Canadian politics, eh? What’s it good for? “Fodder for novels” is one possible answer. There are two in particular that I love to bits because:
- They are hilariously trashy, badly written, and endlessly amusing;
- gifts from a friend who feeds my Canada obsession;
- actually do, in their incompetent way, say some interesting things about two existential Canadian fears: domination by the United States and the internal implosion of Canada.
The first novel, Faultline 49, takes the Iraq war and sets it in Canada. YES, REALLY. Author David Danson seems to think this is the most mind blowing way to alter conceptions of the recent history of the War on Terror. The hoary US-invades-Canada plot is usually played for satire, since the whole premise is, honestly, fairly farcical on its face. While we in the US fondly dream of one day bringing the arrogant Canuck to heel, slowly stealing hockey teams and blandly assuming Canada is a state are much more effective and demoralizing methods than military force.
As Canadian Bacon demonstrated, the northlands are impervious to blunter methods of persuasion. Danson takes an entirely different tack, treating the US invasion with utmost seriousness. So serious he festoons the text with footnotes; not meta-textual David Foster Wallace footnotes, but citations for actual real world things: George W. Bush delivers the Axis of Evil speech, but instead of referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea he’s laying a smackdown on paramilitaries in Southern Alberta. There are allegations the whole thing was about oil. L. Paul Bremer becomes provisional governor of Canada (not a joke.) This slavish realism is basically the most confusing possible authorial choice, since, you know…ummm the Iraq War couldn’t have happened in Canada becauseeeee, well, it’s not Iraq? Anyone idly speculating that this makes more sense in context: nooope.
The other crazy-be-still-my-beating-heart novel is authored by an actual (retired) Canadian politician named Chris Decker. This cachet is baffling when considering how unrealistic basically ALL the politics within it are. Newfoundland: it’s an island, lots of moose and cod. It also has a nationalist movement! It was the last and most recent province to join Canada and did so somewhat reluctantly when Mother Britain more or less kicked it out of the house of Empire for being a fiscal basket case.
Some of the locals still hold it was a mistake to join up with Canada, though my authoritative Newfoundland contacts view the nationalist thing as a vaguely cringe-worthy curiosity. Dissolution is, wonderfully enough, Newfoundland nationalist fan fiction! In the real world, Canada periodically threatens to cease existing, thanks mostly to the French. In Dissolution, Quebec goes its own way and the other provinces follow suit and become countries. For Newfoundland this means a decade of extreme hardship thanks to Newfoundland not really having what it takes to be a nation (can we get a Newfoundland nationalist flame war in the comments?) followed by a sudden happy ending where everything turns out completely wonderfully just so the protagonists don’t come off as incompetent jerks basically.
In lieu of frisking every errant plot point, let’s bestow some awards on these worthy tomes:
The Mike Harris Award for OTT Neo-Liberal Fetishism goes to Dissolution.
Chris Decker really loves his tax cuts, privatizations, and free trade agreements because in the end they solve all problems. Literally they solve ALL PROBLEMS. There is no social ill that privatizing the healthcare system and allowing free enterprise to flourish will not fix for Newfoundland and one presumes the world. He seems to have a real axe to grind about how costly healthcare is and how it should be dismantled, which might explain why he’s an ex-politician, this being an insanely courageous position to hold in Canada. There is one socialist (NDP) character who joins the post-independent unity government, he’s portrayed as a well-meaning boob (think Isobel in Downton Abbey). As for the only lady in cabinet, well…
The Famous Five Award for Women in Politics goes to Dissolution.
There are three women with actual names in this book. Anna is a minister in the Newfoundland government; she spends her time being weepy before committing suicide because she feels terrible about cutting social programs. Beth is Anderson’s love interest; conventionally attractive, no discernable personality. Rosie is Anderson’s secretary. So we have two stereotypes and someone who can’t handle a position of power like the menfolk so manifestly can. There is also a heavily pregnant constitutional advisor who is made to work while Canada is ending even though she’s practically giving birth and a Danish helicopter pilot with great blond hair and blue eyes as ‘character traits.’ You’d never know this was written by a dude!
The Ezra Levant Journalistic Controversy Award goes to Faultine 49.
So the book is supposed to be a work of non-fiction journalism published by a reporter under house arrest for taking part in the rebellion against the US occupation of Canada. The narrator protagonist person is intensely unlikable; he cheats on his spouse with students, drinks a lot, and talks like a parody of a graduate student Hunter S. Thompson wannabe trapped in a Dashiell Hammett novel:
“Spending too much time in the company of pigs probably jaded me, prompting me to expect comparable behavior from all inheritors of this modern imaginary.”
