The Perfect Order of Things

By David Gilmour

The Perfect Order of Things is a book that tries very hard at times to make you hate it. David Gilmour is generally one of this country’s smoothest stylists, but the first chapters here feel clumsy and out of rhythm, frequently sinking into descriptive clichés and odd repetitions (a Ferris wheel, for example, goes “up, up, up” and “around and around and around,” dying thoughts move “further and further and further away,” and the Toronto International Film Festival “sucked and sucked and sucked”). As the narrator re-visits the settings of his life’s lowlights the memories of childhood play like re-heated Salinger, unconvincing and affected. Chapter-length essays on Tolstoy and the Beatles come as disjointed interruptions. A transparently autobiographical work, cheap shots are taken at a number of recognizable figures behind the blind of fiction: the late Brian Linehan has a cameo as Monkey-Man, “a shameless, zipper-licking flunky,” André Alexis takes the grotesque form of René Goblin, a critic who gets slapped down on the streets of Toronto after giving our sensitive hero a bad review, and a certain Globe and Mail Books editor appears as the lecherous Avery Lynch (Martin! Say it isn’t so!). The unfairness of this aside, a tale being told by a professional critic is still at its best when being composed in full bitch mode. When grasping for our sympathy, in particular by playing up his affection for his children, Gilmour can become downright cloying and maudlin.

And yet, this is still a delightful book. In my review of A Perfect Night to Go to China I made the point that even a very good book can be ruined by a single fault. The Perfect Order of Things turns that around and manages to redeem itself by getting one thing right.

That one thing is its understanding of the breakdown of a relationship. On this subject Gilmour (we can drop the pretense of a fictional narrator here) may be taken as an expert, having gone through a series of domestic partners. His funny-because-it’s-true note of stand-up observational humour is nowhere put to better effect than with this bit of morning buzz-kill:

One morning Molly and I were having breakfast in the upstairs bar. I was spooning honeyed yogurt into my mouth with a greedy urgency.
“I don’t mean to be insulting,” Molly said with a strained smile, “but you’re making quite a racket over there.”
That, for those who don’t recognize it, is the sound of a woman who no longer wants you. It reminded me – with the suddenness of someone smashing a hammer on the table – of a scene I had read only days before, where Anna views her husband’s ears (they stick out) with revulsion.

I think the appeal to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina actually detracts from this scene’s impact. For those who do recognize it, the sound here is authentic enough to strike with the force of a hammer all on its own. Molly’s almost sadistic deflationary stab at a simple, unselfconscious pleasure is something worse than mere revulsion at a lover’s physical attributes. To rob Gilmour of the physical delight he is taking in that yogurt with such a put-down! And the precise verb: wants. This is more than the death of love. “Love,” Gilmour writes in an earlier aside, “is a living creature and when it’s dying, like an animal too weak to care who feeds it, the signs are unmistakable.” Yes, but Molly hasn’t just fallen out of love. This is a woman who no longer wants Gilmour. No longer wants him around, or even wants to be noisily reminded of his existence. We will later see Molly “like a photograph in a developing tray – only in reverse” begin to darken, until “it seemed as if the rooms she moved through darkened too.” And yogurt will never taste the same.

One can forgive an author a lot for getting just this much right. And there are other pleasures as well, at least for readers who have experienced middle age. Gilmour is essentially a nostalgia hunter, on the trail of a sadness the rough edges of which have worn off, and that recedes like the music from Gatsby’s summer parties: “something that you can never possess, that always moves away from you no matter how fast or how hard you try to grab it.” Pills are of no avail, and those intimations of mortality are pressing hard upon him as he enters Larkin’s long slide. The preparation for death is a melancholy business. Not only will we never enjoy that yogurt again, but we’ll never experience the Beatles as though for the first time, or read Tolstoy with the same innocent awe. Boats against the current . . . and all that.

Review first published online September 26, 2011.

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