A Perfect Night to Go to China

by David Gilmour
180 pages,
ISBN: 0887621678

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Purgatory without Paradise
by Todd Swift

Ernest Hemingway spent some time in Toronto, before his legend took hold. David Gilmour's sixth novel, A Perfect Night To Go To China, returns him there. The terse, retro-prose recalls the story "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place" ("Last week he tried to commit suicide," one waiter said) with snappy dialogue and anachronistically pugilistic behaviour from the tragic protagonist. This is a homage to Hemingway's achingly beautiful, doomed classic, The Sun Also Rises (a.k.a Fiesta), by way of Paul Auster's New York Trilogy (that is, an urban mystery that is really an ontological thriller); indeed, there is a fiesta at the heart of this novel that one can't quite return to, but must.
The novel is of course, its own beast too, and the inevitable extension of Gilmour's sense of the inner-cinematic, his superb ear, unspooling in a Caribbean denouement that is, except for one false note, just ripe enough to break the reader's heart.
On one level (and by no means the ground floor), this is a story about a misanthropic, handsome, well-paid television presenter, Roman, who steps out of his home into Chinatown for a fifteen-minute drink in a nearby bar, leaving the door unlocked (as Michael Moore tells us Torontonians do) while his young son Simon is sleeping. But as another Roman, the one also named Polanski, has foretold, "Chinatown" yields unbearable loss; the TV celebrity returns to discover his son gone. This first chapter, so light of foot, so slight of tone, is almost uncannily unbearable in its stylish juxtaposition of the unspeakable and the utterly insipid; it sets a level of achievement that the novel only regains in its lush, careening, exhilarating last three chapters. The middle section of the book can be read as a Purgatorio, where the poetry gives way to prose.
The narrative is stripped way down low, possibly as lo-fi as a novel can get before it succumbs to smoky spoken word in a dead-end bistro during a Montreal blizzard. The book's power is in its absences-a missing child, a missing mother and wife (the Kafkaesquely named M. who leaves Roman early on) and ultimately, and more deeply, the missing father, who becomes a sort of self-cannibalising vanishing man.
Accompanied by a Chandleresque cop called Raymond (everything in this book mirrors noir, often in blank off-whites; even the title, which is borrowed from a taxi driver's expression "a perfect day to go to China"), Roman seeks his son, finds him only in dreams, and ultimately loses interest in anything else in life but his desire to be reunited with his self-made Beatrice. In this sense, the novel rises to a florid Paradise. Roman resembles no one so much as the Milton of the sonnet who finds his dead beloved in his dreams, only to wake to light and find her fled. The book presents us with the sordid, bleary-eyed dailyness that's part of the phenomenology of grief-that is, the kind of loss that transcends language and begins to invade things, inside and outside a person, with nullity.
Roman is an amalgam of several key existential figures, from Dostoyevsky's man under the floorboards in Notes From Underground, full of bile and thought, to Sartre's great nauseated one-the word nausea ends a chapter, and vomit plays a key role in the almost-ambiguous last chapter or so; in this way, the novel proceeds both as a very gripping, sometimes fun, yarn (including a bank heist, much witty acerbic banter, and a punch-up in a fancy restaurant) and a bizarre project of owlish excavation-a rescuing of the fragments of Angst and Dread worth reclaiming for our own new century.
Gilmour's playful, constantly resounding structuring is thematically masterful as well: having a TV presenter become addicted to opiates and hurl himself into his own dream world, wherein he rushes from reality (because of the supposed or real destruction of his son), suggests every theorist from Marx, Lacan to Baudrillard. But the real presiding spirit here is probably Foucault, who reminds us that the speaking subject creates fictions in order to respond to the void. Gilmour's Roman, an interviewer who exists for the world mainly as a two-dimensional image in a beautiful suit, spins his tale for us, both to create a world that he can bear to live in, and ultimately, to enable his own transmission out of it.
In Chapter Six, Roman speaks of "sailing . . . out of my being." The sea returns again in the concluding chapters that, had the repressed cop been absent, might have been flawless in terms of tone and suspense. One tastes the hot air of the tropical isle, one counts each whimsical, sarcastic ending flourish-as if they are as animate as the Bogart-like, supremely heroic figure of stoic anguish that Roman becomes.
Transfixed painfully between Mourning and Melancholia, Gilmour's dispossessed father figure perishes more in the noonday city than in the moonlit jungle, leaving the door ajar for multiple readings, and few happy endings. This seems one of the most refreshing, moving, and supple works of fiction written since the 21st century began; it is lovely to see it achieve so much that is uniquely Canadian by handsomely converting great American and European works, without missing a beat. I'd go with this one, any day.

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