Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

David Gilmour's The Perfect Order of Things


Although the vignettes and opinions in this thinly-veiled autobiography appear somewhat randomly, they are united by Gilmour’s unrelenting candour.  This is a book that will not let a title as exacting and vague as The Perfect Order of Things go unchallenged.  At one point, the words are placed as the last thought of a man about to meet his self-inflicted end, as the pool of blood spreads around him.  On the cover, water streams out from a set of drawers, defying their neat catalogue.  What follows is a bold look at life’s disorder. 


The collection begins with the laudable goal of the narrator travelling back to every moment of his life (and he and Gilmour are often hardly distinguishable) where he had previously suffered.  This is a venture to see what had been missed, what his self-enclosed misery had blinded him to, an attempt to pass through the pain of events to gain some measure of wisdom and even empathy.  This has an element of bravery in a hedonist culture that too often settles for cliché with reference to greater meaning, or the lack of it.


In revisiting these sites of pain, the narrator is incisive about the vacillation between insecurity and ego, which he sees writ large in celebrity culture.  Whether shadowing his (then) spouse at TIFF or relating his experience in arts journalism (“disguised boosterism”), his candour unsettles any sense that these people have “arrived.”  Gilmour is particularly good at naming the nagging sense of being constantly kept out from the “inner ring,” as well as the emptiness one can encounter when closest to it.  The book is perceptive at challenging preconceptions and desires many of us never question, accomplishing this with its sense of humour largely intact. 


There are also moments of genuine pathos how the fault lines in human experience are named.  This is seen from the way Gilmour describes the physical triggers in a site of past failure through to his recurring sense of “that odd mixture of euphoria and sadness, of being terribly close to but still on the outside of something terribly, terribly important.”  The book’s most harrowing encounters come in the deeply tragic life of his father, or the absurd and violent sequence where an old friend comes apart at the seams.  Any surface testimony to perfect order, to things always working out for the best, is rightly and rigorously dismantled.  


Mingled in with the book’s candour, however, there are some significant blind spots.  The narrator’s ironic tone implies that he often seems to be accounting for such naïveté in not acknowledging it, but there are instances his brashness suggests he doesn’t know any better.  For example, an entire episode is dedicated to the experience of a bad series of reviews in the Globe and Mail, where a reviewer had the gall to write that “he’s just not that good.”  Leaving aside the tactlessness in a writer recounting such a tale in the first place, it is instructive to observe his reaction.  Rather than, say, having another look at his writing to see what might be done better, he goes to the editor and suggests that the reviewer is upset at him for, yes, high school sexual envy.  The rest of the chapter is then devoted to his quest to seek out the reviewer in order to hit him.  After having disavowed violence earlier in self-congratulating tones, he nevertheless carries out his plans and feels not a twinge of regret for his role in the reviewer’s comeuppance.  While I certainly wouldn’t want to call reviewers impeccable, I can’t help but wonder what opportunity for self-improvement was missed here.


Speaking of sex, it is the most significant cause of the narrator’s suffering in the book.  At the exchange with the Globe editor, when asked about the quest to “get enough girls,” he replied, “does one ever?”  It could serve as a tagline for the book.  At times Gilmour is perceptive about the pain he causes women, but too often his sights are set on the way they have hurt him.  Still, his appetite for them remains exuberantly strong.


Along with the company of women, the other circle Gilmour’s narrator seeks is that of the great artists and writers.  This sometimes helps the story, such as when he cites Montaigne’s apt description of friendship.  Too often, though, the references distract from the narrative, becoming extended reviews or opinions in their own right.  In “My Life With Tolstoy,” for instance, his opinion on which lesser-known work requires more attention doesn’t coincide with much.  The opinions and background are sometimes interesting in their own right, but here, as elsewhere, the author needs to decide what sort of book this is.


While it’s right and good for Gilmour to seek to frame his experience with reference to our better writers, this should be deployed in subtler allusions.  What’s more, his citations of others sometimes releases Gilmour from having to articulate this experience himself.  This lack of effort can be seen in a description of “short bald men who looked like Picasso” walking by.  Perhaps he should be more ambitious, and yet ambition is clearly not in short supply elsewhere in these references.  In one bizarre drug-fuelled journey, he is not sheepish about adding a touch of grandeur: “How Tolstoyan it all seemed, in fact!”  Elsewhere, it’s not Proust but Marcel et moi.  His winsome shyness about meeting Robert De Niro at the film festival ought to extend to these other greats, I’d suggest.  Still, his references to such famous figures are so evidently those of a fan that it’s hard to fault him for posturing.  Moreover, that unabashed tone has its infectious quality.


Back, though, to talk of order.  The book makes regular reference to God, that once presumed giver of order.  On matters divine, here’s the early reflection that sets the posture for the others:


All my life I had had the suspicion that I was a bad boy and that I was going to be punished for it, that one day a kind of giant fly swatter was going to come down on me with a terrible whap.  And now here I was, being truly bad, midway across the bridge, a rule breaker of the first order, a middle finger extended to law and order and … and nothing.  There was no fly swatter.  No God, no hell, no punishment.  Nobody even paying attention, much less punishing.


This furtive experience endows the narrator with what he calls the “rule breaker’s freedom for life.”  Little does he expect that such freedom could be its own judgment, but after several relational fallouts one begins to wonder.  One particularly hurtful one left him feeling as though God was giving him a “kick in the groin.”  “It seemed to me that there couldn’t be a God,” he reflects nevertheless, “that no one could be so spiteful as to have my Molly leave me for—of all the humans on earth—a man who sat a few desks away.”  Leaving aside the jejune quality of this theology, an old Hebrew proverb comes to mind: “a man rages against God, but by his own folly is he destroyed.”  Folly is exactly what Gilmour’s narrator is not afraid to name elsewhere, so why not here? 


As the imperfections mount, the candour becomes more penetrating.  “The ugliness was in me,” the narrator reflects at one point, and I appreciate this continued willingness to see his own faults.  It’s also out there, which is evident in his description of an island resort as “Paradise disfigured.”  In the face of this, the book’s final chapter includes a statement of his love for his son, which brings with it his appreciation at the beauty of the world.  Unfortunately, God is treated to something of a double standard here: blamed when suffering occurs, but not blamed for the moments of beauty or genuine human encounter.  Where does the love between father and son come from, though?  Given all the suffering, what preserved this particular observer through it all for the book’s last happy encounters?  I can’t help but feel that some underlying order, even love, must have been missed along the way.