“I mashed lips, gnashed teeth, and pressed on, deliriously, into disoriented mating rituals, and danced to initiate and inaugurate the retributive pollination of the shiniest, waxiest, most glamorous, and promising of those midnight flowers wilting under the American occupation.”
The Michael Ignatieff Prize for Intellectual Miscommunication goes to Faultline 49.
Since this book isn’t didactic and confusing enough the author is nice enough to give us a note at the end which explains what the book is actually about. Unfortunately, it seems to be written in some kind of gibberish language:
“As well as drawing a dissonance between realities for the purpose of estranging us to forces and ideas that we may find difficult to accept, I have utilized the distorting qualities of fiction to present a buffer-world: one that could theoretically have existed, though thankfully doesn’t.”
“I recognize now that the very cultural and legal phenomena that I wish of focus on exist only in our present context, which is paradoxically, something that I have to sacrifice to enable the events and agents that populate this buffer world.”
“All the research is there, cited at the bottom of each page, but often the data is filtered and demonstrated though fictional players of significance. Because of these new players, rudimentary real-world facts have taken on other meanings.”
The Shamrock Summit Award for Weirdest Cameo by a thinly Fictionalized Version of a US President goes to Dissolution.
‘President Bill Clark’ is southern, rakish, charismatic and is OBVIOUSLY Bill Clinton. He’s basically the deus ex machina of the book because he visits Labrador and falls in love with Newfoundland because of toutons, in perhaps the first recorded example of a regional fried dough specialty saving a county in lieu of provoking a public health crisis. This leads him to have a ‘special relationship’ with Newfoundland. This is justified as a way to protect the US from Russian aggression, even though most reputable maps will inform you that Russia and Newfoundland are not close to one another. Still, can’t trust those Icelanders, they used to be Vikings! God only knows how tempted they are by our lavishly appointed ecclesiastical buildings!
The narrator runs around post-apocalyptic Toronto (insert topical Rob Ford joke here) quite a bit and in one instance consumes Montreal smoked meat. As someone who lived in Montreal for a time and is a definite pro-Montreal partisan, NO YOU CANNOT GET MONTREAL SMOKED MEAT IN TORONTO. Yes there are places that claim to serve it, but they lie. The sandwich in this case is served with Thousand Island dressing, a ridiculous apostasy. I don’t care how badly the world is ending; you can’t get smoked meat in Toronto. Nope.
The Ralph Klein Award for Dreamiest Premier goes to Dissolution.
So Anderson, the main character, is IMPOSSIBLY perfect. He starts out pulling down $300,000 a year practicing constitutional law in St. John’s which my Newfoundland contacts call ‘complete bullshit.’ He has a perfect uncomplicated romance, is always eventually proved right about everything and is quite the looker. To use a drinking game analogy, if one took a shot of Screech every time one of Anderson’s decisions was vindicated, you would achieve blackout drunkenness at best.
The John A. MacDonald Prize for Alcoholic Orneriness goes to Dissolution.
Angus, a cabinet minister, is constantly drunk, incessantly complaining about how things were better before that damned Joey Smallwood ruined the province, and a dirty old man, all of which are expected to be understood as endearing traits. How he became and remains a minster is perhaps best summed up by my Newfoundland contacts who regularly call their politicians ‘fucking incompetents.’
Tay John by Howard O’Hagan is, we are told, a foundational text for the Canadian rebels, most particularly a passage where the titular hero fights a bear with nothing but a knife (because this is exactly what Canada-US relations are like I guess). The incident in question lends itself to some prurient interpretative speculation though:
“The she-bear was simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. Its body began as chestnut brown at the rear, which blended into the creme fur padding it (sic) neck. Aflame in the sunlight, the bear – glorious and in its prime – started hungrily at the feast-for-vengeance limp in the fore.”
“With its powerful arms overextended at the benign article, the bear’s chest was exposed to the sun. Tay John barreled toward bear and embraced th ebear as tightly as he could. This awakened the most primal of all impulses in the bear.”
“Tay John, focused on his objective, overcame the pain and ignored his instinctive flee-response. As shock set in, he received one more adrenalin kick. At one with the weapon, he searched for the animal’s heart. With a click, Tay John lost his sight, and sank into the warm fur.”
Words that are actually used in the text I couldn’t quite fit in: throbbing, erect, jagged, tremors, sinews and flesh, trousers, aggressive posturing, awesome growl, wet fur, and ‘the bear had long been spent.”
For anyone who actually wants good Canadian political literature this is a pretty charming novel about a curmudgeon who runs for a seat in parliament. Now also a CBC TV show.