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The Great Canadian Novel
“We’re Canadians! We’re Canadians!”
Right after I moved to Canada for school I got a job at a bookstore to help pay for everything. The week I started working, the boy started showing up.
The boy waited at the bookstore after school every day for his mother. He was fifteen and his mother worked late and she wanted him to “absorb something”. We understood that she had a large fine waiting for her at the library or else she’d take him there.
So he became ours. Everybody at the bookstore doted on him because he was at the age when boys stop reading. He did end up reading, mostly classics, little contemporary. This went on from September to December. It was peaceful and it was good. Snow came and my co-workers teased me for how astounded I was at the amount of it. On the last day of his classes, the boy approached us cashiers in tears.
Humanity finds its fulfillment in literature, he said. It is the most expressive form of art and it can name the nameless emotions.
We nodded. Who were we to disagree?
This is when he asked us to help him create the great Canadian novel.
Amongst ourselves we debated the implications ferociously. Atwood was surely our great Canadian author, but novel? No, no, he was correct. There was no great Canadian novel. So we did buy him the desk for the back of the store and the pens and the paper and we did prepare the stack of writing guides for him.
He told us that he had just turned sixteen and his mother was okay with him waiting at home. But he had come to think of us as his true home and he was excited to dedicate the novel to us. It would be ready by the end of the year.
I think he still went to school for his second semester. I’m just not sure what he did there. Every afternoon he came to us with a slightly higher stack of notes and research for the novel.
At the end of January, he threw the writing guides to the floor.
Birds do not read flying guides. They must leap! he yelled.
We shushed him half-heartedly. Customers now knew about our little novelist. We even had a sign made explaining him.
On weekends he showed up at nine in the morning and he appreciated the coffee and croissant we always had waiting. I never saw him on a phone. I never saw him delay getting started. He took breaks, of course, but those breaks were spent in the science fiction section, speed-reading short stories.
We were all very curious about what kind of novel he was writing. We had our guesses. It would be less stodgy than Canadian literature. It would be the kind of thing a sixteen-year-old boy would write. It would be long. We would enjoy it. But it would not be the great Canadian novel.
One day I asked him what would be so Canadian about it. This was while I was showing him how to properly make a bed. He now had a cot in the back to save travel time and he was confused about duvets.
He looked annoyed, then softened. It is not going to reflect Canada. It is going to create Canada.
Oh, I said. I pinched the corners and fluffed it out.
Eventually it made sense to me. Canadians are a big mix of English and French and Indigenous and other people and they’re all a little annoyed at each other and a little too polite to sort it out. Maybe the great Canadian novel would unite them? On the other hand, maybe uniting would be bad before figuring out their problems. Maybe the great Canadian novel would just teach them how to be less polite to each other.
He was very polite to us. He tipped us sometimes, for the laundry and the meal pick-up. I wasn’t sure where he got the money until my manager explained that the store was now officially sponsoring him. He had room, board, and allowance. We had first distribution rights.
How many pages are we talking? I asked him that summer, on the third floor where the science fiction hid. The heat was thick and refused to move.
He thought about it. It’s extremely hard to say at this juncture. I can tell you that there are five acts, each with five chapters. These are, in their own way, internal acts. The novel is extremely rhythmic.
Now he smiled slyly. Without revealing too much, it is my way of anchoring the novel against modernity.
Ironically, of course.
I wandered away more confused than ever. Now I suspected it would not be something a sixteen-year old would write. I suspected we would not enjoy it. And I began to think it might really be the great Canadian novel.
It could have been the heat, but it seemed to me that this was the hardest time for the author. He’d throw a chapter into the trash and pace back and forth through the store, muttering. He’d pull down Dante and read him for hours. He’d run to Dostoevsky and read a single page over and over.
I brought him tea. Every page must be a sculpture on its own, he told me. Every sentence must glow.
I told him he was asking a lot of himself. I told him we were out of milk.
In the fall, his final school year started. He did attend the first day. But that evening he told us he was dropping out. The novel needed him.
We were relieved. His agent and publisher were relieved. The novel would come out on schedule: New Year’s Day.
The next day, he brought in his muse. She was his age and looked bored. She read the backs of poetry books and hung out with us at the cash. At first she answered our questions freely: What was on his mind? Everything. Was it true that the novel was in iambic pentameter? I don't know what that is. Was the bookstore a setting in the novel? No.
Soon however, she realized how we hungered for information, and switched to dangling answers like morsels. Is it true that it is a crime novel? Only a mysterious smile. Soon we were bringing her tea too.
