Exploring life, death and virtue

by Amy Reiswig, November 2010

John Gould’s new novel blends humour and tragedy as it wrestles with some Big Questions.

We all want to cure disease. We want to cure disease so that people can live—our friends, family, even ourselves. But more people living longer means more consumption of resources, means more stress on the planet. So is curing disease really as good as it sounds? 

This is the kind of tough question Victoria writer John Gould doesn’t shy away from in his new novel Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good (HarperCollins, August 2010). With a background in philosophy and environmental studies, Gould is well-girded for battle with existential issues, and it turns out that some of his most useful tools are things like irony, deflation and laughter. At once heady and humorous, this is a book contemplating what it is to be alive. 

Gould’s protagonist, 44-year-old Matt, is riding tectonic shifts within his world, with a withering relationship, an ailing father and career cut short. While weighted with issues of past, present and incipient loss (his sister, mother, marriage, career, friend, father, the environment, the world), at its base this is a book about friendship. An often smug but obviously flawed film critic, Matt might even call it a “bromance.” 

Zane, Matt’s best friend, is dying of AIDS—deliberately letting himself die by refusing to take antiretrovirals as a statement on their unavailability in the more impoverished, and more AIDS-affected, parts of the world, about which he is also making documentary films. Zane is dying for good. But for Matt that argument’s not good enough, and he works on finding arguments of his own to convince Zane to live.

First, Matt engages his mind, sending Zane a series of seven postcards, each pithily explaining why virtue—what Matt sees as the motivator of Zane’s actions—is actually vice, and why Zane should therefore “smarten up” and “get a grip.” Second, Matt travels from the west coast to Toronto—where Gould grew up—to confront his friend face-to-face, heart-to-heart.

This is not a simple buddy-book. From the epigraph on photon interaction to the first chapter’s opening postcard text rhetorically shredding virtue into selfishness, Gould lets you know you’re also in for some challenging conceptual thinking.

But one of the enjoyable—one might even say reassuring—things about the book is how the consideration of Big Ideas doesn’t have to be all that serious. “It’s also partly just play,” Gould explains in the somewhat fitting sombre surreality of the Empress’s Bengal Lounge. “A lot of what’s in the book is play. It’s important to be light about the most serious things,” says the sharply dressed man who, upon arrival, muses on whether slaves are actually working the hotel’s colonial-inspired ceiling fans: “Maybe we should ask,” he deadpans. Seven Good Reasons Not to be Good is Gould’s first novel, and the wide scope of 350 pages means the thinker and the joker get equal room to run around.

The novel’s friendship is based on one from Gould’s own life, he says, although in spirit only, not in fact. And what the novel primarily honours of that old friendship is how it provides a safe forum for facing the things that matter but also prevents you from taking yourself too seriously, a relationship where you can talk about love and death and the workings of the cosmos, then tell each other to “fuggoff.” 

Citing a Monty Python documentary in which John Cleese extols the power of humour to undermine ego, Gould explains his novel’s blend of tragedy and comedy. “It keeps us supple, and suppleness is really important. If we’re stiff and rigid, we’re going to get into trouble.” Likewise, the idea of questioning what we think we know—about virtue, the meaning of things like disease, death and potential environmental and social collapse—might also be a bit destabilizing but is ultimately salutary. Rethinking things, says Gould, “is not because you’re not engaged, but because you want to keep engaging.”

Constantly shifting tone and style, short-story expert Gould (his book Kilter: 55 Stories was nominated for the Giller) keeps readers constantly engaged and actively engaging with the narrative as he luxuriates in the slinky, stretchy fabric of this longer form. Familiar pop culture reference points (“here’s Law and Order, that distinctive sting, doing-doingg”) rub shoulders with sometimes obscure film details. Details of wordplay—people are “cordwooded” in their houses and navigate “the bewilderness” of a mall’s parking lot —abut both cyber speak (“i have nothing 2 give u just now but advice, & i haven’t any of th@ either”) and the kind of analytical philosophy that recalls works like Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor: “In a work of art, disease wants to be emblematic of something, of some big affliction of character or culture. If Zane were in a movie or a book, then, what would his illness signify?”

Throughout, Gould’s sense of intensity and personal commitment is palpable. His old friend, to whom the book is dedicated, also died of AIDS but before today’s drugs were an option. So while the book may have taken root in that, it is neither autobiographical nor biographical of his friend. “Writing is the same way you dream, in a way,” Gould explains. “It may be initiated by stuff from the day, but picks up other things as you go along. It might be, ‘Oh yeah, my mom wore that blue sweater yesterday, but where did that rat in the tutu come from?’”

Gould can be, frankly, hilarious in both the book and in person. But his open laugh is complemented by a piercing curiosity and exploratory mind which can make you somewhat uncomfortable because it forces you to engage. Whether you like the view through the lens of somewhat self-absorbed Matt and his self-styled “kritikal” views or not, there’s no being passive around him or his dilemmas.

While working on another novel and secretive “other stuff,” Gould continues teaching creative writing at UVic where, he claims, his professorial advice includes: “Your idiosyncrasy, your oddness is your greatest strength.” Indeed; he is teaching from experience.

 

Writer and editor Amy Reiswig is glad Gould’s book has expanded her list of films to see, but wonders whether Victoria video stores will actually carry Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter.