The Wealthy Banker's Wife

by L. McQuaig, Linda McQuaig,
ISBN: 0140230653

Main Brides

by Gail Scott,
240 pages,
ISBN: 0889104565

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Refrains and Reminiscences
by Margaret Sweatman

GAIL SCOTT's Main Brides is fascinating for many reasons. I fought with it for the first 60 pages. It made me drowsy, like breathing someone else's cigarette smoke, an unsolicited toxic fix. It is studied, and the first part is a prelude consisting of graceful gesture lines, disembodied and ephemeral, until the rhythm of the entire piece is set into motion (I remember, too vaguely, but nonetheless with admiration, Scott's previous novel Heroine, a book that stays in the memory as an evocative rhythmic process). In Main Brides, Scott constructs a novel that reflects upon itself, setting off refrains and reminiscences, a musical configuration.

There are many interwoven narrative lines. The central figure is Lydia, idling in a bar on Montreal's Main, drinking wine all day (and all novel), smoking cigarettes. Lydia evokes a series of "portraits" of the lives of the women in the bar (or in a fin de siecle culture) whom Lydia calls her "Main Brides." Lydia's portraits are lateral, with a diffused perspective, and the technique is more nearly montage than embedded story. There is a lot of liquor in this novel, and many cigarettes; a pleasurable and significant fact. This, from the early section of Main Brides:

Lydia lights a cigarette. Feeling a quickening in her some call anger. She glances at the pale blue stretch outside the window. In case the sky is getting closer to that point of emptiness, forcing a terrifying lucidity. Her gaze then fixing meditatively on the greyness of the sidewalk. On the people going back and forth, almost hypnotically, beyond the glass. Creating a state of somnambulism preferable to drunkenness (she should slow down a little). In which there's incredible ease of movement regarding all whims unconnected to signs of what's- to-be -forgotten.

The portraits, or lateral narratives, are drawn from a state of "somnambulism." In these reside the peculiarities, gorgeous and at times wearying, of Scott's style. They filter through a consciousness of surfaces, of fashion; at every encounter the index of fashion is present, perhaps intended to place the figures in history and also serve as a stylistic motive, the tenor of narration, or as a character in the composition. The somnambulist is less imperative but not less insistent than the drunk, given to erotic repetitions and addictive behaviour. There are references to Breton and to automatic writing, the recording of dreams, writing under the influence. And this is at times rather listless in effect - until I got sufficiently stoned on the book, and learned to recognize figures in the dreams. The abstract quality of the "stone" both dilutes and enhances the text's obsessions: with sexuality, with language, and with the politics of both. Scott has a light touch. And you can see, in the passage quoted above, her affection for parentheses, a paratactic strategy that can be quite beautiful and polyvalent, though it does sacrifice the persona who might outlive a sentence.

There is much to be learned from this novel, and it would take more than a review to explore the complexity of Scott's style and the subtle humour of her spatial text. By analogy, as empathy and sensuality and love will exceed their prescriptions, so Main Brides exceeds the formulas of the conventional novel. One of Scott's narrators points out that

An artist should play, always, with the notion that symbols can be shifted. Deconstructed, in order to find ever new meaning. That this process naturally engenders art forms not necessarily immediately accessible to everyone


No WONDER this book was an instant best seller. It bashes the Tories while it celebrates the Canadian penchant for social equality. Linda McQuaig argues that Mulroney and his minions, relying on subterfuge, have systematically sabotaged social security.

By scuttling one social support after another, they've steered the country closer to the miserly US model, and farther from more generous schemes elsewhere. The book outlines how some European countries combine high taxes, high social spending, and high social benefits with high rates of economic growth. Their success belies the conventional North American wisdom that economic prosperity demands low taxes, especially for rich investors.

Differences in social programs between Europe and the United States are indeed dramatic. Take the case of a particularly vulnerable group: children in single-parent families. Their poverty rate in the United States is 53.3 per cent; in France, 15.8 per cent; in Sweden, 5.5 per cent. Overseas, strong maternity, public child-care, and family assistance measures also contrast sharply with the paltry packages available here.

But instead of peering over the pond for ideas to boost Canadian benefits, the Tories chose instead to boondoggle the public. They tried to sell us the lie that we could no longer afford existing protections, let alone better ones. Enter the wealthy banker's wife. She was the woman, the PR job insisted, on whom Canada was squandering scarce dollars in times of the demon deficit. Why give her a monthly family-allowance cheque she didn't need? Why not target assistance to the needy instead?

The wealthy banker's wife was fictitious, since few, if any, bankers had wives in their child-rearing years. She was, however, a handy symbol for dismantling universality, the bedrock of Canada's health, education, and welfare programs.

According to McQuaig, government has been so successful in shredding the safety net that by the year 2000 it will have slashed an estimated $97.6 billion since 1986. As for taking from the rich and targeting the poor, even StatsCan projects that, by 2036, the Tory trend, if unchecked, will yield more super-rich, fewer middle-class, and twice the number of poor families.

McQuaig believes that Canada, rather than continuing to follow the US model, should take its cues from Europe, and particularly from Sweden, by which she is smitten. And while there is much to admire in some European accomplishments, her starry-eyed view overlooks the omissions. She doesn't mention, for example, the army of migrant, doing Europe's dirty work for stave wages and no benefits.

Nor does she examine why enormous disparities divide Canadian and continental approaches to social security. McQuaig alludes to the link between the post-Industrial Revolution threat of socialism in Europe and the onset of hefty benefits. But she leaves the impression that in Canada social policy is a matter of morality: Tory equals moral reprobate equals regressive social spending. The formula is too simple. It leaves out the fact that our benefits were best after the war, when the CCF and communists enjoyed their heyday, and when industry needed fit workers. Now, the NDP, formerly the CCF, is part of the problem, communism is no threat, and industry doesn't need unskilled tabour. Bye-bye benefits.

Driven by their own self-interests, power-holders today have little reason to adopt McQuaig's recommendations, whether fairer taxes, universal day care and other social programs, or gender equality. And that's too bad, because the direction she favours is presumably also prized by most ordinary people. If the electorate were empowered, no doubt we'd pursue the social-policy path to greater equality that McQuaig outlines in The Wealthy Banker's Wife.


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