By Paul Chafe
In his hilarious one-man show, To the Wall, Newfoundland actor, comedian, and gift-to-the-world, Andy Jones, reflects on a particularly Newfoundland tendency to imagine the worst possible outcome for any situation: “I don’t know if you do this, but sometimes I get myself into a spiral of worry—like, I’m waiting for someone and they’re a little bit late and I think oh my god they’ve been knocked down by a car, then in my mind I’m at the hospital; they have to have their leg amputated, but they’re unconscious so—I have to make the decision! Then there’s the years of physiotherapy and the psychological scars; anyway … I do that a lot. I guess it’s the Irish part of me. But there’s no term for that kind of worrying in English. So I came up with my own term and since it’s sort of déjà vu, but of the future and always with horrible consequences and since déjà vu is a French term, I came up with ‘Future Possible, Peut Etre Horrible’ or future possible possibly horrible or just ‘FutPoss’ for short—when I do that I say I’m having a ‘futposs.’” I was reminded of Jones’s definition of this pessimistic prognosticating as I read Madeline Ashsby’s 2017 CBC Canada Reads finalist, and tenuously(?) Newfoundland novel Company Town. I must concede that my identification of Ashby’s delightful book as a “Newfoundland novel” is problematic—by her own admission, Ashby is largely ignorant of Newfoundland: she did not visit the place prior to the publication of Company Town; her research for her novel was limited to reading a few books; she has a dreadfully tin ear when it comes to rendering the Newfoundland vernacular on the page; and the physical world described in her novel could just as conceivably be a speculative version of Iceland or Ireland or anywhere. While these (I suppose we can call them) shortcomings of this “Newfoundland novel” must be acknowledged, it is both rewarding and revealing to read Company Town in the context of Newfoundland works like Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Bernice Morgan’s Cloud of Bone, Frank Barry’s Wreckhouse, and many other recent works of Newfoundland and Labrador literature that share in common with Ashby’s novel the imagining of the worst Newfoundland possible.
For Company Town is a dystopian novel envisioning a futuristic Newfoundland in which characters exist at a significant remove from their culture, their bodies, and the natural world. Ashby’s bioengineered, genetically enhanced protagonists live on (and in) New Arcadia, a city-sized oil rig in the North Atlantic Ocean, a massive machine that dominates the worldview of its many citizens, most of whom have lived on the rig for years if not their entire lives. On the rare occasions when they peer outside their insulated cityscape, these New Arcadians view the surrounding ocean with fear and suspicion and would never imagine journeying to the distant and largely abandoned island of Newfoundland. Ashby’s novel makes manifest the sort of future-possible-possibly-horrible-Newfoundland dreaded by characters in so many fictions—a Newfoundland devoid of Newfoundlanders, hallowed out by corporate and commercial exploitations, frightening and foreign to those who once called it home, and no longer anchoring the culture that once flourished there. Viewed this way, Ashby’s dark sci-fi fantasy may be the most authentic Newfoundland novel ever written.
In his analysis of Moore’s February, a novel imagining the events and the aftermath of the real-life sinking of the oil rig Ocean Ranger in 1982, Herb Wyile in Anne of Tim Hortons: Globalization and the Reshaping of Atlantic-Canadian Literature, notes how readers of the novel will find themselves in the “familiar atmosphere of hubris.” Wyile claims “February does present the sinking of Ocean Ranger as a moment when things went terribly wrong, but it does so while keeping in sight how the circumstances that contributed to the disaster and informed its aftermath were not atypical but derived from a mentality that has come to be assumed as a kind of common-sense, no alternatives ideology.” This ideology being the belief that industry through the development and exploitation of natural resources will be not only the economic saviour of Newfoundland, but will be also the salvation of Newfoundland culture and society. As much as the success of such megaprojects is the further solidification of a Newfoundland sense of self and pride, the failure would be a damning condemnation of Newfoundlanders.
The ineluctable nature of this—to use Wyile’s term—“cultural, social, and economic nexus” is demonstrated at the end of The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, when Johnston’s fictionalized version of Newfoundland’s first premier, Joseph Smallwood, having failed so many times to foster a prolonged industrial achievement that would be “commensurate” with Newfoundland, foresees as his plane soars over the Labrador interior, his immortalization and the preservation of his people in the proposed development of the raging Churchill River: “By a corridor of conveyance that would carry this power from the wilderness of Labrador to the cities of the south, the gulf between Newfoundland and the New World would at last be bridged.” Smallwood’s dreams of affluence are tempered almost immediately by the itemization of the colossal failures that are his legacy, the derelict oil refinery at Come by Chance being the defining disaster, delivered in the strange romantic realism by Joey’s co-narrator and foil, journalist Sheilagh Fielding: “The country is strewn with Come by Chance-like monoliths, the masterpieces of some sculptor who worked on a grand scale and whose medium was rust. Quarries, mines, mills, plants, smelters, airports, shipyards, refineries and factories, to all of which paved roads still lead, though no one travels them anymore.”
