Early in his writing life John wrote a short, playful piece of fiction, The Bells, about his odd new vocation, riffing on the traditional figure of the Fool.

The morning after the Giller gala in 2003, John was interviewed about Kilter by Tina Srebotnjak for TVO’s Imprint (two clips on the menu at the right).

John’s initial inspiration for the very short stories of his first two books was the haiku. To a chapbook of his own haiku he appended a brief note on the form, in which he explored some of the features he would soon go seeking in microfiction.

Matt, the protagonist of Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good, is a film critic. John did a little movie reviewing many years ago (early ‘90s), for The Coast News in BC. Here are a few of those short reviews:
            Hamlet          Insignificance          Highway 61          The Dead.

John grew up with Glenn Gould. Okay, not literally, but the great pianist was certainly a presence from the start. He was forever on the stereo; people often called for him on the phone (Glenn wasn’t listed in the Toronto phone book, where John’s father, George, showed up as G. Gould); there were stories of Glenn’s youth, since he grew up next door to John’s mother (Joan Anne, née Fulford). John’s abiding interest in Gould’s music continues to be expressed in various ways, including this review (originally printed in Victoria’s Focus magazine) of Kevin Bazzana’s biography of Gould, Wondrous Strange.

The issue of biography and authorship is pursued in this review of Joan Salazar’s novel Angel Overburdened.

These are the instructions for a story – “How to Get Inside” – John hasn’t yet written.

This Q & A accompanied The Kilter Trilogy, the trio of short films based on John’s story’s made by director Corey Lee.

Designer David Gee blogs about the process of creating the cover for Seven Good Reasons Not to Be Good.

Review: Hamlet (1990)

If you've seen one Mel Gibson movie, have you seen them all? If you caught both Lethal Weapons can you skip Hamlet?

On the face of it, Detective Riggs and Prince Hamlet are the same man. Both are recently bereft (of wife and father respectively), and have slipped from grief on down into some sort of existential funk. Both are intense, confused, dangerous young men – they're mad, but we can't ever be quite sure how mad. Both are enticed and appalled by the prospect of their own death (Riggs turns his lethal weapon on himself one night, and Hamlet gets as far as wondering whether or not to be). What both must do, to set things right once more with the world, is to go out and kill.

The similarities begin to thin out here, however. Hamlet carries a sword, for one thing, while Riggs wields a hand gun. Riggs hates God, but Hamlet hates himself. While Riggs is a man of action, Hamlet is a man of inaction. He's heroic all right, but he's baffled, flummoxed – he's forever howling in dismay at himself, at the queer, glorious prison of his own mortality. He's trapped in some sort of vortex of consciousness, thinking about thinking about acting. He talks too much, so his timing's off – he keeps failing, nightmarishly, to jab the villainous king, and then out of nowhere he jabs the silly old sycophant instead. He's got a gorgeous young woman wanting him, but seems to prefer his mom. What's worse, what's most disorienting, justice itself doesn't work in this movie. Hamlet is the object as well as the pursuer of revenge, and when all scores have been settled we aren't fired up, we're exhausted. We know we've seen something great: we've seen a human being writhing around to face the terrible mystery of its own nature. Whereas in Lethal Weapon, we haven't.

Zeffirelli radically trims and rearranges Shakespeare's script for this version, but manages to present a cohesive whole. He simplifies and clarifies, but maintains a sense of conundrum. Gibson is pretty good; Glenn Close is an insipid Gertrude, but Paul Scofield is a harrowing ghost. We should all be so eloquently haunted.

© John Gould 2010

A Note on Haiku
(Appendix to the chapbook Singularities)

Haiku is a form of Japanese poetry deeply connected to that land’s language and culture. The verses in this little volume are only haiku, then, in the sense that a composition for the Japanese koto could ever be a fugue. A koto player might well be inspired by Bach, just as these poems have been inspired by Basho, Buson, and Issa, but in the end it’s the sound of his own instrument he must listen for.

