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Canada through the eyes of world literature

Archive for the tag “Vancouver”

The Romance of Canada 3: David Lodge Insults Us

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David Lodge, Small World: An Academic Romance (1984)

I’ll warn you at the outset, this one may sting a little. I’ve included it as part of the “Romance” series because the book is subtitled “An Academic Romance,” but the idea of romance at issue in this novel is that of Chretien de Troyes or Ariosto, not the “romanticism” of Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, Keats and so on.

Anyway…

I came to this book somewhat reluctantly. It was recommended to me in graduate school by someone I didn’t have tremendous respect for, and so I didn’t read it out of suspicion of the source, so to speak. As always happens in these cases, all I managed to do was deprive myself of a reasonably enjoyable book.

Small World — the second in what is now called Lodge’s “campus trilogy” — is a satire of academic life in general and, in particular, of academic conferences. The main characters are almost all academics, and they spend all their time jetting around the world from one conference to the next, where they argue, drink and sleep with one another.

To give his narrative some shape, Lodge has superimposed on it several different quest narratives, the main one being Persse McGarrigle’s quest for Angelica, a beautiful girl he meets at a conference and whom he then pursues around the world for the rest of the book, always one step behind her. Lest anyone miss the point, many of the characters are provided with names that signal their function in the novel or their relationship to characters from romance: Sybil Maiden, for example, an elderly woman who has prophetic fits; or Arthur Kingfisher, past wunderkind of the field of literary theory who has withdrawn into himself due to impotence and writer’s block (the Fisher King with a hint of King Arthur) and who only recovers when Persse (Percival) asks an ambiguous (and “healing”) question at — where else? — the MLA conference.

All of that, of course, is beside the point for our purposes; what we really want to know is, what does it have to say about Canada?

As you would expect in a novel where most of the characters spend their time flying around the world, there are several passing references to Canada that don’t say anything about the country but are just place names. There are also a couple of mentions of Northrop Frye, Canada’s most famous literary critic, which give us a sense of what a significant intellectual presence Frye was among literary academics in the late 70s and early 80s: both The Anatomy of Criticism and his ideas about romance as a genre are referenced approvingly here.

And with that short paragraph, we’ve taken care of the neutral and positive side of Canada in this novel. There are several other passages which give a more focused picture of Canada and Canadians, and in those, I’m afraid, Lodge — or his characters — don’t have much good to say.

A Land of Windswept Exile

In this scene, Howard Ringbaum and his wife Thelma are flying from Canada (where he works) to England for a conference. Howard has been trying (unsuccessfully) to convince Thelma to have sex with him on the plane so that he can join the “Mile High Club,” which he has heard about from a younger colleague, and his bitter reflections following his failure lead to some thoughts on Canada and how he ended up there:

The same characteristic trait, displayed in a party game called Humiliation devised by Philip Swallow many years before, cost Howard Ringbaum dear — cost him his job, in fact, led to his exile to Canada, from which he has only recently been able to return by dint of writing a long succession of boring articles on English pastoral poetry amid the windswept prairies of Alberta….  (91)

Here we get an image of Canada as a windy, desolate wasteland, almost comically unsuited to the sort of sophisticated cultural life required by academics. Ringbaum explicitly thinks of his position in Canada as an “exile,” and so living in our country is construed as so bad it can serve as punishment for a misdeed.

A Cutting Put-Down

Things only get worse. Later in the novel, the subject of a trip to Vancouver comes up between Rudyard Parkinson (a professor) and Felix Skinner (an academic publisher):

“They’re giving me an honorary degree in Vancouver next week. It didn’t really sink in, when I accepted, that I’d actually have to go there to collect it.”
“I say, what a bore,” said Felix Skinner sympathetically.  (156)

The phrase “What a bore” could be taken to refer to Vancouver — indeed, ideas of boredom do seem to track fairly closely with references to Vancouver in world literature — but it could also simply refer to the tedium of flying to distant places to receive honorary degrees, and we need not take it as a direct insult to Canada. A few pages later, however, Rudyard Parkinson goes to Vancouver to get his degree, and we get this:

He began bitterly to repent of the vanity which had prompted him to accept this perfectly useless degree, flying ten thousand miles in three days just for the pleasure of dressing up in unfamiliar robes, hearing a short and probably inaccurate panegyric in his honour, and exchanging small talk afterwards with a crowd of boring Canadian nonentities at some ghastly reception or banquet where they would all no doubt drink iced rye whisky throughout the meal.  (162)

