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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Toronto”

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.

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That Romantic Winter in…Toronto?

The Swimmer, Directed by Frank Perry (1968)

We stand now on a bridge, as it were, a bridge between the past and the future. This post is a pendant of sorts to last week’s post on The Stories of John Cheever, dealing, as it does, with the film based on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer.” In its glancing at romantic ideas of Canada, however, it also looks forward to our upcoming series on The Romance of Canada, which will commence (barring distractions) next week. And so even as we tie up a few dangling Cheever threads, we are also unravelling the skein of romantic ideas about Canada, which we will then take in hand and weave into a breathtakingly rich tapestry of…

But enough of that strained metaphor. You get the idea.

While the Cheever story “The Swimmer” doesn’t contain a reference to Canada, the film, oddly enough, does (though it’s not included in the trailer above). For those not familiar with the story, it follows Ned Merrill as he attempts to “swim home” from a pool party by going from one backyard pool to the next, swimming each pool along the way. The mention of Canada comes when Ned (Burt Lancaster) goes to swim the pool of his ex-lover, Shirley Abbott (Janice Rule), just over an hour into the film (1:05 to be moderately precise). The dialogue is as follows:

Ned: Remember last winter in Toronto? We called room service and ordered bull shots.
Shirley: I wasn’t in Toronto last winter.
Ned [apparently confused]: I was sure I came up for the opening of your show. Remember how it snowed? And I ordered a horse and a sleigh to take us from the hotel to the theatre.
Shirley: I haven’t been in Toronto in three years now.
Ned: Was it Boston?

It’s a bit hard to know how to take this reference. By this point in the film, Ned has been revealed as a sort of fantasist of his own life, increasingly out of touch with reality (well beyond what Stephen Greenblatt might consider a little harmless “self-fashioning”). The question of whether Ned and Shirley ever actually visited Toronto together will, I think, have to remain an open one.

As for the city itself, we are immediately struck by what is one of the most common impressions of Canada: that it is cold and snowy. This is fine in and of itself. It does snow in Toronto, and since Ned specifies that they visited in the winter, it’s not surprising that there would have been some snow. But in his description of how he dealt with it, we move from the realistic into something approaching the mythic — which is, admittedly, typical of Ned.

The snow was so bad, apparently, that he had to hire a horse and sleigh to get them from the hotel to the theatre. A horse and sleigh!

Recall that this film was released in 1968 and has a contemporary setting; it’s not a period piece set in the frontier days. In 1968, Toronto was amply supplied with all the usual modes of modern transportation, including a subway system, buses, taxis and cars. And yet Ned had to hire and horse and sleigh. In all my years in Toronto, never once have I seen anyone try to get through the snow with a horse and sleigh. Renting a snowmobile would be more believable.

At the mention of the horse and sleigh, a Canadian viewer will most likely feel that Ned has moved irretrievably into the realm of fantasy — a horse and sleigh? in Toronto? in 1968? — and begin to sympathize with Shirley’s point of view. But what about American viewers, who must have comprised the majority of the audience for The Swimmer? Many of them would have only the sketchiest idea of what Toronto is actually like,  and the idea of a horse-drawn sleigh ride through snowbound Toronto might seem perfectly plausible — might, in fact, link up neatly with their pre-existing notions of Canada as a rather romantic wilderness playground of cold and snow where horse-drawn sleighs whisk ruddy-cheeked, cuddling couples across the frozen expanse of Canada’s largest city as if they were on the Russian steppes.

(Despite my dismissive reaction, a little research reveals that such things are indeed available, though you have to travel outside Toronto to take advantage of them.)

Oh well — at least it wasn’t a dog sled.

 

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

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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.

A Canadian at Baskerville Hall?

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Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)

The action of the novel begins with the arrival in London of Sir Henry Baskerville, the heir to Baskerville Hall; Sherlock Holmes is the first speaker in the following passage:

“Then how can I assist you?”
“By advising me as to what I should do with Sir Henry Baskerville, who arrives at Waterloo Station” – Dr. Mortimer looked at his watch – “in exactly one hour and a quarter.”
“He being the heir?”
“Yes. On the death of Sir Charles we inquired for this young gentleman and found that he had been farming in Canada. From the accounts which have reached us he is an excellent fellow in every way. I speak now not as a medical man but as a trustee and executor of Sir Charles’s will.”  (31-32)

We have come across a similar view of Canada before, though from a slightly different perspective: in Dickens’ Little Dorritt, Canada represents a fresh start for Tip, the ne’er-do-well brother; here, Canada again represents a new opportunity, though in this case it is for a gentleman who comes from a good family but is unlikely to inherit the family estate.

