A fourth wall break is what happens when a character in a film or TV show turns to face the camera and speaks directly to the audience, often while the rest of the cast either pauses for the monologue, or carries on with the action without noticing. Netflix’s House of Cards is probably the most famous show to do this recently.
In novel form, the closest version of the fourth wall break is when the author stops the action and explains something to the reader directly. Think of the Narnia novels where C.S. Lewis pauses the action to tell the reader something, often details and themes that are not known by the characters.
Whether in novel or film format, this kind of process is fine as long as you take the time to make things work. C.S. Lewis had an engaging author’s voice, such that I didn’t mind being pulled out of the action for a few minutes. (At least, when I was a child. These days I find him a bit stuffy patronizing.) In the Netflix series House of Cards….
….Okay I know that the latest season of House of Cards killed off Kevin Spacey’s character and now Robin Wright is handling the fourth wall breaks, but it’s really hard to get past the fact that the man was so central to that show, and he’s now a figure that seriously creeps me out so…
…Ah fuck it…
So in the movie Wayne’s World, the constant fourth wall break works so well because the central premise of the story is that of a young man trying to express himself, make a life on his own terms, and build a community in an era before universal internet access. He is a guy who’s made a show out of his life and is trying to reach a wider and wider audience. Therefore it makes sense that he’s going to engage with every camera that presents itself.
In Uprising, Douglas Bland has opted for more of a third-person omniscient perspective. Most of the action is told from the point of view of key characters with occasional segues into the big picture, however these departures remain within the realm of the character’s experience. We get this in the opening chapter when Bland steps back from Alex Gabriel’s raid to tell us a bit about the man’s life. Characters muse over events – both past and current – and through these musings the world building and themes of the novel (such as they are) can be presented.
Except for now. In this chapter we’re going to see the first of several full-on fourth wall breaks where Bland himself interrupts the action to talk about the characters he’s created.
The chapter starts off in the same style as previous ones:
The defence minister’s chief of staff, Ray Wallis, knocked and entered the minister’s office, interrupting Jim Riley’s private meeting with he CDS. “Minister, the prime minister has asked for you and General Bishop to meet with him immediately. Seems the PMO is finally concerned about the situation.” He hesitated, glanced at the CDS, then to the minister. “In fact, the PMO is in a total panic with a bunch of political staffers making war plans and drawing up press statements at random. Everyone’s in charge as usual. Plus the Quebec premier has been on the phone to Eddy Geldt most of the morning demanding action against the Indians. Oh, and the media is circling in, hoping for a scandal, I suppose.
Riley looked at the general. “Andy, I think you better come along and bring whomever you need to brief the prime minister. I mean really brief him. It’s time for us to head off these politicos before they get us into real trouble.”
Bishop winced. What the hell, he asked himself, did Riley think they were in now?
Initially it’s a bit hard to pin down, but we eventually figure out that this scene is being described from Bishop’s perspective. There are two people in this scene, Bishop and Riley, and it is only with the last two sentences that we figure out Bishop is the character we’re following.
What the hell…did Riley think they were in now? Well that’s easy enough. The elected leader of your nation has called you to his office. You’re going to respond as promptly as possible, and give him your very best support in this hour of crisis…
…oh wait…that was a rhetorical question, wasn’t it?
Just so you understand, all the quotes in this post are sequential, with no edits or omissions between them. I am literally reproducing pages 153-155 in their entirety for this post. Our protagonist characters arrive at the PMO and things are still happening from Bishop’s PoV:
Jim Riley, General Bishop, Vice Admiral Marie Roy, and Colonel Ian Dobson arrived at the Langevin Block to find a disorganized meeting underway with Eddie Geldt, Hemp’s principal secretary, Harry Southern, and the clerk of the Privy Council, Eileen Doyle, all wrestling to chair a quarrel of bureaucrats and PMO staffers. As Riley and his party stood inside the door waiting for someone to acknowledge them, RCMP Commissioner Jean Richard arrived with three senior Mounties, followed immediately by the head of CSIS, Heidi Gunter, and her deputy. The professionals surveyed the amateurs with dismay.
