The Best Laid Plans
336p. First reading.
There are many things that I think bring my country (Canada, to be exact) into a state of ill-repute, but I don’t often throw around the phrase “national disgrace” in describing them. I don’t intend to do so now, either, but The Best Laid Plans comes close.
This marks the first time that I’ve chosen to produce a Book Note about a book I would not in good conscience recommend to anyone, so please bear with me as we proceed. This might end up being shorter than usual, in fact, as I do not often wish to dwell upon the negative when appraising an artistic work that someone has spent a great deal of time and effort in producing. It is for this reason (among others), that the idea of the “so bad it’s good” film holds no interest for me at all, and I have a sort of contempt for those who habitually indulge in viewings of what they deem to be such pieces. There is no virtue in smug mockery. It is a complete waste of time.
Nevertheless, the circumstances surrounding my reading of The Best Laid Plans compel me to speak up.
The book’s publication and reception history have much to do with the near-universal acclaim it now enjoys. The author wrote the thing in hopes of seeing it accepted by a mainstream publisher of some sort, but no such acceptance was forthcoming. He instead settled for presenting it chapter-by-chapter as a free podcast before eventually self-publishing it. This might have been the end of the story, but the book was inexplicably (and I mean this with complete sincerity) awarded the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour in 2008. It blossomed in popularity as a consequence – a true Canadian underdog success story – and was recently declared to be the official selection for the 2011 “Canada Reads” event. This is essentially a nation-wide book club. The book, in short, is currently enjoying a sort of ne plus ultra status in terms of modern Canadian literature, and I find this depressing beyond belief.
I’m not sure where to begin in expressing this disappointment, really. Perhaps a summary of the book’s contents and general drift is in order.
The novel tells the story of a disillusioned Canadian political maven (Daniel Addison) whose attempt to leave Ottawa forever is complicated by his final promise to cultivate a campaign for a Liberal candidate in a small (and fictitous) Ottawa-area riding that has been a Conservative safe seat for as long as it has existed. This may be a sort of analogue to the Ottawa-Vanier riding that has been unshakably Liberal since its founding in the 1933, but, in a book in which the Tories are simply to be taken as unambiguously evil (more about this later), that would hardly serve.
Addison finds his hopeless candidate in one Angus McLintock, a crusty and imperturbable (and Scottish) engineering professor at the University of Ottawa. McLintock agrees to run only because Addison assures him he has no chance of winning, and will, in exchange for McLintock’s candidacy, take over the “English for Engineers” course that McLintock will otherwise have to teach at the university this term.
This being a comic novel, the unthinkable naturally happens. A wholly unexpected scandal wipes out the Conservative golden boy who had previously had the riding locked up, and McLintock is elected. He thus enters the House of Commons as the only MP in Canadian history who does not care if he is re-elected and who puts the national interest above that of his riding. The consequences are meant to be funny, but the incredible insufficiency of Addison’s (and, by proxy, Fallis’) narration does them a grave disservice.
I should say, in justice, that there’s much in The Best Laid Plans to enjoy. Angus McLintock is the only character in the piece to whom the “Leacockian” label could with any justice be appended, and his furious prosecution of what he believes to be the nation’s interests is actually quite stirring when considered apart from Addison’s cynical, weary narration thereof. Basically imagine that one of C.S. Lewis’ several hard-nosed Scottish rationalists (like the fictious Andrew MacPhee in That Hideous Strength or the quite real “Old Knock” in Surprised by Joy) ran for a seat in the Canadian parliament, and that he also loved chess and hovercrafts. He’s a man of his word, no matter the consequences, and he brings a scientist’s detached scorn to the internecine squabbling that is so often the mark of the Canadian political scene.
That’s pretty much it, though. Every other character is repugnant and cynical and vulgar and mean-spirited, more or less. The only exception to this rule is found in the pairing of Pete1 and Pete2, two students from Addison’s “English for Engineers” class who end up volunteering on McLintock’s campaign. Apart from being punk rock types who always look utterly absurd, there is absolutely nothing to their characters at all. They are empty ciphers, and, in a sense, a sort of pandering.
