Sue Zlosnik, Patrick McGrath

Posted by Neil McRobert on July 13, 2011 in Blog, McGrath Symposium, Reviews tagged with , ,

Review of Sue Zlosnik, Patrick McGrath (Gothic Authors: Critical Revisions). Cardiff: U of Wales P, 2011. ISBN: 978-0708323748

Neil McRobert, University of Stirling

Considering his status in the contemporary Gothic, Patrick McGrath’s fiction has garnered remarkably little scholarly criticism. His was the final entry in Chris Baldick’s 1992 collection of Gothic tales, suggesting that McGrath may well be the future of the genre. In the intervening years he has published eight novels, each to some extent incorporating and renewing the Gothic. One would expect that by now there would have grown a wealth of critical response to his work. For whatever reason – one of which may be McGrath’s own belated aversion to Gothic categorisation – this has not been the case. Having spoken at the IGA and contributed introductory material to a range of classic Gothic texts, McGrath may well have written more criticism about the Gothic than has been written about his own.

Sue Zlosnik’s monograph, therefore, is a much-needed survey of an author whose work is crucial to any understanding of the Gothic in its current guise. Highly satirical and subversive, yet constantly in dialogue with the genre’s origins, McGrath’s novels are the epitome of postmodern Gothic. Zlosnik’s survey details the development of McGrath’s writing over the last two decades: from the short story collection Blood and Water (1989) to his latest novel, Trauma (2008). The general consensus is that McGrath has moved away from the Gothic tendencies of his early novels, a view the author himself shares. Zlosnik’s overarching thesis is to the contrary. The Gothic, she claims, persists throughout McGrath’s later work, albeit with less extravagance. Whereas Gothic reference suffuses the early works, in the ruined bodies and claustrophobic institutions of McGrath’s mid-century England, the reader must work harder to unearth it from the American soil of Port Mungo (2004), Ghost Town (2005), and Trauma. Nonetheless, Zlosnik insists, it is there.

The introduction contextualises McGrath’s work within a theoretical framework, both general and Gothic-specific. McGrath’s vested interest in psychiatry makes his books highly applicable to Freudian analysis, replete as they are with phallic allusion, sexual neurosis, and the narratological implications of the unconscious. Zlosnik, however, points to Kristevan theory as particularly illuminating, the abject being represented by McGrath in both bodily (dis)function and madness. Body-horror is never far away in McGrath’s fiction. The titles of The Grotesque (1989) and Dr Haggard’s Disease (1993) are enough to suggest a fixation with disfigurement and decay. Zlosnik recognises this but pays more attention to the latter form of abjection – madness, and its consequences for the narrative landscape of the text. The fundamental unreliability of McGrath’s narrators is crucial, she claims, to the texts’ Gothic nature:

Often when the reader assumes that the techniques of realism are being utilized, the ground is at its most treacherous; in some respects Asylum (1996) is more Gothic than The Grotesque. (10)

Herein, lies the key to her claims of the inherent gothicism of McGrath’s later fiction. Within an ostensibly anti-Gothic, realist narrative, the narration itself provides a site of madness and liminality that is recognisably Gothic.

Zlosnik advances chronologically through McGrath’s career. As a consequence of the increasingly covert nature of McGrath’s Gothic the book becomes more challenging as it progresses. The first chapter, “Playing with Gothic”, deals with his short fiction and his first novel, The Grotesque, focusing on their parodic, intertextual engagement with the genre. This is the least groundbreaking or theoretically intensive section of the book. This is not a criticism of Zlosnik’s analysis; it is merely the case that the explicit manner in which McGrath employs the Gothic in these texts leaves little further interpretation necessary. Nonetheless, Zlosnik uses this early material to effectively introduce themes that recur throughout future work; these include sinister medical men, gender identity, and a hint of vampirism. Zlosnik also draws connections between McGrath and his Gothic antecedents, Poe, Le Fanu, Stoker, and Du Maurier amongst others, situating McGrath within an evolution of Gothic psychology.  Due to the inclusion of detailed plot exposition, this first chapter is also probably the most accessible to someone unfamiliar with McGrath’s work.

The first chapter, therefore, is an engaging survey that evokes an infectious enthusiasm for the author’s early work. However, it also highlights a possible flaw within the study as a whole: the need for a working definition of the Gothic. In the introduction Zlosnik refers to Baldick and Mighall’s lament about the amorphous nature of contemporary Gothic criticism. Despite this, she herself seems to avoid a concrete definition of the genre. As a result, this chapter, and on occasion the study as a whole, can read like a miscellany of Gothic paraphernalia, appended to McGrath’s work wherever it fits. This is, in some ways, a fitting approach to an author who, in his early work at least, creates a collage of Gothic fiction from the tropes and motifs of the genre. However, in the later chapters, where the Gothic is less obvious, Zlosnik leaves herself open to the suggestion that she is moving the goalposts. Her central argument is that “the change of emphasis in the later work achieves a different kind of Gothicism” (3). This is a valid point, but that different kind of Gothicism would still benefit from more precise definition.

In fairness, she does attempt this, using the title of one of McGrath’s own essays. McGrath’s Gothic, she claims, is derived from the representation of ‘transgression and decay,’ a duality that McGrath himself regards as integral to the marriage of the Gothic and psychoanalysis. Transgression and decay also serve to highlight the twin themes already mentioned: bodily irregularity and mental illness. This definition of McGrath’s Gothic ideal is extremely effective when maintained. Unfortunately, the final section of the book loses some rigour exactly where it is needed the most, in dealing with the more ambiguously Gothic of McGrath’s novels.