Harry Swain hadn’t written his memoire about the Oka Crisis back when Uprising was being written. That doesn’t mean Bland couldn’t have learned the story of how governments respond to a crisis like this in real life. Very little of what Swain described in his book was classified or otherwise unknown. The main value of the work was not in some grand revelation but the fact that Swain was present for many of the major events and has some fascinating insights.
Just to recap, during the Oka Crisis the first series of meetings and conferences was with members of DIAND (the Indigenous Affairs ministry), Public Safety, and various legal experts advising then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The military was largely in the background, although the CDS would eventually have a prominent seat at the table as well.
In Uprising’s scenario, I’d expect the CDS would have been called in a lot earlier given that the initial NPA raids were aimed at military bases. I’d also expect General Bishop to spend the first few days on the hot seat given the ease with which the security at multiple Bases was breached and tons of weapons were stolen. I mean, it’s not his job to handle the minutiae of base security, but he ultimately answers for the entire CF and when a gang of radicals steal anti-aircraft missiles he’s going to have a lot of answering to do.
Now Gen Bishop and his entourage are professionals, yes. So are the politicians and bureaucrats. They may be experts non-military fields, but that doesn’t make them a pack of jabbering fools. It’s also ringing pretty hollow that they would all be shouting at once, with nobody taking control.
It may be emotionally satisfying to imagine civilians panicking in a crisis, but it’s not something that bears out in real life. You don’t rise to the level of the PMO without having an ego so it’s only natural that you’re going to want to dominate the conversation. However the Canadian Parliamentary system is set up so that no one individual can run it all single handedly. They will have to depend on their Cabinet and a whole host of public servants. This is why Prime Ministers (especially the ones who get elected twice) tend to be good organizers. The type of people who can ride heard on a roomful of professional egos and get them working towards a common goal without causing bitterness or resentment.
As the Chief of Staff, Eddie Geldt should be a master of this. These bureaucrats and politicians who are nameless to Gen Bishop? Eddie should know their names. After four years he’s probably worked with all of them directly in some way shape or form, and he should have a solid grasp on the levers needed to get them all on side.
I’m not sure exactly how this kind of relationship would work in the PMO, but in the military, Jack Hemp would be the Officer, and Eddie Geldt would be the NCO. The Officer stays calm and provides direction, the NCO gets mad (as necessary) and is ready to crack the whip to keep every one in line. Would there be outbursts? Absolutely. But they wouldn’t last long and if the individual couldn’t control themselves, they’d be ejected from the meeting pretty damned quickly.
Bland never gives us any kind of list of who’s attending this meeting. Personally I would expect the Ministers for Indigenous Affairs, Public Safety, Energy and Transport just for starters, along with senior deputies from their respective ministries to provide expert advice. Given the fact that the threat so far seems to be originating from the Mohawks and centred on Quebec, I would also expect a couple of the more prominent Quebec MPs as well, maybe someone who has a working relationship with the Quebec Premier (whom we’ll soon learn is working hard to aggravate the situation for no good reason at all).
Also, while the raids themselves should be terrifying in their implications (I would expect the stolen anti-aircraft missiles to get mentioned a lot more than they do) this shouldn’t be entirely unexpected. We’re at the tail end of the ‘summer of rage’ where increasingly angry First Nations protests finally culminated in the Railway Massacre. By now there should already be some kind of standing committee for dealing with the First Nations crisis.
What I’m saying is, there should be alarm, not the panic described here.
So this chapter started from Gen Bishop’s point of view, and I think the intent was to continue in that manner throughout. The problem is that Bland is not a fiction writer, and this next section will confirm it. The whole idea behind fiction is to place your reader in someone else’s shoes and make them believe it. Good or bad, familiar or not, you want your reader to see this character on the page and think ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’
Bland, on the other hand, is essentially an essayist who’s world view is coloured by a very nasty ideology and some serious racism. People like him have existed before, and some have even managed to become good fiction writers (H.P. Lovecraft, I’m looking at you). The problem is that Bland can’t seem to let his politics go, even to present a coherent story. He needs to argue as though this were an essay despite the fact that, in a fictional world he can literally have the story prove him right.