There really can’t be any doubt about that one: Canadians are conceived of as dull, unsophisticated bumpkins, and the idea of spending any time in their company is tantamount to torture. There is so much caught up in those three words, “boring Canadian nonentities,” that they almost seem to summarize the world’s idea of our country — not just the word “boring,” since we’ve grown moderately comfortable with the idea of our own dullness, and have even started to take a certain pride in it in some ways — just another word for “peace, order and good government” you might almost say. But “nonentities” — that word contains so much, because of course the Canadians in the novel — though we never get to know them as characters — are fighting against this very characterization. By giving an honorary degree to a well-known British academic, by having him come to their university to receive it, the Canadians are trying to raise their own profile in the academic world, trying to become something other than nonentities. And yet they can’t: even their guest of honour, who should be well-disposed towards them, sees the trip as a nuisance and the people he meets as precisely the nonentities they don’t want to be.

From Lodge’s perspective, and for most of his readers, this episode in Vancouver would be just another example of his satirizing of the academic world. As a Canadian, however, I find myself reading it “against the grain” (to borrow a term from literary theory): instead of snickering at the Canadian academics, I sympathize with them, and feel a sort of embarrassed pity at the way their desire to be taken seriously by the rest of the world (such a Canadian desire) is so casually dismissed.

The good news about Vancouver, however, is that, while being there may be torture, it is a torture that is easily forgotten, at least based on Parkinson’s thoughts two pages later:

Vancouver, of which he had in any case seen little except rainswept roads between the airport and the University, had already faded from his memory.  (164)

The association of rain with Vancouver is not surprising, and the conclusion of the sentence seems to say a lot about Canada: it may be dull, but at least it is eminently forgettable.

A Final Nod to Newfoundland

There’s one other reference to Canada, spoken by Philip Swallow to Joy, who becomes his lover for part of the novel:

Philip squeezed her knee. “You are my Euphoria, my Newfoundland,” he said.  (222)

This is obviously a reference to the Donne poem which was the subject of our first ever Wow Canada post; it is also, of course, a characterizing detail, since it makes sense that a university professor would quote Donne to his lover. Lodge has even modernized the spelling to match the name of our easternmost province.

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Discovered: An Eighth Type of Ambiguity

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Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping (1980)

Despite the title, this novel really revolves around the gradual unravelling of the family and household of the narrator, Ruth. At the end of the book – which is the only part that concerns us here – Ruth and her Aunt Sylvie, who gave up life as a transient to try to raise Ruth and her sister, leave town to jump a train and become transients together. This passage is from the very end of the novel:

We caught the next westbound and drowsed among poultry crates all the way to Seattle. From there we went to Portland, and from there to Crescent City, and from there to Vancouver, and from there again to Seattle. At first our trail was intricate so that we would elude discovery, and then it was intricate because we had no particular reason to go to one town rather than another, and no particular reason to stay anywhere, or to leave.  (216)

It’s perhaps needless to say that, at this point, I just assumed I had found a reference to Canada, and it was only after the Wow – Canada! research staff did a little digging into the geography of the Pacific Northwest that we learned there is also a Vancouver in Washington state.

Given that the area they’re wandering through could include either place, it’s difficult to determine whether the Vancouver mentioned is the American one or the one in British Columbia; this is, then, an ambiguously Canadian reference. It could certainly be read as a reference to Canada (and likely will be, at least by Canadians); at the same time, it doesn’t need to be read as such, and is not explicitly one. We might argue that since the (American) narrator never clearly states that she means the Vancouver in Canada, we should just assume she means the American one; on the other hand, we might point out that Vancouver seems to be the furthest point on the journey, since it is followed by a return to Seattle, which might indicate that the Vancouver they visited is in another country.

And, as we have seen before, American authors often refer to Canadian places without specifying that they are in Canada, and treat Canadian locations as if they were part of some mythical “greater United States” that includes Canada, so given that, the absence of a specifically Canadian identification doesn’t preclude the possibility that they did go to the Canadian Vancouver.

Whatever the truth – if such a thing exists – it’s interesting to note that both British Columbia and Washington contain a Vancouver, which indicates something of the intertwined nature of the North American history we share with our neighbour to the south.

The Sexy Side of … Ottawa?

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Graham Nash, Wild Tales (2013)

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

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

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

Joni’s Enchanted Castle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Square, Straight Canadians

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

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

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

Genius Joni

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad Joni

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

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

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

But no, we won’t.

