Forty Years Since:
|"North America is a large island to the west of the continent of Cape Breton. |
(Pronounced: Caybrittn)" (CB, 72)
Considering the size, location, and geopolitical importance of contemporary Cape Breton, considering also personal impressions and memories of being there, it is hard to conceive of Cape Breton as being the control centre of anything. But then, how about considering for a moment that there was a time when everything seemed possible: the period of the high postmodern, which took off around 1965 and was already over when Nixon was re-elected in 1972. Of course a lot of the practitioners of high postmodernism have kept diddling on, piling formal experiment upon formal experiment, far removed from the plain realm of legibility and comprehensibility, yet certainly creating art art for art's sake, playfulness for playfulness's sake. As if literature was an oversize sandbox.
Ray Smith is not one of these high postmodernists in fact, Francis Zichy has questioned whether he is a postmodernist at all, labelling him "neo-realist" instead (Zichy, 208 et passim). Teaching Literature, mostly English, at Montreal's Dawson College, Smith still writes, now in a form he himself has taken to calling "speculative fiction" (Gallery, 1). Like with his 1999 novel The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, he enjoys moderate success. His impact on the Canadian literary scene was brief too brief, perhaps: when his first collection of stories, Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada (1969) came out, it met largely with puzzlement and incomprehension. Reviews were none-too-favourable: John Reid wiped Cape Breton off the slate in three sentences (two of which were concerned with bad proofreading; Reid, 79). Too eclectic, perhaps too manieristic for wider audiences, his first novel, Lord Nelson Tavern (1974) also came too late: the high postmodern was over. Consequently, Smith's early fiction has received little too little critical attention. Likewise, Smith's creative as well as innovative formula, "compiled fiction" was only taken up reluctantly:
In effect, Smith is saying that to tell one story, he must reluctantly leave a thousand other tales untold. He has succeeded, nevertheless, in suggesting something of the organic diversity, the myriad energies of life that must lurk behind, and contribute to, the appearance of any finished creation (Scott, 198).
Which seems to say that what we have here is part of "the double process [...] of destroying and preserving that which has gone before" preferably "in a new synthesis on a higher level" (Jenks, 13), provided that this "higher level" could be achieved; provided, in fact, that this higher level exists. Because under postmodern conditions, the attempt begs the question: higher than what? Under the conditions of the modern, the question of higher vs. lower levels is still valid; postmodern bricolage, however, indicates the textual (re-)arrangement of texts with purposefully fragmented storylines, an aesthetic of unknowns and indeterminates, of narrative chance to use Gerald Vizenor's term, rendering texts in such a form as to leave the construction of possible meanings to a great extent to the reader. In this point, however, Smith's poetics seems to contradict the fragmented practical form, reintroducing authorial intention: "The writer says what the story is about in the whole story. He does this in a variety of sneaky ways and for a variety of sneaky reasons. But he always presents all the evidence." (Smith 1970, 196, emphasis his) unless, that is, the meaning, or the about-ness of the story, is evident on a meta-textual level.
To exemplify this seeming contradiction between the "whole story" and its parts, and in order to re-position Ray Smith's early short fiction within the historical framework of Canadian Short Story writing, I want to turn to the title story of that 1969 collection, also arguably still his best-known piece, and likewise entitled "Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada."1 Ostensibly written as "A Centennial Project" as it says in the subtitle, it had appeared originally in Tamarack Review in 1968, arriving late for the occasion harbinger of its subsequent fate. Reprinted in Kent Thompson's Stories from Atlantic Canada in 1970, it already struck a somewhat anachronistic note with its references to President Johnson. The story's title, however, took on an almost proverbial status among leftist intellectual circles in the Maritimes soon after the initial printing.
There are, depending on the counting, eight compiled narratives, of which 4 are single scenes, or episodes, the other four are presented in fragments in non-sequential arrangement. Of these, two come in two parts, the other two in six parts each. The numerical symmetries already indicate Smith's sense of order in what, at first sight, must appear as a hopelessly jumbled text (at least this is how students initially usually react to reading "Cape Breton").
