October 25, 2020

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Master of detail Bill Gaston includes too much

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 5/10/2012 (2941 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

EVERY writer has an occasional failure, and Victoria literary writer Bill Gaston's usually impeccable instinct for narrative, and insight into the paradoxes of human behaviour, go awry even as we travel deeper into the eventual dead end of this novel-within-a novel's heart.

The World begins with Stuart, a boomer who burns his mortgage just before his own house burns down.

Though a bit of control freak, he has forgotten to pay his fire insurance. Faced with the loss of everything, he decides to go to Toronto to reconnect with an old flame, Mel, dying from cancer.

His trip, though mainly as flat as the Prairie he drives through, does contain incidents that, if Gaston had been on his game, would have given us some insightful short stories.

Part of the difficulty is in believing Stuart would leave Victoria in the first place, however upset he feels. The second part switches to Mel, who is determined to end her own life, though it means leaving her father, Hal, steadily declining with Alzheimer's.

Stuart and Mel don't convince as a reuniting couple; this section is dominated by their eating Mel's apparently great meals. It doesn't matter, since it is Hal's novel, The World, which he wrote years ago, that fills Part 3, takes over, and ends, the book.

It is essentially a love story between a scholar studying the small island leper colony off Victoria where Chinese immigrants were sent, and his student translator. There is no surprise in it at all.

When we learn that the student has, while pretending to translate ordinary, fragmented documents from the colony, created a romance that parallels in a coded way what has happened between them, all one can do is remark on what an idiot the scholar has been.

The laborious turn in all this is that Stuart reads the novel to Hal as a kind of therapy, while Mel arranges her pre-suicide wake. At least at this point we know why Stuart is there, namely to read while Hal fitfully recalls his time as a Buddhist in Tibet. Couldn't anyone read to Hal?

Gaston fails to connect his characters except as plot devices, which is unfortunate at least, and not what one expects from his work, which includes five previous novels.

He won the inaugural Timothy Findley Prize for his body of work in 2003.

The themes discerned in The World are interesting, and reflect what Gaston has done so well in his short stories.

How does one come to terms with death, spiritual and physical; how does one live simply, in the now, appreciating the joy of the individual, though that may be difficult to perceive. Granted, this comes through, however ungainly, in some of the narrative.

Unfortunately, it isn't what the dominant part of The World, namely, the scholar-student literary section, is about. Why do the characters, Stuart, Mel, and even Hal, matter, if they are the means to an end, namely the machinations of getting us to engage with the novel-within-the novel?

Why not just present it? The big surprise, apparently, that it may be Hal's disguised memoir, isn't, and adds little.

Gaston is a master of small details, and there are enough in The World to keep one interested, but the feeling one gets is that in trying to include too much, even a master can end up with not enough for us to care.

 

Rory Runnells is artistic director of the Manitoba Association of Playwrights and drama editor of Prairie Fire magazine.

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