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Frank Davey’s Post National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel might better be subtitled “The Apolitics of the Anglophone-Canadian Novel” and for reasons that can partly be laid at Davey’s own door. Briefly, as much as anyone, he prompted, especially with his influential Surviving the Paraphrase, the repudiation of Canada’s thematic criticism, the attempt in the seventies by such critics as Northrop Frye in The Bush Garden and Margaret Atwood in Survival to discern, as even those titles suggest, some metaformulation of national identity in a selected body of the nation’s texts. But Davey now chides English Canadian authors for not portraying versions of contemporary [End Page 867] Canada in all its social and political complexity, for, in effect, mislearning too well the earlier lesson intended for the critics and thus giving us Canadian novels “Minus Canada” (to cite another influential title in the campaign against thematic criticism). Nor is there any contradiction in this new agenda. The consideration that a country’s literature cannot be reduced to a necessarily dubious essentialized statement of national identity hardly precludes a fictional portrayal of the different discourses as to what the nation might be. Nevertheless, if contemporary English Canadian fiction provides us mostly with “emotionally crippled protagonists, incapable of complex networks of friendships and relationships” and who “survive in solitude, exclusionary pairs, or minimal family units,” maybe Margaret Atwood with Survival was right after all.
In the course of arguing that contemporary Canadian fiction has “little . . . interest . . . in the social and political processes by which communities are constituted or modern states . . . maintained,” Davey has much of value to say about both the current state of Canada (particularly the free-trade debate and the ongoing constitutional crisis) as well as the sixteen novels he considers. But there do seem to be some problems in his thematizing of his own critical focus. When he notes, for example, Michael Ondaatje’s “preference for art over history, economics, and cultural contest,” he similarly registers his own preference for history, economics, and cultural contest over art. Similarly, one wonders if Davey finds Atwood’s Cat’s Eye “heavily overlaid with foreign signs” partly because he was looking for such overlay and the comparative absence of signs of Canada. This suspicion that Post-National Arguments is perhaps too much driven by its own thesis is not allayed by Davey occasionally obviously bending interpretation to fit that thesis, as when he notes that “when [Stephen Risley’s] life is threatened [in Cat’s Eye, Stephen] is without friends, institutional support, or the effective assistance of his national government,” as if these three items are precisely what you require when the terrorists who hijacked your flight are casting about for someone to kill. Davey’s reading of signs (and the sixteen novels he examines are mostly read semiotically) also too much overlooks other possible readings of the same sign. Thus “Naomi’s loss of her mother” in Obasan certainly signals the “personal,” the psychoanalytic, “the revisiting of private trauma.” But it also represents the government policies that divided families with the outbreak of the war as well as the continuing official racism whereby the mother was refused reentry into [End Page 868] Canada after the war, and it further signifies the transnational violence of war and, more specifically, of nuclear weapons, for the atomic bomb, too, parts mother and daughter. Canada, as a nation, signifies differently in each of these other significations but can hardly be read as missing.
What signs to read and how to read them? “In nearly all of the novels set outside of Quebec,” Davey writes, “the transnational mapping appears to eliminate or severely reduce the significance of Quebec as a Canadian sign, as if on a world stage of transnational issues and global signification the presence or absence of Quebec in the Canadian federation were of minor consequence.” Change “Quebec” to “British Columbia” or, even better, “Prince Edward Island” and we more...