Saturday, January 05, 2008

Patrick McGrath, "The Grotesque" (1989)

For my first book selection of the new year, I decided to choose a novelist I had never read. I'm not sure why The Grotesque caught my eye at the store- although the name Patrick McGrath seemed somehow familiar. I learned later that he wrote Spider, a work that was later adapted to film by David Cronenberg. Pretty much anything that compels this great Canadian filmmaker to make a movie gets the benefit of the doubt from me. Spider starred Ralph Fiennes, and concerned a man trapped in an isolation caused by severe schizophrenia. It was an intensely personal and challenging film. It turns out that the theme of being trapped also figures prominently in The Grotesque.

The protagonist of The Grotesque belongs to the faded gentry of mid-Twentieth Century England. Sir Hugo Coal is an amateur paleontologist whose penchant for fiddling around with bones reflects his atavistic yearnings to maintain the illusion of his crumbling lifestyle within the deteriorating shell of his country manor. He is (by his own admission) a neglectful husband and a shoddy father. He is essentially isolated by his rather jaded and gloomy outlook on life. His social ties are confined to an occasional pint with his gardener, and several other working class peasants. There is something in the stoic and uncommunicative manner of these "simple folk" that he can relate to.

It's a bit hard to pinpoint the most prominent hassle in his life. He's having a spot of difficulty with the new help. His maid is a drunkard, and his butler embodies a repressed hatred and envy of Hugo's social position. Harriet (Hugo's wife) flutters about on the periphery of her husband's awareness. There is very little genuine comradeship or compatibility in this marriage. Their beloved daughter has just announced her engagement to a frivolous young man called Sidney. Even the academic world wherein Hugo would like to find his place has turned its back on him. Finally, there's not much he can do to address the developing problems surrounding him. Hugo has suffered a paralyzing accident that has left him in an apparently vegetative state.

The first third of the book examines (in retrospect) the circumstances surrounding the build-up to Hugo's physical disenfranchisement. It's hard to sort out the reality of those events from Hugo's perceptions, as he seems a notoriously unreliable narrator. Apparently this is McGrath's forte- he exposes his characters through the reader's suspicions of the fragile relationship between subjectivity and objective truth. It's an interesting device. Naturally everyone has their biased perspectives. But illuminating these skewed frames without being heavy-handed is surely tricky business. Reading The Grotesque is an exercise based heavily in implication and insinuation.

There's no way to be sure what is happening beyond the direct sight of the narrator. Are Hugo's conclusions merely speculations colored by his cynical paranoia and insecurity? Why not? In posing these questions about his narrator's reliability, McGrath presents a larger inquiry to his readership. How much confidence do we have in our intuition? How much in our experience is adulterated by prejudice and extra-sensory conjecture? What is real? Put yourself in Hugo's chair, and imagine what it must be like to be confined to the closed circuit of your own head. Aren't we all rendered 'grotesque' when filtered through the subjective faculties of someone else's perceptions?

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