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Canada through the eyes of world literature

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On the High Seas with Doc and Sauncho

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice (2009)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Canadian Dime (Tails side)

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

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


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