A haiku is a strikingly spare little creation, a mere particle of perception, inert until it bursts in a particular mind. All forms of literature demand imaginative effort of the reader, but none is so helpless as the haiku without it. A haiku is the record of a moment, residue of some intense, fleeting emotion or insight on the part of a poet. It communicates its special awareness not by explaining it, but by recreating the instant itself, inviting us to enter into it and, in turn, to be penetrated by it.

One of the most distinctive qualities of the haiku is its extreme brevity. The standard for the form is seventeen syllables (really “units of duration,” not quite synonymous with our syllables), divided into three lines of five, seven and five. Very often the poem is divided into two parts by a kireji, or cutting word (sometimes rendered in English as a dash or some other mark of emphatic punctuation). Many practitioners, in both Japanese and other tongues, have chosen to take liberties with these aspects of the form. Verbal frugality, however, is the unvarying rule. The art of haiku is the art of concision. Almost everything is left unsaid.

Various techniques have been developed by haiku poets to amplify the resonance that can be achieved with a single lungful of words. One of these is the so-called season word, by which each poem is assigned the mood or flavour of one of the four seasons. Many haiku are imbued with some humanly perceived attribute of nature, such a permanence or impermanence, simplicity or mystery, harmony or loneliness.

Another fundamental technique is that of internal comparison. Two impressions, related in some subtle, even contradictory way, are set side by side: the poem derives its vigour from the tension between them. The commonplace and the sublime, for instance, the temporal and the timeless are often juxtaposed, or shown mysteriously bleeding into one another. Sense impressions may be merged to the point of synesthesia. For the haiku poet, this technique often reflects the underlying ethos of the verse. Much of the haiku canon expresses a Zen Buddhist sensibility, in which the profound interconnection of all beings and all levels of perception is a basic tenet. For these poets, haiku are expressions of moments of spiritual realization. They are highly serious, though far from sober. Miracles of karumi, or exquisite lightness, they seek to manifest the supple emptiness at the heart of all things.

© John Gould 2010

Review: Highway 61

Pokey Jones (Don McKellar) is a barber in Pickerel Falls, a tiny town near Thunder Bay at the dead end of highway 61. His only family is a car, his only passion a trumpet: he never drives the one or blows the other. He cuts hair, and dreams of life fifteen hundred miles down the highway, in New Orleans, birthplace of his beloved jazz. What Pokey needs is a push, a jumpstart. What he needs is a spark of life. He gets it from a cadaver.

This is the set-up for Bruce McDonald's Highway 61. It's a road movie, complete with rambunctious soundtrack and lots of picturesque, squalid America coming at you through the windscreen. It has something to it of the hip, nihilistic minimalism so popular in independent films, but there's a sparkle to it as well, and a full-blooded sense of humour. Pokey has the requisite modern look – a slightly puzzled deadpan – but you can't help believing he's come by it honestly.

What gets Pokey into motion is his discovery of a corpse in his back yard, and his subsequent meeting with Jackie (Valerie Buhagiar), a heavy metal roadie who's hatched a plan to use the body to smuggle drugs across the border and on down to New Orleans. Jackie's street-tough, but her eyes are wide open in her heart-shaped face, and there's vulnerability to her lop-sided, toothy grin. She plays Pokey for a bit of a sucker: she lets on that the dead man is her brother, whose remains she has to transport to the family home down south. Pokey has been waiting years for an excuse to set out on this pilgrimage. The two pile into his old black and white Galaxie, coffin strapped to the roof, and hit the road.

Yet it takes Pokey a while to get into the spirit of the thing. He's sober and reserved, and its only the euphoria of pure motion, coupled with Jackie's lustiness and daredevilry, that finally loosens him up. Their saga is punctuated by some pretty wonderful moments. They visit a household of blitzed-out rock and rollers (one of whom is played by Art Bergman), who lead them on an indoor chicken hunt – everybody runs through the house with guns blazing, while Tom Jones croons "It's Not Unusual" in the background. There's a great love-in-the-rain sequence to the gospel tune "Can't Nobody Do Me Like Jesus." And, very subtly, Jackie too is altered by the journey. She doesn't calm down, exactly, but she begins to tire of her determined criminal craziness, to feel tenderness as well as that old acquisitive desire.

