Bill Gaston, The World

Bill Gaston doesn't have to say it in The World, because most of the people likely to read this ingenious novel will have learned our lesson already from Thomas King: the truth about stories, wrote King in his volume of Massey lectures, is that's all we are.

In The World, Gaston cycles through the linked and interwoven stories of three separate characters, plus two layers of metafictional text, both of which may somehow map, inexplicably, and perhaps metaphorically, onto the life of one of the characters. Reviewers seem to take the view, where they don't love the book, that Gaston has too many moving parts in play here, that add up to too slight an achievement.

Not unlike a Rube Goldberg invention, I guess, but who's going to complain about the genuinely Goldbergian, right? Party poopers.

The first section of The World gives us the tale of the hapless Stuart Price, whose life started going all to hell five years before the novel's timeline. After the self-inflicted catastrophe that kicks off the plot, Stuart decides to visit his old friend Mel, or Melody, who lives in Toronto and who he hasn't seen in 25 years. (As one does.) One thing leads to another, and by the time he makes it to Toronto, well, let's just say that Stuart has hit bottom: the nothing that is, a kind of unwitting and unwilling achievement of Buddhist enlightenment through ignorance and bad luck.

And then we get Mel's story, from the moment that she sees Stuart again. She's suffering terribly, facing death from an illness that has been consuming her for eight years as well as watching her father's rapid disintegration with Alzheimer's, but she finds a complicated relief in the careful construction of her own funeral and wake, particularly the menu. Unlike Stuart, who finds himself dragged toward nothingness, she manages to welcome the approach of her own nothingness.

And then there's Hal, Mel's father, whose dementia means that his story makes little direct sense while we're reading it. Since turning 40, Hal has spent most of his life as a practicing Buddhist, but the uncontrollable effects of Alzheimer's anchor him even more fully to the practices of mindfulness than did his conscious efforts.

Via Dhamma Scribe
All three of these stories, in other words, depict the stripping away of worldly things.

The metafictional layers continue the theme, with the story of a young history professor who hires a beautiful young Chinese woman, as one does, to translate some manuscripts he has received from the D'Arcy Island leper colony. I'm not going to give any of that away, but I confess to really enjoying the slightly wooden, slightly fanciful, painfully recognizable schemings of the academic's rich imaginary life.

But the last couple of pages? Yergh…. I'm just not happy when a densely plotted novel, like Larissa Lai's Salt Fish Girl or Douglas Coupland's Girlfriend in a Coma, wraps up with an overly poetic conclusion. Like those novels, The World ends poetically rather than realistically, and while the Author's Q&A in my book club edition explains some of the rationale behind Gaston's decision, I don't know quite how I feel about it. Presumably I can ask him tomorrow night at book club, but he's the boss of two club members, which might make it a little awkward to gripe much.

Maybe best not to open an author-hosting book club meeting with the old "thumbs up or thumbs down?" group review.


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