National Anxiety in a New Age
- Jim Lynch (Author)
Border Songs. Random House Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Damon Barta
By turns a post 9-11 elegy for a time when the U.S.-Canada border was a "geographical handshake" and a lampooning of the popular will and political pressures that have made it otherwise, Jim Lynch's Border Songs is the story of a sleepy border community that becomes a locus of national paranoia.
The arbitrary nature of policing an arbitrary border are at the fore of Border Songs, particularly in the character of Brandon Vanderkool, a sort of bumbling innocent whose job with the American Border Patrol offers him opportunities to catalog bird calls and create pine-cone sculptures. Despite having no passion for his job and a reluctance to thrust himself into the lives of border-jumpers, Brandon stumbles across them at every turn. In one instance, smugglers literally stumble across him while he is lying down in the woods, listening for the call of a rare owl. His "success" at apprehending illegal aliens and smugglers is lauded by the Border Patrol and used to attract political support for more funding, though many of Brandon's colleagues are largely apathetic about whether they "can stop six percent of what's rolling through instead of three." These funds are then used to purchase sophisticated surveillance technology, such as camera towers and unmanned aircraft, to monitor a quiet countryside. At his best, Lynch succeeds in conveying the incongruity of everyday life next to a tenuously drawn border and a political perception of this border as a war-front. The absurd image of a "flying drone" presiding over a ditch and a handful of dairy farms suggests the funhouse distortion of reality implicit in "protecting" a border that narrows and expands at the whim of a fearful and fickle public. This is again well-illustrated by the anti-climax of escalating paranoia, when a robot is deployed at the Peace Arch to open a "radioactive" cooler that contains batteries and cat litter.
The physical and social awkwardness of Vanderkool is an apt metaphor for the arbitrary and uneven application of American power: usually well-intentioned, often hapless, and always consequential. However, Lynch's symbolic nuances are often overwhelmed by the unnecessarily direct and mechanical polemics of his characters. Lynch trots out stock American and Canadian figures that stand in relief to his idiosyncratic central character. Jingoistic, individualist Americans and self-righteous, pot-smoking Canadians frequently sling jibes at one another across a border represented by the ditch between their backyards. At times, the didacticism of these dialogues strains the credibility of the participants as believable characters, and the author's concern with being even-handed in his treatment of Canadians and Americans exacerbates this strain. When a Canadian speaks, an American is made to speak with an equal and opposite rhetorical reaction, often to the incredulity of the reader.
Narrative credibility is also tested by an overtly populist thread in the novel, embodied by Brandon's father, Norm. A struggling dairy farmer who weighs the possibility of accepting cash from smugglers wanting to traverse his farm against a life spent on hard and honest labor, he seems to represent a more innocent era, and by extension, a contrast to the current, more complicated time. This moralistic undertone plays out as expected and does little to advance the narrative and less to ameliorate Lynch’s facile treatment of character.
While the narrative appears to glorify a mythical, pastoral tradition and is ambiguously and curiously preoccupied with cannabis, these dalliances are ultimately subordinate to the greater theme of community divided—not by an indiscernible plane of latitude, but by external forces that construe the meaning of such a plane. Though Border Songs has its flaws, Lynch succeeds when his aim is directed towards the latter.
- Chinese Speak by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: A Leaf in the Bitter Wind by Ye Ting-xing, Ingratitude by Ying Chen and Carol Volk, China Dog and Other Tales from a Chinese Laundry by Judy Fong Bates, and Hong Kong Poems by Andrew Parkin and Laurence Wong
- An Exorcist's Tale by Pamela Owen
Books reviewed: The Bishop's Man by Linden MacIntyre
- Seven Days in Detail by Nathan Whitlock
Books reviewed: A Week of This: A Novel in Seven Days by Nathan Whitlock
- Two Solitudes by Lawrence Mathews
Books reviewed: The Silent Partner by Herb Curtis and Chump Change by David Eddie
- L’Ethos de la fin by David Beaudin-Gagné
Books reviewed: Comme dans un film des frères Coen by Bertrand Gervais and M. by Hans-Jürgen Greif
MLA: Barta, Damon. National Anxiety in a New Age. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 162 - 163)
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