Dear God

Theo Tait

  • Port Mungo by Patrick McGrath
    Bloomsbury, 241 pp, £16.99, May 2004, ISBN 0 7475 7019 1

No one overwrites quite like Patrick McGrath. In a crowded field, he must be British fiction’s most prodigious overwriter. He made his name writing intense, florid novels about ‘wild delusions, ungovernable passions’, ‘insanity and obsessive sexual love’ (his words). But in Port Mungo he has written a book so lush, so fruity, so gorgeous – so in love with Romance and Passion – that his own back catalogue pales into understatement. I have scanned my only Barbara Cartland for something comparable; but nothing there can compete with McGrath in full flow. Where others might be happy with ‘the Italian sun’, McGrath goes for ‘the gentle golden glow of old Italy’. He’ll always dodge a workaday phrase like ‘a local man’ in favour of ‘a grizzled native of the town’. When he describes a tropical storm, it comes out like this:

Later the storm moved in across the gulf and the sky was lit by sudden wide sheets of lightning which threw up in stark relief angry black fists and knuckles of stormcloud, and bright jagged flashes which hissed into the sea. The trees across the river flapped about in the rising wind, their broad leaves languidly enfolding one another, and then the blessed rain came.

When the narrator ponders a difficult but durable marriage, it sounds like this:

So I entertained the idea of a love like a ship unsinkable. A ship unsinkable – I circled the idea and I asked it, was it real? Or was it, rather, a wisp of gothic romance, swallowed whole in childhood and rising now to the surface like an undigested scrap of salad leaf? But no, no. I had always seen it straight.

These samples are not unrepresentative. Port Mungo is rammed with over-ripe rhetorical flourishes, unnecessary circumlocutions and crazed compound metaphors (that wisp of gothic romance is first swallowed whole and then surfaces – where? how? – as an undigested lettuce leaf). By comparison, Dame Barbara looks spare, economical, even subtle.

Sniggerers will have a field day with Port Mungo. Some of its absurdities may be deliberate (the narrator is clearly and rather programmatically undermined throughout the book). But not many, I think. For a start, the narrator is supposed to be a woman, but she doesn’t sound like one. She sounds like a hammy male actor in late middle age – perhaps Christopher Lee in his prime, or Simon Callow. She is Gin Rathbone, and she introduces herself with these fine words: ‘I am a tall, thin, untidy Englishwoman, I drink too much and yes, I suppose I am rather – oh, detached – distant, aloof – snobbish, even, I have been called all these things, also cold, stiff and untouchable.’ A digression: McGrath is keen on narratorial interjections. Not only does Gin keep saying ‘he said’, ‘it seemed’ and ‘apparently’, so as to signal, for those who may have missed it, that she is an Unreliable Narrator. She also punctuates her tale with a collection of jaded, patrician ‘ahs’, ‘dear Gods’ and ‘of courses’. Her runaway favourite, though, is the sub-Nabokovian ‘oh’. As in: ‘He told me he would never have worked with such, oh – grandiosity – had he not lived in Port Mungo.’

The grandiose one is Gin’s brother, Jack, the protagonist of Port Mungo. He is first seen as an intense young man, from a Suffolk dynasty so posh it has a family curse and a private tutor to teach the children ‘German literature and Irish history’. Jack is also an Artist. As an art student in London in the 1950s, he embarks on a passionate love affair with Vera Savage, another artist and also, as her name may suggest to eagle-eyed readers, somewhat wild. Together, they strike out for New York, before drifting south to the Caribbean, ending up in Port Mungo, ‘a once-prosperous river town now gone to seed, wilting and steaming in the mangrove swamps of the Gulf of Honduras’. There they set themselves up in a huge, rickety banana warehouse. Jack – ‘this fiercely driven artist, this latter-day Gauguin, stimulated by the wealth of form and colour in the natural world down there, also by its fecundity, its exuberance, its violence’ – beavers away in his studio, and also looks after their two daughters. Vera, meanwhile, devotes herself to heavy drinking, wanderlust and sleeping with other men. Or at least that’s what Gin says. But the reader suspects that her account may be somewhat, oh – partial. Especially when Peg, the older daughter, dies in mysterious circumstances, and Gin shrilly insists that Vera’s drunken fecklessness was entirely to blame.

It’s hard to get a clear idea of Jack’s art. Sometimes he’s a Gauguin-style ‘tropicalist’. At other times he is more of an Abstract Expressionist, and others still he seems to be painting fey Pre-Raphaelite nudes and classical allegories. But all this is a red herring: the novel isn’t about what he does, it’s about who he is. ‘He’s an artist, for God’s sake,’ Gin says at one point, succinctly elucidating Port Mungo’s theme. In his introduction to the novel, McGrath explains that the book grew out of ‘a longtime interest in the romantic figure of the brilliant but dissolute artist’. He started to write about ‘a painter, a man of excessive appetites who leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes’. But he soon realised that his hero ‘was little more than a walking cliché’. So he decided to get round the problem by sharing the artistic duties between Jack and Vera: she’s brilliant but dissolute, he’s driven and obsessive. This doesn’t solve it: together they doggedly enact every cliché about the old-school bohemian lifestyle. They are ‘wild’, ‘dramatic’ and ‘passionate’. They frequent seedy pubs, and go to louche parties in Camden Town. They make grand gestures, and risk all for their Art. They laugh at convention, and live in ramshackle lofts. They suffer the ‘complete breakdown of the civilised reflex’ in the Tropics. They drink too much. They go slightly mad. Essentially, the novel is a tired and overheated retread of Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence, eighty years on.

