Disclaimer: I’ve met Bill Gaston in real life and because he’s a super nice person, it likely colours my review. That said, he is an award-winning Canadian writer so I’m not the only one being nice to him. After all that, I don’t feel bad saying that I generally prefer his short stories to his novels and I’ve read several of each. Gaston’s short stories pack a powerful punch and sometimes I find that impact gets lost through the course of his novels.
For the first third of The World (Penguin Books, 2012) I thought the same about this one. We meet Stuart Price, a youngish retiree, who just paid off his mortgage, a few years on from his divorce. The next day, he inadvertently burns down his house. Now, I am not the most organized or safety-conscious person but I do pay my bills on time and I always double-check that a fire is out. So Stuart Price gave me major anxiety. I felt tense reading about him because even though he wasn’t making the worst decisions, he wasn’t making great ones either and things just kept getting worse for him. At one point, Stuart opts to get laser eye surgery – somewhat on a whim – and I was convinced that he was about to be blinded. This is a guy who seems unable to catch a break.
After losing everything, Stuart starts driving west, deciding to visit his friend Mel. While they were close friends once, they haven’t seen each other in years and Stuart has recently found out that Mel is dying of cancer. With no job, family, or house holding him to Victoria, and an insurance claim that’s not going in his favour, Stu gets into his Datsun and heads to Toronto.
Stu is so hapless it’s hard not to feel bad for him but he also comes across as so ineffective that it’s equally hard not to blame him for his own problems. By contrast, Mel is powerful and in charge, even while slowly being defeated by her cancer. When the book switches to Mel’s point of view, just as Stuart shows up at her doorstep, I immediately felt more engaged.
Mel is an enigma – both in Stuart’s life and in the novel. Stuart has powerful memories of camping trips and adventures and wonderful meals. (These are deliciously described. Gaston really excels here and makes you hungry.) Her life after drifting apart from Stuart is vaguely sketched with a couple of failed marriages, some time living in various places across the country, and then a late-in-life reconciliation with her father, Hal.
Hal is also M.H. Dobbs, author of a book called The World (but not the one you’re reading). Hal’s World is about a young professor who buys a box of old letters. Letters dug up on D’Arcy Island.
D’Arcy Island looms large in Victoria lore. Easily spotted off the coast, at the turn of the 20th century, it functioned as a leper colony. More complicated than that though is the fact that all the lepers were Chinese, taken from Victoria’s Chinatown and held on the island against their will. There’s some evidence that suggests some of these men did not even have leprosy when they arrived on the island. They were provided with food and supplies, sporadically, but their lives were grim and difficult. It’s not a shining moment in Canadian history.*
This fictional professor’s efforts to translate these letters and his desire to publish his findings in order to advance his own career raise all kinds of issues of romance, truthfulness, and morality. Stuart begins to read The World as he drives across the country and when he reaches Mel they read it together to Hal, whose mind is steadily being degraded by Alzheimer’s and now lives in a home.
Hal is an interesting character. We learn more about him during Mel’s section. His career as an academic, his relationship with his wife, his twenty plus years spent in Nepal, learning Buddhist practices. We are teased with the idea that in his one novel lies a key to the truth of his life.
The final section of the novel is from Hal’s perspective and this is where Gaston’s skill really shines. Hal’s memory is almost gone and his mind is fading. In short, full paragraphs, Gaston takes us into the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient. There is, of course, confusion, but surprising moments of clarity that Hal cannot express. The section is brief but so well done and gives the novel a terrific ending. (I was reminded of Gaston’s The Good Body, where he used as stream-of-consciousness technique to describe a former athlete’s increasing loss of control over his own body. I think this section in The World is even better.)
I have to say that I normally hate novels within novels and, in general, I wasn’t a big fan of The World within The World. Dobbs’ The World didn’t seem well-written to me and I couldn’t figure the characters out. This is partially because we get only snippets of this book, as the characters choose to read them. But there is one character – Naomi – who is the translator and described as being recently from Mainland China. Yet I didn’t get any sense of that from her voice, even though she’s described as having an accent. There’s none of the formality or tone that marks those who speak English as a foreign language. I wasn’t sure if this was a fault of Gaston’s or was supposed to show us that Dobbs wasn’t a great writer.
In the end though, I greatly enjoyed The World and would count it as my favourite Gaston novel yet. He has a short story collection being released this summer that I also look forward to.
*Chris Yorath wrote an excellent book on D’Arcy Island called A Measure of Value.