It’s a bit surprising that he would become a farmer in Canada, which isn’t the most gentlemanly pursuit – why not, for example, take up law in London? Farming in Canada seems like more of an option for English farmers who can no longer farm successfully in England (such as Bunting’s Morpethshire farmer) – but perhaps we shouldn’t inquire too deeply: Conan Doyle’s plot requires the new Baskerville heir to have been stashed somewhere out of the way … and Canada is certainly out of the way. By keeping Sir Henry off the scene until he is actually required, Canada has served its purpose in the novel, and to an English reader of the time the idea of farming in Canada would likely accord well enough with their existing impression of our country as essentially a wilderness where a few rural settlements have been carved out.

The lifestyle of the Canadian farmer is alluded to later in the novel, when Holmes admires the portraits of the Baskerville family, and Sir Henry reveals the sort of expertise he acquired during his years in the New World:

“…these are a really very fine series of portraits.”
“Well, I’m glad to hear you say so,” said Sir Henry, glancing with some surprise at my friend. “I don’t pretend to know much about these things, and I’d be a better judge of a horse or a steer than of a picture.”  (202)

You can almost hear him aspirate the initial “p” on that last word, as if spitting it contemptuously out. This makes it clear what people concern themselves with in Canada – and it’s not paintings, or the arts in general. Sir Henry’s Canadian life has been that of a stolid farmer with knowledge of livestock and no interest in the finer things, such as paintings.

And yet there is a curious bifurcation in the character of Sir Henry. At moments like this, Conan Doyle seems almost at pains to portray him as a rough colonial who knows about livestock but couldn’t care less about art. By contrast, in other parts of the novel Sir Henry is described as a true English gentleman, one who has taken naturally to his inheritance of Baskerville Hall and seems to have an innate understanding of his role and an instinctive sense of how to conduct himself as the leader of his community.

We could interpret this as an illustration of the “blood will out” idea: no matter how much time he spent in the wilds of Canada, Sir Henry is an English nobleman by blood, and as such is always ready to take up his birthright and exercise his prerogatives.

I’m afraid I’m inclined to settle on a somewhat more prosaic explanation: Conan Doyle doesn’t have a particularly strong sense of Sir Henry as a character, and so his portrayal of him changes to suit the immediate needs of the plot. Likewise, Conan Doyle isn’t really interested in the life of farmers in Canada or in describing the sort of person who follows that lifestyle; Sir Henry’s colonial sojourn is simply a way of explaining his absence from England so that his arrival can be used to start the story.

An Aside: Conan Doyle vs. Nancy Mitford

At this point we can pause to compare Conan Doyle’s image of an heir to a large British estate living in Canada with another writer’s portrait of a character in a similar situation – Cedric Hampton, in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. The comparison is a little tricky because, as noted, Conan Doyle’s characterization of Sir Henry is somewhat inconsistent. As regards the scene with the paintings, however, we can say Conan Doyle’s portrayal of Sir Henry is much closer to what the English characters in Love in a Cold Climate imagine Cedric will be like – that is, an unsophisticated colonial.

Of course, Cedric turns out to be quite the opposite. Perhaps, over the decades between The Hound of the Baskervilles and Love in a Cold Climate, English perceptions of Canadians evolved; perhaps Mitford’s desire to use Cedric’s character for satirical purposes led her to the unexpected; perhaps Mitford is simply more focused on character as a writer – whatever the reasons, Love in a Cold Climate has a similar set-up but offers a notably more nuanced portrayal of a Canadian than The Hound of the Baskervilles.

The Boot

Then we come to the matter of the boot. Sir Henry, shortly after his arrival in London, complains that one of his boots has been stolen from his hotel:

Sir Henry smiled. “I don’t know much of British life yet, for I have spent nearly all my time in the States and in Canada. But I hope that to lose one of your boots is not part of the ordinary routine of life over here.”  (49)

It would be a gross disservice to Henry James to refer to this moment as “Jamesian,” and yet, in its portrayal of the New World innocent horrified by the corrupt ways of the Old World, it does seem to contain, in a radically simplified form, a germ of one of the themes that fascinated the master.