But as we all know, jazz and rock are the devil's music, and on this quest the lord of darkness (Earl Pastko) is never far behind. He's been picking up souls on the cheap – for a bus ticket, a mickey of bourbon, whatever – and for Jackie's "brother" it's time to collect. The flames of hell lick at our voyagers' heels, but they just keep stumbling trustfully on towards their baptism.

© John Gould 2010

The Bells

I'm nobody's fool. I'm a fool between jobs, on the bum, down on his luck. A fool bereft of audience, of butt, of laughing-stock. A lonely, a dejected fool.

The worst of it is, there's no one to put the blame on but me. No career counselor coaxed me into this line of work, no aptitude test sized me up and slotted me here. Dad never gripped me by the shoulders, looked me searchingly in the eye and said, "Son, I have a dream. One day, when you're all grown up, I see you a fool." Dad had a dream, but that wasn't it.

The truth is, a lot of people advised me against the profession. Mom tried to be supportive, but even she couldn't suppress a doubtful look as she said, "Isn't that wonderful. And here I thought people had given up having fools long ago.” My sister, ever a believer, ransacked college calendars in search of fool programs. "Nothing doing," she reported, apologetically. "Should I check under idiot? Or maybe moron?" Friends were incredulous. "There's no money in foolishness," they said. "And no chicks!"

How could I explain? Some people are driven. Hillary had to wear climbing boots, Pavlova toe shoes – I had to wear the bells.

When I graduated high school I began stitching together a curriculum of my own. By day I slaved at singing, dancing, acrobatics. By night it was Plato, Augustine, anybody who'd ever been struck by a big thought. I memorized the poets from Dante to Poe; for a year I spoke only in iambic pentameter, my phrasing rife with assonance and alliteration. I was determined to be the wisest, wittiest fool ever to don the motley.

On the grounds (I can't remember where I'd read it) that experience was the best instructor, I also carried on a life. I had several relationships, failures that enriched me with longing and regret. At one stage the allure of the normal became so powerful that I was swayed from my calling. Just then, as a blessing, as an offering of peace, my parents made me a gift of my first harlequin outfit. A brilliant patchwork of primaries in fine silk, it came complete with bauble, cap and slippers. "After all," the folks pointed out, "you come by it honestly. Your Grandma's a kook, God bless her, and your Grandpa was a meditative man. Son, there's jester in your blood."

And so, swelled with new conviction, I set out capering into the world.

Sadly, Mom was right all along: nobody keeps a fool these days. For one thing, who can afford it? If people need a laugh they read the personals; for enlightenment they flip on Oprah. Modern man's idea of a retinue is a lawyer and a real estate agent, his guru a behaviorist in a three piece suit. There's no regard anymore for craft, for private vision. There's no percentage in the personal touch.

So, like most fools nowadays, I've had to piece together a living from short-term gigs, one-night stands. It would break your heart to see me up there prancing and punning for gaggles of giggling Shriners, bevies of dribbling rich kids. Heir to the foolscap of Lear's addled prophet, I rhyme for the Ladies League, juggle for Cubs and Brownies. Professional ethics? Personal standards? I once turned down a banquet for the Young Fascists of America, does that count?

No. No, it doesn't. Any fool worth his salt would have snapped up that gig, sent the simpering cretins home squirming with self doubt. Hell, I chose this trade because I thought I could make a difference. Get them chuckling, was my idea, and then say what has to be said. Slip in a goad with the guffaw, tweak the conscience as you tickle the ribs. Any old clown can raise a hoot over two dwarves in a dinghy. It takes a proper fool to get people laughing at themselves, laughing with pity, with grief, with recognition.

