By Bill Gaston
The World begins with a wonderful narrative spark, as Stuart Price, boring, methodical, recently retired suburban Everyman, accidentally burns his house down the day he finishes paying off the mortgage. By a series of unfortunate events, his insurance has also just expired.
From this dramatic opening the novel settles down into a series of conventions. In the first place it is a mid-life crisis novel: Stuart is newly divorced, has an alienated daughter, no close attachments, and is wondering what to do with the rest of his life. Now with no roof over his head, he decides to drive his beater of a car from the west coast to Toronto and meet up with an old girlfriend who is dying of cancer. This part of the book is road novel, and it’s an entertaining journey that gets a lot of comic mileage out of sad sack Stuart’s misfortunes along the way.
Arriving in Toronto, the narrative focus shifts to Stuart’s friend Melanie and her father, an Alzheimer patient named Hal. Hal had written a novel years earlier titled The World, which, in turn, was about the composition of a narrative of life in a Charlotte Islands leper colony. Much of the final two sections of the novel consists of Stuart reading The World, so what you have is a book inside a book inside a book (which may or may not be fiction). This is the meta-novel.
There’s no denying Gaston’s gifts as a storyteller, and one of his great strengths – evoking the pleasures of close perceptions and living in the moment – is here made into a theme, with Stuart willing himself to slow down and smell the roses on his journey, Melanie focusing on the small “wonderful moments” still left to her, and Hal inhabiting a perpetual present. When having The World read to him, Hal seems incapable of grasping the larger narrative but sometimes an adjective or noun makes him smile, or something makes him exclaim “Nice.” This is similar to the effect reading Gaston has. Also noteworthy is the structure, which has a tripartite scheme that makes for some interesting parallel interpretations.
That said, the book-within-a-book device never fully engages with the lives of the three main characters, and, to borrow a metaphor from the fire, things run out of fuel pretty much after the first section. Once Stuart has made it to Toronto it’s unclear where Gaston wants the book to go. In the end, The World, novel and meta-novel, turns inside out as it gets absorbed by Hal’s thirty-year-old text. Instead of moving forward we retreat into the past. Unfortunately, the book’s final convention and identity, that of family-historical novel, is also the least compelling of The World‘s incarnations. As accomplished as much of the book is, it’s hard not to feel that at some point this is a novel that lost its way.
Review first published in Quill & Quire, September 2012.