REVIEW: The Geography of Pluto

The Geography of Pluto
By Christopher DiRaddo
Cormorant Books (2014)

Read by Su J. Sokol

The surface terrain of The Geography of Pluto, Christopher DiRaddo’s debut novel, is a deceptively familiar landscape. Will, the main character, is gay, Italian, a geography teacher, and the only son of a devoted mother. He seeks connection in his life, suffers loss, and gains understanding of himself and the world. We even have a kind of “boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy finds boy” plot device.

Yet, despite these ordinary trappings, this is not your run-of-the mill novel. It’s the story of a gay man growing into middle adulthood in a very particular place — Montréal. DiRaddo writes about Montréal as though it were a character in the story, bringing it to life even for readers who aren’t familiar with the bars and stretches of sidewalk that his characters inhabit. The tone DiRaddo evokes is unmistakably Canadian, with long, cold winters and drawn-out moments of darkness and light. Even Will’s pet peeve — people who air their dirty laundry in public places — exhibits a very Canadian sensibility.

What is also noteworthy about this novel is its versatility. It can be categorized as an urban story, as gay literature, or as a mainstream Canadian novel, equally comfortable on any of those shelves. This is a neat trick. In this niche world, it’s easy for books that try to be many things to end up falling through the cracks. Somehow, DiRaddo has not only managed to avoid this hazard, he’s done the opposite by creating bridges. Because of this,The Geography of Pluto has helped to bring gay literature into the Canadian mainstream. It is able to do this precisely because the story is written in an ordinary literary style about an ordinary person facing challenges that are also, by and large, ordinary, no less so for the fact that they are difficult and poignant. At the same time, DiRaddo has succeeded in mainstreaming this story without sanitizing or heteronormalizing his characters’ lives.

The title of DiRaddo’s book — The Geography of Pluto — brings to mind that popular-culture bestseller of the nineties: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus. Are gay men from Pluto or are we simply “all one race, the human race”, as the popular aphorism would have it? The beauty of this book is that it helps to answer that question in all its complexity with a resounding “both.” Will’s story is universal, and the ordinary way in which it is told emphasizes this universality while making it accessible to a large constellation of readers. Yet, the content of Will’s story diverges from the usual narratives found in the majority literary culture. For some, this will be a sneak peak into an alien world; for others it will feel like their story has finally been brought from the margins to the centre. In the end, whether the reader is familiar with the geography of Pluto or whether this is a first visit to foreign territory, it will still be a voyage well worth taking.