From: Roberta Bride
To: Garrison Mentaliti
Subject: A Book That Must Be Stopped
Ever since you hired me as Chief Canadian Content Checker for Conundra House Publishers Canada, I have felt as though I have been living in a fantasy world full of ethereal beauty and constant danger.
Sifting through reams of nature poems trying to distinguish alchemical imagery from that which is merely leaden, navigating tangled webs of fractured family relationships held together by sharp-tongued women of middling to advanced age, trying to determine if a crime novel about a former hockey star and securities trader turned serial killer is believable enough….it’s enough to make you feel like Hagar in The Stone Angel, trying to keep up your resolve and hold steadfast to your principles though the world may mock you to your face and behind your back.
And are we not the guardians of Canadian fiction, charged with the heavy burden of maintaining quality writing and shunning the vulgar depredations of popular culture? Would Canadian writers even be able to tell their stories without us, or would these fragile northern literary lights be extinguished in the dark chasm of the mass market?
True, we must occasionally supplement our income with government-subsidized (and approved) Canadian history reinterpretations and earnest proto-Marxist economic and environmental manifestoes, but it is all in the service of a higher purpose – the noble task of defining what it means to be Canada.
Yet of late, Garry, I fear my resolve has weakened. The other day, I was browsing through the pile looking for yet another biography of one or more of the Famous Five when I stumbled upon a manuscript by an unknown author that bore the promise a “Great Canadian Novel”.
I should never have opened it, as boastful as that title was. What kind of Canadian novel would ever presume to be great? Is it not enough just to have written a Canadian novel? I wondered if this was the work of pompous plutocrat Conrad Black or tarsands apologist Rex Murphy writing under a pseudonym, but there were too few polysyllabic words. I also suspected Mark Steyn, but I couldn’t find a single reference to musical theatre or Islamic birthrates, so it couldn’t be him.
The setting was a faraway planet in a distant galaxy, where a snow-covered northern kingdom believed itself to be menaced by a powerful confederacy of desert cities to the south. The inhabitants mask their insecurity with drink, self-loathing and smug condescension hidden behind icy masks of politeness. They put much effort into appearing as meek and generic as possible. Looking back, I can see the author’s implication – Canada is such a blank slate that you could transport it to another world and lose very little.
But here’s the thing, Garry: As horrible as it was, I couldn’t put it down. It was like looking at a distorted reflection of my Canadian self-image in a carnival funhouse mirror…and when I finished it my faith in everything I thought I knew and believed about our country was shaken to the core.
Stylistically, every single convention of Canadian fiction was broken – and deliberately so. Maybe that’s what kept me reading – anticipation of what would be overthrown next. Instead of a protagonist haunted by her past trauma, we had a hero struggling against forces beyond his control. Even more shocking was that this hero was dealing with unequivocally evil villains instead of something more traditional, like the uncertainty of his beliefs, or the fragility of human relationships. For a time, I wondered if it was a posthumous work of that crusty old francophobe Mordecai Richler.
I hear you asking, what’s even remotely Canadian about clearly defined absolutes? Well, that’s the most diabolical thing – the novel puts the very idea of what it means to be Canadian on trial. For the villain of the piece is the culture itself – the vague, restrained and superficial attitudes of the powers that be within the novel’s snowy fantasy kingdom. This is a world of dragons and wizards and fantastic technology, which is fine, but none of them are as powerful as the oppressive influence of what the author calls – brace yourself – “The Consensus.”
Can you can see where this is leading, even though I didn’t? The Consensus is comprised of that fictional nation’s leading politicians, artists, journalists and academics, all of whom are in thrall to the memory of an aloof philosopher King and his dim-witted but handsome heir. They gather at secret wilderness retreats where by day they plot to keep the citizenry uninformed and afraid of their unruly neighbours to the south, and by night they engage in wild gender-bending debauchery. It’s never clear if they use magic or just the brute force of the state, but they have succeeded in keeping the population ignorant, complacent, and obedient. A glittering facade of egalitarianism barely hides an ugly reality where corrupt guilds loot the treasury, creativity is strangled, and those with talent or unorthodox ideas are subject to public shaming and banishment.
After the hero is exiled to the anarchic dystopia to the south, he uses unregulated communications technologies to foment unrest back home, then takes up with a band of raiders and returns to claim the virtually unarmed kingdom for his own. I confess I was cheering for him, until I realized that this dark fantasy was really an elaborate revenge plot by one of the conservative kooks who was running Canada until our liberation last year. O, irony, where is thy sting? Yet I have come to understand, that much like Tim Horton’s pumpkin spiced lattes, we can never truly be rid of them – just as I can now never be rid of the part of myself that succumbed to this subversive literary seduction.
Perhaps I am like Miranda in The Tempest, having just discovered a Brave New World? For I cannot quiet within myself an unfamiliar desire for greater personal liberty, respite from a life that seems constrained and – dare I say it? – lacking freedom. Secretly I now question whether my taxes are too high, and wonder what it would be like to own a gun. The other day, I even found myself wondering whether Hillary Clinton’s personal ethics were worthy of the office of the President!
I’m sure by now you understand why this novel can never be allowed to see the light of day. Canadians will buy it, thinking as I did that it was just another popular fantasy series, and then see themselves in this twisted mirror. People around the world will buy it too, and our international reputation will suffer. They’ll know it’s about us, even though it’s never explicitly said.
You know how the common people take to fanciful things that speak to their basest instincts, their Games of Thrones and Hunger Games. This could spiral into a trilogy, maybe even a movie! And then, instead of publishing proper literature that nobody reads, we will be expected to produce books people actually find interesting! Can you imagine how upset the Giller, Canada Council or Governor-General’s literary awards panelists would be with us if we put them in a position where they had to hand out prizes for this kind of dangerous dreck? We would never get invited to an Atwood launch or a PEN cocktail party ever again! We would achieve eternal infamy as the publisher that put out the first successful Canadian novel ever written by a conservative, thereby shattering the timeless truth that they don’t believe in culture.
Obviously we can’t let this happen. Fortunately, the author is an obscure former communications staffer to a junior minister in the Harper government whose only publishing credits are in his hometown weekly newspaper in some godforsaken part of rural Saskatchewan. He appears to be unemployed and broke so he can’t afford to sue us. Nevertheless I propose to kiss him off as gently as possible with the draft rejection letter below. With your approval, I’ll send it out asap:
Dear Mr. L——-
It is with a great deal of regret and more than our usual amount of apologies that we must decline to publish your “Great Canadian Novel” at this time.
We strongly advise you to rework the plot so that the people of your fictional world immigrate to Canada at some point, possibly to escape a loud-mouthed dictator who wishes to build a space wall around his planet. Another possibility would be to have your hero recast as a victim of social injustice, fighting a monster composed entirely of white privilege.
In the meantime, we encourage you to purchase and carefully read Margaret Atwood’s newest dystopian novel so that you have a better understanding of what we’re looking for. It’s not on the shelves yet so we can’t reveal too much, but we can tell you it will be set in a fictionalized version of America where everything is for sale.
T. Roberta Bryde
Chief Canadian Content Checker
Conundra House Publishers Canada