I am probably not the target audience for David Gilmour’s new book, The Perfect Order of Things, and yet I am, paradoxically perhaps, an ideal reviewer for it – considering that I haven’t read any of his previous works before. The Perfect Order of Things borrows narration from Gilmour’s previous books to create a sort of neo-meta-narrative strategy, in which an unnamed protagonist revisits the places and times in his life where he has experienced some form of suffering or another. This conceit may be fascinating for readers of his previous books, but how would it stand up for someone like me, who is coming to his work cold? (Which isn’t even true: I did read his brilliant essay on Tolstoy in The Walrus a few years back, and was fascinated – and a little skeptical – to hear that he had baked it into the work of fiction on offer here.)
At first blush, my answer is: not well. On the surface, this pseudo memoir (it would be wholly improper to call The Perfect Order of Things a novel) comes off as scattershot and disorganized, a rat’s nest of a text with no unifying vision. When you haven’t read Gilmour’s other books, a lot of questions come up as you’re reading this one. Questions like, why does one ex-wife (“Rachel”) get a full first name while another (“M.”) is reduced to a single initial? Questions like, why does the narrator say in one chapter that he has read Proust but in another, later chapter say he hasn’t, describing the French writer’s work as something “only a stiff prison sentence could accommodate”? Questions like, if the narrator is such a phenomenally under-appreciated author, why does he write a nonsensical sentence like this, “Fifteen years earlier, he’d been the biggest star on television, the action hero of an absurd futuristic series where he played half man, half cyborg”? (Isn’t a cyborg already a “half man”? What would a “half cyborg” be compromised of?) Maybe these questions get answered in Gilmour’s previous books, but they aren’t answered here.
The problem is that Gilmour’s narrator is practically intoxicated on his own vanity and self-absorption; and consequently, I had real trouble finding a comfortable place to settle inside the world he was attempting to create. Part of this may be generational. When it isn’t hitting its solipsistic buttons, The Perfect Order of Things comes off as a kind of soft-core Boomer Porn. And I’m not just talking about the long and mostly pointless chapter extolling the virtues of The Beatles. Gilmour’s narrator is like a distillation of the very worst qualities of his generation, a man blithely oblivious to how privileged his cohort as a whole has been and how easily he’s getting through life, a man who is convinced that the universe ceases to exist each and every time he closes his eyes. (A fact verified by the final paragraph of the book.)
But just when I’m ready to write this memoir off, to dismiss it as a 220-page wank by a man belonging to a whole group of Canadian writers fading into a much-deserved obsolescence, Gilmour clobbers me with some incredibly sharp prose and vivid description. While the narrator’s observations of random people are almost always petty and mean-spirited, I can’t help but marvel at how apt they are. Take this description of film critics that Gilmour’s narrator spots while attending the Toronto International Film Festival:
Badly dressed, overweight social cripples ambled through cinema lobbies, often in twos and threes, quiet in their superiority, their “knowing” better than anyone else, so subtle in their condemnation that it made your heart hammer to tell them you liked something. They didn’t tell you you were wrong; they just dropped you into a Rolodex of inferior creatures and returned their attention to each other.
I was also thoroughly entertained by “The Pigeon”, a chapter in which Gilmour’s narrator goes stalking after an odious book critic named Rene Goblin (based, apparently, on contributing Globe and Mail reviewer and overall CanLit whipping boy Andre Alexis) after he’s received a bad review in the national paper. While the reoccurring symbol here – a stain on the narrator’s couch as a stand-in for the stain the bad review has left on his book – is heavy-handed and amateurish, I still found myself getting wrapped up into the arc of this chapter’s tale.
The Perfect Order of Things is bound to be forgotten five minutes after you’ve finished the last page, and rightfully so. Still, many readers will emit little titters of delight along the way before consigning it to a final guffaw of dismissal.