It is Sir Henry’s stolen boot, of course, which the murderer will use to put his hound on the scent of the Baskerville heir when he walks the moor at night in the novel’s climax, and so the theft of the boot marks the beginning of the process by which Sir Henry will become enmeshed in a scheme that involves the commission of murder in order to inherit a fortune. (When you put it that way, The Hound of the Baskervilles does begin to sound like a very faint echo of a James novel).

The boot crops up again at the end of the novel, when Holmes and Watson are tracking the fleeing murderer through the deadly Grimpen Mire:

Only once we saw a trace that someone had passed that perilous way before us. From amid a tuft of cotton grass which bore it up out of the slime some dark thing was projecting. Holmes sank to his waist as he stepped from the path to seize it, and had we not been there to drag him out he could never have set his foot upon firm land again. He held an old black boot in the air. “Meyers, Toronto,” was printed on the leather inside.
“It is worth a mud bath,” said he. “It is our friend Sir Henry’s missing boot.”  (228)

At least Conan Doyle knows the name of a major Canadian city. The boot shows Canada is not completely rural: boots are made here, which suggests industry at least at a minor level – more likely something closer to a cobbler’s shop than a boot factory, but still, Canada is capable of producing some of the finer needs of a gentleman for itself – and doing so well enough that he would wear the boots in England – and is not just a land of farms.

Incidentally, it is in honour of this small plot point that the Canadian branch of the Sherlock Holmes Society is known as The Bootmakers of Toronto (better than, say, “The Farmers of Canada,” which is the most obvious other option suggested by the novel).

Overall, The Hound of the Baskervilles presents a rather mixed view both of Canada and of Sir Henry himself, and it’s hard not to feel that for Conan Doyle, Canada was merely a distant colony that his readers would know just enough about to allow him to use it in whatever way best suited the requirements of his plot.

A Narrow Escape from Toronto

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Nicholas Dawidoff, Collision Low Crossers (2011)

Having grown up in Toronto following the Maple Leafs, I feel a certain affinity for the New York Jets, or perhaps for their fans. The Jets are the Leafs of the NFL: a team separated from past glory by an increasingly lengthy (and seemingly interminable) period spent thrashing around in search of a path to excellence – this thrashing consisting mainly of continually hiring and then firing a parade of coaches and general managers who are heralded as saviours when they arrive and derided as incompetent losers when they depart (often to success elsewhere) – while the team occasionally shows glimmers of something approaching competence for a season or two, only to sink sighing back into the muck of mediocrity (or worse).

So I was curious about Dawidoff’s book, which chronicles a year spent “embedded,” so to speak, with the Jets organization. And what a year he chose: the 2011 season, when, after consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game and a general acknowledgement among football’s serious heads that they were legitimate Super Bowl contenders, the Jets publicly and spectacularly collapsed back into their accustomed incompetence, with accusations, recriminations and vituperations all around.

Pond Hockey in the Cosmopolis

The early chapters set the stage for what is to come, introducing the coaches and players. And it turns out that Jets coach Rex Ryan (and his twin brother Rob) have a Canadian connection. This passage deals with the period in their childhood after their parents, Doris and Buddy (the legendary Bears defensive coordinator) divorced:

Leaving the twins with her mother in Ardmore, Doris went to the University of Chicago’s school of social sciences and got a doctorate in education. She took a job at the University of Toronto, and that’s mainly where Rex and Rob Ryan grew up. Ryan believes his parents’ divorce didn’t affect him much because he was cushioned by his friendship with his twin, but it’s true that he and Rob got into a little more trouble than most boys. Doris was concerned enough about them as teenagers that she sent them to live with Buddy in Minnesota, which Rob later decided probably saved their lives.  (53-54)

And then, a couple of paragraphs later, this:

There weren’t many college options for indifferent high-school students who wanted to play defensive line and weighed a hundred and ninety pounds. Buddy knew the coach at Southwestern Oklahoma State, in Weatherford, and so the twins were admitted to the school and off they went, a nine-hundred-mile drive. The land around Weatherford was flat and dusty, the tumbleweeds as high as a linebacker’s eye, and from a sixth-floor dorm-room window, the horizon was so long and uninflected the brothers had the feeling they could just about see Chicago. Coming from a childhood mostly spent in vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, the Ryans were horrified – and lonely.  (54-55)

It’s certainly plausible that there were other cities along the way, but given that the Ryan twins “mainly…grew up” in Toronto, it’s indisputable that Toronto must be one of the “vibrant, cosmopolitan cities” being referred to here. We’ve seen this pattern before, and here it is again: another reference to Toronto’s “cosmopolitanism,” and again the reference comes from an American (it’s hard to imagine a Parisian, for example, calling Toronto “cosmopolitan”) and is made in the context of football.

