When describing this book to a friend recently, I said I found his style “quintessentially male”.
That’s a sloppy term, but when you’ve bookchatted with someone about many books over several years, a certain shorthand develops.
All I had to add was that it left with me the same feeling that I had when I read John Updike and Philip Roth, prose lean but the story heavy-on-the-machismo, and she was nodding in understanding.
A few days later, David Gilmour describes the books that he loves most, and his words are perhaps more useful than the lazy descriptor I used with my friend.
“Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.”
There is a real “guy-guys” feel to what I’ve read of David Gilmour’s writing.
(I’ve read A Perfect Night to Go to China, which won the Governor General’s Award in 2005, part of his non-fiction memoir, The Film Club, and, most recently, Extraordinary.)
That quote is drawn from his discussion with Emily M. Keeler for Hazlitt Magazine. Substantial controversy ensued. So much controversy, that only a few days later, it seems almost impossible to consider Extraordinary independently of it now.
David Gilmour teaches at Victoria College at the University of Toronto, by invitation, not as a professor. “But I can only teach stuff I love.” And what he loves is as he describes above.
“I’m not interested in teaching books by women,” he says. “I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.” He doesn’t love Canadian writers enough either. Or gay writers. Or Chinese writers. He loves what he loves. (Some kind of lazy shorthand?)
Some of the most amazing English teachers I had were wholly passionate about specific works and writers; I had never heard of Don Quixote when a visiting professor spoke for two hours about it so passionately in my first year of university that I went directly to the campus bookstore and spent my grocery money on a Norton edition.
I have never read that copy of Don Quixote, but I don’t imagine ever giving that now-somewhat-yellowed copy of it away either. It embodies my understanding that each reader is passionate about different books.
I am as passionate about that passion as I am passionate about certain (other) books myself. Just thinking about the energy in that auditorium still gives me a thrill, some twenty years later.
(I might, someday, read Cervantes’ novel. I haven’t intentionally avoided it; but however much I might enjoy it, I will never love it as that man did, for all his years of contemplation and adoration.)
But here’s where it gets tricky. Gilmour says: “I teach only the best.” And that’s where I find my reader’s hackles rising, because I do not equate personal preference with superiority.
As a reader, I love what I love, too. Though that love is sometimes only for elements of crafting, and I do not always love the stories that result.
I did not love the story in Carol Birch’s Jamrach’s Menagerie (it may be the only time I’ve used the word ‘hated’ when discussing a book), but I did love the determination with which she pulled me into it, despite myself, and I admired specific aspects of the crafting.
Anne Enright’s novels, The Gathering and The Forgotten Waltz, were excruciating to read in many ways, but I absolutely loved the crafting that led to my complete immersion in those isolating and sorrow-filled worlds and I admire the ability to create something beautiful out of that kind of pain.
Timothy Findley’s stories have made me cry so many times, one would think it’s unforgivable. Alissa York has yanked my heart into dark corners that still make my lip curl. Barbara Gowdy has forced understanding of characters I didn’t want to look in the eye. I was bawling at the end of the last Lauren Davis novel I read, a story that I’d expected to find predictable and forgettable.
Findley, York, Gowdy and Davis: favourite writers all. While I might not have “enjoyed” aspects of some of their stories, I love that they compelled me to read all the same, that their skill with spinning a tale forced me to experience something I resisted, dragged me into places I would never choose to inhabit.
But Birch’s novel and Enright’s novels? I loved aspects of their crafting, admiring more than enjoying.
That’s what I am reaching for when I look at David Gilmour’s Extraordinary now.
I did not love the story; it is a difficult subject, assisted suicide, and one anticipates an unhappy ending.
And when an author seems to suggest that he is unwilling to work to find a connection with novels that he does not feel an immediate and intense connection with, that unwillingness is contagious; it takes an extra effort to spend more time with Extraordinary.
And, as a woman who writes, David Gilmour appears to have automatically delegated my words to some room down the hall. And not a Room of My Own either, but a crowded one at that. His remarks may have sounded unintentionally dismissive (as he describes in this CBC Interview), but it is hard to set aside my sense of fair-play and take another look at this work which seemed so distancing even before this controversy emerged.
