By David Gilmour
Extraordinary challenges the reader right away with a cringe-inducing premise. All that happens in the book is this: the narrator goes to his handicapped sister Sally’s apartment to reminisce, get drunk, and then assist her in committing suicide.
It sounds painful. Depressing. Literary, in the worst possible way.
But it’s not.
In the first place, David Gilmour’s voice is a charm. As with all of today’s best conversational prose stylists — think of names like Nicholson Baker, Julian Barnes, or John Banville — you feel like you could read Gilmour’s rendition of an IKEA catalogue. He has the relaxed, informal, intelligent but unpretentious manner down pat, and it fits his narrator — a familiar, semi-autobiographical figure conscious of being a bit of a jerk but unconscious of being an even bigger one — like a sharkskin racing suit. The effect is so smooth that on the very few occasions where you come across a misplaced or inapproriate word (I couldn’t buy “lugubrious” here, or Sally having to remind her brother of her ex-husband’s name) it’s like jamming your toe.
It’s a grace the narrator appreciates in others. “I wanted to keep her talking,” he says near the end of his sister, “she took such palpable pleasure in conversation, she danced such an elegant dance when she spoke, that I thought for a second it might occur to her to stay around and do some more.” But of course the music has to stop for all of us.
And it’s a short song. Another thing Extraordinary has going for it is its lightness. In fact it’s almost a novella, coming in at under 200 pages (framed with very wide borders). You can read it in a single sitting, or about the same time as the narrator’s evening visit takes.
As time runs out, the walls close in. We never leave the apartment, a bubble that the outside world (voices in the hallway, a mysteriously ringing phone) only faintly impinges on. But because the book is so focused, it doesn’t feel rushed or abridged. Brevity — in particular the brevity of life, symbolized here by guttering candles — is what it’s all about. The narrator isn’t trying to re-tell an entire family history, but is condensing that history into a series of final thoughts and reflections that gradually become more compressed as the night advances.
In what spirit will we meet our end? In what state of mind? What will our final thoughts be of? These are universal questions, and if we believe “death concentrates the mind” and that in vino veritas, then this is the sort of evening we would expect to provide some answers. Both Sally and her brother are hitting the Drambuie pretty hard, and what point is there in lying to one another now?
But there are no revelations forthcoming, despite the narrator’s rather crass urge for enlightenment. Instead there’s just the booze, the candles, painful trips to the bathroom, and a pre-Boomer soundtrack that finally ends in absurdity with one of those stupid and unlikely tunes we can’t keep out of our heads.
And through it all there’s a nagging sense that something is going unsaid. Sally and the narrator are only step-siblings, and since Sally is by fifteen years the elder the two don’t seem particularly close. Despite the fact that they have important things to say, they’re not things we feel they need to say to each other. We’re never sure of the exact nature of their relationship, and a lot of the time they seem to be talking to themselves, about people who aren’t there, while trying to make sense of their lives.
There is an irony in the title, as Gilmour is primarily the chronicler of all-too-ordinary, middle-class disappointments. And even given the book’s charm and mystery there’s no denying the sad takeaway: that the End is a time of regrets and for dwelling on the mistakes that we’ve made. Middle age, which brings with it reflections on the damage we’ve caused to others in our lives — damage that we can no longer hope to undo — is some preparation, but not a final accounting.
Such a reckoning is impossible. The narrator envisions drawing a line under Sally’s life and then beginning a process of forgetting, memories fading “like the paint on an old house” until “there’d be nothing left of us or this evening.” But it is now years later, and he’s writing all of this down. Forgetting, and forgiving, isn’t that easy. You can draw a line under a life and try to sum it up, but in families there’s always some figure to be carried over into the next column, and another generation to be accounted for.
Review first published in the Toronto Star, September 11 2013.