Lofty ambitions. Next week I have two jobs lined up. Tuesday I'm at Mom's place for a cousin’s bridal shower, Thursday I warm up for the guy who warms up for Juan Juanita at "Crossroads." Who do I think I'm kidding?

Right. Who do I think I'm kidding? Because let's face it, nobody chooses to be a fool. Fools are chosen. You cavort because you have to. If I could have declined the vocation, would I be balancing here on my head, whistling through my nose and spelling out aphorisms with my spindly legs? Not likely. These doubts, these agonizings are entirely specious. Only one thing ever happens, and it happens.

And so I dupe myself into accepting my fate. I make my life out to be a wry, poignant joke, and I laugh. In the privacy of my room I allow myself a quick weep, a cursory rage. Then I pull on my gear, gird myself with a few lines of the bard ("This cold night will turn us all to fools and madmen...."), and step jingling into the street.

© John Gould 2010

Review: The Dead

The Dead, an adaptation of James Joyce's sublime short story of the same name, was the last film offered up by John Huston before his death. He directed it from in front of a video monitor, oxygen tubes running in and out of his nose. It was written by his son and features his daughter. It's about a modest social gathering in Dublin one night in 1904, about love and the failure to love, about the redemptive power of self-recognition.

On the evening of the Feast of the Epiphany the Morkan sisters, two elderly spinsters, are throwing their annual black-tie bash. There's a sense of festivity in the air, of ritual, of repetition. Guests noisily arrive, genteel people gently cajoling one another, asserting old connections. Huston studies them with generous-spirited attention: he understands the odd way truth has of emerging when most constrained by civility, and he catches it as it bubbles up here and there amongst the warmly lit rooms. Meanwhile, outside each window, snow falls softly on the world, suggesting to us a sense of wholeness that will soon be revealed, a sense of that strange unity comprehending all the living and the dead.

The catalyst for this revelation is a guest named Gabriel, and the fond, condescending feelings he has for his wife. Gabriel (Donal McCann) is a kind, pretentious, self-deluded man; Gretta (Angelica Huston) is a spirited woman he has failed to understand. By the end of the evening Gabriel is in effect cuckolded by a boy who died years ago for the love of Gabriel's wife. Gabriel undergoes a kind of death of his own: he loses his self-possession, stunned at his own shallow egotism with respect to this woman, at the ludicrous inadequacy of his responses to life. It's the figure of Gretta's sweet young dead lover that mediates for him his entry into a state of heightened awareness and sympathy. He's stirred at last to passionate connection with the world by a vision of his own passionlessness.

These are inadequate words: a story of this beauty and subtlety is impossible to paraphrase. I would have said it was impossible to film except that John Huston, as a parting bequest, chose to leave us this masterpiece.

© John Gould 2010

How to Get Inside

I

The ax-blade, how it hungers for the heart of the wood – start with that. And the cut’s inside, now outside, that paradox. The pungent sap-scent.

II

Have him set aside the ax, say something deep – how the outside will always invade or better colonize the inside. Have him say, “By the time you’ve reached inside, it’s outside. You’ve brought outside in with you.” Have her recognize this as a come-on, his way of getting inside her. Describe her feelings about this.

III

In a dream, have her reach into her own belly. Take the perspective of her fingers as they crawl up inside her ribcage – blind kittens rooting at her heart, her liver, her lungs. Have her wake up nauseous. Have her check for blood again, find none.

IV

Have him come upon a dead creature – a raccoon, road-killed. Have him squat, slice it open with his penknife, unfold its flesh in search of darkness. Have light pour in. Point out the smear of blood on his blade, its lack of shape.

V

Describe the pattern on the inside of his eyelids as he tosses one night with fever, chaos giving birth to form. Compare this to the outside taking root within her, and to at least one other thing.

VI

Jesus said, Split a piece of wood and I am there. Use this somehow. Jesus said, If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. Use this too. Irony?

VII

Have a piece of wood burning, inside becoming outside. Describe it in terms of shedding skins. Inscribe the words on a sheet of paper, scrumple it up, put a match to it. Add wood, freshly split, just lugged in from the autumn afternoon.

