That’s some title Bill Gaston has chosen for his new novel: The World. It’s the sort of title that could turn some readers away, from the sheer heft of it. The weight of the world – surely it’s too large to cram into one little box of writing.
But that’s what Gaston does, with breathtaking results. Oh, is this a book! What stories, what writing, what feeling, what depth, what humour. What layers, digging down to China and back again, driving across the country in a dying Datsun, planning your own funeral feast with dishes like Prawns Afterlife. And behind it all – or rather, surrounding it – a blanket of spirituality that both terrifies and soothes. The World is paradoxical; The World is unique. The World is about … well, it’s about …
Trying to say what it’s “about” simply doesn’t do it justice. Fifty-one-year-old retired shop teacher Stuart loses everything after he accidentally burns down his accidentally uninsured house. He turns to his old friend Melody, known as Mel, a former bonne vivante bass player, who now lives in Toronto and is dying horribly but gamely of throat cancer while looking after her father Hal, who is in the Alzheimer’s ward of a seniors home. Hal is a devout Buddhist and the author of a little-known work of CanLit fiction called The World. The World was the story of two people telling the story of two other people, one of whom was the only woman resident of an island leper colony off the coast of British Columbia, which the inhabitants called The World. All of these souls, and their stories, end up wondrously braided together, at the end of Mel’s life and Hal’s memory, and the beginning of a new world for Stu.
Reading this book is an emotional, spiritual and intellectual experience, so involving and engaging that it almost kidnaps you. The ironies line up in rows, like terra cotta soldiers in an ancient graveyard. But it is not depressing – anything but. Poor oblivious Stuart’s disaster is recounted with affection and without so much as a pinch of melodrama, and the realism is as spot-on as a Ken Danby print. If you’ve never had your house burn down, and been left standing on your lawn in your underpants while a neighbour wraps her pink terry-cloth housecoat around you, you’ll have had that experience after reading about Stuart.
There’s more to it than just Stu and Mel and Hal. There’s the other novel, Hal’s The World, where the only woman in a turn-of-the-century leper colony tells her story. Or, rather, Hal tells her story. Or maybe it’s Hal’s character Michael Bodlean telling it. In all of this, there are wonderful parallel themes and clever allegories: libraries and memory; leper colonies and retirement homes; insurance adjusters and sympathetic-but-useless angels.
The novel is intelligently structured, so that it is a well-guided – even easy – read. The first section features Stu’s almost-panicked road trip to Toronto, driving a dying car across Canada while holding his broken eyeglasses like a monocle. The second section is slower-paced, and at times a wee bit didactic: Here we sit with Hal and Mel, while Stu reads aloud from The World. Here we meet Li, the woman whose letters were found buried on the island leper colony, and are the subject of Hal’s The World. We go out to dinner with them, drinking wine through a feeding tube while being served by Deborah Harry’s granddaughter. In the third section, we see everything from Hal’s fading perspective. We see him mistake a cashew for a household demon and Stu for an acolyte. We see him experience pure glowing joy. We experience it, too.
The craftsmanship is superb. There is not one plot thread left to draggle; not one character is left behind. If it’s possible to cram a world of human existence into a single piece of CanLit, and to do so with grace, understatement, wry humour, respect and love, then Bill Gaston has done just that.
Diane Baker Mason is a Toronto writer, novelist and lawyer.