Patrick McGrath: The Grotesque
Patrick McGrath’s debut novel, The Grotesque, tells the story of Sir Hugo Coal, a paleontologist who, after a fall, has become a vegetable. Able only to watch the world around him, Coal sits in his wheelchair and relates recent events at Crook, the family home, although the thread of his narration is warped by his own bias and imaginings.
Prior to his fall, Sir Hugo, over the years, has been spending more time with his dinosaur bones and not been attentive to his wife, Harriet. But when the butler Fledge comes to Crook, Sir Hugo takes an interest in the man, mainly because the new employee would seem to be spending perhaps too much time with the lady of the house. Based on his actions (whispers here, smirks there) Sir Hugo believes that Fledge is out to usurp his place as head of the house. And when Sidney Giblet, fiance to Sir Hugo’s daughter, goes missing Fledge tops the list of suspects in Sir Hugo’s mind, although he’d rather not tell his worried daughter what he thinks, especially since there’s no real evidence.
The Grotesque is a piece of subtle fiction shot through with lashings of black humour. Perhaps not as subtle as the other McGrath I’ve read, Dr Haggard’s Disease, but there’s so much going on within the novel and the truth, once you realise that Sir Hugo’s account of life at Crook is not reliable, has to be discerned from careful reading between the lines. I’m sad to say that some of the details of the story were lost to me although that didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the story and I’m sure a reread will offer up new meanings and understandings. Like Lolita, it’s almost a novel that needs to be read again, if only to find all the seeds planted before you realised their relevance.
Gothic in tone, The Grotesque, is dense with description, yet is highly readable and the adjectives piled upon other adjectives in no way makes it a slog. And Sir Hugo’s voice maintains its charm for the duration without once slipping out of character:
So one afternoon I set off with a flask of whisky and a stout stick, and after tramping down a soggy cart track between thick growths of birch and alder I found myself beneath a vast gray sky with miles of flat, boggy fen before me and a lake in the distance. The air had a smoky, autumnal tang to it, I remember, and as I picked my way over the rough damp clumps of peat and moss, all tufted with marsh grass and bristling in the wind, and puddled between with rank, black water, my heart exulted at the stillness and desolation of it all. Wildfowl rose from their nests in the weeds and with a great honking flurry went flapping off towards the water, and I came squelching on through in my Wellington boots, with my thick tweed cap pulled low against the bite of the wind.
The characters in The Grotesque, as told by Sir Hugo, are all lively and believable, their Dickension names adding to the humorous gothic atmosphere. Who they are and what they want is of course hard to define since we aren’t given a clear depiction of them. But it’s fairly easy to read them based on their actions despite the presentation given. Fledge, the main concern of Sir Hugo, is the biggest concern of Sir Hugo and it’s rather plain to see that his disdain for the man is not due to any fear of the man but denial of his own feelings towards him.
Although I enjoyed The Grotesque I didn’t appreciate it as much as Dr Haggard’s Disease and felt that there was much left unsaid. That may just because I didn’t read between the lines well enough. But this tale – this comedy, even – is a masterpiece of prose, something that McGrath obviously takes great care with when writing novels. So while there’s unplumbed depths as far as I’m concerned, it’s well worth reading. Just don’t believe a word of it.
August 5, 2007