Also, he seems to hate Jack Hemp, even though he created him. He can’t seem to let go of that hatred. Not even to present him as a convincing villain.
So, a hundred and fifty pages into Uprising, we get a fourth wall break. The scene starts out being told from Gen Bishop’s PoV, but will promptly shift to an omniscient one that’s anchored to no specific character even though it’s laced with person opinions and judgements.
I’m willing to be corrected here, but I’m pretty sure this Douglas Bland himself talking. Watch what happens when Prime Minister Jack Hemp arrives:
Finally the prime minister walked in, tired and on edge.
Jack Hemp had been leader of the new Progressive Party of Canada, the PPC, since its founding convention. He had won the top PPC job by ruthlessly running over his rivals in a no-holds-barred campaign of smears and misinformation, and with a Bay Street-manufactured “business-friendly” image. Hemp then won the federal election by promising to spend every loonie he could find on things that would make voters’ lives pleasant and risk-free. The press and his political rivals had ridiculed the strategy as outdated, but Hemp proved that he knew the Canadian electorate better than anyone else.
It’s going to get even more blatant from here.
***Okay so my earlier theory that Jack Hemp (based on Bill Whitefish’s flashback) was the Minister of Indigenous Affairs four years ago, and only just ascended to Prime Minister in the last (recent) election. Nope, he was the boss from the start, and given that he was in power four years ago, there’s a very good chance that he has won a second term as Prime Minister. In my defence, I blame poor world building.***
Okay, so let’s break this down.
According to Bland (not Bishop), this is the new Canadian left. Since there’s no mention of defeating the Liberals and NDP, it’s safe to say that this was a ‘unite the left’ type of situation where, in the early 2000s, the left-wing parties of Canada decided to unite in order to present a united front against the conservative right.
This is actually at least plausible for an alternate timeline in Canada. In the late 1990s our political scene saw the right wing of the political spectrum getting split between the Progressive Conservative Party (a pan-Canadian centre-right party, mainly English but with some strong roots in Quebec) and the new Reform Party (a more right-wing party centred mainly in the English-speaking West). These two parties eventually united in the Alliance Party, which later became the Conservative Party of Canada.
So the idea of a united left party isn’t so far out there as all that. The Liberal Party is more centre-left pro-business while the NDP is further left, pro-union & activist, but their differences aren’t that much more pronounced than the Reformers and Conservatives. So yeah, the PPC is at least plausible.
That’s about where the plausibility of this passage comes to an end. While a united left party could indeed prove to be a power-house in Canadian politics, the rest of the paragraph only makes sense in the context of a recently elected party, not one that has been in power for at least four years.
A business-friendly image is only going to hold until the businesses in question start seeing their interests get ignored. In Canada, there is no such thing as an anti-big-business party. Just parties who favour one group of businesses over another. As I write this, our current Liberal government is dealing with a major scandal centred around alleged favouritism towards a Quebec-based engineering firm (the SNC Lavalin scandal). In Alberta, the left-wing NDP Premier Rachel Notley has still had to come out fighting on behalf of her Province’s struggling oil and gas industry.
As for making wild promises about spending every penny to make voters lives easier…well…before November 2016 I would have said that was a simple-minded caricature. Today, I’ll admit I was wrong. You can get elected by making wild promises (along with a good dose of hatred and demonization), but if your numbers don’t add up you’re going to have a hard time maintaining that momentum. ‘Tax-and-spend liberals’ is a popular Canadian stereotype, but people (even liberals) tend to notice if the country isn’t humming along.
On the other hand, Hemp knew nothing about national defence and security issues and made no effort to understand them. His speeches were full of joyful noise about “Canada making a difference in the world,” to which he added the slogan, “We will stand on our own feet, because the world needs more Canada,” something that voters loved so much. He always got an especially loud cheer from the crowds and the media when he puffed himself up and declared, “Let me simply say this. There is no more important matter than defending our wonderful nation and taking our example of peace, order, and good government to less fortunate people around the world.
