Souvenir of Canada

By Douglas Coupland

Souvenir of Canada is a great title for Vancouver author Douglas Coupland’s latest. On the one hand it is a kind of souvenir itself, a glossy coffee-table book full of bright pictures and short essays on what it means to be Canadian, “what makes us, us.” In addition, many of the things Coupland imagines as defining Canada are themselves souvenirs: nostalgic mementoes and kitschy yet endearing artifacts from our recent past.

“What makes us, us” is a mixture of nature and art. Nature isn’t really Coupland’s thing – for illustrations he borrows heavily from the photography of national parks by former astronaut Roberta Bondar – but he does feel a Romantic connection to it. Contemplating the work of the Group of Seven (which is, admittedly, responding to nature through the lens of our art) he confesses to a soul-expanding moment where he feels himself spread across the nation’s entire geography: “over the mountains that made the pioneers despair, across the prairies that will remain flat until our sun goes supernova, over the rocks and roots of Ontario and Quebec – and then down into the lunar gorges of Newfoundland . . . I was unable to move and saw a lucid flashing sequence of my life in this country: the weather, the soil, the plant life and animals.”

You can forgive a lot in a writer capable of moments like that. And there is a lot to forgive. In his less inspired moments, Coupland on nature is just as likely to say things like “Wildlife is a bigger presence in Canada than in most countries,” “Water defines our nation,” or “In Canada, time has been around forever.”

Coupland is on more congenial ground when he talks about the things Canadians have made. And his selection of photos, including a series of still life assemblages of his own (“understandable only to Canadians”), is playful and evocative. Souvenir of Canada is also a “very personal X-ray of Canada,” locating the essential Canadian identity sometime in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Coupland himself was growing up. As a series of personal reflections, it all works. It is when observation shifts to broader social and historical commentary that the author finds himself out of his depth.

A lot of what Coupland has to say is poorly expressed or just plain wonky. “The dirty secret of the Canadian economy,” for example, is that it exports natural resources without having a powerful manufacturing base of its own. Since when was this a secret? Or why is it a “strange fact” that “roads as we know them, with two lanes and a passable surface” are “largely a twentieth-century invention.” Is it strange that there were no such roads before the mass production of the automobile? “If human history has taught us anything,” Coupland tells us, “it is that, in the end, everybody invades everybody.” As a result, “most Canadians” feel invasion anxiety. Are we really such a paranoid people?

I doubt it, but I think it is fair to say that Coupland is a paranoid writer. He claims not to follow conspiracy theories, but worries a lot about “Them.” The Cold War and the FLQ crisis are still part of his psychic baggage. Globalization is a dangerous threat to our culture. The government is not to be trusted.

What really makes him paranoid, however, is the thought of how easily this great paradise we call home can be lost. Some of his nationalist cheerleading may seem a little over-the-top (“Canada has worked harder than any other country to attain true equality for all its citizens.” “Canadian suburbs are the most luscious real estate on earth.”), but from a novelist who has earned a reputation as a shallow hipster, this wearing the maple leaf on his sleeve isn’t a bad change of pace. Like most souvenirs, this book could be described as tacky, superficial, sentimental and cute. It is also, at times, irresistible.

Review first published July 20, 2002.

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