Readers of David Gilmour’s novels – or even observers of the wildly divisive critical reactions they inspire – know that he is an autobiographical writer. The plots of his emotionally raw but acidly cerebral novels run roughly parallel to key events in Gilmour’s life, and he has stated in interviews that he is not afraid to draw on his experiences for inspiration. The exception to the rule would seem to be A Perfect Night to Go to China, his 2005 Governor General’s Literary Award–winning novel about a father who returns from a quick late-night drink to find that his young son has been abducted. But even that novel’s plot, not directly borrowed from Gilmour’s life, explored themes that animate his best work: paternal failure, family disintegration, addiction, jaded romanticism, misdirected masculine pride.
Gilmour’s latest novel embraces and amplifies the autobiographical elements latent in his work, recasting familiar plotlines and characters from earlier novels in a reflexive, retrospective story narrated by an authorial stand-in named Monday. (The text even refers to the actual titles of Gilmour’s previous fiction.)
Like Gilmour, Monday grew up in the 1960s in an affluent Toronto household, attended private school (Upper Canada College), was obsessed with the Beatles, summered in Ontario’s cottage country, and watched his successful stockbroker father succumb to bouts of depression that eventually led to institutionalization and suicide. Also like his creator, Monday is a novelist and one-time on-air personality who hosted a CBC TV program that functioned “like the provincial branch of an advertising agency that disguised boosterism as ‘arts journalism.’”
The Perfect Order of Things opens with Monday, in his late fifties, paying a visit to Toulouse, France, while writing a travel story for a magazine. Monday lived in the city as a very young man, trying to establish himself as a great writer while pining over infrequent letters from a mesmerizing but unattainable beauty named Raissa Shestatksy. Revisiting the café where he once awaited Raissa’s letters, Monday is shocked to discover a beautiful river cutting through the city only a couple of blocks away. The realization is immediate and powerful: “For six months I’d lived in Toulouse and I’d seen nothing except the furious wallpaper inside my head: its drastic scenarios, its pornographic reruns. What else had my misery blinded me to?”
Monday suspects the answer might be plenty, so he sets off on a series of informal journeys “back to other places where [he’d] suffered, this time with [his] eyes open and, more important, pointed outwards.” Monday’s eyes are, in Proustian fashion (Gilmour frequently alludes to the French master of memory fiction), also turned inward, to reflect on love affairs and emotional failures and triumphs too overwhelming to contemplate or even fully experience at the time.
Monday’s reassessment of his younger self’s tyrannical imagination as pornographic and drastic is key to the novel’s themes, tone, and – most importantly – comedy. Although Gilmour is a fine (and vicious) parodist of the Canadian arts scene, he is funniest when sending up the pretensions and outrageous insecurities of his narrator’s most private selves. In this way, he is like British author V.S. Pritchett, who wrote that the best comedy is found “not in our relations with each other but in our relations with ourselves.”
Monday tries on many identities through the years – Byronic lover, alienated artist, dissolute journalist, druggie, aging Romantic – each of which is resurrected long enough for a purging reappraisal. Here is Monday’s take on his youthful, pre-publication adult self: “I had … all the vanity of a successful writer but none of the work to substantiate it. Like André Gide, I was furious that the world would not credit me for the work I assumed I would eventually produce.”
The theme of transient, unsettled identities is played out in a more sombre key in a subplot involving Monday’s mentally ill father, a scotch-soaked, ethereal prisoner of propriety. During his final visit to his father, Monday tries to connect with the shattered old man by playing him one of his favourite Beatles songs, a tenuous grasp at intimacy that quickly fizzles: “the electric shock treatment had made him unsure of himself, and while [the song] played, you could see him thinking how he should seem.”
Over the course of the novel, Monday develops a reluctant appreciation and compassion for his discarded selves, culminating in an understated, lyrical closing chapter that tries to make peace with old age and death. Monday’s tryst with his own past also reconnects him with his favourite artists. For a novel that sends up so many artistic types with searing, laugh-out-loud caricatures, the work is passionate in its championing of art itself.