Getting Real Canadian with this Shit™
(book assigned by Beau Dashington)
Editor’s note: If you’re not Canadian, then oh wow are you in for a treat. You’re going to learn so many fun facts about Canada! Except that this article doesn’t really talk about actual Canadian culture at all, just contrived attempts to create such culture. So basically you won’t learn anything.
All rise for this brilliant rendition of the Canadian national anthem.
Ahem. Please be seated.
Today’s author Mordecai Richler is Canadian, and as a Canadian, I’m going to do my due diligence and begin this review by recognizing that he accomplished a lot in his life and is generally regarded as a “good, Canadian writer.” How do I know that he’s a “good, Canadian writer?” Because I’ve seen him on the CBC a lot. He was even interviewed by Governor General Adrienne Clarkson once. If you aren’t familiar with the term “CBC,” well then it’s kind of like Canada’s low-rent version of the BBC. If you aren’t familiar with the BBC, either, well then the CBC is kind of like macaroni salad at a potluck: it’s always around, but aside from a polite scoop, no one really wants much of it.
Also, if you aren’t familiar with what a Governor General is generally, or who Adrienne Clarkson is specifically, all you need know is that both the job and person are also oddly reminiscent of macaroni salad.
Part of the role of the CBC is to promote Canadian content and buoy Canadian culture against the dominance of American media. Throughout his life, Mordecai was very critical of the CBC and other similar institutions and argued that they helped prop up mediocre aspects of our culture, that good Canadian products should be able to stand on their own, and that as a culture we end up grasping for straws in terms of what to be proud of. Sometimes you can’t help but agree, such as in the case of this publicly funded “part of our national heritage spot” that I probably saw one hundred times as a child:
The British guy who wrote Winnie the Pooh saw a bear from Canada in the zoo one time. Part of our national heritage.
So Mordecai wrote some great books in his life. But he had a stinker, too, and it’s “The Incomparable Atuk.” Since he’s a “good, Canadian writer,” this book is chock-full of Canadiana. That is to say, it’s extremely boring – especially for Canadians. Mordecai might smirk if he heard me say that, because a lot of what he tries to address in this book is the contradictory inferiority complex and sense of moral superiority Canadians carry vis-a-vis a little country to the south (America, not Haiti). But I don’t care if he’s smirk – it is boring. And this book just ain’t that good.
A succinctly as I can possibly say, The Incomporable Atuk is a 1960s story of an Eskimo (probably Inuit) man named Atuk who moves to Toronto to make it big. Originally a poet, Atuk interacts with various interests in the city and gradually forsakes his morals for fame and fortune. Along the way, he meets a bunch of characters who are supposed to satirize real-life segments of Canada in the 1960s: self-hating Jews, ignorant Eskimos, self-sacrificing women, condescending wannabe academics, Machiavellian business owners, Macaronian Governer Generals, and so on. This is have-a-cigarette-and-snicker-to-yourself style satire.
Mordecai himself, presumably enjoying one of his own books.
Atuk really suffers from a lack of subtlety. In a way, this book reminds me quite a bit of a South Park episode: each character is a caricature of an extreme position/subculture, etc., and Moredecai aims to reveal the contradictions and hypocrisy everyone lives with. But while South Park works because of the (almost) complete lack of pretension, Atuk is extremely pretentious, unwittingly heavy-handed, and worst of all, just unfunny. Furthermore, the writing is so disjointed that it’d take up half this review for me to even give you one example a joke. So you’re just gonna have to trust me that it sucks. Incomparable Atuk? More like Atuk-a-shit-and-called-it-a-book. How’s THAT for wit, Mordecai?
Somehow even cardboard cutouts are more multidimensional than Mordecai’s characters.
This book is satire, and satire doesn’t always age very well, so there might be something here that I don’t get. For example, the book naturally suffers from some of the language being a bit dated, with terms such as Jewess, Negro, Eskimo, etc. throughout, but I think it suffers mainly from Mordecai’s own ambition and arrogance. He earned his stripes as a writer later on, but at this point in his career, he was just another arrogant 32 year old that really thought he could gut, fillet, de-bone and serve up Canada like some kind of delicious British Columbia sockeye salmon. Yeah right, Mordecai. That’s not gonna happen. Not on your first attempt. Even my redneck brother could tell you that, and he doesn’t even have his grade 10.
Canadiana aside, something that makes Atuk uniquely shitty is the book’s penchant for killing fat comedians. Since the 1980’s, there have been several attempts to make Atuk into a major motion picture, and every time an actor is offered the role, he dies shortly after. The list of victims is impressive: John Belushi, John Candy and Chris Farley have all died tragically after touching the cursed Atuk script.
Now, if you’re rolling your eyes right now and saying “Come on, Mr. Fartmore, it was obesity, drug and alcohol abuse that killed these beloved jumbo jesters,” well then I’ve got news for you, bud:
1. It’s Admiral Fartmore. Mr. Fartmore is my father’s name.
2. It’s this book that kills beloved fat comedians, not lifestyle choices.
Zach Galifianakis: do not accept this role. Kevin James? Mmmm… maybe give it a shot.
But as much as these boys all loved their white powder, none of them look particularly Eskimo to me. Casting the whitest dudes in the world as Atuk the Eskimo seems a little odd to me. It’s not blackface, but I’m not exactly sure of the term for dressing up like an Eskimo. Northface?
But if the use of Northface wasn’t enough, in the hollywood-adapted script, Toronto, Canada is replaced with New York, New York! So we’ve got some crummy American city wearing Canadaface, too.
By the way, I know Toronto’s hockey team is the Leafs, not the Oilers, but I wanted a colour picture of the Stanley Cup. Ohhh snap! (This is a hockey joke.)
The Atuk curse is some kind of running joke in Hollywood now, just like Toronto’s ex-mayor Rob Ford. Here, in the Anchorman commentary (45:21) you can hear Will Farrell repeatedly turn down Adam McKay’s suggestion that he play “an eskimo that goes to New York.” This makes me wonder: would Mordecai be more bothered by the fact that his book disintegrated into a kind of joke in America’s hegemonic film industry, or would he be more bothered by the fact that neither you nor I give a damn about it? I think he’d be more bothered by the fact that at the end of his book, the publisher has included an epilogue written by one of Mordecai’s peers that excuses the work’s faults and then tries to convince the reader that what you just read was good because of the author’s influence on Canadian literature years later.
Why? Because my guess is that he wouldn’t want excuses. If his message really was that Canada should just promote the good we produce and forget about propping up lackluster bullshit, then he’d probably want this book lampooned. He’d want it to be recognized for the Piece of Shit™ that it is. I’m sure he would. Or maybe he was just some kind of angel of death for fat comedians. Either way, it’s with a full, patriotic heart that say Atuk really isn’t incomparable at all; it’s actually a pretty run-of-the-mill, boring old log.
Speaking of logs, it’s only fitting that The Log Driver’s Waltz play us out. (It was commonly used as a filler on Canadian television whenever show start and stop times didn’t line up. It’s also catchy and probably killed a few less people than Atuk.)