© John Gould 2010

Review: Insignificance

A hot summer night, New York City, 1954. Albert Einstein, a gentle, quizzical, haunted man sits cross-legged in his hotel room working out the shape of the universe. Marilyn Monroe, meanwhile, has her shapely legs ogled on a movie set in the street below, as her skirt is unceremoniously blown up around her ears. Amongst the gaping crowd loiters Joe Di Maggio, her disaffected husband, chewing gum and ripping through packets of baseball cards in search of himself. Senator Joe McCarthy, in a nearby bar, turns to the punter next to him. "According to the laws of probability," announces the icy, gin-soaked Senator, "you drink a glass of water, you drink a piece of Napoleon's crap." Everything connects.

This is Insignificance. It traces the paths of these four characters (played beautifully by Michael Emil, Theresa Russell, Gary Busey and Tony Curtis) as they merge and sheer away during the night. So, before dawn we get Senator McCarthy, the great white pinko-hunter, marvelling at how much Marilyn Monroe looks like Marilyn Monroe; we get Monroe demonstrating the theory of relativity to Albert Einstein; we get Einstein shyly bragging to Joe Di Maggio that he himself once graced the "Chewy Fruit Great Scientific Achievements" series. The dialogue here (by Terry Johnson) is wicked. The film Nicolas Roeg constructs from it is so unremittingly smart you have to see it again to believe it.

Insignificance is about everything. Like any work of art that hints at the totality of things it's incomplete. It's successful because its incompleteness is integral to its structure: it's essentially open, allusive, unfolding. It's finite but unbounded, like the universe. Roeg uses the intercutting of his images to suggest the kind of deeply interwoven world implied by physicists from Einstein on down. Marilyn's skirt, for instance, wafting up to reveal "the face of God" (as one of the fan crew puts it), introduces a visual motif echoed throughout the film: by the billowing sheet of the bed she and Einstein are climbing into, and the sheet blood-stained with her lost baby; by the rumple of pages on which Einstein is elaborating his Grand Unified Theory, and the curtains of the window through which he will shortly hurl his life's work; by the flower petals in a daydream of Hiroshima before E equalled m c squared, and a tattered cloth in a nightmare of that city's destruction. What this world is made up of, what constitutes this world, is connection.

Insignificance is a comic vision of disintegration and wholeness, entropy and information, death and knowledge. It begins with the sweet, cheeky face of God and ends with apocalypse.

© John Gould 2010

Review: Angel Overburdened

What bits of biography are relevant to the interpretation of an author’s fiction? The fact that Joan Salazar doesn’t exist, for instance – should that be on our minds as we consider her daring first novel, Angel Overburdened?

“Doesn’t exist” may be putting it too strongly. Joan Salazar is the creation of Jacob Llewellyn, the obscure Welsh poet who, to facilitate a shift in genres, concocted her as an alter ego. “Not just a pseudonym,” as Llewellyn himself insists in a recent tweet (he was up to 7 followers when I last checked), “but an autonomous soul with her own aesthetics, her own obsessions. I birthed her, and she birthed the book.”

It’s a willed psychosis, in a way. Nervy, but not without precedent. Half Soren Kierkegaard’s philosophical output, for instance, appears under the name of authors he invented. Johannes de Silentio, Vigilius Haufniensis (catchy, huh?), he’s got a whole host of them. "In the pseudonymous works,” says Kierkegaard, “there is not a single word which is mine.” What better way to combat our tendency to see system where there is none – to push us in the direction of our own painful authenticity – than to shatter one’s voice into myriad views?

Other examples? Well, there’s the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, who gives to his various alter authors the term “heteronyms,” to emphasize, again, that they aren’t simply other names but other selves. “Fernando Pessoa, strictly speaking, doesn’t exist” – so claims Alvaro de Campos, the opium-smoking, absinthe-drinking dandy who authored some of Pessoa’s most haunting poems.