‘Habitual perception kills,’ the formalist critic Viktor Shklovsky said. ‘It devours works, clothes, furniture, one’s wife, and the fear of war.’ Cliché kills Port Mungo. It’s diverting enough, but Jack and Vera’s tantrums and tragedies all seem to take place inside a massive pair of inverted commas. There is a tiny thrill to be had from watching McGrath’s bohemians behave exactly as they’re meant to behave – in the same way that it’s mildly amusing to see someone actually slip on a banana skin. But this is clearly McGrath’s worst book. His five previous novels and his short stories prove that he is a great storyteller, with an extremely fertile imagination, and that he is a considerable baroque stylist. Port Mungo represents a change of direction; he calls it ‘probably’ his ‘first adult book’. By which I think he means that it is his first real attempt to write a non-gothic novel: a study of how an accidental death destroys a family. The gothic tendency dies hard, however, especially if you like Poe as much as McGrath does. His first four novels were called The Grotesque (1989), Spider (1990), Dr Haggard’s Disease (1993) and Asylum (1996): the titles give a pretty good idea of the prevailing mood. Not that the books are monotonous, or even especially similar, though an inclination towards pastiche runs through them all. The Grotesque is a brittle, Evelyn Waugh-inflected satire. Dr Haggard’s Disease is a macabre reworking of The End of the Affair. His last novel, Martha Peake (2000), is a very enjoyable hybrid of Stevenson and Defoe, with generous helpings of American Revolutionary history. But they are all thoroughgoing gothic novels, with madmen, horrifying crimes, terrible secrets, lunatic asylums and creepy old buildings: there are bats in the belfry, trolls in the basement and skeletons in every cupboard.

Gothic is different from other types of respectable writing. Most literary writers follow Shklovsky’s recipe for cheating the dead hand of habitual perception: they try to avoid cliché, to use original perspectives, to make the familiar strange. Gothic fiction, in so far as it deals in the uncanny, may not be wholly dissimilar. But it goes about its business in a completely different way. Take this, from the beginning of ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’:

I looked upon the scene before me – upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain – upon the bleak walls – upon the vacant eye-like windows – upon a few rank sedges – and upon a few white trunks of decayed trees – with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveller upon opium – the bitter lapse into everyday life – the hideous dropping off of the veil.

The gothic works by excess and repetition, by loading everything down with atavistic fears and occult associations. These tend to be pretty old chestnuts: the dead are alive, the living are dying, the nightmares are real. But then what are superstitions, if not folk clichés that never quite lose their power? Shklovsky said that the aim of art was to ‘make stone stony’. The gothic writer, by contrast, would probably afflict the stone with an ancient curse, encase it in velvet, and bring it to life to perform a series of ritualistic murders. Gothic, in short, is cliché gone mad.

In Port Mungo, there are either too many clichés or not quite enough. It is altogether less excessive and delirious than its predecessors. There are no hunchbacks, resurrection men or flesh-eating pigs. Most of the action takes place in a fairly prosaic New York, where Jack returns after the death of his daughter. But the old gothic reflexes prove hard to banish. Inevitably, there are mysteries, and the story follows the traditional gothic plot: the crime uncovered, the return of the repressed. Anna, the surviving daughter, arrives in New York after a long estrangement, now the same age as Peg when she died, and bearing a striking resemblance to her: ‘Anna Rathbone, by coming into our life like this, and rousing the past, was rousing her sister.’ She wants to pose for her father. But she also wants to know the truth about Peg’s death: was it really a drunken accident, caused by Vera’s carelessness? Or did something more sinister occur? The suggestion is that she may have committed suicide after being abused by her father. Jack begins to behave more wildly, haunted by the picture he is painting of Anna, which sits in the studio attic, emanating menace, like Dorian Gray’s portrait; or perhaps he is haunted only by his guilty conscience. The novel builds to a melodramatic and gruesome climax. It is also rather predictable, which is a pity: McGrath is generally a great narrative showman, with an instinctive feel for suspense and shock-horror denouements.

But despite all these gothic goings-on, McGrath attempts to paint delicate psychological portraits, not his usual psychiatric grotesques. This is difficult. Port Mungo is too overwritten and too clichéd to have much plausibility as a character study. A haunted house or a scheming, lecherous monk demand to be overwritten. But, as Gin asks, ‘what can you say about the death of a child?’ This vital dimension of the novel never comes to life. Gothic is not suited to the sympathetic exploration of ordinary misery, or of ordinary cruelty. McGrath has written pastiche – excellent pastiche – for most of his career. But he seems to have run into the pastiche-artist’s dead-end: the discovery that it’s hard to match the ready-made narrative and stylistic sophistication of pastiche with a corresponding emotional depth and authenticity. Perhaps this explains why the one sentiment convincingly conveyed in Port Mungo is the fear of artistic failure. Looming up through the rhetorical guff, the dear Gods and the velvety repetitions, is an undercurrent of genuine pathos:

It was his good fortune to be painting again, because dear God, he would say, there was no taking it for granted any more, the years devoured the blithe confidence with which one went to work, the years displayed the fragility of one’s competence, and the looming grey wall of failure against which one struggled, that got higher – all this the psychic encumbrance of an artist of a certain age entering a room and preparing to go to work.