Anti-monument for an Alien Society
From Searching for Petronius Totem. Published by Freehand Books in 2017. Unwin is the author of numerous books, including Life Without Death, which was shortlisted for the 2014 Trillium Book Award. He lives in Toronto.
Even before the fallout from Kamp Kan Lit had cooled, Petronius was deep into his next fiasco. Road Book/book Road, as he called it, had been conceived from the beginning, with my help, as the greatest, most ambitious, and surely the most poorly organized multimedia event in the history of art. It was a project
that encompassed a nation. It was, in his words, “an Anti-monument for an Alien Society,” and it began with Petronius firing off a strategically sent email in an attempt to hire, for no pay, sixteen thousand students or otherwise foolish people:
Wanted: Art Warriors needed to infuse blood into terminally ill patient. Must be willing to compose free-verse in boiling sun while standing on shoulders of the Transcanada Highway, fighting off bears, engaging in drug and sexual practices of choice. Opportunity to live off the land, meet alienated, disenfranchised young people, engage in semi-legal art terrorism, and get tasered by the Mounties. Don’t just read the Book of Life, write the fucker. Guaranteed no pay.
His scheme was to convince sixteen thousand Canadians to take up positions on the Trans-canada Highway at half kilometre intervals from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Tofino, British Columbia. Each of them would be required to hold up a single sign printed with a phrase or sentence from a manuscript titled Road Book/book Road. Theoretically the driver/reader who started out in Water Street, St. John’s, Newfoundland, and proceeded west across the country could read Road Book/book Road, from start to finish, savouring the last sentence on the outskirts of Tofino, British Columbia, after having driven the entire length of the country.
On the surface—“the asphalt level,” Petro called it—road Book/book Road resembled the typical family dynasty novel complete with alcoholism, incest, and the anguished young son forced to become a brain surgeon by a cruel and ambitious father. In the end he escapes this fate with the help of a selfless hardworking mother etc., and manages to shed the demeaning scrubs of a brain surgeon and land a job as head dishwasher in a Thunder Bay burger joint where he writes concrete poetry in his spare time. The story spanned three generations and followed several characters down the road of their lives. The driver/reader could actually turn down a different highway corresponding to his or her interest in a particular character; if you became intrigued by Morty Coehlo, the haunted, cigarillo-smoking, guitar-strumming Buddhist womanizer
from Montreal who gets infected with the HIV virus while engaging in a blood-brother bond with a fourhundred-pound singing hermaphrodite from Branch, Newfoundland, you would take the southbound turnoff at Highway 400 and follow him, sign by sign, into a parking lot of an AIDS hospice off Jarvis Street in downtown Toronto. There beneath the flowering chestnut trees, you would, in theory at least, be presented with a free coffee and a doughnut by an eager volunteer holding up a sign.
Similarly, when Eunice Atwill abandons her five children and her halfwritten novel to start a new life as a sex-trade worker in a Whitehorse massage parlour, the reader/driver could simply hang a right at Winnipeg, head up north on the Alaska Highway, and pull into a strip mall on the outskirts of Whitehorse where, depending on whether the police had shut the place down or not, a forty-dollar sexual encounter could be had on a chiropractor’s table above the pool hall at the corner of Sycamore and Wann.
In a clever touch Petronius had printed text on both sides of each sign. This way the driver heading east from Tofino read the opening sentence on one side of the sign, while the westbound reader read the final sentence on the other. It was conceptually brilliant and it was an organizational disaster of the highest order. By the time it was over thousands of confused young and not-so-young people were wandering about the sides of the Trans-canada Highway; one went missing for seven days and was found near Temiskaming in the summer cottage of a widely shunned ex–national Hockey League player. Another was mauled by a bear while attempting to relieve herself in the bush. Still, of the estimated nine thousand art volunteers who actually showed up at various locations across the country, only eleven were struck by a car or a truck, and only three of those seriously injured. Two others suffered concussion from falling bogus inukshuks.
Beyond these minor complications Road Book/book Road was conceptually as perfect as a book could get. It was a book that didn’t need a publisher or blurbs, or hacks, or flacks, or book clubs, or even Facebook, or Goodreads or Shitty Reads, or any reads at all. The reader was forced to get off the couch and physically move to enter into its pages. It was a book that involved the excited milling of strangers waving placards: people marching along roads and dashing into the forest to have sex. It required shitting and pissing in the woods. It involved getting bitten by blackflies, mayflies, horseflies, deer flies, shadflies, and even dog flies, and it involved the journey of thousands of miles. To read this book meant immersing yourself in a forest of symbols, of broken, passing images glimpsed out of the corner of the eye while travelling at high speed. To fathom this book you had to plunge headfirst into the country and to finish it you had to cross a continent, inhaling the smell of fish and gasoline, pine forest and wolf willow. It was a book whose audience was guaranteed. On the first day seven hundred thousand innocent people read at least a sentence or phrase from Road Book/book Road, making Petronius, in his words, the greatest non-selling author of all time.
Unfortunately Road Book/book Road was unleashed on a weekend that coincided with the worst heat wave to strike North America since the 1936 dustbowl. By seven in the morning it was 112 Fahrenheit in Pierre, South Dakota, and by noon the heat wave had crossed the border and was pushing 110 in Brandon, Manitoba, where the pavement of the Trans-canada began to rise in horizontal air phantoms and drift off into the ether.
Despite that, day one of Road Book/ Book Road was not an unqualified failure. Nearly ten thousand Canadians stepped off buses, arrived on bicycles, or managed to get themselves to thirtytwo different drop-off locations across the country to take part in the largest Fluxus-style art Happening ever.
On arrival at each location they received a bottle of water, a box of condoms, and a sign hand-painted front and back with a phrase from Road Book/book Road. It is true that pages four through nine of Chapter One were inadvertently shipped to Revelstoke, British Columbia, where they jarringly completed an already complex and confusing section of the second-to-last chapter. These impromptu juxtapositions were part of the aesthetic challenge of the project, the lies, said Petro, from which truth is cobbled. So were moments when the sign carrier inadvertently turned around, and projected the wrong sentence at the oncoming traffic.
The first half of the first day was marked by a congenial swelling of young people as they attempted to space themselves across the country. Unsuspecting drivers encountered a bronzecoloured young man with a bandana tied around his forehead, stripped to his boxer shorts and waving a large white placard that read:
…surfacing like beautiful losers from the depths of her two solitudes,
Eunice Atwill inserted the last spike into her alabaster arm and looked forward to what…
Zipping by at 100 kph, the driver had just enough time to puzzle that enigmatic sign, when the next appeared:
…she increasingly thought of as her Klondike Days…0