“The World?” a friend of mine chuckled, noticing my holiday reading. “What kind of title is that?”
As it turns out, quite an apt one which resonates on many levels through this affecting book.
The story revolves around Stuart Price, a lonesome divorcé whose house burns to the ground when, irony of ironies, he barbecues his mortgage papers after finally paying the house off. More than this, he’s sunk his lump-sum pension into it, and he’s forgotten to pay his house insurance. So the book opens with Stuart — retired, divorced, penniless, houseless, and pensionless — watching his world burn.
This almost irreverent beginning is a sign of things to come. Indeed, tragic situations met with bemused acceptance is something like Gaston’s modus operandi in this novel. But his protagonist’s irony isn’t a ragged sarcasm that veers into unfeeling. Rather, it heightens the experience of Stuart’s helplessness, and makes you ache all the more. I closed this book with a decidedly broken heart.
Having nothing but an old Datsun, Stuart takes to the road to visit an old friend, Melody, who he inexplicably wants to see. They haven’t been in touch for decades, and his remembrances of their thrilling camping trips, witty conversations, and elaborate meals are brought forth in great detail as he makes his way from Victoria to Toronto — in the process destroying his car, catching lice, nearly sleeping with a humpbacked woman, and being charged at by a maddened hitchhiker. Not to mention winding up in jail.
This is a wild and tragic road trip, but by page 140 Stuart’s obsession with Melody is somewhat irksome — particularly as it had little explanation.
But then two things happened. First, I realized his obsessing attenuated the dullness of his existence through memory of lively times. On reaching retirement, Stuart is a mousy depressive, and his ironic reservedness is grating (but also very real). Melody is his only link to something like fun, and as a symbol of longing her role is more justified.
Secondly, the book shifted perspective. Arriving in Toronto, we now see Stuart through Melody’s eyes. And given that we know far more than she about how desperate he is to rekindle their tenuous connection, this is interesting. Things are complicated too by the fact that Melody is dying of cancer and is planning on taking drastic measures to deal with it.
Changing the point of view not only breathes fresh air into the narrative but has a cumulative effect. Because Melody is now spending her time with Stuart, whose mind we know intimately from Part I, every interaction has a double meaning — how Melody takes it, and how we imagine Stuart must feel it at the same time.
The third and final part of the book is told from the perspective of Melody’s father, Hal, who suffers from Alzheimers. The snowball effect of dramatic irony is at its height in this poignant, fragmented section, as Stuart and Melody have spent the middle third of the book paying him visits in his care facility and reading to him. Decades prior, he wrote a novel called The World, which he can no longer remember, and they are introducing him to it as if for the first time. (Or is it?)
This brings back the resonance question. For, the title of Gaston’s novel is certainly linked to this fictive novel. The book itself is about a tiny island that was a colony for Cantonese lepers in the 19th century — a place those who lived there referred to as “the world.” This gives a clue to what Gaston is driving at: the circumscribed, individuated experience of life.
Beyond this nested narrative, Gaston’s book is about what the world is from a subjective viewpoint. Everyone abides in his own world, and it can all come crashing down so easily.
In this regard, the novel’s design is ingenious. In section one, Stuart loses his material world: his belongings, his money, his job. Literally everything he owns is destroyed, right down to his car and glasses.
In section two, Melody loses her body, ravaged as it is by a cancer that robs her of sense pleasures — in particular, the ability to swallow food. This is especially heartbreaking for a foodie.
And Gaston to goes to great lengths — too great, perhaps — to cast her as a gourmet. Here is one of the rare cases where he flirted with tedium. There is only so much one can read about ghost peppers, smoked mackerel, fiddlehead portobellos, lemon-stuffed pheasant, kimchi tempura, bison barbecue, Korean sardines, oatmeal stout, and fried goose meat before it feels more like a menu than a novel.
But this may all be meant to heighten the pain when she has to pour tinned slop into a tube piercing her stomach. It’s a heartbreaking and sobering loss.
Finally, Melody’s father, Hal, is losing his mind. He doesn’t recognize his daughter, or Stuart. And he thinks he’s living in a Nepalese monastery where the Filipino caregivers are Tibetan refugees. He is afraid. He’s using all the Buddhist advice he learned in the 14 years he spent in Asia before he got sick — a period of escape that had no small effect on Melody’s life — but everything is falling apart and he is powerless to make sense of it. His world is continually being unmade.
So these three worlds — material things, body, and mind — are all at risk. Watching Gaston’s characters deal with these (mostly unstoppable) challenges is worthwhile and touching. This is a book that bears reading.
Each of the characters irritated me in their own way, I must admit. But I respected them. And by the end, I really liked them all.
More than that, I felt for them. The emotional heft of this book snuck up on me. I wasn’t expecting it — even halfway through, I wasn’t — but I can still feel them in my chest. Stuart, Melody, and Hal. It’s a haunting novel.
Stylistically, The World is well-crafted. Gaston knows how to put a sentence together, understands how to string words so don’t stumble over them. More than this, so that — sometimes — you dance over them.
He’s cool, pliant, and witty. A wry humor pervades every page. The man is a fine writer.
He’s also an organic narrator. His story doesn’t smack of contrivance or melodrama, the way so many do. Reading The World is to go on a strange and natural journey.
It’s a journey that’s understated and bittersweet. But it’s one well worth the trouble. Bill Gaston‘s The World is not a novel to let slip by unremarked.