The stuff about defending our nation was, of course, empty rhetoric even by his standards; for Jack Hemp, every evil in the world was a social problem to be fixed by reasonableness, dialogue, and handouts. And his advice to the United States was a patronizing, “When you’re the big guy on the block, it’s the time to be nice. Give in once in a while, lose a few for the good of the world.”
As much as this grates on my last fucking nerves, I am going to cut Bland a bit of slack here. In the CAF, the 1990s has informally come to be called ‘the Decade of Darkness,’ where budget cutbacks and the disbandment of the Airborne Regiment after the Somalia Affair left the military feeling like the punching bag of Canadian popular opinion, even as operational deployments sky-rocketed. There was a real sense of alienation from the Canadian public, as soldiers found themselves over committed to mission after mission even as people seemed to take them for granted.
I joined up as this period was drawing to a close (the official ‘welcome to the Regiment’ parade where me and my fellow recruits officially joined my Regiment was literally on Sept 12, 2001). I knew a lot guys who’d lived through the decade, including many veterans. The hurt and the bitterness was real, and for some people it persists to this day. So to be perfectly fair to Douglas Bland, there were a lot of soldiers back in those days who had no love for the Liberal Party over the way the CAF was treated during the 1990s.
And there’s still some around today.
So in this passage, Bland is expressing something that was and continues to be real in the CAF. The problem with this passage is twofold: One is that it is no longer the 1990s. Even in the novel. The Conservative Party was in power when the Novel was written, and the Liberal Party that followed it (more than five years after publication) is not the Liberal Party that brought about the Decade of Darkness. Hell, the current Liberal Defence Minister is a Afghan Veteran.
The second problem is the assumption that only Liberals (or generic left wing parties that look like Liberals) are both capable and deserving of such contempt. They’re not. I’m old enough to remember the anger that was directed towards the government of Brian Mulroney (1984-93: also they were the ones to launch the UN missions in the Balkans and Somalia). More recently, I can remember that during our last election, one of the groups vociferously opposed to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives was ABC (Anyone But Conservatives): A veterans group angered by the Harper government’s changes to Veterans’ compensation.
It really sounds here like Bland is projecting a mid-1990s Liberal government twenty years into the future, without having noticed the changes that took place during the intervening decades.
Canadian voters loved this stuff, it made them feel special. And Hemp’s philosophy for political success was simple. “Pat a Canadian on the back,” he lectured his staff, “and he will follow you anywhere.” So Jack Hemp patted every back he could reach in his campaign to get to the government benches in Ottawa. His platform was carefully tailored to appeal to political cronies, special interests in the cities, women and minorities, and especially to the loudest of the multicultural communities, which also happened to be the ones best organized to turn out the vote on election day. His outreach program for aboriginal Canadians amounted to trading votes for promises of more money and less accountability. Hemp thought he was using all these special interests. The Movement saw the matter in a very different light. Blinded by cynicism, Hemp couldn’t see what Molly Grace saw plainly. She knew that Jack Hemp’s shallow promises would one day devour Hemp’s career.
This…this is where my limited sympathy for Bland’s perspective comes to a screeching halt. This is straight out white supremacy, or, in Canadian terms, Anglo-white supremacy. When he’s talking about minorities and multicultural communities he’s not talking about Irish, Jews, Italians, Poles and Methodists. When he says special interests, he doesn’t mean English-speaking ‘white’ people in wheelchairs, or plain spoken business women in subdued pantsuits with Thatcher-like hair and pearls. He’s talking about brown people, and French people.
First of all: Women aren’t a minority. If your policies are catering to women (more importantly, if the other party is not) then you’re not raising a minority up above their station, you’re acknowledging half the human population.
Second, from a purely numerical perspective: If Jack Hemp managed to assemble a winning coalition out of special interests and minorities, then by definition he assembled a majority. If there were enough dark-skinned peopled to swing the vote his way in enough ridings to win him the House of Commons, then that was a majority.