The Mysterious Mr. Young

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back to Joni

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

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

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

The Absent Goldfish

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

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

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

The Music

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

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

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

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

Canada’s Gift to the Fashion World: The Canadian Tuxedo

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Brian Hiatt, “The Rise of the Black Keys,” Rolling Stone (January 19, 2012)

As a general rule, I try to focus on references to Canada in books, but occasionally I’ll come across a mention in a magazine or other piece of pop-culture ephemera (is anything really ephemeral anymore?) that is just too good to ignore. This is one of those moments.

I’m not sure exactly how I stumbled on this Black Keys article, and it’s a few years old now, but it opens a door into a part of Canadian identity that we haven’t really dealt with here before, so it seemed worth considering. This is from the very opening of the article, when the author does his obligatory description of how cool the subject of the article is:

No one in this busy Hollywood organic coffee shop looks like they might have just sold out Madison Square Garden – least of all, perhaps, the compact, thick-bearded dude in the jean jacket shuffling toward a corner table. Dan Auerbach’s looks are striking enough: sharp-angled nose, bright blue eyes, floppy reddish hair. But his denim-on-denim outfit says “parking-lot attendant” as much as it does “rock star” (“I’m not afraid of the Canadian tuxedo,” he says, though at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans) – and he carries himself with an almost wilful lack of flamboyance.

He’s so cool, he’s good-looking, he’s wildly successful but at the same time totally down to earth – and he’s wearing denim-on-denim! It’s actually Auerbach himself who identifies his look (if someone so cool and down to earth can even be said to have a “look”) as “the Canadian tuxedo,” showing that, among our many other accomplishments, our nation has also left its imprint on the fashion world.

Is this something to be proud of? It’s hard not to feel that there is something disparaging about the term “Canadian tuxedo,” as though we Canadians are such unsophisticated hicks that jeans with a jean jacket is the closest we can come to formal wear. And the line about “at least the pale-blue jacket doesn’t match his black jeans” – that “at least” seems to indicate that the Canadian tuxedo is a horribly unfashionable look, but the version of it that Auerbach is sporting isn’t quite as awful as it might be. (Note that, for the cover shoot, he swapped the denim jacket for the more conventional rock-star leather.)

And why is this look referred to as “the Canadian tuxedo”? Is it, in fact, a way for Americans to make fun of Canadian fashion sense? According to GQ magazine, the story is a little more complicated than that, and involves Levi’s, Bing Crosby and a Vancouver hotel. (Needless to say, there are other explanations floating around on the Internet.)

But, contrary to its ostensibly scruffy and lower-class reputation, the denim-on-denim look is one of this spring’s hottest fashion trends, having made appearances all over at Fashion Week in Paris. And, predictably, there’s a website devoted to images of people in Canadian tuxedos – including Beyonce and Barack Obama.

So our humble contribution to the fashion lexicon is clearly hitting the big time.

Canadians: Dinner Party Boredom Bombs

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Renata Adler, Pitch Dark (1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed.

Hollywood: It’s All About Canada

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Bruce Wagner, I’m Losing You (1996)

My introduction to Bruce Wagner came through the TV miniseries Wild Palms, which I watched long ago and from which I remember three things:

1) A rhinoceros standing in an empty swimming pool

2) Robert Loggia reciting “Running to Paradise” by Yeats

3) This bewitching cover of the William Faulkner novel of the same name, which I’ve never read

Since then, I’ve been aware of him as a writer of dark, satirical Hollywood novels, none of which I had actually read – until now. I’m Losing You certainly fits what I imagined as the Bruce Wagner template: lots of amoral power-mongers and desperate losers whose dreams of “making it” in Hollywood lead to their own downfall, all sprinkled with liberal doses of drug use and sex.

But who cares about that stuff? What really matters is that this novel has more references to Canada than any other American novel I’ve ever read. So many that I keep wondering if Wagner is actually a Canadian. (If he is, I can’t find any evidence of it.)

For the first time, in fact, there are so many references to Canada that I’ve divided them into sections for ease of reading.

