The guidebook rages against the Canadian establishment, providing an exhilarating read for our critic.
The Canadaland Guide to Canada. By Jesse Brown with Vicky Mochama and Nick Zarzycki. Touchstone – 2017. 229 pages. $32.00.
By Andrew Clark
There’s an old saying in comedy: In order to make a civilian laugh you have to dress a guy up like an old lady and push him down a flight of stairs. In order to make a comedian laugh … it really has to be an old lady. In other words, you’ve got to be mean.
I was reminded of this adage while reading The Canadaland Guide to Canada, a refreshingly cruel and extremely funny groin kick to our nation’s hypocrisy and self-serving sanctimony. Most Canadian humour “sends up” its targets with a gentle nudge. The Canadaland Guide to Canada, penned by the folks behind the eponymous website, is of the “put down” variety. It has a dry style. There are plenty of charticles and illustrations and it’s structured like a school textbook with chapters dedicated to “How We Think” and “How To Behave.”
This excerpt, from “The People Who Run Canada,” is characteristic of the deadpan rage the book exudes: “Billionaires in other countries often do tacky and attention-seeking things like running for president or giving their fortunes to charity. Not in Canada. Here, a handful of super-rich families have their good sense to lie low and avoid publicity while they enjoy some of the world’s lowest corporate tax rates … Canada’s robber barons have few hospitals, museums, galleries or universities to their names. Most of them don’t even live here. And most Canadians don’t know they exist.”
The Canadaland Guide to Canada is in the satiric vein personified by the late Michael Magee who in the 1970s used his alter ego Fred C. Dobbs to puncture our pretensions, both on television and in books such as The Golden Age of B. S. Of our national complacency, Magee once told me, “the Canadian line is, ‘My establishment right or wrong.’ In a civilized country like France they’d put the bastards in jail. But here, all we’re concerned about is keeping their names out of the papers.”
The new book’s tone — which is blunt and at times scatological — is closer to National Lampoon than Spy Magazine. This makes sense. The boomers who launched National Lampoon in 1970 were reacting to a deep-seated belief that they had been lied to by an elite that was either too corrupt or too tired to be morally accountable. The same sort of dissatisfaction seems to be behind The Canadaland Guide to Canada. When writing about Quebec, they pose the question “What Makes it So Distinct?” The answer is divided into sections with the sub-headings: Rampant Corruption; Dreams of Racial Purity; Fascist Secularism; and Ancient French Swearing.
The authors attack every facet of Canadian culture. For instance, there are sections titled “Should I Fuck the Prime Minister?,” “500 Years of Oppression, The Game,” and the “Canadasutra,” which features an illustration of two old men engaged in sodomy entitled “The Upper Canadian.” It’s a smart play. When you go after everyone, you can get a pass for what some would call crossing the line of good taste (a tactic that worked for the late Don Rickles.)
I experienced the same exhilaration reading The Canadaland Guide to Canada as I do when I watch my favourite football team kick the living crap out of another team. With each hit and bone-crushing tackle I get more and more high. I guess that’s called bloodlust. If you’re sick of Canada’s phony, fake modesty and passive-aggressive reactionary soul then consider this book your satiric playing field.
At the time of writing this review, Canadaland Guide to Canada was on the bestseller list. Perhaps its success will convince Canadian publishers — who normally consider publishing “humour” to be the act of giving a book deal to anyone who once had a television show — that humour, when done right, can sell. Of course, that’s exactly the kind of naivety that the folks at Canadaland would delight in skewering.