Aside from its unfortunate title – echoes of cheap spirituality combined with the adolescent vagueness of "things" – David Gilmour's new novel is a masterpiece of irony, subversive humour and astonishing self-mockery. In short, it is a delicious read, buoyant and yet serious, a fictional disambiguation that is nevertheless completely intriguing.
The premise of The Perfect Order of Things rests on its narrator, a composite version of the narrators of all of Gilmour's earlier books, deciding to return to places where he has suffered, but "this time with my eyes open," "in the spirit of settling a personal debt." He hopes to balance old scores, revisit recurrent miseries and relearn early lessons.
The 10 pilgrimages that make up the chapters of this novel perform an autopsy on prior moments in Gilmour's writer's consciousness; together they become a "fictional autobiography." The narrators of his previous novels are here revised to give them a new lease on life, to enable them to evaluate their bad and good decisions. They collapse into one narrator who performs a critical recalibration of his experience, and who learns from that appraisal. In the process, he is transformed, from a man who likes to watch his own reflection into a man who reflects on his failings and his losses.
The journey at the heart of The Perfect Order of Things is that of a writer visiting his triumphs and disappointments. Primary are love affairs, obsessions, unfaithfulness and a rampant sexual objectification of women. Booze and drugs assist. He returns to the smells and sounds of summer, replete with adolescent horniness and hope. He returns to the house where his father shot himself, coming to terms with that haunting event.
Depicted in vivid detail are the contours of Toronto, the streets, the bars, the insider stories of almost-recognizable personages. The chapter on the narrator's experiences at the Toronto International Film Festival, titled "You don't know me, Mr. De Niro, but …" is hilarious, an incisive analysis that does not hesitate to skewer the narrator's belief in his own unrecognized genius.
Most of all this is a courageous novel, a fiction confessing to its writer's pretensions and ambitions. The narrator's willingness to show the extent to which he yearns for recognition even while he believes himself an imposter is astonishingly close to the bone. He reveals his "almost insatiable vanity," confesses to jealousy, insecurity and meanness, mourns the "recreational cruelty" of nasty reviews. This is a portrait of a character with a huge ego. Yet that untamable ego is also lovable, which makes the book transcend self-absorption.
Those who know David Gilmour – I hasten to say that I do not – will doubtless look for autobiographical traces in The Perfect Order of Things. They are surely present, for memoir curls under this fiction with assiduous intent. The references to Gilmour's wonderful non-fiction book The Film Club argue for verisimilitude, along with his depiction of being an arts journalist for CBC. His award-winning essay My Life with Tolstoy, about how a writer reads that Russian master, is included. The chapter on interviewing George Harrison, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles!, is as true to life and melancholy as its memories.
But the blurred line between autobiography and fiction is not important. What matters here is a writer's longing, insouciance, regret and reconciliation with what he has written and how he has lived that writing.
The Perfect Order of Things stands on its own, but it is also a novel that invites rereadings of Gilmour's earlier novels, such Lost Between Houses (1999), Sparrow Nights (2001) and A Perfect Night to Go to China, which won the 2005 Governor-General's Award. While this echo might seem designed to sell a backlist, it becomes instead a meditation on sources of inspiration, embarrassment and wisdom. Few writers perform such an unflinching appraisal of their work, and few writers will risk making themselves so vulnerable.
The Perfect Order of Things is a beguiling book when it might have been a narcissistic mess. The reason for its success is no mystery: Gilmour handles his material with style and finesse, with a delicious sense of irony and with a creative jouissance. Here is a novel that gleams with intelligence, humour and wickedly precise observation.
Read it, and wince.
Aritha van Herk does not practise recreational cruelty when it comes to writing reviews. She lives and writes in Calgary.