There Is No Bentham Street in Calgary: Panoptic Discourses and Thomas King's Medicine River

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 6,986 words

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[(essay date summer 2005) In the following essay, Stratton studies the intertextual references in Medicine River, arguing that although critics dismiss the novel's intertextuality, it actually contains several references to Canadian history and culture.]

Thomas King's first novel, Medicine River (1989), has not received much critical attention. Only a handful of articles have been written on it and the sole book-length study of King's work, the recently published Border Crossings: Thomas King's Cultural Inversions by Arnold E. Davidson, Priscilla L. Walton, and Jennifer Andrews, devotes less than ten pages to it. This critical neglect can, perhaps, be explained by the general view of Medicine River as the most accessible of King's novels and, in particular, as lacking the range and density of cultural and historical reference in his second novel, Green Grass, Running Water (1993). As Darrell Jesse Peters puts it, the "strength of [Medicine River] lies in its deconstruction of popular stereotypes concerning Native people" (67). With one exception, an article by Stuart Christie that focuses on the historical correspondences in the novel, the standard critical assessment is that Medicine River is restricted in its intertextual manoeuvres to subverting conventional stereotypes of First Nations peoples. It is a view explicitly taken up by Percy Walton (78-9) and implicit in Border Crossings, where discussion is largely confined to King's comic inversion of cultural stereotypes.1 In his generic categorization of Medicine River as comic realism, Herb Wyile takes this critical evaluation one step further. Seeing Medicine River as retaining "the sense of a consistent, contained, empirical reality" that is disrupted by King's later fiction, Wyile situates it outside the framework of intertextual allusion altogether (112). Disregarding its gender specification, the reprimand delivered by Harlen Bigbear, the trickster figure in Medicine River to the members of the basketball team he coaches, after the team loses a tournament, is equally well-deserved by the critics of the novel: "You boys don't try hard enough" (15).

Medicine River is less conspicuous and more subtle in its intertextual referencing than Green Grass, Running Water. It also shows a decided preference for Canadian over American content in its cultural and historical references, an intertextual bias, as it were, which may help to explain the critical neglect of the novel: American critics don't get the references. What excuse can be offered for Canadian critics? The question may be more effectively addressed later in the essay, after some demonstration of the elaborate intertextuality of Medicine River and an assessment of the strategic value of its intertextual operations. What better place to start than with an intertextual reference in which King provides a metafictional hint on how to read Medicine River.

"James and me grew up in an apartment on Bentham Street in Calgary" (44). There is not now, nor was there ever as far as I can discover, a Bentham Street in Calgary.2 Neither a realistic nor an incidental detail, "Bentham" can most fruitfully be read as a reference to the eighteenth-century Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100093092