Daniel Canty’s Les États-Unis du vent

Reading a literary text, as Paul de Man has argued, “leaves a residue of indetermination that has to be, but cannot be, resolved by grammatical means.” There is something that sticks to you, like perfume injected under the skin.

Some texts read as though they were themselves already injected with a kind of subcutaneous perfume. J.K Huysmans’ Against Nature (À Rebours) is one such text. So is Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood. There is something about the language that we slip into as readers, notes Jeanette Winterson in the preface of a recent edition of Nightwood: “Reading it is like drinking wine with a pearl dissolving in the glass.” What Winterson is gesturing to is the intoxicating quality of the language—a feature of the narrative—which is so full of a kind of wild intensity that reading it one also becomes pearl-lined. 

Other texts are subtler in their influence or narcotic effect. This was especially the case in a recent experience I had reading Daniel Canty’s literary odyssey Les États-Unis du vent. Part travelogue and part philo-poetic meditation on the grammars of the wind, the book recalls Canty’s journey across the United States aboard a midnight-blue Ford Ranger called Blue Rider with friend and fellow wind-seeker-artist Patrick Beaulieu. Following the direction of the weathervane’s arrows (the wind’s vain gestures), which had been bolted on the roof of the truck, the book describes the duo’s various itineraries across “the plains of the Midwest up to Chicago, the Windy City, into the wind tunnel linking the Great Lakes, through the cities of lost industry of the Rust Belt, only to veer off into Amish pastoralia, and to the forests of Pennsylvania” (venture to Oana Avasilichioaei’s English translation here).

Despite the obvious prevalence of the figure of the wind—as it boundarizes the Blue Rider’s trajectory, not to mention the fact that it is literally the current pushing the narrative sails forward—the gusts take on a quasi-invisible quality. By default of their ubiquitous incorporation—and to return to the metaphorical register that opened this nano-expose— the gusts are akin to an injection of perfume that remains to be insinuated: “J’ai passé tant de temps à considérer ce qui n’était pas là par la fenêtre de la voiture,” recounts Canty near the close of the book. There’s a romantic quality to the observation. In Les États-Unis du vent, the wind dreams up a hallucinatory trajectory for the passengers aboard the Blue Rider. Canty’s travelogue becomes that transfixed contemplation, a way of tracking the wind’s phantasmagorical landscape: a kind of narco-imaginary (this is a term we will return to on Wednesday in a post by Ramsey Scott).

Written under the influence of the weathervane’s pointer, it is not at all surprising that there is such an expansive and sprawling character to Canty’s prose. It is not that his sentences are long, but it’s the way they move with the compression of a poem. There’s a cumulative aspect to the writing as the narrative picks up—not speed (as it cruises down highways strung across a zone his mind refuses to accept as a barrier), but narrative mileage. The process (and progress) is contagious. Even I find myself swept up in the current, as evidenced by my incorporation of a quote from Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp, taken from a section aptly titled “The Fullness of the Wind”:

Twin highways flung across the evening, when everything seems to indicate that memory and finer feelings are kaput, like the rental car of a tourist who unknowingly ventures into war zones and never returns, at least not by car, a man who speeds down highways strung across a zone that his mind refuses to accept as a barrier [ … ] Then all that’s left is emptiness. “Waiters walking along the beach … The evening light dismantles our sense of the wind … ”

That’s what happens when you start taking dictation from the wind. There’s a viral contamination that occurs. The text of the wind starts to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness. That’s an echo of Bolaño again.

While the wind is the main narrative-altering substance in the Les États-Unis du vent, there are other stimulants as well. When Canty boards the plane from Dorval on route to Philadelphia and then to Cincinnati, the narrative unfurls under the sedative of a few valerian and Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings, a subtle reminder to the reader of the “romantic science” subtending any wind-drawn text. The wind is an art as much as a science, and “DOPA-L est un puissant psychotrope. VALÉRIENE D, une drogue douce … un redoutable soporifique, propre à apaiser ceux qu’accablent l’anxiété et l’insomnie, ces maladies communes de l’être et du sommeil.” Once landed, he joins Patrick Beaulieu and Alexis Pernet (whom Canty is replacing) on “la piste du cheeseburger,” as Alexis—who is returning to France—wants to eat all things bovine.

Patrick et Alexis me confient qu’ils ont passé les dix derniers jours sur la piste du cheeseburger—que je baptise the cheeseburger trail—à goûter aux délicates variations de ce mets typiquement américain, difficile à déguster en Auvergne.


A photograph of “Blue Rider”

That night, they catch up over a glass of bourbon and the lines drawn by the wind on their map and notebooks, as Patrick and Alexis recount their trip from Chicago to Cincinnati. In the morning there is diner-food and coffee: “punch in, drink up, punch out … Americano pour allongé. Cafe latte pour café au lait.” As the French to English coffee-related translation suggests, sometimes hallucinations abound simply by the relief of Daniel and Patrick’s French-Canadian heritage dubbing the American Dream. The French dîner and the American staple that is the diner offer one such example of how the two topographies float above each like a psychosomatic dream. “Where are you from? I am from where I’m going back to.” As references to all things movie-culture-related start to accumulate, cinema too offers yet another instance when the heroes of Les États-Unis du vent are themselves turned into celluloid bodies: “Is [what you’re doing] on the Discovery Channel?” they are asked in Indianapolis. Here, the modality see you at the movies becomes a resolutely fluid and omnipresent conduit for crossing the multitudinous vectors of highways with roadside billboards advertising motels with CABLE TV IN EVERY ROOM. The Blue Rider’s windows opening onto scenes from Batman, Days of Thunder, Back to the Future, American Graffiti, and Rushmore, etc.

Curiously, however, the narrative’s first “injection”—or rather the reader’s “injection” at the threshold of the prefatory notes to the book—is not a gust of wind or even fuel, despite the Blue Rider’s constant need for it. Instead, it is the perfume of the rose: “La rose américaine est une rose est une ville.” Those familiar with “a rose is a rose is a rose” will hear Gertrude Stein in the opening lines, while francophone readers might see the layering of another rose here as well: la rose des vents. The two become tied. They ghost the narrative of infinite possibilities on the one hand, while recalling an imposing calculable scientism on the other. The tension, which is also a reflection on writing, might be read as follows: Stein’s rose suggests a multiply articulated intertext that errs alongside the more deterministic laws of the rose turned weathervane. “Are you scientists?” they are asked. “No … Well, maybe we’re naive scientists,” Canty replies.

Writing about Les États-Unis du vent, I too start to feel the effects of its “naive” or rather romantic science on my thinking. Rereading myself under the effects of morning caffeine, as though the tiny slits of invisible shutters had opened, I hallucinate the review written under the direction of a wandering pen turned ghostly passenger aboard the Blue Rider’s valerian dream and the mercurial time of a rose injected under the skin.

The theme of writing under the influence continues on Wednesday March 9th with an excerpt from Ramsey Scott’s Narco-Imaginary and again on Friday March 11th with Jocelyn Parr, as she transports us on the terrain of shame as pharmakon. Stay tuned!

Geneviève Robichaud is a PhD candidate in the Département de littératures et de langues du monde at the Université de Montréal. Her prose has recently appeared in The Capilano Review, Lemon Hound, The Puritan, and Two Times One from the Jan van Eyck Akademie.

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