Daniel Addison is an awful narrator. He is an unlikeable cynic with a checkered past, which is bad enough, but he also bears all of the unfortunate authorial tics of the writer who gives him his voice. The Best Laid Plans is in no sense a really well-written book; it achieves adequacy, at best. It’s precisely the kind of aggressively middle-brow bullshit that seems to take various countries by storm every couple of years, and while I can readily understand why it’s popular I cannot really accept that popularity as being something that redounds to the nation’s credit. Much of the book’s questionable humour springs from Addison’s constant similes, most of which are awful. I had intended to provide some examples of the worst of them, but I really don’t feel like crossing the room to pick up the book again.
This “middle-brow” direction is at the heart of the book’s failure, anyway. There’s nothing in that’s challenging or unexpected or unique at all. It’s focused enough on the questionable hotbed of Canadian politics, and involves characters who are obsessed enough with proper grammar and big-name Canadian literature and suitably progressive ideology that it seems “smart” and “provocative,” but it’s so incredibly safe in everything that it proposes – even (especially) when it thinks it’s being startling – that one can only look upon it as a calculated massage of certain egos and perspectives.
It is hopelessly didactic. Certain characters (that is, every last one that we’re meant to admire) are described as being devoted progressive, enlightened feminists. Rather than showing this through their actions, though, the text treats us to extended reading lists and library entries (paraphrase of a certain passage: “his shelf contained Simone de Beauvoir, Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin, and this bespoke his enlightened, progressive ideas” – and this is not a very loose paraphrase, either, I swear to you) that prove that the characters are as unobjectionable to the current L/liberal sensibilities as it’s possible to be. Indeed, McLintock himself is presented as the widowed husband of the late Marin Lee, the (fictitious) grand dame of Canadian feminism. It was one of her books that first opened Addison’s eyes and raised his consciousness about the injustices faced by certain etc. etc. This kind of thing crops up all the time; at one point Addison is forced by Fallis to make a joke about someone having had something slipped into their drink to explain their sudden change of behaviour merely so McLintock can have an excuse to launch a wrathful tirade about the prevalence of Rohypnol and sexual assault on campuses and so forth. It’s dreadfully contrived.
The book wears its liberal predilections on its sleeve. The first thing we learn about Addison is that his family had been staunchly Conservative for generations before his reading during his undergrad years made him realize that all conservativism ever was a complete goddamned lie. I almost threw down the book in despair at this point, but I wouldn’t want to reject something before the preface had even concluded. It didn’t end up getting any better, though.
While Fallis is happy to show that all political parties are populated (and even run) by opportunists, there is nothing at all in the Tory party as he describes it to be respected. They are to a man and woman unprincipled cads and cowards, their ideas awful, their positions two-faced, their politicking unscrupulous. Indeed, the scandal that sees McLintock unexpectedly swept into office involves the Tories’ popular and very successful Finance Minister suddenly being revealed to be a BDSM fetishist, relying on the assistance of his (mercifully female) chief of staff to get his rocks off.
It is in this that another (and, to my mind, considerable) problem presents itself. Much of the book’s current popularity and status is due to it having won the Leacock Medal in 2008. Fair enough; while Leacock himself has regrettably passed into a sort of obscurity, his name still commands a certain respect in this country when it comes to literature.
