by Bill Gaston
With his latest novel, The World, Bill Gaston has proved once again to be a writer with two great strengths: compassion and technical virtuosity.
The World lives up to its grandiose title, even though it refers to a very small world—an island near Victoria, BC, where lepers were segregated in the nineteenth century. They were left there to suffer and die, without help other than a weekly boat delivery of the most rudimentary necessities, including opium.
The main story isn’t about that island, though—it is Stuart Price’s story, set in present-day Victoria. Stuart is a typical Gaston character in that he’s basically a good guy (though slightly wonky) fallen on hard times. His wife left him for a Buddhist group five years earlier and he is estranged from his daughter Jennifer. But the hard times covered in this book begin with a fire that destroys Stuart’s house. Ironically, the fire began when he burned his mortgage documents to celebrate making his final payment on the house with his lump-sum pension. Now, at fifty-one, having taken early retirement, he is homeless, jobless, and down to a couple thousand dollars in savings. What about house insurance? The hapless Stuart discovers that he failed to make his latest insurance payment because of forgetfulness and a series of unfortunate coincidences.
Stuart embarks on a cross-country drive to Toronto in his dying ’96 Datsun with a dual purpose: to meet the faceless decision-makers in the upper echelons of the insurance bureaucracy who have denied his appeal for coverage of the fire; and to visit one of his life’s greatest friends, Mel, who has recently written him a note hinting that her esophageal cancer has recurred.
It is one of Gaston’s extraordinary gifts that he can make the most awful, unlucky losers lovable and deserving of our empathy and even respect—for their sheer persistence. And what else but a loser can we call Stuart when his car finally dies completely in Parry Sound, a couple of hundred kilometres from his destination, after broken glasses, an expensive double eye operation, and a severe case of head lice have left him penniless and bald?
The valiant Stuart makes it to Toronto, where his friend Mel “rescues” him after a heartless policeman puts in him a jail cell for protesting the cop’s treatment of a homeless man.
The reunion with his old friend (and lover, we learn), turns the tide for Stuart, but it would be unfair to say that The World becomes cheerful at this point. Mel is very close to death, and her father is in the Alzheimer’s ward of a care home. Stuart is Mel’s driver on their daily trips to her father’s institution, but more than that, he becomes Mel’s ally in the ongoing battle to hold on to the remnants of her father’s memory and intelligence.
Mel’s father, Hal, a.k.a. M.H. Dobbs, was an academic historian, an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Victoria. Before being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, he published The World. This is the story-within-a-story of Gaston’s book. Mel introduces Stuart to her practice of reading her father’s book to him during her visits. Doing so, she believes, evokes his memories and sometimes prompts him to make comments that give clues about the mysterious parts of his life.
Is The World, a supposedly fictional story of researcher Michael Bodleian’s discovery of a 130-year-old manuscript written by the sole female living in the leper colony near Victoria, BC, really a novel? How much of Bodleian’s story of his affair with the translator of his document, a Chinese woman named Naomi, is really Dobbs’ own experience? Could the book explain why Hal deserted his wife and daughter to live for fourteen years in Nepal?
Stuart becomes the regular reader during his and Mel’s visits to her father. He is drawn, tantalizingly, into The World, but more importantly, into the present worlds of both Mel and Hal: he is a witness and a support for both, the one living through her final painful days, the other living through his last fleeting moments of lucidity.
Gaston expertly switches points of view as the book progresses. He begins with Stuart, but later allows the reader into Mel’s mind. Irony abounds in this book, but it is never more bittersweet than in the contrast between the wild Mel Stuart used to know—the one who smoked, drank, took drugs, cooked, and ate with irrepressible gusto—and the dying woman who can no longer eat or drink except by injecting liquid food into a tube. Even with this grim situation, Gaston can show the undying light of a human spirit. One of the final scenes of the book paints a picture of Stuart, Mel, and Hal at a Korean restaurant. Mel scandalizes the other diners by putting spicy food on her tongue to savour it, then spitting it into a glass, and she gets increasingly drunk as she injects wine into her feeding tube.
Gaston even has the audacity to write a section of the book from Hal’s point of view, getting inside the mind of a once-brilliant man now nearing the advances stages of Alzheimer’s.
All three points of view are executed believably; all increase readers’ understanding of both Stuart’s story and the nested stories about Michael Bodleian and the leper woman’s account. All the stories are interconnected through their related ethical questions: Is it fair to claim to be able to write from the point of view of a leper, or a dying person, or a person suffering from Alzheimer’s? Is it fair to abandon those closest to you in a search for self-fulfillment?
The World is satisfyingly complex in its details and narrative structure, yet it is easy to read, drawing you in with its moving characters and their mysterious lives. I read most of the book on a single Toronto-Vancouver flight!