Randy Boyagoda, Governor of the Northern Province (Penguin, 2006, 208 pps, $32.00)
Book reviewers don’t have an easy job. Reviewing a book is qualitatively different from almost any other critical activity in which people regularly and enthusiastically engage. You won’t see Joanna Cates, for example, reviewing the food served at your local Fox and Fiddle, or Beppi Crosariol evaluating the nuances of that the nine dollar bottle of red table wine from Albania you picked up at the LCBO. There is, in other words, a fairly clear delineated border in their respective cultural orbits between that which is good and that which, well, isn’t, and their job is to focus on the former. Book reviewers, on the other hand, tend to reside in the unusually broad grey area of the book world that separates good and bad. Their critical faculties are muted, and in some cases almost entirely defined by, their myriad subjectivities, be it their age, their ethnic background, the books they’ve read, the cities they’ve visited, or the ideologies with which they sympathize. The result is a frustratingly inconsistent critical culture in which good books can get panned and bad books can get praised.
Randy Boyagoda’s first book, Governor of the Northern Province, demonstrates just how frustrating it can get. It has received pleasant, even unabashedly positive reviews from the reviewers assigned to it by each of Canada ’s major English language newspapers, a critical attitude represented by The Toronto Star’s Barbara Carey’s description of it as a “boisterously irreverent first novel.” It even made the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list, a remarkable accomplishment in a year when a case could probably be made for the inclusion of twenty other books that were left off the list. But this is a very, very bad book, one that doesn’t belong anywhere near the shortlist of an important literary award like the Giller Prize. There should, in other words, be little purchase for subjectivity and bias, however pronounced it might be, when it comes to a book that is as unrelentingly bad as Boyagoda’s. Yet, for reasons that I’ll explore near the end of this piece, it appears that he has received just that. First, though, the book itself.
The problems begin immediately, with Boyagoda relying on choppy prose that is defined by short, incomplete, and frequently grammatically incorrect sentences that disturb the flow of the book and seem more appropriate in a first year Ryerson class than a Giller Prize nominated book. The characters themselves pose another problem. Bokarie is an intriguing, if not entirely plausible character, but Jennifer Thickson, a heavy-set small town loser, isn’t even remotely credible. Thickson is an educated woman who is elected to parliament in the course of the book, yet she offers no resistance when her father grounds her – an adult! – for “not listening or keeping to what was expected and asked of her” after he finds a leech on her ankle. We’re offered little explanation for her desire to become a member of parliament, the central storyline in the book, outside of a vague notion of redemption for her loss in high-school to “none of the above” for the position of class president and a poorly articulated desire to move above her station in small-town society.
The supporting characters are even less plausible. Jennifer’s parents Gus and Barb are cut-and-paste small-town stereotypes, a domineering father who says things like “Jeezum crow” and lives for “his mashed and meat” and a quiet, servile mother who secretly supports her daughter without drawing the ire of the man of the house. In Ottawa, Jennifer runs into perhaps the worst character in the entire book, a new MP from Nova Scotia named George Damariscotta Jr. who’s a part-time boxing promoter and full-time boor who uses phrases like “if only me pops and brothers” in the presence of the Governor General. More galling still is the fact that all of these characters, from her small-town father to a quasi-illiterate former boxer and skate sharpener nicknamed “Zebra Muscles” deliver extended, absurdly articulate soliloquies throughout the course of the book that are both out of character and out of touch with the realities of normal human interaction.
These missteps are but minor transgressions compared to the assortment of contextual and factual errors that are the fundamental weakness of this book. The earliest clue to this impending train wreck of careless assumptions and factual mistakes is a scene early in the book, in which a high-school aged Jennifer enjoys lunch, and a bottle of Niagara Valley VQA, with some older and influential women. The VQA designation was introduced in 1998, which means that Jennifer must have suffered from the same syndrome that afflicts the young characters on daytime soap operas who all seem to go from toddlers to young adults in one season.
