Patrick McGrath’s first novel, The Grotesque, is an enchanting, black book—black in its pure Gothicism, black in its obsessive and steady expulsion of reason to isolation; enchanting in its siren narrative, chanting, actually, through the drawn-out litany of Sir Hugo’s tale about a butler named Fledge who has come to Hugo’s country estate in England to usurp from him his manor, his wife, his identity. Novels are built—like houses of shivering cards—by delicate connections which are revealed, or stacked, one at a time. This is especially true of a Gothic. For McGrath, who I feel will emerge with this book as one of the most gifted practitioners of contemporary Gothic, story and surface are as significant as meaning and buried suggestion, and so I’m going to reveal not one more thing about the tale Sir Hugo tells. Hugo, in his own telling, tells himself, and tells the captured reader about motivation, nature, manner, expression, power. I’d pay special homage, however, to McGrath’s single hand that dared not only to hold the card of Death as our supreme narrator, but to play it as well.
Bradford Morrow Your father is a psychiatrist. In your various voices, in “The Skewer,” from Blood and Water and Other Tales, and in Sir Hugo’s voice in The Grotesque—there seems to be a considerable knowledge of neurological disorders, mental and attendant physical disabilities. Catalepsy as distinct from paralysis is both Sir Hugo’s particular malady but also is a functioning metaphor for the community created in the novel. Catalepsy links with manipulation—the cataleptic victim stays rigid in whatever position he is put. Did you work with cataleptic patients yourself? Did your father bring his work home? How did these interests develop?
Patrick McGrath Catalepsy per se is a problem that neither my father nor I encountered in mental hospitals. I basically got that stuff from Oliver Sacks.
BM Underneath my question is an attempt to find your root interest in the Gothic.
PM When I started writing I ran through the genres. I never wrote autobiographically. First of all I wrote detective stories. After that I wrote a science fiction novel. Then, finally, a Gothic novel, and felt at once at home. At 12, I had been immersed in Poe and contemporary imitators, and I have a feeling I am drawing on the sediment of that boyhood reading.
BM Who besides Poe?
PM There was a series put out in England called The Pan Book of Horror Stories edited by Herbert Van Thai. It included work by everybody from Sheridan le Fanu, M. R. James, Lord Dunsany, Wilkie Collins, Charlie Dickens to moderns like Evelyn Waugh. When I came to the Gothic I intuitively latched on to it. As a writer I saw tremendous possibilities within the genre. It seems so rich in terms of psychological states, political ideas—there is nothing that cannot be handled within the genre. It’s at once tremendously supple and well-developed historically.
BM How would you define “The Gothic”?
PM If we think our language is built of sets of oppositions, the Gothic is that which always tends toward the darker side of any opposition one cares to throw up. So that the Gothic would always be motivated more by insanity than sanity, disorder than order, ruin rather than whole structure, disease rather than health, decadence rather than virtue. Tripping down all the values we can uncover within language, within culture, the Gothic is that form of fiction which is fascinated with the transgression from that norm, always pushing from light to darkness, day to night, reality to dreams.
BM From that definition, I can imagine you are not working alone in the Gothic tradition. Most of the writers I know are interested in entropy. Who, in your opinion, are other current practitioners of the Gothic?
PM John Hawkes, most vividly as a writer in English. Magic realism, so called, often contains elements of the Gothic, in many of the South Americans, for instance—Márquez immediately comes to mind. Oddly enough, I don’t see it handled by many English authors at the moment—Peter Ackroyd, maybe, Graham Swift. Patricia Highsmith could be claimed for the Gothic.
BM There’s an element of the comical in the Gothic which I find very difficult to put my finger on. In The Grotesque, particularly in Sir Hugo’s inflexible attitude toward everything, there is a Shavian predictability which is flooded with comedy. There are appearances in the novel of certain truly devastating, disgusting, even vile things, which I found amusing and humorous—not belly-laugh humorous, but a humor that’s present in a grimace. Do you find comedy a functioning part of the Gothic?
PM Because the genre is so well-developed, it’s hard to write a Gothic without it in some way being mannered. It’s hard to create an authentic Gothic because it’s not really very interesting anymore to simply arouse terror, horror, or disgust, which is what the early Gothicists were after. To be effective in contemporary Gothic one has to be skeptical of its motifs, its furniture, so that there will be introduced inevitably a note of parody.
BM The word “furniture” suggests entertainment since it hints of comfort. However unfairly, “Gothic” hints of entertainment, the late-night creep show of broody, foggy heaths. The Grotesque does have its heath and horrors but through the highly refined, distinctive, evocative and unusual language, the technical proficiency of the writing lifts the novel far above mere entertainment. I wonder whether that label “Gothic” will keep some readers away?
PM Stephen Schiff made quite a good point in his review of Blood and Wafer when he said that the Gothic was a form used by Melville, Hawthorne, Poe—the best writers of the time—and definitely had its place in literature. It’s a recent phenomenon that the Gothic has become a vulgar form, a low popular form monopolized by Stephen King and his ilk. But there’s an appetite in readers for good Gothic, and I hope that the hype will not put off readers who would otherwise enjoy the work.