Toronto’s cosmopolitan identity is (again) slightly undermined by the fact that it is being compared to Weatherford, Oklahoma, which, based on the description Dawidoff gives, must be one of the least cosmopolitan places on earth. (Isn’t the use of the word “uninflected” to describe the horizon lovely, though?)

And what are we to make of the idea that being sent away from Toronto saved the lives of the Ryan twins?  Details are not forthcoming, beyond the bare statement that they were getting into trouble, but this seems to hint at a side of Toronto that we don’t normally see. Americans tend to regard Canada as a relatively safe, peaceful place when compared to the U.S., with far less danger, particularly in major urban centres; but here Dawidoff suggests that Rob and Rex had found the dangerous side of Toronto, and needed to be saved from it. So in this telling Canada has an element of unspecified menace, in contrast to its usual, squeaky-clean image.

Much later in the book, we discover that his time in Toronto has left at least some impression on Ryan:

I was cold at the walk-through, so I wore a green ski hat. “Nicky!” said Ryan. “That hat! That’s the kind of hat we used to wear to play pond hockey in Toronto.” I was instructed to lose the hat and “put a hood on!”  (366)

The association of Canada with cold weather and hockey is obvious and doesn’t really bear remarking on, beyond the fact that Ryan mentions exactly the things about Canada that any American would expect. But pond hockey in Toronto? That’s a bit of an odd one, as Toronto has plenty of outdoor rinks, but isn’t exactly rich in ponds. Grenadier Pond, perhaps? True pond hockey would fit more with rural Saskatchewan than Canada’s largest city. Perhaps Toronto was different when Ryan lived here? Or perhaps, despite the fact that his mother worked at the university (which is right in the city’s pond-free downtown), the family lived out in a thinly developed suburb?

I’d rather consider a more intriguing possibility. Perhaps Ryan played hockey on outdoor city rinks, not ponds, but when he refers to his Toronto upbringing among Americans, he romanticizes (or ruralizes?) it to fit more neatly with what Americans think of Canada: namely, that it is a thinly populated wasteland, where the monotonous tundra is only occasionally punctuated by a cluster of igloos and a frozen pond where a few children are whacking a rock around with sticks.

The Importance of Nicknames

During the description of training camp, we get the following:

So much that went on in August was about achieving group closeness. Because Garrett McIntyre had played in Canada after his college career at Fresno State, people at first thought he was Canadian and that his name was McIntosh. Even when his biography was clarified, he continued to be known in the defensive room as O Canada, just as Matthias Berning, who really was from Duisburg, was called the German. Gradually it became clear that McIntyre had, as they said, “the good awareness,” and he was also tough and physical. As he proved himself to be one of them, O Canada fell away and he became Mac. Berning, not quite as good a player, remained a foreign element, the German.  (223-4)

There’s certainly a lot to “unpack,” as they say, in that passage.

The essential narrative movement, if you will, of the paragraph is quite straightforward: a player is given a nickname that is completely inappropriate for him, but the other players don’t care until he earns their respect, at which point his nickname changes to something more fitting.

Canada plays its small role in the drama. For starters, we can note that American football players are at least familiar with the title of our national anthem. And the changing of his name to “McIntosh” is intriguing, though unexplained – does this have something to do with apples?

More importantly, though, the “success” element of the story, from McIntyre’s perspective, is that he is finally able to shake the nickname that associates him with a country that is not his own. The means by which he accomplishes this are also of note: he shows football awareness and, more importantly perhaps, proves that he’s tough. Though it’s never explicitly stated, there seems to be the undercurrent of an idea that toughness and physicality are not typical Canadian traits. By proving himself and morphing from O Canada into Mac, McIntyre shakes his association with the gentle, pacifist nation to the North and reclaims his martial, macho Americanism.

So at least his story – unlike that of the Jets’ 2011 season – has a happy ending.