So. Llewellyn and Salazar, the author and the author-of-the-author of this novel – are they one and the same person? Meeting them on the page you’d have to say not. Whereas Llewellyn’s poems are lavish (“I turn bone-lonesome back / for a never home” – one imagines him sharing a dolorous drink with Dylan Thomas, or anyway trying to), Salazar’s prose is spare. Where his work is almost quaintly romantic, hers is rigorously postmodern, self-reflective.

This story, like any story – like my story, say – is in flight from its opening line. This story is this story’s attempt to free itself from its own source, the ludicrous accident of its fall into being…

Pretty fancy. Smart, but not just smart. Salazar gives us a story, and even (for want of a better word) a soul. Her protagonist – the unlucky J, who has spent his life in flight from a traumatic infancy – is an Italian POW interned in 1943 at a camp near Swansea in Wales (a morning’s drive down from Llewellyn’s hometown of Aberystwyth). J blunders into a romance with a young Welsh nurse, the “Angel” of Angel Overburdened (a title borrowed from the Paul Klee painting which graces the cover of the rare first – and so far only – edition of the novel). She tends to him almost obsequiously, yet maintains dominance by virtue of his status as a prisoner. The two spend their stolen hours tenderly exploring the various perversions offered by this power structure, dreading the declaration of peace which will force them to transcend it. Will they succeed? When the time comes, will they find a way to liberate themselves from the oppressive history of their love?

This story’s climax – here it comes now – will never redeem the arbitrariness of its beginning. To the end this story will be haunted by the weird finity of its first words, and more, by the dream of infinite potential from which it awoke…

Jacob Llewellyn? Don’t you dare kill off Joan Salazar until she’s wrung out every last word.

Joan Salazar? Don’t you dare kill off Jacob Llewellyn until you’ve finished your work.

© John Gould 2010

Q & A With John Gould

You have referred to the form of very short fiction, as contained in you collections Kilter: 55 Fictions and The Kingdom of Heaven, as “the haiku of fiction.” What originally inspired you to write so economically, and how are you able to put so much into so little?

JG: It was the haiku – that Japanese sub-compact of the poetry world – that first got me thinking small. I’d been playing around with that form (seventeen syllables, a single lungful of words) and loving the process of composition – the prolonged preparation, and then the sudden, swift execution. I also loved the subtlety of the haiku, its tendency to irony and understatement, its openness to paradox. Could I recreate that experience in prose? Could I attain a comparable quickness and lightness and intensity in the world of story? That’s the challenge I set myself.

In a way it’s a genetic thing with me. My mother is an English teacher descended from a long line of journalists, so I’ve got that taste for language, and for narrative. My father’s a mathematician, so I've also got a passion for abstract thought, and for concise, elegant formulations. My mini-stories are one solution to that dichotomy in my nature.

Wait for the essential to come clear, and then get it down. Keep it short, no matter how long it takes. That’s what I try to do.

Can you talk about how the film trilogy based on stories from Kilter came about?

JG: Director Corey Lee had encountered the book, and approached me about adapting one of the stories for short film. He sent me some of his earlier work, which I found both daring and accomplished. He also sent me a draft of a script for “The Perfection of the Moment.” I loved it, the way he’d mapped the idiosyncratic structure of the story – a series of “notes to self” – onto the structure of his film, using rewinds and fast-forwards to stutter through the story’s action. Ingenious. Then we met, and hit it off. I had a hunch we’d have a fruitful working relationship, and we did.

Has this changed the way in which you digest films adapted from short stories and novels?

JG: This is my most active involvement in filmmaking so far, so I’d say it’s affected how I watch any film at all. I like to think I’m a little more alert, now, to the particulars of the medium – the challenges, the aesthetic choices.

I’ve always been drawn to films based on literature, the extra layer that adds, the extended history of thought and attention. Ideally such a project brings together two temperaments – that of the original author, and that of the writer/director who adapts the work for film – which complement and enrich one another. The friction generated by those two temperaments, and by the constraints of the two media rubbing up against one another, can generate some fascinating work.