BM There are islands, or pockets, of analogue for the whole of The Grotesque. Both through manipulations and betrayals there is no prospect for community in this book. Ingestion recur—human and natural, throughout, from the greedy marsh swallowing Sidney Giblet to Herbert the toad eating maggots. Containment, and the dead existing within the living—Hugo’s dinosaur bones in the barn being overgrown with fungus, the house itself inside which all these deadly games are being played being overrun with vegetation. Did this develop organically, or do you bring to a work presuppositions?
PM Yes and no. What you say about community is interesting. Community is impossible for a figure such as Sir Hugo. He, for me, is Gothic Man; man handled in a Gothic existential manner. Alone, essentially, he can’t find community because he cannot communicate. He can’t communicate because he’s turned in upon himself, selfish, psychologically regressed, as you notice in his reaction to the mothering he gets later on in the novel. It is proper and appropriate that he should regress to the level of an infant. Also, in a way it’s a movement toward death, back into the same state of undifferentiated being from which he arose. But in his rise to adulthood he remains psychologically warped and limited. This warping and limitation of his psyche is manifest in what happens to his body: it too is frozen. So what we have, then, is this figure who is frozen; why is he frozen? There’s one possible explanation. It’s that he’s never been able to own his sexuality, because he lives at a moment in time and in a class in society in which it wouldn’t be appropriate for him to own to his homosexuality, to come out of the closet. This matters to him. Although he will scorn it, the proprieties do matter, his position matters to him, his career matters to him. In fact, he sublimates everything into his career. He’s a figure also present in one or two of the stories in Blood and Water—“Lush Triumphant” for instance. The drunkard there can only paint, cannot relate, is unable to handle his own sexuality, his own emotional being, and just channels everything into his work, while denying that anything else is important. As we watch this character move through the narrative we see that it is not possible to maintain this dance and that bits seep out, things go awry.
BM Denial, in your model, then, is the first step toward betrayal?
PM Inasmuch as denial is going to warp one’s perceptions, distort one’s relationships, make one see others wrongly because they are always seen through the scrim of that denial. Qualities which community demands such as loyalty, generosity, patience, love become increasingly impossible to this enfeebled, grotesque psyche.
BM The Grotesque also delineates an archetypal power struggle between males. The butler Fledge is locked in mental combat with Sir Hugo, and is as important a character as Hugo in that he contributes always to the imbalance of power. Fledge too has a curious, outrageous sexuality. He uses his own potence for spoiling and ruining things that are before him and behind him. Who is the Grotesque?
PM For most of the novel the Grotesque is Hugo. Toward the end he realizes that grotesqueness is a spiritual state rather than a physical state. And when it comes to spiritual valor, he sees that he is a good man and Fledge is a bad man, that he is the physical manifestation of Fledge’s spiritual state, and at that moment he is able to project all his feelings of grotesqueness onto Fledge and say “although he may be perfect in outer form, inwardly he’s as twisted and ugly as I am outwardly.” And so he manages to shift his grotesqueness sideways. But when we think about Fledge, we do have to remember that we never get inside Fledge’s head. We’re always inside Sir Hugo’s head.
BM Why should we possibly trust Hugo’s representation of Fledge?
PM It’s hard to trust Hugo when he’s talking about Fledge because there are elements in their relationship that I think Hugo is not prepared to admit, even to himself. I think the fact that he is physically attracted to Fledge is hinted at fairly clearly at the beginning, and this of course—knowing what we do about Hugo’s sexual nature—is going to produce a whole string of distortions in its wake. It seems clear that Fledge is operating pretty cynically and opportunistically in the house, that he is probably forming a relationship with Sir Hugo’s wife, Harriet Coal. Whether he’s as cynical and manipulative as Hugo thinks he is, or whether this is Hugo’s own poverty of emotion that prevents him from imagining that anybody else would be capable of producing a truly loving relationship…it’s inconceivable to Hugo that Fledge and Harriet might actually have affection or even love for one another. It does occur to him that Harriet’s loneliness has made her needy and receptive to the attentions of another man, but it never occurs to him that Fledge might reciprocate in any way. He can only see Fledge as a snake in the grass.
BM There is a hint of spiritual growth in Hugo toward the end regarding his feelings towards Fledge’s wife just before that upside-down apotheosis that takes place at the end. The book has a number of mathematical falling-domino, or falling-cardhouse reactions. If you mapped it out, I suppose it would he a beautiful falling pattern, and it might be shaped like a Grotesque, because there are a lot of inevitabilities in the book as it plays itself out. It’s similar to several books that novelists in their late twenties to late thirties are writing. There seems to be a need for and a movement toward the deeply imagined among certain writers. I’m thinking of Bruce Duffy, Bill Vollman, David Wallace, even Jonathan Franzen. People who are not content to issue forth another coming-of-age book—what happened in college, my first line of coke, my first squeeze who jilted me. The Grotesque completely skips the de rigueur coming-of-age novel.
PM By the time you’re in your late twenties you have a fair hit of literary and intellectual experience behind you, and also human experience. I think what happens is that, inasmuch as your unconscious or your imagination, or the joint of those two, gets more richly stocked (probably a function of time); there comes a moment—if you’ve delayed the writing of the first novel—that what you produce is essentially a raw myth, the myth that you have somehow put together from your own experience, your own intellectual activity. As far as it happened with me with this book. I think what I had done was basically to take everything I knew for sure and made it into a tale. Then once I had that raw steaming material, then the writer came in and began to form it into a literary work. But I think what I basically wrote out was my myth, and I wonder if we—you, these others, and I—don’t all do that.