|1. The loving couple:||7 segments - p. 61, 64, 65, 66, 70, 73-4, 74-5|
|2. Fighting the Americans|
|a) in theory / musings:||6 segments - pp. 61, 63, 66, 70, 74, 75|
|b) resistance stories:||6 segments - pp. 61, 63-4, 65, 65-66, 72, 72-73|
|3. Judy:||p. 62|
|4. The Poles:||2 segments - p. 62-3; 66-70|
|5. About Compiled (meta)fiction/|
|p. 63, 72|
|6. Bill and George scene:||p. 65|
|7. George / about (Canadian) art:||p. 71-2|
|8. Mirror room:||p. 75|
The everyday working of argument and misunderstanding in which contesting parties are positioned by, and struggle to resist, the unarticulated, 'unconscious' meanings running through their opponents' words, tones and gestures demonstrates the extent to which 'otherness' may be negotiated. In this process, such constraints may become available to conscious understanding. A similar struggle can be posited of cultural exchange. Language and cultural forms are sites in which different subjectivities struggle to impose or challenge, to negotiate or displace, definitions and identities (Gledhill 1998: 242)
Add to this a time aspect: The good, the bad, and the ugly in this game of narrative chance all had - and continue to have - chances to be returned to the surface of meaning-making in a revolving political language game. The high post-modern, the "aesthetic" which was intentionally apolitical, or beyond the political, long ago consumed itself in Moebius-band entropy and self-centredness. The bad and the ugly, that which derived from popular discourse and trash pulp, retained their political optionality.
Not that the original text was apolitical, or pretended to be. What political message it contained, however, in the attacks on the United States in the original compilation, has been explained away as artistic encoding of the typical 1960s Canadian search for identity for example by Lawrence Garber who called a selection of what I labelled above as category 2a. segments "activist injunctions", continuing:
This struggle at the personal and national levels to resolve the dilemma of exploitation, displacement, plunder, and partition is worked out structurally by just such a confederation of differing elements, contrary drives that enlighten us through the elaborate cross-referencing of the form itself, and that lead us towards a single, disturbing recognition of our state. This state, too, is reflected in the very fragmentation of the structure, in its perceived lack of integration, where the jarring poles of anger and acceptance, resolve and apathy, can only compile their evidence (Garber, 97, emphasis his).
If this was the single effect that Smith intended according to his own post-Poean poetology (Smith 1970, 219, see above) then we still have to aquiesce to the fact that some parts of that whole story seemed awkwardly arranged then as now the worst part meted out to the Poles; who not only have been, as Smith correctly observes, considerably short-changed by political historical developments, but who also have had to suffer the inclement cultural fate of having their historical misery exposed in stereotyping fictions, including this one. The longer part of their story (apparently to be read as funny, CB, 66-70) is forgivable only if this story as well as all the other various episodes / narrative parts of "Cape Breton" at least also stand for parodistic invocations of various genre aspects. Which is a possibility, one of the possible meta-readings of the text-as-a-whole: From this point of view, Judy's discussion-cum-defloration piece (3) attains qualities of the 1960s-Bergmanesque "problem play", the deadly bench-drama (6) between office employees Bill and George, becomes representative of the Albee-an drama of the absurd then still en vogue; the Poles become melodrama or burlesque complete with the kind of grotesquely exaggerated national stereotyping visible in WW 1 propaganda posters, and the (2b) resistance stories become B-fiction cold war military novel (or movie).
This view would provide a coherent reading of the text in keeping with Christine Gledhill's theory of negotiation: "To adopt a political position is of necessity to assume for the moment a consistent and answerable identity" (Gledhill 1998: 243). As such, the position of the original 1967 story was the context of the centennial project: "Visit/ez Expo 67" a time when America was involved in a bloody and increasingly senseless struggle in Vietnam, and an easy target for political dissidence. At the same time, however, the U.S. were still what they continue to be: A cultural market many times the size of the Canadian, where the turnabout time of rejected stories is one fourth that which it takes in Canada (CB, 72). Which led to Smith having his Centennial-story accepted, compiled-fiction format and all, by the Tamarack Review to appear in the year 101.
Which leaves the one sequence of segments that I haven't yet touched on; the loving couple's. Some of my students opted for biographical readings,2 suggested by the dialogic "I." Normally, I discourage this kind of positivism, but then there is Colin Nicholson's intriguing article on narrative displacement in Smith's fiction, and in it a quote from an interview that Nicholson conducted with Smith in Edinburgh: "I've always found the 'Nova Scotianness' in me a very difficult thing to write about" (Nicholson, 105). The couple's discussions keep weaving in and out of the question of going away from the very beginning of the story "Why don't we go away?" (CB, 61) to the third-to-last passage, in which the couple take Montreal into focus as a possible location:
Maybe we could just stay here.
I mean, I like Canada, really. It's not a bad place.
It is home.
Perhaps, though, we could go to Montreal for a change.
Why not? Drop your school Parisian accent and unify Canada.
We'll have to wait till Expo's over, or we'll never get an apartment; we already have friends there [...] I don't see why not [...]
I love you!