Montreal Cool, Toronto Uncool (Yawn)

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Tao Lin, Taipei (2013)

Taipei, by Tao Lin, is very difficult to get through. Every time I picked it up and started to read, my mind immediately began drifiting to all the more enjoyable things I could be doing with my time, like mowing the lawn, or cutting my fingernails, or having some teeth pulled. The book follows a young novelist, Paul, as he kills time before his book tour, goes on his book tour, loses one girlfriend, marries his new girlfriend, and “ingests” (a favourite word) significant amounts of drugs. (The title presumably refers to the visits he pays to his parents in Taipei, though I suspect it was really chosen for the cover design possibilities it offered when juxtaposed with Lin’s name – see above.)

I assume the novel is autobiographical, not because I know anything specific about Tao Lin’s life and can trace parallels to it in his work, but just because the book seems to have been written by someone who wanted to expend as little effort as possible on writing it, and I can’t imagine he would have bothered to invent anything. Lin’s goal seems to be to write about uninteresting people and events in the most uninteresting way possible, and in that he succeeds admirably. Taipei takes dullness to a level that, quite frankly, I wouldn’t have thought possible if I hadn’t read it myself. And maybe, in his refusal to impart the slightest bit of interest to his writing, Lin is a harbinger of a coming literary revolution: “The New Affectlessness,” perhaps?

The novel has been both praised and attacked, which I won’t really get into, but I do recommend reading Lin’s own whinging defence against one of his critics (quoted here – scroll down just past the screen caps of the two tweets), in which he essentially argues that people shouldn’t be allowed to criticize his writing because if critics or reviewers convince readers that he’s a bad writer, it might interfere with his ability to support himself and his aging parents with the money he makes from writing.

It’s interesting that he doesn’t even bother to defend his work on artistic or aesthetic grounds, but instead makes this strangely practical, almost careerist argument – all in a very hurt, passive-aggressive tone, as if trying to shame anyone who criticizes him into guilt-induced silence. His whole line of thinking seems to spring from the idea that it is his natural right to support himself as a writer, and that no one should be allowed to criticize him because it might deprive him of the money he expects to earn. Personally, I would make the opposite argument: if you can’t produce a genuinely good book, then you don’t deserve to be able to support yourself, or anyone else, with your writing; you should find another profession.

Of course, there are always too-clever-by-half types who are eager to spin out theories (or, as Lin would call them, “framework-y somethings”) to demonstrate that the badness of a book like Taipei is actually what makes it great: it “perfectly captures the anomie of directionless 20-somethings,” or it “questions everything we think we know about how novels can be good,” or it “[insert your own gasbag theory here]”.

But doing so falsifies the experience of actually reading the book. When you’re not reading Taipei, it’s possible to think of it as some sort of conceptual experiment, and to convince yourself that Lin is deliberately challenging and overthrowing your expectations. In fact, spinning out such theories is more enjoyable and rewarding than actually reading Taipei. But pick it up and read a few more pages, and all theorizing evaporates as you are once again submerged in the weirdly punitive ennui the book engenders, as if you were falling in slow motion down an endless flight of stairs in a monotonously ugly building.

But on to Canada.

An Accidental Mishearing

The first reference to Canada comes during a long, early section of Taipei in which Paul wanders around New York, takes drugs, and goes to parties and bars with various acquaintances. He seems to be trying to find a new girlfriend, though he goes about it in an odd (and ultimately unsuccessful) way. This conversation involves Laura, one of Paul’s “prospects” who doesn’t pan out:

Laura said something seemingly unrelated about cooking.
“You should cook for me,” said Paul distractedly.
“You won’t like it – it’ll be dense and unhealthy.”
“I like pasta and lasagna,” said Paul, and thought he heard Laura ask if his computer was in Canada and was nervous she might be confusing him for another person. “What computer?”
“You said your computer was getting fixed in Canada.”
“Oh,” said Paul. “Kansas, not Canada. Yeah, it’s still there.”  (46-7)

So much for Canada as a high-tech centre for computer repairs. I don’t know that we can conclude much from this passage; “Kansas” and “Canada” do have (phonetically) identical first syllables, and it’s thoughtful of Tao Lin to remind us of that.