These days, you’ll hear people getting mad about how ‘We always have to bow to Quebec.’ Well, Quebec is about 1/4 of Canada’s entire population, and if you factor in non-Québecois French speakers (like Haitians and Algerians), that number gets closer to 30%. So yeah, language issues and Quebec issues are going to have a pretty disproportionate influence on Canadian politics, even though a huge swath of the physical country is most definitely not Québec.
People whine about how ‘Toronto elites get to decide everything for us!’ Well, the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) is about 8-10% of the total Canadian population, and has historically been a mecca for ‘alien populations’ for over a century. When one city actually has a population bigger than some Provinces (like, say, freaking Manitoba), it’s no surprise that their concerns might tip the scales on a national level.
Speaking as a person who was considered a minority and is now promoted to ‘white,’ people like this need to shut the fuck up and learn the history. And math.
The last four sentences are what make this passage especially ugly. For all of Jack Hemp’s promises, Molly Grace doesn’t worry. She doesn’t see him as a potential threat; someone who could undermine her radical ideology by reaching out to the First Nations communities and trying to negotiate in good faith. She’s not worried that the PPCs could offer disaffected native youth a counter-narrative to hers. She knows that he doesn’t mean a thing he says, but that’s okay because all of the other Indigenous people realize this as well. More importantly, they’re all perfectly happy to not only disregard Jack Hemp’s promises, but to pretend to support him so they can betray him later.
That’s the real subtext of this passage. Those people…those people aren’t like us: The real Canadians. They’ll stand there with their hands out, but if you give them anything they’ll stab you in the back anyway.
***Featured Image (clockwise from top left) Deadpool (2016 20th Century Fox), Fight Club (1999 20th Century Fox), House of Cards (2013 Netflix), Psycho (1960 Paramount Pictures). Wayne’s World (1992 Paramount Pictures).***
 Wayne lives in a kind of state of begnin arrested development, with little to no purpose in life and an adolescent fascination with erections (schwing!). He is essentially an overgrown child, which should make him unlikable and immature. However, in the world that the film creates (literally Wayne’s World) the responsible adults are selfish, insincere and manipulative. In contrast to them, Wayne has an innocence and honesty that makes him a hero in the end. This is how you make a likeable character out of someone who should, by all rights, suck.
 Also, Bishop’s chief of staff just said that the general’s presence was requested, then Riley turns around and suggests that Bishop accompanies him? Editing! It’s your friend!
 Remember, Alex Gabriel may have been man-packing his loot out of Petawawa, but the Warriors who hit Halifax had a pair of trucks. They also killed Fred McTavish. Never forget.
 In fact, the presence of the VCDS at this meeting should have him worried that he’s about to be fired.
 Our longest-serving PM, William Lyon McKenzie-King was a master at managing egos and getting the most out of professionals. On one occasion, during the height of the Depression, a Cabinet Minister tried to resign in protest, only to have his letter ignored. A week later, as this same Minister was winding up to lead a challenge to McKenzie-King’s leadership, the PM produced the letter, declared that he had accepted the man’s resignation, then ordered him out.
 At the time Uprising was written, elections in Canada happened every five years, when the ruling party decided to have one, or if the ruling party lost a confidence vote in the House of Commons. Whichever came first. The fact that Jack Hemp isn’t fretting over an upcoming vote suggests he’s won at least one follow-on election, with a solid enough majority that he won’t face another election for several years.
 We’ve already talked about one of the more famous examples of this neglect, the Battle of Medak Pocket, where a desperate and heroic effort to defend Serbian civilians in the face of a Croat assault went unacknowledged for years after the fact. This stuff was real, and a lot of good people got hurt or neglected because of it.
 This is likely an editing mistake, with women being included in between ‘special interests’ and ‘minorities’ as though they too were a minority group. I’m raising this point because there is a tendency to treat women’s issues as statistically irrelevant, an afterthought in ‘real world’ politics.
 Including people like Jews and Italians who are now considered ‘white.’ Also, while I don’t know about Bland, a lot of white supremacists consider Jews to be non-white and non-Canadian, meaning that authors like Mordecai Richler and musicians like Leonard Cohen are…foreigners? Fucked if I know…