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The World

by Bill Gaston

The World begins with a wonderful narrative spark: Stuart Price, a boring, methodical, recently retired suburban everyman, accidentally burns down his house the day he finishes paying off the mortgage. Due to a series of unfortunate events, his insurance has also just expired.

From this dramatic opening, the novel settles into a series of conventions. At first it is a mid-life crisis novel. Stuart is newly divorced, has an alienated daughter and no close attachments, and is wondering what to do with the rest of his life. Left with no roof over his head, he decides to drive his beater of a car from the West Coast to Toronto to meet up with an old girlfriend who is dying of cancer. This part of the book takes the form of a road novel, and it’s an entertaining journey that gets a lot of comic mileage out of sad-sack Stuart’s misfortunes along the way.

After he arrives in Toronto, the narrative focus shifts to Stuart’s old flame, Melanie, and her father, an Alzheimer’s patient named Hal. Years earlier Hal had written a novel titled The World, which, in turn, is about a writer composing a narrative of life in a Charlotte Islands leper colony. Much of the final two sections of Gaston’s novel consists of Stuart reading The World out loud to Hal: what we have is a book inside a book inside a book. Here we get the meta-novel.

There is no denying Gaston’s gifts as a storyteller, and one of his great strengths – the pleasure of perceiving closely while living in the moment – becomes a recurring theme here. On his journey Stuart wills himself to slow down and smell the roses; Melanie focuses on the small “wonderful moments” still left to her; and, thanks to his illness, Hal inhabits a perpetual present.

Having The World read to him, Hal seems incapable of grasping the larger narrative, but sometimes an adjective or noun makes him smile, a turn of phrase makes him exclaim, “Nice.” This is similar to the effect of reading Gaston. Also noteworthy is the novel’s structure, which has a tripartite scheme that makes for some interesting parallel interactions.

That said, the book-within-a-book device never fully engages with the lives of the three main characters, and, to borrow a metaphor from the fire, things run out of fuel after the first section. Once Stuart has made it to Toronto, it’s unclear where Gaston wants his book to go. In the end, The World – both novel and meta-novel – turns inside out as it gets embroiled in Hal’s 30-year-old text. Instead of moving forward, we retreat into the past. Unfortunately, the historical aspect of Hal’s book is also the least compelling part of Gaston’s. As accomplished as much of The World is, it’s hard not to feel this is a novel that at some point lost its way.