The narrative of Company Town plays out under a similar long shadow of failure and the caul of the futposs. Walking the enormous rig, Go Jung-Hwa sees derelict masterpieces similar to the ones that litter Fielding’s Newfoundland: “Underneath all the bird shit and salt scars, the architecture of the docking platform was still grand: huge arches left over from some other investor’s future, all straight and white and minimalist. Now they were dingy grey like most everything else on the rig.” The rig upon which Hwa lives and to which she refers as a “tower of flame and poison floating on a dead ocean,” is just the latest iteration, built on the ruins of the “Old Rig” and the bones and ghosts of those who died when it exploded. The current New Arcadians live literally on and within the failures of the past all the while being reminded constantly that the current enterprise is not exactly booming, as Hwa cannot help but notice when she gets a view of the “rig burg” from a distance: “The rig looked sadder, these days. Only a couple of pumps were still working. Just enough to claim some tax credits. But the signs proclaiming progress on the reactor were brightly lit, even at this hour.” The familiar themes of economic failure driving outmigration are also expressed early in Company Town by one of Hwa’s old classmates: “The oil’s drying up,” he tells her. “Most everybody’s already left. All the other companies, I mean. That’s why they’re selling it. There aren’t any jobs. I want to get off the rig, while I still can.”
Everywhere on New Arcadia are the rusted logos of corporations who have tried and failed to make New Arcadia a going concern, replaced now with the “shiny new Lynch logo” on smokestacks, machines, and on the artificial environments that represent reality to the citizens of New Arcadia. The very identities of individuals are being coopted as well, as Hwa realizes when she goes to work for the Lynch Corporation as bodyguard to teenage heir apparent, Joel. Fitted with the latest ocular equipment, Hwa no longer sees people as people, but rather as extensions of businesses and enterprises, especially at a high-end event hosted by the Lynches: “Partners and investors and developers of interest to the Lynch family had all been invited to see how this whole experiment in urbanism was getting along. When Hwa toggled over to one layer of vision, all she saw were brand identities communing with each other over tiny egg tarts sprinkled with chives.” Reflected in this corporate cooption of identity is the harsh realization that identity and culture may be interchangeable, ephemeral notions contingent entirely on who controls economic strategy and resource extraction.
Ashby’s characters’ sense of self is so bound to the enterprise and the accoutrement of the corporation that maintains their existence, that it is hard to imagine a life outside the rig. When Hwa is forced to accompany Joel on a retreat to Terra Nova Park, her reaction is positively ecophobic: “…being in the woods creeped her out. She couldn’t see anything… [E]verything was alive out here. And not in a good way…. In a ‘things eating you’ kind of way. Every step she took, she felt bugs under her clothes.” Her life as a corporate cog has rendered Hwa dependant on the machine.
But Hwa is not a corporate cog. Truly unique among New Arcadians, Hwa is “completely organic.” Through poverty and through choice, Hwa has purchased none of the augmentations that “mainstream” the bodies of her fellow citizens. Her untreated Sturge-Weber Syndrome leaves her prone to seizures but also makes a “natural dazzle pattern” of her port-wine stained face so she cannot be seen by the rig’s security cameras or the “Mind Your Manners” filters implanted into the eyes of most New Arcadians. This makes her ideal for security positions such as the one she fills for the Lynch Corporation or her earlier job protecting the rig’s prostitutes, as anyone she has been dispatched to rough up “simply didn’t see her coming until it was too late.” Without any corporate algorithms or hardware or implants, Hwa cannot be hacked or manipulated. Moreover, she cannot be read. Her fellow citizens with their altered eyes see Hwa as an absence, a lack. They cannot see her face but they can see “the empty space around her, the lack of outputs and the lack of profile, the lack of connections and lack of status.” This makes her desirable and dangerous—the powers that be do not have her data, they do not have her profile, they do not have her story. Hwa’s unedited body enables her to flip the usual narrative—in her story, untampered nature enters the extracting machine and destroys it, and this destruction is liberation rather than tragedy. For all the grief it gives me, perhaps Ashby’s decontextualized Newfoundland space and speech are just parts of her liberating rendering of an unrecognizable Newfoundland.
For this conflation of Newfoundlanders with their exploitation of their resources is a deeply engrained narrative, as reiterated recently by Edward Riche in an essay republished in the collection Bag of Hammers, in which he places the Smallwoodean mega-hydroelectric project at Muskrat Falls on the Lower Churchill and its promise to tap “untold billions of BTUs…under the Grand Banks” within the Fieldinian narrative of a pessimistic realism tempered by previous Come by Chance-like setbacks: “There is no one alive who knows prosperity in Newfoundland. Forever in decline we learned to do it well.” What Ashby teaches us through Hwa’s victory is that this economy-centric narrative of Newfoundland is only one of many understandings and a resistance to such a story can lead to it being replaced with the more hopeful outlook found in Hwa’s final thought: “It was not the best of all possible worlds. Not by a long shot. But it was hers. And she could make it better.”
Paul Chafe teaches in the Department of English at Ryerson University.