Seven Good Reasons Not To Be Good, John Gould’s first novel is a disappointing debut given the excellence of his earlier collections of short fiction (especially Kilter: 55 Fictions, a finalist for the 2003 Giller Prize, and an outstanding book).
Though his short fiction packed a lot into a small space, Gould doesn’t seem to know what to do with the legroom the novel affords him.
Matt, a film reviewer, travels to talk his friend Zane, a filmmaker, out of his plan to refuse AIDS treatment and let himself die. However, Matt spends most of his time doing precisely nothing, avoiding confrontation and refusing to deal with the collapse of his career and marriage by having a fling.
Since Matt’s not doing anything, Gould has to fill the space with digressions, Matt’s thoughts and reflections on past events. But Matt’s thoughts are insipid. Remembering his dead sister, Matt wonders, “Was she actually … any kind of earthling at all? She was so consistently disappointed in earthly life, you figured she must have got her expectations elsewhere.”
Considering cosmology, Matt ponders how scientific theories are “so cutely metaphorical. Is that how the geniuses decide, how they settle on one theory over another? They just take the one that’s most conducive to lightweight psychologizing?” This “lightweight psychologizing” takes up much of the novel’s bulk.
Reading a letter from Zane that attempts to justify his decision to die, Matt complains of “another page and a half of this kind of infuriating swami-speak.” It’s easy to sympathize. All this “swami-speak” is a bold stylistic decision—Gould thus keys almost all of the narration to the wishy-washy Matt—but it makes for annoying, boring narration.
Bringing the narration so close to Matt’s thoughts allows for a fake stream-of-consciousness style, so that we come to know him well and get a strong sense of his personality. But Matt is a cliché: the smarmy critic whose aggressive reviews mask a child-like love of art and disappointment at betraying, through inaction and fear, his own creativity.
Throughout, characters and their situations, when they aren’t clichéd, don’t seem fresh. They talk about how big the universe is, and kiss in cemeteries. He meets Kate, the woman he has an affair with, in an elevator. The real shame of this is that it’s through his characters that Gould displays his greatest gift—a perfect ear for dialogue.
When Matt asks his father whether he’s seen Uncle Lenny lately, Dad responds “Lunch yesterday. He looks good, he’s lost. A few. How’s Mary?” Not only are the speech and its patterns realistic, but the erratic punctuation both gives a sense of his father’s halting breath (his lungs are failing) and imparts an interesting subtext (Lenny’s “good” and getting trimmer, but potentially “lost”).
Elsewhere, Kate asks if Matt’s going to try to talk Zane out of letting himself die, “Even if it’s what he really wants? I’m going through something like that, and—”
The line ends in a dash because Matt cuts her off. “Yeah, even if it’s what he really wants.” Matt’s not listening. And Kate lets it go. The simple exchange tells us a lot about the two of them. Gould doesn’t need all the digressions and pop psychology.
John Gould has talent and true skill, but in Seven Good Reasons Not To Be Good he spends too much time reiterating plot points, summarizing events instead of dramatizing them, and spinning his wheels.