LITERARY REVIEW OF CANADA
"The Ugly Canadian," the lead essay in the latest LRC, is bound to be a conversation-starter among the Canuck intelligentsia. Written by Ottawa scholar, lawyer and scientist Amir Attaran, the essay is a robust, cogently argued attack on what Attaran calls "Canadian exceptionalism" - our tendency in recent years to portray ourselves as responsible human-rights-loving internationalists when, in fact, our policies are arbitrary, irrational, ignorant, insular, harmful and, well . . . do you get the idea?
Attaran takes the whip to several institutions and practices including the Public Health Agency of Canada ("toothless," ignores the World Health Organization's International Health Regulations), preferential tariff rates (why do we give them to unworthies like Qatar, Zimbabwe and Russia?) and the OECD's Anti-Bribery Convention (we signed it a decade ago but Canadian corporations still pass "cash stuffed envelopes in Caracas and Harare" with impunity).
Attaran's harshest criticisms are saved for the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. It's naive, xenophobic, complaisant and lacking in empathy, while the senior ranks of its bureaucracy are "a monoculture of the scions of pure laine Canadian families of European descent." Translation: too many white people. The whole enterprise, says Attaran, requires "a near-complete makeover."
It's sometimes said of artists who died (too) young that their deaths were "a good career move." Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, James Dean and Jimi Hendrix are among the most oft-cited examples - individuals who, with the benefit of hindsight, did the smart thing by exiting to nostalgia's eternal summer, looks, art and ideals intact, their estates at the ready with happy armies of accountants.
Nick Drake can probably claim membership in this company. Since his death 35 years ago this November, at 26, of a drug overdose, he's become one of the most written-about, discussed and listened-to singer-songwriters in pop history. The big difference between Morrison et al and Drake is that Drake, while he was alive, never enjoyed the millions (as in fans) and millions (as in dollars) they did. His fame, success and influence have all been posthumous.
He thought it was going to be otherwise. As Mat Snow writes here, Drake was an ambitious musician who fully expected to trod stardom's path without the benefit of the death trip. In fact, Snow says Joe Boyd, producer of Drake's first two albums, told the artist early in 1968 "he could be the next Leonard Cohen," Cohen's first record having sold 100,000 copies mere months earlier. And how many copies did Five Leaves Left sell upon release in fall 1969? "Around 5,000."
Poetry doesn't sell but Christian Bök's poetry does. His last (and most recent) book of poems, Eunoia, has been printed at least 19 times in Canada since Anansi launched it in 2001, and today sales in this country alone total more than 20,000 copies. These are the sorts of numbers one usually associates with a strong fiction seller, not a five-part book of experimental verse, seven years in the writing, where each part is devoted to words containing only one of the five vowels.
Bök, a Toronto-born literature prof at the University of Calgary, is currently hard at work on his next poetic endeavour, The Xenotext Project. As described here to interviewer Jonathan Ball, it sounds like something out of a Don DeLillo novel. Simply put (if it, in fact, can be put that way), Bök proposes to write a poem that he would translate, by encipherment, "into a sequence of genetic nucleotides," then implant in an unkillable, evolution-resistant bacterium. "I guess that this is a kind of ambitious attempt to think about art, quite literally, as an eternal endeavour," he says. Or at least one lasting the next 6 billion years at which time the sun is expected to explode.
Okay, say, "Huh?" if you wish. But it all makes sense (I think) when you read his explanations. Bök's one of those uncommonly lucid guys who can speak on complex matters in fully formed paragraphs with sprinkles of piquant metaphor (i.e., "To write a poem nowadays is to knit a doily for a candy dish.").