The Heartbreaking Story of an Aspiring Starlet

In the second section of the novel, titled “Women in Hollywood,” we meet Kim Girard, a waitress who dreams of being an actress. And guess where she’s from:

Often, at the strangest moment {usually smack in the middle of reciting the Specials}, my mind toggles back to Vancouver and the friends and family I left behind; and I am temporarily sidetracked by that sinking homesicky feeling – penny dreadful!  (73)

Yes, an eager young Canadian who has left the relative safety of Vancouver to make it in the wilds of Los Angeles. Is this a cliché, or is it something so common that it has come to seem like a cliché? I’m not sure, but the Canadian actress is a type we have run across before. And since Kim is a recurring character in the novel, we can use her career to chart the path of an (admittedly fictional, but perhaps representative in some sense nevertheless) aspiring Canadian actress, and to draw some conclusions about what a major American author thinks of Canada and Canadians.

Kim befriends another young starlet-wannabe, who goes by the name Jabba:

We went to an NA meeting after and I asked Jabba about her dad. She usually sees him around the holidays and said if I didn’t go back to Vancouver, maybe we could all have Turkey Day together. I told her I would really like that {which I would}.  (82)

I hate to be the sniping variety of critic who, as Jonathan Swift says, does nothing but point out a writer’s faults, but I can’t help but feel that Wagner, like Homer before him, may have nodded here. Canadian Thanksgiving occurs at least a month before American Thanksgiving, so it’s difficult to see why Kim, who is Canadian, would be going back to Vancouver to see her family at the same time Jabba is having Thanksgiving with her father.

Kim changes her name to Kiv Giraux, and an agent gets her an audition for a role in a remake of Pasolini’s Teorema, of all things:

I suspected as much from the start because they seemed to be actively casting other things while I was there, such as PICKET FENCES. {I was hoping to see DAVID KELLEY and MICHELLE but that they would even be there was naive on my part. Guess I’m still the majorly starstruck Vancouver girl. (102)

As a Canadian not yet hardened in the ways of Hollywood, Kiv is excitedly dreaming of running into what Wagner calls “Big Stars”. As an aside, one of the curiosities of reading this novel is seeing which stars who were famous then still have currency now (“MICHELLE,” above, clearly referring to Pfeiffer) and which have been forgotten (Hello, “LAURA DERN”. What’s new, “MADELEINE STOWE”?).

To express her thanks for the audition, Kiv has sex with the agent (Canadians are so polite!), something that even she seems to recognize as a bit of a cliché:

I didn’t want him to think sleeping together was the “prize” for getting me the audition – that would be SOOOO Hollywood.  (102)

Kiv doesn’t get the part, and loses her job as a waitress as well:

Diary, I cried and cried and for the first time thought of returning to B.C. (110)

Not only does Wagner know Vancouver, he knows which province it’s in! Kiv finds work in a strip club, which leads to another Canadian reference:

I’ll tell Ursula to ask if Blockbuster has it when she picks up EXOTICA {{CIRCA 1995}} {{EXOTICA}} takes place in a strip club – we’re viewing it as part of our Research}}.  (122)

I wonder whether Wagner was actually thinking of the Canadian connection when he worked in the Exotica reference; it’s nicely done if he was, since whenever Atom Egoyan makes a movie, any Canadian who listens to the radio or watches TV is bombarded with news about it.

Working in a strip club is, of course, the first step on the predictable downward path of our Canadian ingenue; soon she’s being moved into an apartment by her boyfriend, Troy Capra, who just happens to be a porn director – though she convinces herself that the apartment is a step on the road to legitimate stardom:

The doorman told us GOLDIE once lived here during her ascent … as did JAMI GERTZ, THERESA RUSSELL … LILSA EILBACHER, COURTNEY COX and DAPHNE ZUNIGA. Also KIM CATTRALL {a fellow underappreciated Canadian, especially in TICKET TO HEAVEN {{CIRCA 1981}} }  (125)

Kiv’s extreme naïvete must be obvious by now, though it’s a bit more difficult to determine whether Wagner sees this as a Canadian characteristic, or if he would have a similar attitude if Kiv were from, say, Oklahoma, or even his own home town of Madison, Wisconsin. It strikes me as true and almost touching (Wagner can be touching when he chooses) that she would take encouragement from the fact that another Canadian, who had achieved dreams similar to hers, lived in the building she was moving into.

Kiv’s career path, of course, leads to porn, and soon she’s being interviewed by Troy for a “Starshot Skinscape” episode on the Adult Channel:

(Kiv Giraux lies on a blanket, sunbathing…. She is topless. Troy interviews her from OFF-CAMERA…. A supered title: THE FOXXXY NETWORK’S STARSHOT #10 – XXX-FILE GIRLS….
Where from?
Vancouver.
Beautiful place. Lots of television production up there now.
Maybe I should go back!
We don’t want to lose you just yet. That’s close to Seattle, isn’t it?
Vancouver? Uh huh.

