A PERFECT NIGHT TO GO TO CHINA
By David Gilmour
David Gilmour is such a good writer – one of Canada’s best, in my opinion – his books are always a bit disappointing. Right away his voice hooks you: intelligent, observant, fluid, wry, it gives the narrative a conversational grace and sense of individual identity that very few writers, and only those at the top of their game, can manage. There’s a maturity and simple professionalism to it that you have to admire. Its literary qualities are casual, not pretentious (though a small alarm might go off at the way the main character’s wife here is only given an initial and not a name). You notice imagery in passing as you’re borne along by the rhythm:
I took a taxi up to the family cemetery. It was closed up but I hopped over the spiked iron fence. I’d never been there before at night. Snow lay in melting drabs over the gravestones; you could hear water running there too. A light burning in the stone cottage at the edge of the property. I followed a slow, scythe-shaped path into the heart of the graveyard. It was a damp night, clouds hurrying by the moon like angry aunts. Stone monuments rising on my left, little headstones, a large cross; I went on another hundred yards and there it was, the family plot, the names of dead uncles and my poor sister and my father and mother, all etched in the black marble. My mother, dead twenty years now. Dead longer in my life than she had been alive in it. Yet how immediate she seemed, so vivid.
Now this is voice. You can hear someone talking in the repetition of “up” in the first two sentences (withholding it from its obvious descriptive role in climbing over the fence), the afterthought about hearing water running (sound follows the first, visual impression). Then the hard image of the light burning in the darkness. The path that is “slow” because that is how it is experienced. I’m not sure about the clouds hurrying like angry aunts. They might have been better left to pair with the names of the dead uncles in the family plot. Then the familiar landmarks being checked off until the payoff: “there it was”. And again with a style that mimics the forms of speech, not polished prose. The mother “dead twenty years now”, and the really wonderful “dead longer in my life than she had been alive in it” (a wonderfully oral formula). There’s nothing flashy about any of this, but it works. At times the chatty informality can become self-conscious and formulaic (“I got into work early that Friday, an attempt, I suppose, at professional engagement. Can’t stay away and so on. A job I’d do for free, that kind of thing.”), but there’s no denying the overall excellence of Gilmour’s writing.
The narrator of this small but eventful book is Roman, host of a television arts program broadcast out of Toronto. (Since Gilmour has already suffered quite a bit from lazy critical identifications made between his characters and his own well-known media image, I’ll let this one pass.) Roman leaves his house one night to listen to some live jazz at a bar down the street. When he comes back his son Simon is missing. This leads to agonized introspection, breakdowns (marital and professional), offers of easy consolatory sex (denied!), cultured angst and criminality (when robbing a bank Roman draws a line through the word “fucking” in a note that reads “GIVE ME ALL YOUR FUCKING MONEY”), lots of casual drug use, and a final crisis. This crisis, which has Roman flying off to Grenadier, is swiftly dealt with and left rather vague. It may be deliberately ambiguous, the result of Roman’s shattered frame of mind or a druggy haze, but I found it weak. And this is odd, since it’s clear that Gilmour put a lot of thought into how he was going to wind things up. I suspect he was having trouble deciding what it was the book was all about in the first place, but that’s just a hunch.
But, at least for me, this wasn’t the real problem. And make no mistake, A Perfect Night to Go to China has a real problem. It is a wrecked book. And that requires a bit more explanation.
What is a wrecked book? A wrecked book, and this is always a subjective judgment, is one with a hole below the waterline, a flaw so fatal that no matter how good the rest of it is there’s simply no redeeming it. You can’t even enjoy the good parts because it is always there: outrageous, intolerable, an offense to the reading experience. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Maybe it’s just the way a certain character talks, or a lapse in style. But it is simply, inarguably, wrong. And it wrecks the book.
In A Perfect Night to Go to China the flaw is not minor. It is essential. Here it is:
After Simon goes missing Roman begins to dream of him. He has a series of dreams all set in a magical Caribbean town which is, apparently, a vision of the afterlife. His dead mother is there as well. He talks to the dead. He carries on involved conversations about the difference between here and there. He gets to hold Simon, smell him. And he keeps going back to the Caribbean town. His dreams are continuous, inherently logical, fully coherent, emotionally and psychologically apt, and fit in perfectly with the rest of the narrative. No nightmares of little Simon being torn apart by wild dingoes or turning into a toaster oven. No flying along at tree level or other suspensions of the laws of physics. No jabbering away in tongues. In fact, Roman’s dreams are just like . . . another part of the book.
What was Gilmour thinking? These are not dreams. No one has ever had dreams like this. No one. This is one of those bad fiction dreams where as soon as a character falls asleep you groan and say, “OK, now the author can introduce into the plot some element that he can’t find any other way to express in a more credible manner.” Except that these dreams keep going. If you knew someone in Roman’s situation and they told you about dreams like these you would be polite and listen to them, but in the back of your head you would know they were making it all up just to make themselves feel good. For a novelist to expect us to believe that his narrator actually did have dreams like this is just plain dishonest. It’s not just that the author is offending against canons of psychological realism, it’s that he’s being phony.
And so the dreams wrecked the book. Perhaps I just didn’t get what Gilmour was doing. Maybe Roman really was being offered visions of the afterlife. But I’m not sure that would make it any better. There’s enough sentimentality here as it is, and if I had wanted to read The Lovely Bones . . .
David Gilmour is such a good writer, he makes me mad.
Review first published online August 1, 2005.