By Bill Gaston. Hamish Hamilton, 353 pp, hardcover
The World takes place in this world, where lonely men suffer inexplicable losses, lovely women combust internally with cancer, and the old are genteelly warehoused while they wait for death.
Most readers will recognize this place, both for what it is and as a fit subject for Bill Gaston’s droll insights.
Droll? Consider this: the opening chapter here is titled “That Golden Glow”, and in it Gaston’s shop-teacher protagonist, Stuart Price, incinerates his own just-paid-off home while ceremonially torching his mortgage papers. It’s an accident—and so is the unfortunate fact that his insurance-renewal forms were sent, weeks before, to the school Price has just retired from.
So The World is a comedy of sorts, but Gaston’s humour is both bleak and black. What makes this the Vancouver Island–based author’s best book, however, is that it operates, very successfully, on many different levels.
As Price is inadvertently burning up his house, his long-neglected friend and onetime lover Melody Dobbs is dying in Toronto; aware of the situation but not its gravity, he heads east to comfort her, and himself. Meanwhile, Mel’s dad, novelist turned Buddhist monk Hal Dobbs, has been institutionalized with Alzheimer’s.
Hal thinks he’s still in a Nepalese ashram, his Filipino caregivers the Tibetans he once studied with. But his psychic location could be described as a kind of waking bardo state, intermediate between life and death.
“Apparently there’s all sorts of nasty beings that don’t live here or have physical forms,” Hal says of the afterlife, near the start of his illness. “Good beings, too. What we’d call angels.”
Perhaps these three—father, daughter, and friend—are their own angels. The malignant forces are easier to identify, being those modern-day demons corporate bureaucracy, cancer, and old age. Gaston treats these big issues thoughtfully, and introduces another thematic layer by quoting at length from Hal’s unsuccessful novel, also titled The World, which touches on the 19th-century leper colony on D’Arcy Island, near Victoria.
Add metafiction to the pot: Gaston goes deep here. But he plumbs the nature of existence with such delicacy and compassion that The World’s subtle lessons are inhaled as easily as air.