The Vinyl Café is revisionist tripe wearing nostalgia’s stolen britches.
Stuart McLean’s version of Canada looks like a Norman Rockwell painting. The most famous but by no means only part of the Vinyl Café is called the Dave and Morley Stories. These stories revolve around a list of personality-free caker morons. There’s the father, Dave, a shucks-golly record store owner with the bumbling exterior of the Good Soldier Svejk but with none of the internal narrative, depth, or sass that makes the Czech figure so fascinating. Joining this non-character is a figure-skating missus named Morley who in a totally-original and not-at-all clichéd way has to fix Dave’s frequent mishaps, a moody teenaged girl named Stephanie, a hockey squire named Sam, a dog named Arthur who steals potatoes, and a cat. Wowie, a suburban caker-family filled with tropes and clichés. How exciting.
These rich and meaningful cardboard cutouts living in a Toronto that mysteriously doesn’t seem to be plagued with any of real Toronto’s actual problems. I mean, just look at the cover of this book:
When the stories focus on wacky hijinks like forgetting to buy a turkey for Christmas it eliminates any sort of meaningful deeper conversation. Take Svejk again: his activities are daft and silly but they point to real criticisms of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Svejk is an everyman who invites us into his shoes so that we too might understand why the War was so awful. It’s funny, relevant, poignant, and useful all at the same time. While child-Dave derps about stuffing frogs into an elementary school we don’t see a real image of the hard-scrabble life of the Maritimes so much as wistful turns of delightful detail. In what Toronto do lawyers and accountants live around people who work in theaters and run tiny record stores that apparently turn profits despite never changing, far less interact with them á la Bert and Mary Turlington?
The presumed timelessness of the setting actually makes the work even less meaningful because we don’t know when or where this happens. There’s a reference to Dave walking to Brock Avenue in five minutes (yes, I listened to some of it for you), which means that they could live in Brockton Village. The architecture sort-of fits:
But the neighborhood itself is a canvas of make-believe because there’s no timeframe outside of a few hints. How did Brockton Village deal with suburbanization, or has that even happened yet? What about the Portuguese who currently live in the neighborhood? There’s an Arabic family improbably slapped into the story and a Chinese guy running a Scottish bakery (apparently making Chinese food isn’t nostalgic enough), but where are Joao and Carmella? When did this happen? Where did this happen? None of this is answered. Where Svejk waddles through known towns in a narrow band of time, this story ambles through a palimpsest of a neighborhood where time and history don’t mean anything.
The Vinyl Café is one of those hokey Canadiana things that English Canadians desperately want to believe was real, so McLean and the CBC hawk the Vinyl Café abroad in hopes that having foreigners fall for the non-place will convince cakers that the halcyon Toronto of…whenever this is set is real. So far they’ve scored BBC 7, which is so important to the British people that it was collapsed into BBC 4. We’ve also enlisted listeners on 80-some iterations of PBS in the United States to the cause of retrofitting Canada’s past. McLean’s turd-stacks are pushed as something akin to Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, except that Leacock was clearly writing with a place and time in mind (Orillia, ON at the turn of the century) and he deigns to admit that small-town Canada had its shitty parts with his obviously tongue-in-cheek praise of Mariposa at the time.
With the Vinyl Café McLean had a chance to address and speak to the history of urban Toronto and rural Nova Scotia. There are topics to dig at here with profound value to Canadian history and it is wholly okay to use fictive characters to make the work of digging easier. It’s one thing to erase the Indigenous (which of course McLean does because they really threaten ersatz nationalism these stories pump out); it’s quite another to claim nostalgia from a fiction set in a overly-fictionalized, frozen iteration of an actual place. Comedy has incredible potential – look at Svejk – but employing it in the service of revisionist Canadiana bastardizes the whole point of satire. Without that bite, all these stories boil down to are awkward chance happenings and clichéd characters designed to elicit Canadiana. Haplessly pissing your wife off is the kind of comedy best reserved for Garfield, except with the lasagna-loving cat there isn’t a narrative of make-believe peddled behind strained laughs.