Me too! (CB, 74-5)
In between, Britain ("I hate England, you know I hate England." CB, 66) and the U.S. ("Perhaps we could move to the States Be serious I was only joking" CB, 66) as well as the "despicable city" Toronto (CB, 65) have been ruled out as potential destinations. The question of where to go, however, turned back in on itself and asking for the here of the now of the time of narration, brings into focus the otherwise singularly disconnected title, "Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada." Colin Nicholson called it the "jesting, titular annunciation of the revenge of the geographically remote and the economically peripheral" (Nicholson, 105). If Nicholson and my students are right, then the loving couple's dialogues and the references to Cape Breton are just about the only instance in Smith's early writing referring to that "Nova Scotianness" still somewhat obliquely so, but recognizeably. The connection can also be made via an interview statement in which Smith equated particularly his early approach to writing with "mind control," a statement immediately snapped up by interview partner David Arnason: "just a little earlier you talked about mind control, and then your first collection was called Cape Breton is the Thought Control Center [sic] of Canada." To which Smith's response is "Exactly" (Sampson 5, 7). Of course it was not from Cape Breton that the historical Ray Smith moved to Montreal, where he, John Metcalf, Hugh Hood, Clark Blaise and Raymond Fraser soon founded the Montreal Story Tellers. He arrived from despicable Toronto, but the narrative "I" does not identify the here of now of the time of narration, plus the connection between mind-writing and Cape Breton's thought control. These references, otherwise disconnected, leave open the possibility that the background place is Nova Scotia, and that Smith's native "Caybrittn" (CB, 72) is still the continent to the east of the large island of North America.
Whether Smith's particular technique intentionally meant to display, for the readers, "a witty interrogation of the nature of Canada's cultural identity in the year of its centennial celebrations" (Nicholson, 106), does not matter all that much in view of the fact that this was, and continues to be, the most frequently encountered reading. Just about everything written in Canada in or around that year appears to have been read as dealing with Canadian cultural identity, or national identity, or both. However, to return to the time aspect, narrative chance has, through history recycling and shifting the meanings of the good, the bad, and the ugly, considerably altered renegotiated - the picture for the present-day reader: By 2007, Poland is a member of NATO, the story of its being squashed between Germany and Russia becoming gradually incomprehensible. The joke about the Canadian Pacifist who became a Canadian Nationalist because he wanted to take advantage of the red, white and blue fares falls flat; both companies being defunct. A more serious shift of meanings, however, has affected the resistance segments: If Ray Smith wanted to travel to the U.S. now, "Cape Breton" could get him into trouble. "Be the first kid on your block to gun down a Yankee imperialist" (CB, 62) is not something to write after Nineeleven or, to be more precise, after the events of 9-11-2001 have been used to curtail rights and freedoms of American citizens as well as everybody else perceived of as a potential threat to the U.S. A pyroclastic wave of legislature and measures, supposedly designed to stem the tide of world-wide-terrorism threatening American rights and freedoms, has considerably altered the political as well as cultural scene in North America. Fortunately, American politicians don't read Canadian books (preciously few other Americans do). Certainly they wouldn't know a postmodern compiled fiction technique story 36 years old. But what if anybody in Military Intelligence (an oxymoron, really, but let us not think about that now) was alerted to this story? The worst that can happen to a writer, or a politician: to be quoted out of context. In which case Garber's somewhat garbled statement above might be brought in to explain why Smith's is not a serious call to arms. Neither is or so at least we hope - his even more openly formulated suggestion to send cut-off ears of American tourists to the U.S. president, sans postage (CB, 75).
Another line of defence against allegations of anti-Americanism could run like this: This text is a collage, a not quite random yet playful combination of textual elements in a postmodern language game. Some episodes possibly, certainly some lines were closely modelled on current vogue items, or were even actually found as can be proven from the case in point: "Be the first kid on your block to gun down a Yankee imperialist" (CB, 62). This incriminating line consists of a double quote, as anyone with a passing knowledge of the 1960s will notice: Country Joe MacDonald's "Fixin' to Die Rag" of Woodstock fame provided the first half of the quote, while to denounce U.S. Americans as "Yankee imperialists" was currency almost everywhere outside the United States in the late Sixties. Also, going back not even 70 years, the most pungent criticism of U.S. imperialism, and the critical formation giving us the term, came from within the U.S. themselves, from writers like Mark Twain, and was directed against the involvement of U.S. troops in the Philippines. Which means that both parts of the message can actually be traced to U.S. sources.
