August 11, 2008

The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath

The Grotesque is Patrick McGrath's first novel, published in 1989 before Asylum and Martha Peake brought him a wider audience. It's an unusual book with few of the problems typical to first novels, over-reaching and precosity being especially dangerous for an edgy young Brit and, at the time of publication, McGrath was very much an edgy young Brit. I enjoyed The Grotesque for the most part. It reads like an intelligent, sometimes lurid, often gothic semi-hallucination thanks to McGrath's narrator (more on him in a second), but though I enjoyed McGrath's execution and language, it fell short of being ultimately satisfying. This isn't to say that The Grotesque was unsatisfying, it just fell slightly short of the impact I'd felt coming since the second chapter.

The Grotesque is about point of view, really. Briefly, the plot revolves the around Sir Hugo Coal's reconstruction of the events surrounding the disappearance and murder of his daughter's fiance. At the center of Hugo's reconstruction sits the sinister figure of his new butler, Fledge, for whom Sir Hugo formed and instant and apparently reciprocal dislike. But McGrath puts a twist on the typical retrospective 1st Person narrator by having Sir Hugo reveal quite early on that he is, in fact, a vegetable. Having suffered a cerebral "event" several months before, Sir Hugo narrates the story from within his own paralyzed carcass. Nobody knows that Hugo is cognizent, so we get the story without any filters but his and though he starts off quite reliably, he soon begins to unravel.

This unraveling is a gradual process, one that McGrath handles with awesome subtlety. Hugo presents his conjectures as fact and imagined scenes as actual events until the reader doesn't know if Sir Hugo is deluded, obsessed or simply crumbling under the weight of his own unexpressed consciousness. In short, he proves himself to be a very unreliable narrator, all the more so because he admits that his "empiricism" (before his "event", he was gentleman naturalist) is beginning to fail due to his vegetal condition.

The overall effect of Sir Hugo's gradual narrative decline is a pretty juicy one. The reader has to read actively. Hugo betrays his unreliabilty in small details and part of the fun is piecing together the possibilities. However, as fun as this is (and it is fun), the pieces fail to culminate in a meaningful climax. This is why The Grotesque fell just short of being satisfying. This book is full of so many breaking mirrors and crumbling echoes that you want it all to come together to a purpose. It's possible that the novel doesn't need to - this is not a story that requires resolution - and I'm glad that McGrath avoided the oh-so-clever notes on which it could have ended. Still, I can't help but feel that if one more connection had been implied, one more facet exposed, it would have pushed the book into the realm of the unforgetable. As it is, I'm very glad I read it, but I feel no compulsion to own it.

5 comments:

JimDesu said...

Pity -- that sounds almost good. :)

Madeleine said...

the real bummer is that it *was* good - it was just almost really great :)

mexalapotis said...

So..should I add it to the list? (And BOY, thanks to you, I have a LIST..;) )

Convivialdingo said...

Really fascinating premise though... thanks for the review! I'll check out the preview if I can find it.

Madeleine said...

mexalapotis - it's a good read, but if you add it to the list, i'd place it kind of low down...