Cape Breton Is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada (1969)

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Author: Ray Smith
Publisher: The Porcupine’s Quill Inc.


© Copyright The Porcupine's Quill Inc.

© Copyright The Porcupine’s Quill Inc.

The Cartesian model, the most known and accepted logical system to date, was conceived in a world of order and objectivity. According to Cartesian mathematics, every movement can be represented by a vector: a straight, finite line oriented in a specific direction (from point A to point B). This is untrue of many contemporary narratives. Their flow is often tortuous and erratic. The quantum physicists of literature, postmodern authors reject the notions of objective truth, of the straight line, and of definite points A and B. They opt instead for an unpredictable and ambiguous chaos spiral, leaving questions of meaning at the reader’s disposal.

Ray Smith’s Cape Breton Is the Thought-Control Centre of Canada is a good example of this. Like a chaos spiral, the compiled fiction avoids clearly defining its meaning, forcing the reader to participate in its production. In contrast to the Cartesian vector, which has a single point of origin, Cape Breton is a seemingly random amalgam of plotlines and thus of beginnings. These plotlines each carry their own pace and narrative style. Some read like an anti-American manifesto: “For Centennial Year, send President Johnson a gift: an American tourist’s ear in a matchbox.” Others, such as the tale of the two men on a park bench, resemble a play:

Bill: Nice day.
George: Yes it is. Though the weatherman said we might get rain later.
Bill: Yeah, it looks like it.”

Their subversive nature aside, the numerous plotlines stay unrelated throughout Smith’s text: never does the story of the two men on the bench or that of the stereotypical couple connect with the anti-American manifesto or the section in Poland. However, Cape Breton remains a single literary piece. Its narrative weaves the fragmented storylines together by consistently shifting from plot to plot. The text begins with the stereotypical couple’s argument:

“Why don’t we go away?
Why?
Why not?
Because.”

That storyline is interrupted by the anti-American manifesto: “So you believe in Canada and you’re worried about American economic domination?” Later, the narrative jumps to a political joke (“Did you hear about the Canadian Pacifist who became a Canadian Nationalist?”) followed by a self-referential word from the author: “Recently a friend conned me into explaining my interest in compiled fiction, an example of which you are now reading.” The married couple only returns three pages after their initial appearance:

“Do you love me?
Yes, I love you. You’re my wife.”

In graphic terms, the narrative of Cape Breton consists of a single line originating from multiple points A and progressing toward multiple points B while moving across itself. The mathematical model of the chaos spiral, once used to illustrate black holes (the model has since been discredited), possesses all these attributes. Its movement is oriented toward a single indefinite point that it can never reach. In a similar manner, the different plot fragments of Cape Breton are geared toward a single, elusive theme. The married couple contemplates moving away but ultimately decides to stay in the country: “I mean, I like Canada, really. It’s not a bad place.” The anti-American manifesto is mostly concerned with keeping “Johnny Canuck” from getting on his “hand and knees” and licking “Joe Yank’s” boots. The sections the author explicitly narrates himself discuss publishing in Canada. Almost every storyline deals with either Canada or the concept of national identity.

However, while the “parameters” of its theme are obvious, the ideological position of Cape Breton remains indefinite. The tone is too cynical, and the ideas are often too extreme to be taken seriously: “Of course, you can always kick him [Joe Yank] first.” Smith’s text never takes a clear stance concerning the Canadian condition. The reader must draw his or her own conclusions on this matter.

Ray Smith’s compiled fiction clearly rejects the type of clarity and conciseness associated with the Cartesian system. Its mathematical equivalent would be built on indefinite figures. The same way a mathematician must carefully study the erratic patterns of a chaos spiral to approximate its centre, one must thoroughly inspect the peculiar narrative of Cape Breton Is the Though-Control Centre of Canada: A Centennial Project in order to produce its meaning. When doing so, readers should however remember that their perspective is not a given but a variable.

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