“Number One, satire is not on. Critics love it, real people turn it off.”
That from the satirical novel Easy to Like*, which takes on Canadian media just as Linda Svendsen takes on Canadian politics in Sussex Drive.
Of course, Edward Riche was satirizing the idea of satire not being “on”, and satirizing the act of satirizing behaves like a double negative, right? It’s satire worship.
But for real people to appreciate it, let alone laud it, a familiarity with the subject of the satire is necessary.
Those readers who have a greater understanding of the political scene in Canada will find greater enjoyment in Sussex Drive.
Certainly the characters themselves are not standing idle, waiting to welcome readers into their story. Greg Leggatt, Prime Minister, and his wife, Becky, are preoccupied with other things, and you, dear reader, are not on the Sussex Drive guest list.
Set in later-2008, Greg Leggatt is about to ask Governor General Lise Lavoie to prorogue federal parliament, just as real-life Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked Michaëlle Jean on December 4, 2008 in Canada.
Prorogation is more than hitting the pause button on a session of parliament; it’s like striking the stop button without allowing the natural next step of calling an election.
You don’t need to know anything about politics to see how that would be a great way to avoid conversations and revelations. Or to see the potential for narrative tension herein.
But if you did follow the prorogation in Canada in 2008 (and again in 2009), you’ll find another layer of meaning in Svendsen’s satirical consideration of it.
The focus on the narrative is not, however, Greg Leggatt. When I imagine him, I think of Lise’s husband’s imitation of him: “sticking out his stomach and speaking in human dial tone”.
The PM is a glad-hander, and an unlikeable one, who heads an ultra-conservative party viewed by the “left-wing media elites” as “the redneck northern cousins of the American Republicans”.
His wife also firmly inhabits the role that is demanded of her publicly, as the wife of the PM, but she articulates a gap, a conflict of sorts, that the reader does not perceive to exist for the PM.
“Life would only be better for the family, in the long term, if Greg’s policies, which happened to be hers, came to fruition.”
Becky has openly acknowledged a discrepancy between what she might personally desire and what she will consciously pursue and, yet, at times, she behaves in a decidedly un-PM’s-wife-like way.
(There is one particularly memorable scene in which she should be restrained, upright, and near-regal, but in fact she is frantically giving her son’s guinea pig CPR.)
And, so, Becky is the point of interest in Sussex Drive, her relationship with Lise Lavoie more important than her relationship with her husband (although everything stems back to that relationship ultimately), and her relationships with her children offering a series of unexpected (but credible) complications.
In these capacities, even readers who are not keen on politics will see the humour of specific situations, for instance, her ten-year-old sons debating which of two books is more evil, Warlock or The Giver, “both of which Becky had domestically banned for pagan content”. And the quiet amusement that arises from scenes like this one which unfolds at the entrance of the public school:
“She lent her purple Sharpie, fished out of a foxhole in her Coach hobo bag, and highly recommended her own Ottawa U. orthodontist to a newcomer from the Netherlands. She always looked out for the NATO allies.”
But, ultimately, the snicker shifts into laughter when the satire is specific, so when it treads on the territory of the arts and funding (something which Easy to Like considers as well), the bookish will find themselves grinning at passages like this, which arises when the PM states that most Canadians don’t give two cents about the arts and do not want to see them funded by the government.
“The artists in Quebec are very upset, the First Nations are upset – it’s all about culture, identity. A few of the anglo artists – the Ghost of Peter Gzowski cult, the Ghomeshi gang and a couple others, also on the blogs – all furious. Culture is subsidized, identity is subsidized – why has he done this?”
(Come on, the “Ghost of Peter Gzowski cult”, the “Ghomeshi gang”: you’re laughing, right?)
Sussex Drive‘s lens focuses primarily on the identity of the women who are struggling to balance their own personal identities (and their identities as mothers) with the demands of their positions (whether the position of the PM’s wife or the position of Governor General).
Lise’s character allows for particularly sharp commentary given her precarious political position (the GG is nonpartisan but Lise lives down the street from the Leggatts):
“She’d never felt so strategically African, so black, so other, and it had to do with being the mother of the outspoken boy now being manhandled off-camera and, oddly, the improbable death of his Cree father, who’d been in his intellectual and legal prime when his canoe capsized in shallow water on the calmest day of the year.”
Her desire to set things right for her son, Niko, while maintaining her personal ethics (she has loyalties to St Bertrand as well, which parallels Michaëlle Jean’s Haitian birth) and her professional responsibilities (to King and countries): complicated. And Becky’s situation is just as problematic (though I’ll avoid specifics to avoid spoilers).
Becky’s solutions, however, are seemingly more clear-cut, though less satisfying given that they are inherently more constrained by her role as the wife of the PM.
“Lise, this is naïve. You’ve made a far left turn here. Take two Tylenol and burn your Naomi Klein, seriously.”
Those who prefer their characters to be more welcoming, might prefer the sort of humour in the political novels of Terry Fallis, but Linda Svendsen has brought the same attention-to-detail and intelligence to Sussex Drive that was evident in her collection Marine Life (one of my favourite short story collections).
Those with Naomi Klein on their bedside tables and their radios tuned to the Ghomeshi gang’s broadcasts will find much to admire in Linda Svendsen’s Sussex Drive.
* Edward Riche, Easy to Like (TO: House of Anansi Press, 2011): 23.