The key story arc, Jennifer’s election as a member of parliament, is fraught with inconsistencies and outright impossibilities. She is elected as an independent, despite the fact that only two first-time independent candidates has ever been elected in Canada, and both had a local profile. While hers amounts to having once job-shadowed a local councilor, the two independent MPs who have been elected in Canada were already well-known figures within their communities: Anthony Roman, who was elected in Markham in 1984, had been the Mayor of Markham since 1970, while Andre Arthur, who was elected in the Quebec riding of Portneuf Jacques-Cartier, was a controversial and highly visible radio host and had run in two previous federal elections. Historical precedent aside, she runs an equally unrealistic winning campaign, with her efforts apparently limited to a leaflet campaign, a day at the local creek, an abnormally articulate speech, and a campaign run out of her parent’s house. Boyagoda further erodes his credibility on matters political in writing that “the race itself was notable for the higher than normal interest it had generated, the sixty-percent turnout nearly double the national average.” Canada has, in fact, never had an election in which voter turnout was lower than sixty-percent.
These unintentional absurdities only seem to multiply as Jennifer arrives in Ottawa as a newly elected MP. Upon winning, she gets a phone call from a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, who says that “I understand this drowned little girl was a plank in your platform. So can you tell me your views, please, on softwood lumber?” There is no earthly reason why a reporter would ask this of a newly elected MP from a riding without an interest in softwood lumber, in a province without much of an interest in the same. Next, Jennifer makes her first appearance in the House of Commons – one that prompts her increasingly irritating mother to advise Jennifer to “wear extra dress shields” to conceal her fear – and cuts off the Speaker of the House to deliver a rousing speech to the assembled gallery. Anyone even remotely familiar with British Parliamentary tradition would understand that interrupting the Speaker simply doesn’t happen, to say nothing of the fact that newly elected independent MPs wouldn’t get an opportunity to deliver a speech until six or seven weeks into the parliamentary schedule, probably some time around midnight.
This aggravating vacation from reality continues when Jennifer arrives at Rideau Hall to meet the Governor General. The Governor General, apparently unfamiliar with her constitutional responsibilities, observes that “a pliable young MP with a ductile connection to the homeland would be a nice touch, Madame GG decided, and being nice to an independent never hurt a minority government.” The Governor General, of course, has no business paying attention to the health of a minority government, the role of an independent MP within it, or any other partisan political matter. Bokarie, meanwhile, serving as Jennifer’s “aide-de-camp” – a term that nobody in the real Ottawa has used in decades – is busy skating on the Rideau Canal in November. This has never happened in Ottawa’s long and frosty history, but since an independent MP running a winning campaign out of her parents’s house in an election with thirty percent voter turnout and meeting a partisan-minded Governor General hasn’t either, it’s a comparatively minor error on Boyagoda’s part.
How, then, did this bad book get such good press? The Ottawa Citizen’s Paul Gessell – who shouldn’t ever be allowed to review a book again, considering his physical proximity to the scene of the fact-crimes that Boyagoda commits throughout his book – stumbles over the answer when he describes the book as “one of the funniest books ever penned about Ottawa…” and “a wicked satire on Canadian politics and Canadian political correctness.” There is a conspicuous absence of satire in Canada’s literary culture, a deficit that was only exacerbated by the death of its longest standing and most successful practitioner, Mordecai Richler, in 2003, and Boyagoda and his publicist and publisher are clearly trying to fill that void. There are also few fields of satirical inquiry in Canada that are more fertile than the one in which Boyagoda chose to work, and the idea of someone sending multiculturalism and our attitudes towards it up the flag poll was a siren call that clearly overwhelmed the critical faculties of the people assigned to review his book.
Some small measure of blame for this litany of errors – there are many, many more than I had either the space or the patience to detail – can be attributed to the fact that Boyagoda, a Professor of American literature at Ryerson University, spent seven years studying in the United States. But the largest measure belongs to Boyagoda himself, who clearly failed to do even the most rudimentary research for this book. The jacket of the book boasts that “with searing irony and irrepressible intellect, Randy Boyagoda has created a disquieting tale of ambition, reinvention, and betrayal.” It is then ironic that Boyagoda’s novel is completely undermined by sloppy errors of fact and context that could, and should, have been easily dispatched by this irrepressible intellect. What’s more troubling, however, is that Canada ’s literary community didn’t catch them either.
Toronto, October 11th, 2006 – 1,681 w.