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The Canadian Extreme

Professor Naomi Mandel


Course Description


In this class we will read novels by contemporary authors from Canada and Québec. These novels participate in the current global phenomenon of the contemporary extreme. Novels of the contemporary extreme are set in a world both similar to and different from our own – a hyperreal, often apocalyptic world progressively invaded by popular culture, permeated with technology, and dominated by destruction, a reality in which time and space are zones to be inhabited, not obstacles to be overcome, and in which the subject is composed of fragments, dissected by difference, and evacuated by affect. In this world violence – often the most stable element – operates as ethos.

Our approach to these novels will be informed by juxtaposition, as we situate English and French Canadian authors in dialogue with other contemporary extreme novelists from France and the U.S. Thus, we will read sections of U.S. author Bret Easton Ellis’ famously misogynistic novel American Psycho (arguably the progenitor of the contemporary extreme novel), view the film (adapted from the novel by Canadian director Mary Harron), and consider these texts together with Québécoise author Nelly Arcan’s controversial Whore. Does Arcan’s novel offer an alternative vision to Ellis’ bleak one, or is its narrator complicit in the culture that, in Ellis’ novel, produces such murderous results? Turning to Hélène Rioux’s Reading Nijinsky (in which the narrator, a translator of romance novels, embarks on a translation of the memoir of a serial killer whose sadism is comparable to that of American Psycho’s protagonist), we will explore what it means to encounter violence in and through a literary text. In the course of this discussion, we will explore issues of authority, authorship, sexuality, violence, and the nature of the human.

Moving to Douglas Coupland (Microserfs) and Margaret Atwood (Oryx and Crake), which we will read together with sections from Boys Like Her: Transfictions by the Canadian performance group Taste This and The Elementary Particles by French novelist Michel Houellebecq, we will address how these works engage with science, technology, sex and desire, exploring the implications of this engagement for the posthuman landscape each work depicts. Does Coupland’s novel, which describes the lives and loves of computer programmers at Microsoft, and later in a start-up company in Silicone Valley, herald Atwood’s bleak version of the end of humanity in Oryx and Crake? And does Atwood’s transgenic apocalypse fundamentally differ from the logical and peaceful evolution beyond sex and desire – and hence, beyond humanity – that The Elementary Particles describes? Do the border and gender crossings described in Boys Like Her offer an alternative vision? What can these novelists tell us about nature, technology, the body, its future, and the status of the real?

Because this course stages a dialogue between Québécois literature and literature from the U.S., and Anglo-Canadian literature and literature from France, it invites consideration of the two distinct literatures of Canada and the relation of each to the global phenomenon of the contemporary extreme. If, as Linda Hutcheon has suggested in The Canadian Postmodern (1988), postmodernism is uniquely suited to approach Canadian literature, is extremity particularly situated for approaching contemporary literature from Canada and Québec?

Required Books

Canadian literature and film:

American Psycho. Dir. Mary Harron. Lion's Gate. 2000.
Arcan. Nelly. Whore. [2001]. Trans. Bruce Benderson. New York: Black Cat, 2005.
Atwood, Margaret. Oryx and Crake. New York: Doubleday, 2003. (translated into Hebrew as  וניאלה בז)
Coupland, Douglas. Microserfs. New York: Random House, 1994.
Rioux, Hélène. Reading Nijinsky. [1995]. Trans. Jonathan Kaplansky. XYZ Publishing: Montreal, 2001.
Camilleri, Anna, Ivan E. Coyote, Zoe Eakle, Lyndell Montgomery. Boys Like Her: Transfictions. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers, 1998.

Non-Canadian literature and film:

Ellis, Bret Easton. American Psycho. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Houellebecq, Michel. The Elementary Particles. [1998]. Trans. Frank Wynne. New York: Random House, 2000. 
Cut. Dir. Chan-Wook Park. Three … Extremes. Lion's Gate, 2003.

Additional Readings

Coupland, Douglas. Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991.
Durand, Alain-Philippe and Naomi Mandel, eds. Novels of the Contemporary Extreme. New York: Continuum, 2006. (selections)
Delvaux, Martine. "The Exit of a Generation: The 'Whatever' Philosophy." The Midwest Quarterly 40.2 (1999): 171-186.
Kroetsch, Robert. “Reading Across the Border.” In Arnold E. Davidson, ed. Studies on Canadian Literature: Introductory and Critical Essays. New York: The Modern Language Associate of America, 1990. 338-343.
Stratford, Phillip. All The Polarities: Comparative Studies in Contemporary Canadian Novels in French and English. Toronto: ECW, 1986. 96-109.

Recommended Readings

Abecassis, Jack I. "The Eclipse of Desire: L'Affaire Houellebecq." MLN 115.4 (2000): 801-826.
Gilbert, Paula Ruth and Lorna M. Irvine. "Pre- and post-mortem: regendering and serial killing in Rioux, Dandurand, De and Atwood." American Review of Canadian Studies 29.1 (1999): 119-139.
Havercroft, Barbara. "(Un)tying the Knot of Patriarchy: Agency and Subjectivity in the Autobiographical Writings of France Théoret and Nelly Arcan." In Rak, Julie, ed. Auto/biography in Canada: Critical Directions. Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier UP, 2005.
Sutherland, Sharon and Sarah Swan. "Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: Canadian Post-9/11 Worries." From Solidarity to Schisms: 9/11 and After in Fiction and Film from Outside the US. Cara Cilano, ed. Amsterdam: Rudopi, 2009. 219-235.
Thompson, Graham. "Frank Lloyd Oop: Microserfs, Modern Migration, and the Architecture of the Nineties." Canadian Review of American Studies 31 (2001): 119-135.

   
 


 

This page last updated:08/15/2010 by: Naomi Mandel

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