And, yet, there is something to admire in Extraordinary. The prose is clean and compelling. From the opening sentences, readers are immediately engaged. “What? You didn’t know I had a sister?”
Despite the serious subject, the prevalence of dialogue keeps the pace heightened; it reveals character effectively (the narrator’s age is apparent, his speech dotted with the occasional word or phrase which dates him) and the characters smile more than they sigh (of course smiles can be sad smiles, too).
Such a story might have been a laborious and exhausting read, but the entire book can be read in under two hours.
Extraordinary does feel like a book of nighttime thoughts however. A brother and a sister spend an evening together, and the brother leaves her body behind in the morning. By its very nature, it is a tale of dark-hour thoughts.
“It occurs to me, in those four a.m. hours where your thoughts seem always to land on the wrong foot where they start, that I am as haunted these days by the catastrophes that didn’t happen or almost happened as I am by the ones that did. Is it, I wonder, that dark hour alone which sends you so far afield in pursuit of such things, such ugly little flowers? Why does one never think of these things in the daylight?”
The style is almost journalistic, the voice uncomplicated. Occasionally there is a poetic moment, but they do not clutter the story.
“I had dropped by her apartment unexpectedly late one afternoon, the winter night already collecting like soot between the neighbouring high-rises and the discarded Christmas trees up and down the length of the street. It was the final hours of a sullen January day in Toronto, when even the cheeriest souls find themselves fingering a length of rope and looking appreciatively upwards at the available roof beams. (I’m phrase-making here, but you know what I mean.)”
First, that lovely bit about the soot, which is what I wanted to share: evidence of the bursts of imagery. But then I went on, so you could glimpse the sardonic wit.
And, then, a bit that I do love, in the parenthesis. The sense of intimacy created just for that moment-within-a-moment. And, “phrase-making”. Do I “know” what he means? Not necessarily. But for a fragment of time I think that I might.
It is a surreal evening in the life of the character who survives this tale. And as Sally observes, there are banal elements where one might have hoped for something profound, but that feels appropriate somehow too.
“Most of the awful things in life turn out to have quite banal reasons – I’ve learned that. You know what I think? I think she thought her new man might like her more if she didn’t come with so much furniture [a daughter]. It might be even more banal than that.”
This, too, is one of those dark-hour thoughts. It feels true, still, in the light of day. Though this is not a novel that I love. Perhaps simply because I feel as though I am only observing, never fully immersed; this feels like a personal story, one in which I have no place (but now it’s difficult to determine how much of that has been determined by the book and how much by the dismissive comments made recently).
For slim novels about coming to grips with a difficult past, there are others that I have loved: Sijie Dai’s Balzac and the Chinese Seamstress (Translated by Ina Rilke) and Sándor Márai’s Embers (Translated by Carol Anne Janeway).
When it comes to Canadian male novelists with a spare style and credible female perspectives, I love the spare prose style of David Bergen (say, in The Age of Hope) or Richard Wright (as in Clara Callan, though October perhaps better showcases his leaner style) more.
Timothy Findley’s The Wars and Helen Humphrey’s The Lost Garden: as narratives of loss, I love them more.
“What happens with great literature is that the shadows on the pages move around.”
I wholeheartedly agree with David Gilmour on the value of re-reading. The shadows on the pages of David Gilmour’s writing have not moved around for me as a reader, but I can see where they shift for other readers.
Sometimes I can feel the shadows in stories, sometimes I am forced to chew upon them a few times before swallowing, sometimes I choke on them (and that takes some fine shadow-making): I poke at the shadows in Extraordinary, from the margins, but I can still admire their outlines.
For me, the ability to step into and out of shadows is as important as charting their movement. I’m glad to have read Extraordinary as part of my Giller longlist reading, for even if I do not love every book that I read, I love the act of reading, all the possibilities of understanding therein.
And maybe thinking we all read for the same reasons, wishing that David Gilmour would try harder to engage with some of the novelists he has dismissed, is not all that different from assuming that all of one’s favourite books are the best books ever written.