What kind of acting have you done, Kiv?
Mostly stage. Various productions in Vancouver. But I came to Hollywood so I could get experience in front of the camera. (CAMERA ZOOMS on bush) My plan is to cross over, like Traci Lords-
(138-41)

The naïve Vancouverite still hasn’t woken up to reality. And note how nicely Wagner captures that irritating American habit of always relating to Canadian cities by finding out what American city they’re closest to. The reference to TV production in Vancouver intrigues me: I seem to recall there being protests in Hollywood about how much production work was moving to Canada. I don’t know if that was around the time of this novel or if it was later, but certainly the impression of Canada as a nondescript double of the U.S. where American films and TV shows can be shot on the cheap lies behind Troy’s remark. And could the fact that a lot of productions were happening in Canada at the time the novel was written be the reason there are so many references to Canada in the book?

A bit later, Troy and Kiv go to look at a mansion together:

As Troy approached the surreal structure, Kiv’s hickish oohs and aahs broke the quixotic spell. With great annoyance, he walked to the car and waited.  (187)

So we’re hicks now. What Troy responds to here is the provincialism Canadians are so often accused of: Kiv is an unsophisticated girl who is embarrassingly impressed by a tacky Hollywood mansion.

And at this point, Wagner drops his Canadian character: Kim Girard has become Kiv Giraux, and gone from waitress and aspiring actress to stripper to porn star. Wagner apparently feels he has traced her downward career arc far enough to let us extrapolate the rest, should we care to. Through her, we get a look at how Hollywood views young hopefuls from Canada: as naïve dreamers whose fantasies of stardom can be used to make them serve the ends of those who understand how Hollywood really works.

Miscellaneous Canadian References

There are several other references to Canada that don’t involve Kiv Giraux, which I’ll catalogue for the sake of completeness.

Toronto vs. Montreal

Another character, a screenwriter named Katherine Grosseck, introduces a conflict that any Canadian – or should I say any Torontonian? – will recognize:

What the fuck am I doing here? I mean, besides going to dailies and jacking the director’s ego. Well, that’s what I get for exec-producing. Hate Toronto, always have. The only thing good about it is Leonard Cohen, and he’s from Montreal, n’est-ce pas?  (128)

Ouch! This is such a clever and spot-on put-down of Toronto, so perfectly calibrated to hit at one of the city’s biggest insecurities, that you would almost think the character was a Montrealer herself. And I love the slide into French at the end of the sentence.

But now we get into the bizarre part: Bruce Wagner was married to Rebecca de Mornay from 1986 to 1990. The same Rebecca de Mornay who was “romantically linked” (to use the odious tabloid phrase) to Leonard Cohen in the early 90s, and to whom Cohen’s 1992 album The Future is apparently dedicated.

On the basis of those personal details alone, we can assume that Wagner must be aware of Cohen; and that’s not even mentioning Cohen’s longtime residence at a monastery on Mount Baldy near Los Angeles, studying Buddhism (though Wagner is apparently more of a Castaneda fan), and the presence of his music in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers (as well as the afore-mentioned Exotica).

So perhaps the reference is just a tribute to Cohen’s career renaissance in the early 90s, when he seemed to become a part of pop culture for a few years. Given the context, though, it’s hard not to think there is some kind of personal resonance to the reference as well. If nothing else, it’s a nice shout-out to a guy who was bedding your ex not long before the book was published.

A Deceptive Non-Torontonian

This is a strange one. The following conversation takes place between Bernie, an aging producer who wants to resurrect a zombie movie franchise he made in the 70s, and Pierre Rubidoux, a young producer at Showtime who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, and who pretends to be interested in Bernie’s films:

“Your son’s a helluv’n agent,” said Pierre….
“Taught him everything I don’t know. Say, you and Donny didn’t go to school together, did you?”
“No, we didn’t.”
“He grew up with a Rubidoux-Jesus, I think it might have been a Pierre!”
“I know two other Pierre Rubidouxes. We get each other’s mail.”
“The mother was Clara,” he said, irresolute. “You’re not related?”
“Not that I know of. Were they from Toronto?”  (176)

Not to unnecessarily regurgitate plot, but what lies behind all this is that Bernie killed Pierre’s mother while driving late one night, and Pierre is now using his power at Showtime to take some kind of strange Hollywood revenge on Bernie. And so when he says he’s not the Pierre Rubidoux who grew up with Bernie’s son, Donny, he’s lying.

