Mount Pleasant by Don Gillmor
August 1, 2013 § Leave a comment
If some books are mirrors and others are windows, Mount Pleasant, the second novel by well-known Canadian writer of non-fiction and children’s literature, Don Gillmor, is a curious mix of the two. The trials and tribulations of his character Harry seem at first to be familiar (“The first problem was that he and Gladys had bought at the top of the market. Perhaps it was the day the market peaked”) but ultimately turn out to be very first-world, very upper middle-class problems. We recognise his tastes, his aspirations and his surroundings, but his problem—and especially his pillow-soft landing—are not, and never will be, familiar, at least to anyone under fifty.
Harry, an oddly disengaged professor, lives in Toronto with his wife, Gladys. Their son, Ben, has left home and occasionally visits with his girlfriend Sarah, an earnest political sort who inspires in Harry the kind of sneering only possible in someone who is well aware they ought to have been more political, but instead opted for comfort. Early in the novel Harry spends a lot of time with his father, Dale, who is dying of cancer. After Dale’s death, the entire family is surprised—appalled might be a better description—to discover that he has left only a tiny inheritance. Harry thought Dale was worth around three million; he left less than twelve thousand between Harry, Harry’s sister, and Dale’s girlfriend.
This is disastrous news for Harry, who has been counting on the inheritance to get him out of his huge debt in one fell swoop. Harry decides to start tracking down the money. Is his father’s employer, a money management firm, implicated? His father’s colleagues suddenly seem to have a lot to hide, and the situation gets a lot murkier before Harry finds any answers.
Mount Pleasant is intriguing. It’s written in a voice I don’t see much in Canada—the middle-class wit, laughing at his own fussy tastes (“Harry was making a squash risotto with Moroccan lamb and asparagus. The organic lamb cost $82, bought from the swarthy criminal at the boutique butcher shop.”) yet genuinely aggrieved that middle-classness these days is often simply a veneer of overspending masking a black hole of debt: “Harry had grown up in a world where university professors such as himself were financially comfortable and well respected, and butchers were dropouts with cleavers. Now, professors were marginalized and indebted, while butchers were wealthy artisans.” It’s literary and plot-driven, although on occasion it does mix genres a little too much for my taste. Realist novels should stay firmly realist; unless a novel is set up from the beginning as containing a great deal of improbable events or settings, the introduction of such never fails to annoy me. I won’t give away the plot, but it all gets a bit TV mafia/Rob and Doug Ford for a time.
Mount Pleasant is a funny novel, and Gillmor is very good on a sentence level: “[Harry] had grown up here, surrounded by the nation’s bankers, brokers, politicians, fixers, touts, lawyers, industrialists and heirs, a fountain of money that shot out of the ground, and in the gush of afterbirth came the nannies and cooks and gardeners who made multiculturalism such a success” is one example of his wry humour.
Throughout the novel, Harry’s debt is compared to a noise that (presumably) only he can hear: a periodontist’s drill, a roaring, an annoying buzz. This quickly becomes irritating. Another irritation—and big narrative disappointment—is the discovery that Harry and Gladys are never in real financial danger. They’re never going to be homeless, or foreclosed, or come out of the situation anything less than comfortable. After all, they paid over half a million dollars in 1989 for a house they still live in. Poor old boomers, hey?
If you think narrators must be likeable or at least balanced for a book to be worth reading, you could be forgiven for thinking I didn’t enjoy this book. Harry might be a pathetic, whiny idiot who’s never content with what he has, but that’s not what I hold against him. (It’s his entitlement that grates.) The novel is in fact clever, witty and well written but frequently frustrating. Mount Pleasant is a mixed bag, advertising big ideas but then refusing to let us actually examine the merchandise, and letting plotlines peter out if not part of the frantic chase for Harry’s father’s money. Gillmor, I expect, has found himself in an uncomfortable position, having written an ambitious Canadian “widescreen” novel (a term coined by John Self to describe novels that are stuffed with global political events and, often, a wide cast of characters who are all affected by the events in different ways) that will inevitably be compared with, most obviously, John Lanchester’s Capital but will also be the tall Canadian poppy to be criticised for both what works and what doesn’t, and for what he dares to do as well as what he doesn’t.