure up to your memories of it and, worse, that the rereading will serve as an indictment of the younger you who fell in love with it. “How could I have liked all this callow, juvenile claptrap?” you will wonder. “Could it be I was just a callow juvenile myself, and not the preternaturally sophisticated youth I thought I was?”

Or perhaps you have no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, for me, that book is Thomas Pynchon’s V. I read it in my early twenties and was immediately convinced that it represented everything that was cool and exciting about literature – the writing felt free and relaxed, the sentences rushed and tumbled effortlessly forward, there was humour on every page, it included a broad range of ideas without ever feeling like it was forcing or faking…. It was, I was convinced, a great book.

Needless (perhaps?) to say, I’ve never reread it.

Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, on the other hand, is not a great book. It feels like a paint-by-numbers Pynchon book, as though the author were consciously imitating his own earlier work. (For the obsessed, it has a video promo supposedly voiced by Pynchon himself; if it is him, he sounds somewhat like Sam Elliott.) And, even more significantly, it mentions Canada.

(Is it inevitable that only the lesser works of a great author should mention this country? We shall see.)

No, her original name was Preserved, after her miraculous escape in 1917 from a tremendous nitroglycerin explosion in Halifax Harbor which blew away most everything else in it, shipping and souls. Preserved was a Canadian fishing schooner, which later during the 1920s and ‘30s also picked up a reputation as a racer, competing regularly with others in her class, including, at least twice, the legendary Bluenose. (p. 92)

Not to nit-pick, but shouldn’t “Halifax Harbor” be spelled “Halifax Harbour,” in deference to our northern habits, more closely allied with the British way of doing things? But let that pass. What does it mean?

Not a lot, I’m afraid. Two characters, Doc and Sauncho (each separated by a mere letter from those famous wanderers Don and Sancho, for those who get excited about such things) are discussing a boat, now known as the Golden Fang, once known as the Preserved, which may be involved in some sort of nefarious goings-on. I would read this as something of a compliment to Canada: how many Canadian fishing schooners have been involved in nefarious goings-on?

And yet the use of Canadian history feels a bit casual, almost dismissive. Pynchon uses the explosion in Halifax as a factual jumping-off point to the backstory of the ship in his novel, but it’s a mere narrative convenience. I can’t help but feel that a reference to a major event in American history would have received a slightly fuller description; but is this just typical Canadian insecurity, that old feeling that our history is somehow tame and uninteresting?

And what does it mean that, in Canada, whole books have been written about the explosion in Halifax Harbour, while Pynchon dispenses with it in a sentence? Whose perspective is skewed? In asking these questions we begin to glimpse in outline the form that Canada takes in the minds of writers from other countries. It seems to be a rather small, shadowy form.

But then a flash of light as we come to “the legendary Bluenose,” familiar to every Canadian who has ever flipped a dime:

Canadian Dime (Tails side)

Here we are confronted with something approaching Canadian greatness. The Bluenose was indeed a famous fishing and racing schooner, launched in Nova Scotia in 1921 and lost off Haiti in 1946 while carrying, of all things, bananas. Before being sold off as a freighter and lost, she was virtually undefeated as a racer and held the International Fisherman’s Trophy for 17 years.

And yet … “virtually undefeated”. There again we run up against the “not quite” that is so characteristically Canadian. To have been completely undefeated would be a bit arrogant, a bit too much; having a couple of losses along the way is so much more … polite.

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