In October, right after the author completed his first draft, all the other cashiers were fired. One of them had snuck into the author’s room and stolen a chapter. She’d brought it out for all the cashiers to read. I was the only one who’d refused. I wandered to the second floor and shelved children’s books so I couldn’t hear any spoilers but soon they were shrieking so loudly I couldn’t not. The protagonist is a Mary Sue! It’s Pomo in the worst way! It's self-indulgent to a fault!
My manager found them like this and screamed louder than all of them, chasing them out with a broom. They had betrayed our author’s trust, our greatest treasure.
To all this, the author shrugged. The chapter must be understood in context, he said. And anyway, that was the first draft.
After that, the author had a better security system installed and sat in on interviews to ensure stability. I was promoted to floor manager and had to start bossing people around.
I’d say: Go put away these books, stop sitting around near the author’s room.
They’d say: You wouldn’t understand, you’re not even Canadian.
The author would leap out of his room. He’d say: You can’t talk to her like that. Hasn’t she complained about the winter? Hasn’t she complained about the roads? She’s as Canadian as you or I.
I’d say: But I didn’t complain about the winter. I thought it was beautiful.
He’d say: Oh. Well, that’s even better. And anyway, this is what my novel is going to solve.
In November, his muse left him. She was in tears. She told us she would always love him. She told us he was still a genius, still the North Star our nation had been missing, and that we were lucky to have him. She was just in horrible trouble for missing two months of school.
This greatly relieved me. The seed of doubt that the ex-cashiers had planted in my mind was torn out and thrown away. My team and I supported him with renewed vigour. We ordered everything he needed. Unpublished Ibsen. Spell books. Every translation of Sappho.
In December, he brought in a laptop one day, bought with his advance. He told us he had taught himself “version control”. He explained that there were ten “branches” he was trying out. Occasionally he "merged" them and spent the night "squishing" wherever they "conflicted". It seemed very late in the year to be doing things like “squishing”, but I wasn’t an author. I wasn’t even sure I was a Canadian.
The problem, he told me as the solstice sun poked through the dusty shop windows, is that Canada does not want to be born.
What does that mean? I asked. One of his store rules was that we were to ask questions and challenge him or else he would never grow.
It means that I must be the great and gentle farmhand, called upon to midwife this lumbering and bloody animal.
You’re not a farmhand though. You told me you were born in Mississauga.
He shrugged. I don’t feel such particularities anymore. I can barely feel my body.
This is when I understood why his muse had left. It wasn’t the school. It was an inability to stand next to such a bright light without going blind.
New Year’s Eve came. The people lined up around the block. TVs were set up outside and people stood on the shelves and on each other’s heads to be nearer to him. The CBC had the honour of streaming the reading, which would go all day. He had it timed to last twenty-four hours perfectly, midnight to midnight.
Before he went on, he had a final tea with me. I had put honey in it for his voice and he thanked me for it.
I think it is going to work, you know, he said. Look at all this. He gestured at the people below us. They want to give birth to Canada with me.
I wanted to. I was so excited, I was so afraid, I worried I was going to faint and miss the whole thing. He shook my hand and I went to my post behind the cash, behind which were ten thousand copies, the entire first edition.
Ten minutes to midnight, he ate the poutine he said would allow him to read for that long. I’m not sure what poutine has to do with vocal cords. But I could see it. I could see the great Canadian novel, waiting to pour from his mouth like a river.
In the end, it was something more than that and something less than that. Our expectations were not too high. No, our expectations were transformed during the reading, because our sense of past and present and future were transformed. I realized this was part of the rhythm he had once mentioned. It stopped making sense whenever he paused to drink his honeyed tea, it made sense again when he resumed reading. What happened to time also happened to geography and to every character. I no longer needed heroes because each sentence was heroic. I needed land, because each chapter dizzied me. When I looked at the other cashiers I saw the same thing happening to them. But I didn’t see cashiers anymore. I saw Canadians. I looked over the crowd and saw the same thing happening. In each of us I saw Canada being born like a great blind red animal. Somebody screamed. The author kept reading. Canadians fell off the stairs and wept and repeated his words in French. He read for twenty-four hours. Then he thanked the CBC, all of us, and the bookstore. We applauded for an hour and many Canadians kept applauding as they left. I was one of them. We walked and spread across the entire city, applauding, telling people the good news: “We’re Canadians! We’re Canadians!”