Being clever is generally thought of as a virtue, but it’s the kind of virtue that doesn’t cut it on its own. You need another virtue to attach it to—empathy, say, or humility. A person who’s only clever is almost dangerous. He can convince you of everything, but doesn’t believe in anything. He skims along the surface of everyday life, dispensing perfectly phrased quips but not engaging with any of his surroundings.
Matt, the wayward film critic and 44-year-old hero of Seven Good Reasons Not To Be Good, isn’t sociopathically clever, but he’s closer than he probably realizes. He’s the kind of guy who initially seems comfortable with everyone; in the opening chapter we see him banter with a pre-teen girl sitting next to him on the plane from Vancouver to Toronto, as well as an Indian cab driver, whom Matt shamelessly asks to teach him a few words in Hindi. His wife is Japanese, and his best friend is gay. At first glance Matt’s a true citizen of the world—post-racial, post-sexual, and post-age.
It’s obvious, though, that something is brewing behind Matt’s light, impish exterior. To start with, all of those wonderfully diverse relationships of his are on the fritz: Matt’s wife, Mariko, is cheating on him with a local (female) barista. He’s been fired from his job for reviewing movies that don’t exist.
His best friend, Zane, is in the most complicated bind of all. He’s dying of AIDS, but has refused antiretroviral treatment; instead, he’s making a documentary about his body’s slow decay. Matt is alternately impressed with his friend’s martyrdom and terrified that he’s actually going to go through with it.
So he launches a postcard campaign—listing the titular seven reasons Zane shouldn’t do the morally “good” thing—and flies east to talk some sense into him in person. While he’s in Toronto, Matt figures he’ll stop by and patch things up with his distant father, too.
Seven Good Reasons Not To Be Good is the debut novel by John Gould, a professor of writing at the University of Victoria whose 2003 collection Kilter: 55 Fictions was Giller-shortlisted, and it displays the structural rigour of a genuine craftsman. Despite Matt’s hummingbird-like attention span, information is parceled out at exactly the right speed and in exactly the right doses. The middle section, especially, where Matt is in Toronto, calling Zane and his father on the phone but still too scared to even let them know he’s in town, is an unexpected and delightful little feint.
But he does get off too lightly. Matt’s never forced to really come to terms with any of his splintering relationships—including a new, particularly messy one with a woman he meets and beds in a swanky hotel—and the plot gets so bulky towards the end that there’s no hope for any kind of significant self-reflection.
In fact, I wonder if Gould is fully aware of how troubled Matt’s subconscious is. He makes his protagonist so relentlessly upbeat, full of colloquial “hey”s and “Jeezuz aitch”s, that it verges on irritability. The reader grows suspicious. What is this guy compensating for? Nobody is this carefree.
And yet Matt gets away with it. He gets to keep frivolously riffing about the nature of goodness, a la “If it’s just a reflex it can’t be good, can it? Or can it be good only if it’s a reflex?”, without thinking about it too hard. These might as well be commercial slogans, or fridge magnet poems, for how seriously he takes them.
Matt’s so hung up on being clever and consciously laid-back that he doesn’t even notice that goodness is kind of besides the point. The book’s epigraph, from a physics text, states that when two photons interact, they must forever be considered “an entangled whole, even if they have travelled far apart.”
In other words, friends and family are forever. Whether Zane’s documentary is a good or bad idea ultimately doesn’t matter; these are labels that can only really be applied in hindsight. All that matters is that Matt’s there, in the flesh, to support him.
HarperCollins, 350 pp, $29.99, hardcover
(review originally appeared, in a slightly different format, in The Edmonton Journal, October 3, 2010)