Toronto vs. Montreal

When Paul’s book tour reaches Canada, Taipei revives the Toronto vs. Montreal debate that we’ve come across before, though in a somewhat lazy and conventional fashion. Paul visits Montreal first:

In Montreal, three days later, beneath a uniformly cloudy expanse, which glowed with the same intensity and asbestos-y texture everywhere, seeming less like a sky than the cloud-colored surface of a cold, hollowed-out sun, close enough to obstruct its own curvature, Paul walked slowly and aimlessly, sometimes standing in place, like an arctic explorer, noticing almost no other people and that something, on a general level, seemed familiar….
The sky had darkened and was now almost cloudless, like it had been gently suctioned from an interplanetary pressure system. As a red truck, clean and bright as a toy, passed on the street, Paul realized Montreal, with its narrower streets and cute beverage sizes and smaller vehicles, reminded him of Berlin.  (118-19)

At least you can tell he’s trying. The first passage is typical of what happens when Lin revs himself up for some “serious writing”: words quickly get the better of him, and the clauses pile up like cars in a dense fog, apparently ungoverned by even the most rudimentary grasp of the rules of syntax, until the rush of words collapses, exhausted, in an apparently random full stop. Lin writes like someone who decided to become a writer without bothering to go through the intermediary stage of learning the skills that are required to be a decent writer – such as the ability to use words to express thoughts and emotions in a clear and memorable way. (Our current cultural moment, where blog engines (like this one) make it easy for anyone to simply “be a writer,” facilitate this sort of democratization of literature – or is it the destruction of literature? Or are those just two different terms for the same process?)

On the positive side, we can see several conventional ideas about Montreal being worked through here.

First, it’s interesting to note how that reference to an “arctic explorer” sneaks in – why specifically an arctic explorer? Couldn’t a jungle explorer, or a desert explorer, also stand in place and not notice any other people? But of course Lin is an American visiting Canada, which means he has a preconceived notion that Canada is cold, and so his mind goes automatically to an arctic explorer. (Canada is north of the U.S., so Montreal must practically be in the Arctic – right?) The statement that there are “almost no other people” gives the impression that Montreal – one of Canada’s largest cities – is actually a frozen, depopulated wasteland.

In the next paragraph Montreal appears as a quaint miniature imitation of a real city, with a “toy” truck, smaller vehicles, and “cute” beverage sizes – all in contrast to the U.S., where cars and portion sizes are big – as is everything else. The use of the word “clean” touches on another idea about Canada that we’ve noted before, and then we wrap up with the comparison to Berlin, settling on the common idea that Montreal feels like a European city – “European” being a marker of coolness, hipness, and other qualities that cities aspire to.

Then the tour moves on to Toronto:

Paul arrived in Toronto the next night on a Megabus, then rode two city buses to the apartment of a Type Books employee and his girlfriend and slept on a sofa…. He walked to a cafe near Type Books and asked on one of the two threads on 4chan about him that, for some reason, had appeared in the last two days – and, with two to four hundred posts each, 90 to 95 percent derogatory, were the two longest threads on him that he’d ever seen – if anyone in Toronto could sell him MDMA or mushrooms within two hours. Someone named Rodrigo, who’d recently moved here from San Francisco, Paul discerned via Facebook, emailed that he could get mushrooms and maybe MDMA but not until after Paul’s reading.  (124)

This portrayal of Toronto as the kind of place where you can’t get drugs when you need them plays into a typical image of the city as dull and puritanical – usually, as here, in comparison to our more free-wheeling, fun-loving compatriots in the carefree, European-style city of Montreal. A similar impression comes across, for example, in Keith Richards’ account of his adventures in Toronto, where the police just aren’t up on how world-famous rock stars live. There seems to be a general view of Toronto as a large city with a very provincial outlook.

After the reading, Paul goes back to Rodrigo’s apartment with Alethia, a young writer who is going to interview him while he’s on MDMA:

In Rodrigo’s apartment, a few hours later, Paul searched his name in Alethia’s email account – signed in on Rodrigo’s tiny, malformed-looking, non-Macbook laptop – while she was in the bathroom and saw she had pitched an article on him, two months ago, to the Toronto Sun, which had not responded, it seemed. Paul and Rodrigo each swallowed a capsule of MDMA.  (125)

Again, we have the impression of Toronto as a place that isn’t quite as cool as it might be – people actually find ways to manage with non-Macbook computers! The reference to the Toronto Sun is particularly amusing, as it indicates that either Alethia or Lin himself knows nothing about newspapers in Toronto; the Sun is essentially a tabloid which features right-wing demagoguery masquerading as news, endless sports reporting, and pictures of scantily clad women (check out today’s edition). It’s not a newspaper that would ever feature a story on any sort of writer, much less a self-conscious hipster like Tao Lin. Perhaps this is based on a real event and, in writing it down, Lin has simply confused the Toronto Sun with the Toronto Star, a paper that might at least consider a story on Lin.

