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.

Geist - - Findings - PETER UN­WIN

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

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