Virtual Inquisition

By John Harris | September 27, 2004

In his introduction to Brian Fawcett’s Local Matters, Stan Persky says, “Ever since he was a teenager, Fawcett has been trying to write contemporary versions of the eighteenth-century poet Oliver Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village, with its famed couplet, Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,/Where wealth accumulates and men decay.”

For some of us in Prince George, Fawcett’s own deserted village, Persky’s statement is old news. Brian’s always been clear that the town’s glory days were in the mid-fifties. It’s gone downhill ever since. We’ve gone downhill ever since. For us, the operative words in Goldsmith’s famed couplet are, men decay.

Decay is what Brian has to find here in those of us who were raised and stayed in this crucible of corporate capitalism, or who have, like me, been here long enough to show the appropriate pathology. Decay is what he has been finding in us through some half-dozen or so books of poetry and prose that use Prince George directly or indirectly, in whole or in part, as a setting, culminating in Virtual Clearcut last year.

The way Brian sees us is graphically described on p. 28 of Virtual Clearcut. It is illustrated by a photo that he carries around as a reminder of why he doesn’t live in town anymore. It’s a photo of a backyard barbecue, ten of us in attendance. The ten of us resemble small rodents transfixed by the headlights of a car or truck just before it runs them over.

The truck, Brian goes on to explain, is corporate capitalism.

But for us the truck is also, of course, Brian. And we are, not so much rodents in general, as lab rats.

Tame, happy ones, too. We get what we want: attention. High quality attention, coming from the closest thing the town has to a Crown Prince, the son of Hartley Fawcett who built up one of the town’s biggest businesses and got us our first civic center. Brian is the boy who ran off to Vancouver with our Aurora Queen, Sharon Thesen, and then went on to become a world-class writer, making this town, and us, famous. Not long ago, the two newspapers featured articles and congratulatory notices on Brian’s winning the Pearson Prize for Virtual Clearcut. Also, Brian’s a good and generous friend, always in touch, always ready to listen and help out. If he wants a little something in addition to friendship, if he needs a favour, that’s not much to ask for what we get in exchange.

The fact is, we’d be damned upset if we weren’t in his books, and we were especially happy with Virtual Clearcut, an autobiographical memoir wherein we appear under our own names. Back in 1989, when we turned up briefly, and barely recognizably, in Akron Ohio (Public Eye), we felt betrayed though we did understand that Brian had to bow to the demands of his expanding American audience.

Of course it’s not easy being lab rats, for all its benefits. We naturally want to appear in a good light, but we’re supposed to be decaying. Also we have to watch what we say about one another; having a foot planted in your crotch is not a good thing, though we also have to consider that so interesting an event might make it into the next book. We have to watch what Brian finds out about our habits, houses, jobs; it might not be good if our students, bosses, loan officers and local politicians knew or thought they knew what our situations really are.

The obviously leading questions that Brian puts to us, in Virtual Clearcut, about the Bowron Clearcut, the Canfor takeover of Northwood, the decline of the downtown, the influx of big-box stores and consumer franchises—these are easy. But men decay. Brian also needs to know how someone’s latest marriage is going. He’s eventually going to find out how much someone is drinking, what happened to someone’s job or business. He’ll examine the truck for rust, check the pantry for bales of Costco toilet paper. He’ll talk over the back fence to the neighbours. When you’re not around, maybe because unlike Brian you have a job, he’ll hook up with the ex-wife or the kids for a coffee, and walk the dog with the wife.

And he’s suspicious, especially about any signs of normalcy or happiness. As he sees it, Because we’re decently fed, clothed, and sheltered, have jobs to go to and families to come home to, and can manage to keep our personal woes hidden, we assume that the people around us are basically happy and fulfilled, and that we need not worry about them. Once in awhile, this turns out to be true. But much more often something happens that reveals that our happy, fulfilled friends are drowning in private miseries too deep and opaque for anyone to fathom. Then it comes to us, maybe, that we’re all being bamboozled . . . that the vast consumer mall in which we’re all condemned to live out our over-provisioned lives hasn’t obliterated or even much alleviated the misery of human life.

Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.

After Virtual Clearcut appeared, the usual round of note-comparing took place:
“Barry, did you really tell Brian that you can’t take it here anymore? That you’re moving to Tumbler?”

I’d assumed, you see, until I read the book, that Barry McKinnon bought the house (and two trailer pads) in the famous Tumbler Ridge auction because he made an appraisal (shrewd; it turns out a new coal mine is opening soon, and the oil-gas exploration units are getting closer) of the possibility of renewed coal and gas development in the area. Barry’s never talked about wanting to retire to some wilderness town; when he’s not in Prince George, he’s in New York.

“Well . . . ah . . . sort of. It’s that fucking pulp mill, man. The night before I talked to Brian, I couldn’t sleep. The stink was driving me nuts.”

“What about your students being boneheads?”

“I’d never say that. Mind you, I was marking at the time, and you wouldn’t believe the shit I had to wade through.”

Harvey Chometsky was upset because he figured Brian would have appreciated his efforts to keep his coffee house-art gallery, Other Art, going for eight years before it finally went bankrupt. “I should be a hero, or at least a victim of franchise capitalism and crap television. But no. According to Brian, it was the art I put on the wall that drove everyone away. It was my fault.”

“Did you borrow any money off him?”

“No way. And I checked with Barry. He swears that he didn’t agree with Brian that the art was the shits. What did you tell him?”

Uh oh.

“You had art there?”

Barry and Harvey noted that I got off easy because of my place out of town, on the Buckhorn, a kind of deserted village in itself. Harvey asked me, “Did you tell him that you spend a lot of time out there living your life without deception?”

“Sort of . . .”

“Get real. You haven’t been out there for years.”

“Just because Viv and I were in Bolivia all winter, then Belize and Pacific Mexico in the summer and fall. I want to go out there.”

“But Viv thinks it’s a waste of time, right?”

And when we asked journalists Frank Peebles and Paul Strickland, habitues of (respectively) Tim Horton’s and the Second Cup, why they took Brian to Zoe’s Cafe for the interviews documented in Virtual Clearcut, they both pointed out that they didn’t want to go down in history as bamboozled by consumer franchises.

You’ll notice I haven’t focused on any women. Virtual Clearcut has, as Brian points out, “a nearly all-male cast.” This is because in Brian’s view women are hardier than men, smarter, less likely to be affected by Globalism. Men decay. Women fight to prevent this. In the book, Joy, Barry’s wife, parodies and amplifies Barry’s compulsive fussing, shaming him away from it. Vivien Lougheed, my wife, is described as taking me for months-long journeys through dangerous parts of the world, excising the decay with big doses of fear and loathing. Don White saved himself by, like Brian, leaving town as fast as he could, but his daughter Bryn is back exhuming and sorting through family history for the benefit of Don and herself.

It’s fun, really, and it’s going to get better. Stan Feingold, documentary film-maker, recently turned up in town and rounded us up for a talk. He’s going to make a movie based on The Secret Journal of Alexander Mackenzie and Virtual Clearcut. The CBC and NFB are interested. Brian e-mailed in advance to tell us to cooperate.

Which is exactly what we’re going to do. Barry’s dusting off his old Davy Crockett hat. Vivien’s getting her canoe equipment together. Joy’s planting more flowers in her yard–the house has already been featured in Stephen King’s movie Dreamcatcher, with Morgan Freeman sitting in Barry’s chair. We’re arguing over who should play Mackenzie. I’m for Viv, shots of Prince George’s great explorer laid over replications of the original Mackenzie. Also she works for an international publishing house that exploits the dark areas of the earth for profit, just like the fur companies did.

It’s all a good excuse to spend a few evenings sitting around the barbecue pit, drinking, talking, and looking like rodents caught in the headlights of a car.

1570 words September 27, 2004


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