The same applies to the various bits and pieces of resistance stories readers encounter throughout the text one of the six segments distributed here and there without ever generating a coherent whole. The "resistance" bits in "Cape Breton" are, as stated above, closely modelled on American or British military novels about the French resistance, or the Irish civil wars, and only the meta-story takes on the form of a Canadian parahistory compleat with multicultural mosaic minute-men and -women: Mackie and Joe, Johnny, and Mrs. Parsons (CB, 64, 66, 72) are joined by Einar (CB, 65), Jean-Paul and Marc (CB, 70) in Quebec, Manitoba, and elsewhere in the colonized Northland. Apparently, when Canadians of the 1960s dreamt (anti-American) nationalist dreams, they still tuned in to American Dream stations. The 'resistance' fragments, of course, have taken on a decidedly uglier look today in view of the continuous loss of American and Canadian life in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, the narrative has doubled back on itself, compiled fiction having become a compilation of meanings beyond itself. By 2006, Smith's phantasies have taken on a much darker hue.
Having gone to Montreal "for a change" (CB, 74) by now has lasted almost fourty years; a change that has, for generations, regularly robbed and depleted the Maritimes and notably Cape Breton of the artistic, the innovative and intelligent and creative. Cape Breton was, for this one aspirant writer, Ray Smith, the thought-control centre of Canada in 1967 whether jokingly so, or because it still controlled memories: Personal questions not to be asked, or answered. Right at the beginning of the Sampson interview, however, when asked about the background of his sophisticated texts, Smith states "Cape Breton is an extremely sophisticated place" (Sampson, 5). Through this obliquely regionalist component, "Cape Breton" at least in this aspect suddenly attains a similarity to the stories of that other displaced Caybrittn writer, Alistair MacLeod, who already in 1970 ("The Return") portrayed the longing and simultaneously the impossibility to retrace one's steps to arrive back in one's ancestral homeland. But this is, again, only one possible reading in a story that, though symmetrically and intricately laid out, denies coherence, deflects unilateral interpretations, and defies narrative closure, being open to renegotiated meanings in every segment, and between them:
[R.S.] It seemed to me that the way of getting to a little bit of the truth was to take one thing and say it as clearly as you possibly can, and its own little truth would hold there. Give that to the reader. Then you take another thing which seems to be true, which may or may not contradict the first they may even have no apparent relationship. and the connection between them, well that's where the truth happens (Nicholson, 106).
Davidson, Arnold E., and Cathy Davidson. "Vernissage. Ray Smith and the Fine Art of Glossing Over." Canadian Literature 92, 1982: 58-70.
Garber, Lawrence. "Ray Smith's Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada: The Diagnostics of the Absurd." The Montreal Story Tellers. Memoirs, Photographs, Critical Essays. Ed. J.R. (Tim) Struthers. Montr้al: Véhicule Press, 1985: 85-105.
Gledhill, Christine. "Pleasurable Negotiations." Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader. Ed. John Storey. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press (2000): 236-249.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke UP, 1991.
Jenks, Charles. "The Post-Modern Agenda." The Post-Modern Reader. Ed. Charles Jenks. London: Academy, 1992: 10-39.
MacLeod, Alistair. "The Return." The Lost Salt Gift of Blood. Toronto: MacClelland and Stewart, 1976.
Moss, John. Sex and Violence in the Canadian Novel. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1977.
Nicholson, Colin. "'Other Times, Other Places'. Narrative Displacement in Ray Smith's Writing." Canadian Literature 126, 1990: 104-114.
Reid, John. "Turning Fiction into Fiction." Canadian Literature 44, 1970: 76-79.
Sampson, Mark. "Afternoon Tavern: The Ray Smith Interview. [Edition of the transcript of an interview between RS, David Arnason and Wayne Tefs, conducted at U. of Manitoba, Spring 1975]." June 28, 2002. The Canadian Literature Archive.
http://www.umanitoba.ca/ faculties/arts/english/canlit/authorlist/afternoon_tavern.shtml (1. 4. 2004).
Scott, Andrew. "A Ray of Fantasy." The Journal of Canadian Fiction Vol. IV No. 1, 1975.
Smith, Ray. "Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada."  Cape Breton is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada. Erin, ON: The Porcupine's Quill, 1989: 61-75.
Smith, Ray. "Colours." Sixteen By Twelve. Short Stories By Canadian Writers. Ed. John Metcalf. Toronto: Ryerson, 1970: 204-224.
Smith, Ray. "Ontological Arseholes: Life With Montreal Storyteller." The Montreal Story Tellers. Memoirs, Photographs, Critical Essays. Ed. J.R. (Tim) Struthers. Montr้al: V้hicule Press, 1985: 43-49.
Zichy, Francis. "'Aestheticism with Guts': The Neorealism of Ray Smith's A Night at the Opera." Essays on Canadian Writing 58, 1996: 206-228.
1 Quotations in this article are from the 1989 Porcupine Quill Press reedition; cited here as CB plus page number.
2 Anna Herb and Amelie Geyer, in essays written for my PS Cultural Life in the Canadian Maritime Provinces, SS 2004.