But this story of the duelling Toronto-Montreal readings has (unusually for Lin) a moral element, in which Toronto is ultimately punished for being a narrow-minded city that doesn’t offer visiting authors the free access to drugs they require. Back in New York, Paul goes online to read some reviews of his two readings:

On Halloween afternoon, in the library, Paul read an account of his Montreal reading, when he was on two capsules of MDMA, describing him as “charismatic, articulate and friendly.”
He read an account of his Toronto reading, when he’d been sober, describing him as “monosyllabic,” “awkward,” “stilted and unfriendly” within a disapproval of his oeuvre, itself vaguely within a disapproval of contemporary culture and, by way of a link to someone else’s essay, the internet.  (128-9)

So Montreal gets bathed in the warmth of Paul’s drug-induced charms while Toronto has to suffer through the monosyllabic, stilted version of the author that emerges when he is sober.

The Nuggets of “the Saskatchewan”

The final reference to Canada occurs while Paul and Erin, having got married on a whim in Vegas, go to Taipei to visit Paul’s parents. To pass the time they take various drugs and then film themselves wandering around Taipei doing whatever occurs to them. At this point they are filming a fake documentary about a McDonald’s restuarant in Taipei, in which they claim that the chicken nuggets are actually made out of children:

“Yeah,” said Erin. “And actually for some … if you pay extra you can get a little bit of a tooth, from an actual child, and you can also get it memorialized, in a locket.”
“If a country pays extra, their nuggets get more gelatin?”
“Yes,” said Erin. “The quality is just slightly raised.”
“I heard that Canada did that,” said Paul.
“Um, just the Saskatchewan. They’re the prime testing markets. Because they eat … they primarily eat teeth there. That’s their diet, I didn’t know if you knew that.”
“The Weakerthans wrote an album about that, right?”
“Yeah, they-” said Erin.
Fallow?” said Paul.
Fallow,” said Erin confidently.
“That was about the teeth-” said Paul.
“The Saskatchewan teeth crisis,” said Erin.  (196)

There’s no real information about Canada contained here, of course, but it does reveal a certain American attitude to Canada in that Paul is just looking for a place to attribute something outrageous to, and he settles on Canada – which Erin immediately modifies to “the Saskatchewan,” as if it were a region, like “the Midwest,” and not the province “Saskatchewan” – which is a place Americans have heard of but know so little about that they will believe almost anything they’re told about it. The added specificity of Saskatchewan is probably just because it’s the strangest Canadian place name they can think of on the spur of the moment.

The Weakerthans are a Canadian band, though actually from Manitoba, not Saskatchewan – but I’m sick of the “garbage-y nothingness” (to coin a Lin-ism) that is Taipei, and I don’t want to think or write about it any more.

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.

 

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.

Anti-Semitism? In Canada?

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Howard Jacobson, The Finkler Question (2010)

I’m pleased to announce that I have now achieved such popularity that my friends tip me off about references to Canada in books they’re reading. This not only makes my job easier, but also allows me to cast a slightly wider net, as it leads to books I might never have got around to reading on my own.

This is one of those, so thanks to Craig Proctor. I’d never read Howard Jacobson before, but this novel won the Booker Prize, so he’s clearly doing all right. The main character, Julian Treslove, is not Jewish, but his two best friends (Libor Sevcik and Sam Finkler) are; the central idea of the novel seems to be that Treslove is a non-Jew who is obsessed with the idea of Jewishness, and in some sense wants to be Jewish.

To understand the context of the following quotations, you really only need to know this: in the opening chapter, Treslove is mugged by a woman who breaks his nose, steals his wallet, phone and credit cards and, he thinks, calls him “you Jew”. After the mugging, he begins to wonder how frequent anti-Semitic attacks are in the world, and this leads to several references to Canada.