Can you talk a bit about your typical writing day?  And describe your ideal writing environment?

JG: My writing process is pretty unstructured, so it’s hard to characterize a typical day. In the early stages of a project I do a lot of what I’d describe as active waiting: I seed my mind with the idea I want to work on (a vague sense of character and predicament, a hint of a voice), and then keep myself half-busy while I work on it at a half-conscious level. A kind of directed day-dreaming, you could say.

At that early stage I like to work out and about – at a café, in a library, on a bench by the water, whatever. The chaotic energy of the outside world seems to help. I work longhand, scribbling in the little notebook I always have with me. Later on I move to the desk and the computer.

My most lucid work tends to be done late at night. That’s when I’m most likely to break through any substantial barrier I’m having to deal with, in the work or in myself.

What is next on the horizon for John Gould?  What can you tell us of your latest writing project?

JG: I’m in the late stages of a novel now. I love the form of sudden fiction – the very short stuff – but after Kilter, I felt it was time to push myself, try something new, so I switched from the sprint to the marathon. One extreme to the other, I guess that’s my pattern.

The protagonist of my novel turns out to be a film critic. I wonder what he’d think of the Corey Lee’s Kilter Trilogy? Must ask him.

© John Gould 2010

Review: Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould

Canadian pianist Glenn Gould’s music – his recording of a sublime snippet of Bach, to be more precise – has passed Pluto now, and is whizzing through interstellar space. It travels with the Voyager probe as part of humanity’s how-de-do to the cosmos. It’s pleasing to picture an alien audiophile getting hooked on Gould: the startling virtuosity (he did this with just ten digits?), the uncanny blend of rigour and romanticism, the crispness and structural clarity of his sound. If she – I’m picturing a female ET, perhaps because Gould was such a hit with the ladies – if she were hungry for more, we’d ship her the rest of the Bach, then the Beethoven, then the Schoenberg. If she expressed interest in the creature behind these creations, if she wanted to know what life is like for a galactic talent here on earth, we’d send her Kevin Bazzana’s terrific biography, Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould.

Bazzana is far from the first earthling to have a crack at Gould. The scholarly and biographical material is eyestrain-inducing, and there have been many artistic responses to his work. Consider Francois Girard’s Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould (“too arty for its own good,” argues Bazzana), or Thomas Bernhard’s hypnotic novel, The Loser, about a musician ruined by the experience of hearing Gould play (as a decent hockey player might be ruined by a glimpse of Gretzky). Bazzana himself has already authored a musicological book about Gould, and has edited GlennGould magazine for a decade. One wonders if he has a Gould trilogy in him. The Music, the Man, the… Myth?

But Bazzana has already illuminated most aspects of the myth in the book before us. Gould’s hypochondria, his histrionic humming and swooning at the keyboard, his early quitting of the concert stage, the marriage in him of willfulness and tenderness, of the puritan and the clown – these are a few of the features that make Gould such biographical fun. Bazzana brings to this material a vigorous mind and a vivid, felicitous prose style. The result is a compelling read.

Happily, Bazzana boasts yet another virtue: a finely-tuned guff detector. Like jazz’s John Coltrane, Gould attracts a cultish sort of reverence. As Bazzana reports, “In some quarters [Gould] is received as a kind of guru or monk, a holy man, a Platonic ideal.” Bazzana will have none of it. He refutes some of the devotee’s fondest articles of faith: that Gould sprang fully formed from out of the void, without influence or inspiration; that he was stainlessly hermetic; that he was sexless. Bazzana’s Gould is neither a saint nor a nutcase, but a man who bent a delicate mind and body to a task which he construed as spiritual: the “lifelong construction,” in Gould’s own words, “of a state of wonder and serenity.”

Bazzana’s book made me eager to return to the music. I believe it will do the same for our distant friend. Let her start again at the very beginning, with Gould’s first version of the Goldberg Variations, recorded fifty earth years ago. It will take her away.

© John Gould 2010