Canada comes in here as what I would read as a slightly desperate element in the lie. Pierre doesn’t want Bernie to figure out that he’s the son of the woman he killed, so he has to pretend to be a different Pierre Rubidoux. As an American, he apparently has some idea that Rubidoux, because of its French origin, could conceivably be a Canadian name; Toronto probably being the only city in Canada he can name, he brings it in to try to make the lie convincing, though in fact Montreal would be far more believable here.

This is ironic, given that Wagner has already shown some awareness of the cultural conflict between Toronto and Montreal; Pierre’s mistake seems to have been introduced here as a way of undermining Pierre, or signalling to the reader that he has ulterior motives.

And this, I think, is a first: an American author is using ignorance about Canada as a way to make his readers mistrust one of his characters. I have to admit, I never thought I’d see that. (Though perhaps I’m over-interpreting? Always a danger.)

We’re NOT All Named After Provinces

This is from a dinner event:

On Rachel’s left was an overweight, attractive Canadian called Alberta. Mordecai, the lovestruck schlemiel with braces, hovered breathlessly, too nervous to sit beside [Rachel]; he took a  chair by the great Province.  (248)

Just to be clear, all Canadians are not named after provinces. I love this reference, though: the fact that a Canadian (and she’s attractive despite being overweight) is named Alberta is funny, but bringing in a character named Mordecai right after it is priceless. Given the familiarity Wagner has already shown with Montreal culture, I assume he’s intentionally referring to Mordecai Richler, one of Canada’s most famous writers, and, like Wagner, a satirist, though in a somewhat different vein. And then he rounds it off with Mordecai sitting next to the “great Province” – particularly hilarious since it’s difficult to imagine Richler ever being “close” to Alberta in any way.

There’s another reference to Alberta:

[Mordecai] probably got [Rachel’s] number from Alberta, the portly yenta. Rachel called her Alberta, Canada, but never to her face.  (292)

Another joke on her size, which is perhaps also a play on the American idea of Canada as a geographically vast nation.

Incidentally, I seem to recall a character named Bobby Ontario in the film Blue Valentine (if you haven’t seen it, I feel it’s my duty to mention that the trailer doesn’t even begin to suggest the harrowing despair that can be conjured by watching the film – don’t be deceived into thinking it’s some sort of indie rom-com) – I’m not sure if that really counts as a reference to Canada, though, because it could just be a name.  Likewise, there’s a Leadbelly song about a woman named Alberta:

But again, there’s no suggestion that her name bears any relation to the Canadian province. In I”m Losing You, on the other hand, it’s obvious that Wagner is aware of the connection, and playing on it. How common is it for people to have the same names as Canadian provinces?

Health Care – Again

This passage comes from a section near the end about a scriptwriter dying in hospital:

Total care! Get real – that’s what they were talking about – and who paid? Medicare? Medicaid? I’ll tell you who: nobody! Nobody paid for total care, total care was for the rich! For English and Canadians, and the Swiss!  (301)

Slightly less amusing than some of Wagner’s other references, but this is an idea that has come up before with American authors: that Canada is a haven of free, socialized medicine, where everyone enjoys the kind of health care that, in the U.S., only the rich can afford.

What Does it All Mean?

This is what baffles me. Is it possible that an American author set out to write a wicked, satirical novel about Hollywood, and just happened to pack it full of references to Canada? (Admittedly, once you get a character from Vancouver in there, it accounts for a few of them; still, there are a lot of references that have nothing to do with Kim/Kiv.)

Did Wagner just have Canada on his mind for some reason? Does he have a close friend from Montreal? Does he pick a random foreign country to refer to in each of his novels as some sort of OuLiPo-style challenge for himself?

I’m not familiar enough with his work to give the last option an official stamp of approval, but my preferred explanation is along those lines: I think events in his personal life (i.e. Leonard Cohen) brought Canada to his attention and, as some sort of bizarre joke, he built a series of references to our country into his novel. Perhaps someone more clever than I can see a pattern lying behind these references to Canada and make it all make sense.

Or perhaps it’s just a coincidence.

The Repellent Cleanliness of Vancouver

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a town you want to stay in very long.

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

A Digressive Anecdote

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tedium of Vancouver

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One can only hope the years changed his opinion.

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