Not expecting to find anything post-thirteenth-century Chelmno, he looked up ‘Anti-Semitic Incidents’ on the internet and was surprised to find upward of a hundred pages. Not all of them round the corner from the BBC, it was true, but still far more in parts of the world that called themselves civilised than he would ever have imagined. One well-maintained site gave him the option to choose country by country.  (80)

There are entries for a couple of other countries (alphabetical order) before we reach the one that concerns us:

CANADA
Canada? Yes, Canada.
And read that in the course of Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events held on campuses throughout the country security officers roughed up Jewish hecklers, one of them warning a Jewish student to ‘shut the fuck up or I’ll saw your head off’.
Was that a home-grown Canadian deterrent, he wondered, sawing Jews’ heads off?  (81)

Treslove then calls his friend Sam Finkler:

He rang Finkler after all to say how nice it had been to see him and did he know that in Caracas and in Buenos Aires and in Toronto – yes, Toronto! – and in Fontenay-sous-Bois and in London, but Finkler stopped him there.  (82)

The most obvious thing to note here is the tone of incredulity: the repetition of Canada in italics with a question mark, and then the word “yes,” along with the subsequent repetition of Toronto, again with “yes” added, indicate that anti-Semitic attacks in Canada are completely unexpected.  These verbal and typographical markers of surprise are reserved for Canadian anti-Semitism; none of the other countries with anti-Semitic incidents generates this kind of response, which adds to the sense of Treslove’s shock that such things go on here. Canada is certainly one of the places that “calls itself civilised,” as the first passage has it, but, more to the point, it is also a place that non-Canadians consider civilized. A contemporary Englishman like Treslove has a preconceived notion of Canada as a peaceful, multicultural place where anti-Semitism would surely be a thing of the fairly distant past.

But apparently such is not the case, and the book suggests that there may be an ugly reality lying beneath the sunny face Canada shows to the world. In particular, consider the word “now”:

…Canada’s now annual Israeli Apartheid Week events….

This use of “now” seems to indicate that Israeli Apartheid Week has recently become an annual event in Canada, and that this points towards growing anti-Semitism.  And so, while one would tend to think of anti-Semitism as a prejudice that would recede over time, the book suggests that the opposite – at least in Canada – is the case.  There is even a kind of weariness about the phrase “now annual,” as if this sort of thing is somehow to be expected.

Is the story about Canada true? On its website, the Anti-Defamation League maintains a list of anti-Semitic incidents organized by country, as described in the novel; the list for 2009 seems to be the source for much of Jacobson’s material here (look, particularly, at the ADL’s entries for Venezuela, Argentina and France and compare them to the information on those countries in The Finkler Question – the similarities are clear).

The ADL has an entry for Canada in 2009, but it contains nothing that resembles the threat of head-sawing. Here, however, is a report on an incident at the University of Toronto, also from 2009, that is clearly behind what Jacobson describes. And so, while we, as Canadians, surely don’t want to be thought of as a country where Jews are threatened with beheading, such a thing apparently did occur.

And the novel isn’t about to let us forget it: more references to the sawing off of heads, and to Toronto as a site of anti-Semitism, arise as Treslove begins to manufacture an identity and motivation for the woman who mugged him:

He had no choice but to name her Judith. Something to do with the Canadian security man threatening to saw the Jewish student’s head off. It was Judith who beheaded Holofernes.  (83)

Carrying on:

Or perhaps the mugging was just a taster of what she really had in store in him. A knife in his heart, maybe. A pistol at his head. A saw at his throat.  (84)

(Is the phrase “in store in him” idiomatic in England? I would have expected “in store for him.”) 

And one more:

And he saw himself kicked out of the way by passers-by, like a Jew’s dog on the streets of Caracas, or Buenos Aires, or Fontenay-sous-Bois, or Toronto.  (85)

As you can see from the page numbers, the references to Canada form a little cluster in the section of the novel that deals with Treslove discovering that anti-Semitic attacks continue in the contemporary world. One of the central ideas of the novel (voiced by several characters at different points) is that anti-Semitism is unavoidable, and that while it may recede from time to time, it will always recur – so Canada isn’t being picked out as unusual in still having anti-Semitisim. Rather, we are seen as a country where one would least expect to find anti-Semitism – a compliment in terms of the way we’re viewed by the world, but one which, the novel suggests, we don’t live up to as well as we might hope.

Scandal in Canada? Impossible!

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

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

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

Ha ha ha.

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

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

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

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

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

e. Rob? That’s sort of a big deal.

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

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

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

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