Nevertheless, it is an absolute disgrace that this book was awarded the Leacock Medal. I do not disagree that it is a work of Canadian Humour, however broadly described, but it is a humour of a kind that Leacock would never have supported and would rather have specifically deplored. The book is mean-spirited and vulgar from start to finish; it takes a cynical delight in the downfall of everyone who happens to fall over the course of its narrative arc, and it has no reservations about gratuitous expletives and sexual explicitness. That explicitness is masked by a cloak of euphemism (which I’ll grant is a paradox), but when a randy female staffer is described as enthusiastically polling a male politician’s caucus – and doing much else besides over the course of an interminable, awful paragraph – there is little left to the imagination. This is disgusting and insupportable in a work to which Leacock’s tacit imprimatur has been granted. He wrote entire volumes articulating his theory of humour, and in none of them will you find any approbation of this kind of pornographic nonsense. Leacock’s humour was rather of a gentle, kindly and charitable kind, and certainly of a kind that eschewed words and ideas likely to prove scandalous or lascivious to a mixed readership. He viewed such things – as well as the schadenfreude that is omnipresent in The Best Laid Plans – as being the province of contemptible barbarians rather than civilized men. We may look upon these ideas as outmoded and old-fashioned, but, if that’s the case, we should perhaps stop handing out a medal in the name of a man who professed them to works he would have thrown into the fire. What’s next? The Jonathan Swift Medal in Satire to Larry the Cable Guy? The Walter Scott Award for Historical Fiction to Dan Brown? How much pandering can a thing take and still hold legitimacy?
The Leacock Medal has often been tarnished in this way (as far back at least as Donald Jack’s Me Bandy, You Cissie in 1980; a marvelous work of humour irretrievably tarnished by a completely gratuitous and completely explicit sex sequence), but to see its legitimacy suffer so in a novel that has so much that is resonant with Leacock’s own work – small-town vicissitudes, stentorian Scots, unlikely elections – is depressing. It’s also depressing in that the book’s publication history is so comparable to how Leacock first made his own name. His first collection of humourous writings, Literary Lapses (1910) could not find a publisher, and was eventually put out at the author’s own expense. It became an absurdly popular hit, and eventually came to the attention of John Lane of the Bodley Head in England, who ensured that it was more broadly distributed and, in so doing, made Leacock a household name.
I’ll note – finally – that there’s another dimension to The Best Laid Plans that grated upon me, and that is the portion of the text that’s set at the University of Ottawa. Daniel Addison flees from politics (or so he thinks) to become the U of O’s latest tenure-track professor in the English department, focusing especially on Canadian literature. His work in this capacity serves as a backdrop to the first third or so of the book, and there’s little in it that bears any actual relation to what the University of Ottawa is really like. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to these things because I actually work there, and have done so for the last few years, but still. Addison’s hiring by the English department is incredibly unrealistic in its contours (no self-respecting department head would have done what was done in the case as described), and his life at the university is utterly preposterous. He’s a tenure-track (which means, by necessity, a full-time) professor in the English department, which is on the third floor of the Arts building, which is attached to the Simard building on one side and across the street from the Tabaret building on the other. Regardless, Fallis claims through Addison that Addison has an office “on the fourth floor,” which is completely absurd (the Linguistics people are up there, and we only have one windowless office on that floor – occupied entirely by grad students), and that it “overlooks the main quad,” which is doubly absurd. No office in the Arts building – whatever the floor – overlooks anything that could be described as “the main quad,” and the school does not in fact have such a quad in the first place.
Addison’s work in the “English for Engineering” course is also somewhat baffling. The course is treated as a sort of awful anomaly, and torture for those teaching it, because it somehow has to be taught by an Engineering professor – quite against his or her professional predilections. U of O offers no such courses, so far as I can divine, and this function is instead fulfilled by English 1100, a multi-sectioned course taught each term by actual English instructors, the purpose of which is to give basic English and writing instruction to students in the non-English disciplines. I’ve taught this course myself; it is full of engineers, and science majors, and medical students, and all other sorts of folk besides. It has more sections to it than almost any other course on campus. It’s not exactly obscure. Why Fallis doesn’t just integrate it into his text is a mystery to me.
He also has Addison declare at one point that, upon his exit from “the engineering building” (where his course is taught), the campus looked “beautiful” in the light of an autumn evening. Only SITE and Colonel By could qualify as “the engineering building,” so far as I can tell, and, having taught in both of them and having exited from both of them on autumn evenings, I can only declare his evaluation to be an ignorant lie. Any beauty the campus has is in no sense in evidence from those perspectives, and I defy anyone who has actually seen them to say otherwise.
I said at the outset that I thought this might end up being shorter than usual, but I can see that I was mistaken. Oh well. Maybe I’ll write about books I dislike more often.