However, Zlosnik’s analysis is at its best when applying the framework of transgression and decay, as she does in the second chapter. The three novels examined here: Spider (1990), Asylum, and Dr Haggard’s Disease, are poised between the overt Gothic play of his earlier fiction and the tenuous gothicism  (Martha Peake notwithstanding) of his later work. As such they perhaps constitute the most fully representative examples of McGrath’s Gothic perspective. In grouping them together under the title of ‘The Transgressive Self’, Zlosnik acknowledges their essential quality to be the representation of “the unstable boundary between the sound mind and madness” (49). In a genre predicated upon thresholds, Zlosnik recognises this psychological boundary to be the definitive point of transgression in McGrath’s fiction.

This long chapter will be of great worth to anyone studying McGrath, not only in terms of the Gothic, but also in relation to narrative technique, biographical detail, and the figure of the artist. The section on Asylum poses interesting questions about the links between art and psychiatry, and their proponents’ shared proximity to madness. In Dr Haggard’s Disease Zlosnik identifies a terrifying ambiguity about the human body and gender identity.  She draws attention to the novel’s increasingly unveiled homoeroticism without reducing the novel to a dramatisation of homosexual panic. In the introduction she compares “The Skewer”, an early story about gender confusion, to Ian Banks’ The Wasp Factory. Her analysis of Dr Haggard’s Disease raises the same issues and may well be an avenue for further comparative study. More important still is her exploration of Haggard’s treatment of the medical man, possibly the most enduring motif in McGrath’s fiction after madness. Zlosnik suggests that “McGrath’s late twentieth-century novel invited the reader to consider the inadequacies of the profession in its earlier state, thus undermining its mastering discourse” (71). Yet she also highlights how McGrath finds currency in the Gothic potential of the doctor, particularly Haggard’s nemesis, the ‘bare-hands man’ Ratty Vaughn who comes to his wife “smelling of death.” McGrath’s doctors, therefore, represent both transgression and decay. They signify the corporeal level but their ‘mastering-discourse’ is also undermined, a fallibility that has Gothic consequences for the people over whom they have power.

Overall this is the most critically successful section of the book. Here Zlosnik articulates her most wholly-realised ideas about the particular nature of McGrath’s Gothic. She demonstrates that, as with Poe, madness and misconstruance dominate the Gothic landscape of McGrath’s fiction. And like Poe, McGrath’s landscapes are both physical and psychological: the squalid East-End streets, institutional asylums, and Victorian mansions working in tandem with the inner space of the human mind, itself expressed as much by what is not told, as what is.

The focus on unreliability forms the basis of the final section of the study, “Worlds Old and New”, where Zlosnik considers McGrath’s American novels: Martha Peake (2000), Port Mungo, and Ghost Town. Whilst the interest in medicine and madness persists, these novels, Zlosnik argues, are concerned to a greater degree with national histories. In relocating to the New World, “the unreliability of narration becomes more emphatically not only personal, but also culturally and political” (86).

Zlosnik describes Martha Peake as “an overblown narrative, full of clichés, instantly recognisable to anyone familiar with the Gothic fiction of the last two hundred years” (93). This is not intended disparagingly; indeed, Zlosnik recognises the novel as homage to the Gothic, not an exercise in plagiarism. Looking deeper she detects how themes that have remained integral to McGrath’s Gothic mode are writ large in Martha Peake, Gothic on macrocosmic level. The unreliability of narration and the techniques of storytelling are shown to impact upon the mythic origins of national identity. Martha Peake demonstrates how the Old World is Gothicised in the creation of the New.

In the protagonist of Port Mungo, Zlosnik identifies a return to the figure of artist/madman depicted in Asylum. However, it is with this novel that Zlosnik appears to struggle most to impose a Gothic reading. Falling back on comparisons to Dorian Gray (in the protagonist’s body being found next to his painting) and tenuous vampiric references, she concludes that “If Port Mungo is not consciously Gothic, then the Gothic has effectively haunted its author” (107). Compared to the rest of the book this seems unconvincing. As already mentioned, a stricter adherence to transgression and decay as governing themes may have helped.

Ghost Town returns in many ways to the thematic core of Martha Peake. The collection of novellas is less conspicuously Gothic but still obviously concerned with the residue of history, appropriately manifested in three different kinds of ghost. Zlosnik points out how the national history rendered in Ghost Town is very different from that in Martha Peake. The virgin freshness of the new world that forms the optimism of Martha Peake is replaced in Ghost Town with the concept of the “inescapability of history” (121). This observation closes the chapter on a viably Gothic note and restores confidence in Zlosnik’s theory that McGrath’s Gothic concerns have followed him to America. A short afterword discusses Trauma, McGrath’s latest novel. While this is considered by critics to be his most radical departure from the Gothic, Zlosnik nonetheless identifies connections to Poe and suggests that this novel reveals the new direction of McGrath’s Gothic, concerned with recent history and the trauma it causes.

Overall this is a highly valuable study of an author whose work is integral to the contemporary Gothic scene of the last two decades. Immensely readable yet consistently critically sophisticated, perhaps the most impressive feature is its ability to analyse McGrath’s work without nullifying the enjoyment it offers. After reading Zlosnik’s book I immediately revisited McGrath’s.  As mentioned, there are moments of slippage, where Zlosnik’s definition of McGrath’s Gothic seems slightly unspecific. However, this is perhaps due to the nature of the source material. McGrath himself seems to have no fixed idea as to what constitutes the Gothic. His handling of the genre is malleable, an intertextual maze of reference, parody and homage. Considering this, Zlosnik’s survey is an outstanding attempt at both cataloguing his fiction’s explicitly Gothic elements and convincingly uncovering Gothic traces of which even the author himself seems unaware.

Tiny URL for this post: http://tinyurl.com/5se4v5z