Novelists David Gilmour and André Alexis have a fraught history, stretching back to a Globe and Mail review the latter wrote of the former’s 2005 novel, A Perfect Night to Go to China. Although Gilmour’s book was greeted with generally positive notices – and went on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award – Alexis was not impressed; his unfavourable reaction provoked Gilmour to tell National Post books editor Mark Medley in 2011 that “I know that that [review] is a piece of personal vitriol. China was a beautiful book. Nobody but a guy who had a chip on his shoulder, or had some problem with chicks or something, would come after me for this book.”
As an act of literary revenge, Gilmour included a chapter called “The Pigeon” in his 2011 novel, The Perfect Order of Things. The novel’s protagonist (clearly modelled on Gilmour) encounters a reviewer named René Goblin, who has written a scathing review of one of the narrator’s books. In retaliation, the narrator slaps the glasses off the reviewer’s face. (Alexis, for his part, reciprocated in his 2012 novella, A, including a reference to an author named Gilbert Davidoff, who is working on a non-fiction book “about all the great television [he’s] making [his] son watch” – an obvious reference to Gilmour’s 2007 China follow-up, The Film Club.)
Three years after the publication of The Perfect Order of Things, Alexis has chosen to address the subject of “The Pigeon,” now claiming it as evidence that Gilmour is a racist. The accusation was made in a June 6 episode of Nigel Beale’s podcast The Biblio File. In a note appended to the podcast, Beale writes that “as a condition of making the recording of this conversation public,” he also agreed to post an essay entitled “Of a Smallness in the Soul,” in which Alexis elaborates on the charge against Gilmour.
The essay, dedicated to poet George Elliott Clarke, is lengthy and somewhat rambling (it veers from the notion of blackness in a Canadian context to a racially charged encounter on a Toronto streetcar to, improbably, the poetry of Anna Akhmatova), but its heart is a point-by-point elucidation of the racism Alexis perceives in Gilmour’s work.
The reviewer is black and is named “René Goblin.” (He is a spook, you see.) Mr. Goblin is described as a “deposed African tyrant” [sic] with greying dreadlocks, pink gums flashing when he smiles, who wears thick, dark glasses. The narrator asks “Why are all those men always so ugly?” (Flirting aggressively with “They all look alike.”) As one would expect from a spook, René Goblin embodies an inexplicable malevolence but, significantly, he does not act on his own. He is a deposed tyrant, after all. He is hired by a man named Avery Lynch. Avery Lynch is a vicious and unpleasant caricature of The Globe and Mail’s former book section editor, Martin Levin.
Alexis goes on to question why none of the critics who reviewed The Perfect Order of Things saw fit to mention the racial undertones in “The Pigeon”:
In maintaining a silence about the (aptly titled) Perfect Order of Things’ racism, Aritha van Herk, Susan G. Cole, Philip Marchand, Michel Bassilière [sic], James Grainger, et alia, not only fail to do something important – that is, question the assumptions of power – they allow bigotry to pass, as if it were acceptable.
There is, of course, a danger in taking a single chapter of a novel out of the context of the whole (a danger Alexis seems to sense himself, since he immediately follows the criticism of reviewers’ silence on the matter by saying, “Well, no. That isn’t right, either.”) And, as many reviewers noted about Gilmour’s novel, its structure involves an older novelist looking back on moments of his life in which he has “suffered,” with the intention of determining whether his responses were appropriate, or whether he has missed out on important details. As Michel Basilières points out in his Toronto Star review, the character treated most savagely in Gilmour’s novel is the narrator himself.
Regardless, Alexis’s essay stands as yet another campaign in what appears to be an ongoing war of words between two respected Canadian novelists.