On the road with Noah Richler
· Illustration by Jillian Tamaki
In episode seven of A Literary Atlas of Canada, the ten-hour Ideas series that aired on cbc radio this past spring, host Noah Richler has a breakdown. The Toronto critic is squeezing in a visit to his therapist in between trips to St. John’s and Iqaluit, Quebec’s south shore and Vancouver Island. The therapist’s name is Dr. Atwood, and she possesses a familiar nasal voice and mischievous wit. “The books were getting heavier and heavier,” Richler tells her, “and just pressing down on me.” The problem, he explains, is that he has been proceeding on the assumption that there must be a “Canadian creation myth” unifying our literature. Only he has been having trouble identifying it or getting others to agree. “This is a difficult land, Doc,” he summarizes. “I just don’t know why we don’t have a decent myth like the Americans do.”
Though she chides him for “complaining in a rather obsessive way,” Dr. Atwood hears the patient out. Richler has opened the episode, titled “Where the Truth Lies,” in typical manner, trudging across Beechey Island in the Northwest Territories, site of the wooden graves that mark the fate of Sir John Franklin’s 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. With the Franklin expedition, Richler claims, we have the “mother of all Canadian creation myths,” both for its hubris and its failure. In his view, such myths—the stories we tell to understand ourselves—almost invariably involve failure and disappointment. He mentions the expulsion of the Acadians and the rebellions of Louis Riel, the mistreatment of soldiers during World War I and the abuse of aboriginals in residential schools. A couple of contemporary versions get tossed in as well: the 2004-2005 hockey lockout and the tale of Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian general who bore witness to the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
As he has during the preceding hours, Richler has wandered the country talking to writers about the role of landscape and place in their work. Until this episode he has grouped the conversations equally by region as by theme, and has used the programs to tease out single ideas. In “Whiskeyjack Blues,” authors Lee Maracle, Tomson Highway, and Joseph Boyden discuss everything from the trickster figure to the dangerous streets of pre-flood New Orleans, where Boyden lived, by way of exploring how native storytelling functions. “The Company Town” travels from Fred Stenson and a vanished Hudson’s Bay trading post in Alberta across to Buchans, the Newfoundland mining town where Michael Crummey was raised, to elucidate the habits of dependency and the “crippling propensity for monopoly” in Canadian life.
Now, though, Richler is seeking affirmation for an actual thesis, one that also spans, in effect, from sea to shining sea. Not only that, his notion about myths of failure is a self-conscious throwback to the nation-building theses of Margaret Atwood’s 1972 book Survival and, earlier still, Northrop Frye’s concept of the country as a hostile “bush garden.” His intention is to link the literary present with past cultural observations. But will the Canada of 2005 agree to be bound by any single narrative?
For a while, Richler’s thesis of Canada as “perennial loser,” as his therapist describes it, seems to be faring okay. Novelists Rudy Wiebe and Guy Vanderhaeghe mull over the Franklin and Riel myths respectively, while Gil Courtemanche, the Quebec author of A Sunday at the Pool in Kigali, a novel about the Rwandan genocide, wonders aloud about the problems of founding a national myth without the reserve of a “cruel and fantastic history.” Our loyalty is to values, Courtemanche says, “and values don’t make for great novels.”
Then the trouble starts. Dr. Atwood herself, who might appear a natural ally in the unified-thesis camp, delivers a cheerfully untarnished-by-history reading of the changing landscape: “Canada may be defined,” she says, “as the place where one is free to make up Canada.” This, after Richler knocks on Wayne Johnston’s door, expecting sympathy from the Newfoundland writer whose 1998 novel, The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, traces the intersections of public history and Joey Smallwood’s private life. But Johnston is having none of the thesis, and doesn’t mince his words. “I have basically no interest at all in the question of where my books fit into a way of interpreting Canada,” he says. He is certain that there is no coherent history worth trying to interpret. “It is extremely difficult and probably pointless to find a unifying idea or concept or even tradition,” Johnston says of the country. Canadian literature, he seems to infer, can only ever be defined in physical terms: who writes it, where he or she lives, what compels their imaginations. All metaphysical conjectures are not only that—conjectural, borderline fantasy—but are also based on the false premise that there can be an allinforming theory about Canada, or anything else.
Richler gets testy with Johnston, calling his thinking “preposterous,” and later assures listeners that, as per the guidelines of post-structuralism, we are entitled to ignore an author’s stated intentions when interpreting his work. Still, he is taken aback by the objection. Johnston suggests that his own novels contain “anti-ideas.” The exchange leaves Richler wondering if Canada might actually be an “anti-nation,” one that naturally lacks a single governing idea. But he isn’t ready to abandon the search for an overarching unity, and what he proposes instead, as “the one resilient candidate for binding myth,” is none other than multiculturalism, a social policy/reality that is fluid and active and suited to a nation “living in the vivid present.” The series returns to the notion in its final hour.
Noah Richler’s breakdown is tongue-in-cheek, of course, as is his confrontation with Wayne Johnston. Both are done in the service of dramatizing a revelation that appears to have occurred during the year-long making of A Literary Atlas of Canada. As such, “Where the Truth Lies” is more than just smart, nervy radio; it is radio attempting to be as sprawling, unresolved, and in the vivid present—as rawly physical, perhaps, instead of pretentiously metaphysical—as the country itself.
A ten-hour radio documentary on any subject can easily come to resemble a cross-country car journey in the company of a crashing bore. Because the bore is driving, he dictates the rules: the routes and rest stops, which CDs get played. A Literary Atlas of Canada encourages this kind of analogy. It is a hardcore road series, and, as expected, certain stretches of highway are more pleasing than others. The glorious Gaspé route, for instance, versus the Miramichi detours through New Brunswick; the perpetual postcard linking Banff with Kelowna as opposed to the Kenora to Thunder Bay run.
Happily, Richler is a bracing presence behind the wheel. He can be funny (Ottawa is the “Brasilia of the North”), impolitic (“This could be Africa,” he remarks about Inuvik’s de facto apartheid), scathing (“Empire and its residue teaches all sorts of bad habits,” he says of entitled ascendancy in Toronto), and quirky (the nhl lockout as a myth of failure?). He isn’t afraid of detours, allowing writers to perambulate if what they are saying is interesting, and, though overly fond of the Beatles, his taste in music is decent.