Politics and Society

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Port Mungo, by Patrick McGrath: An Essay on Morality in Fiction, in Two Parts


      Wow! Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2004) is a deeply disturbing contemporary portrait of narcissism and moral dissolution in the figures of Jack Rathbone, a young, ambitious English painter and Vera Savage, his free-spirited (and older) lover and fellow artist, who flee the dull restrictions of London society for New York, then Havana, and, eventually, Port Mungo, Honduras; presumably, to ‘make art’, to master their craft and to conquer the art world (ala Paul Gauguin) in the generation after world war II. It is an exciting – even riveting – account of the artists’ exotic life and Jack’s development as a man and a father, as told by Jack’s very eccentric and adoring sister, Gin.
   Just as the Honduran setting is exotic and alluring, so also is the narration. The account of Jack Rathbone’s dedicated quest for artistic maturity is charmingly and deceptively naïve. Full of the kinds of lush and tumultuous detail that we expect from the lives and struggles of young artists and lovers, the tale lulls one into a languid acquiescence as to the possibility of romantic adventure as naturally and seductively as a tropical lagoon. But it is also deceptive. It lulls us; it lures us. Why? Is it because the author is also enchanted?

   Patrick McGrath is, undoubtedly, a master storyteller! Port Mungo is an awesome example of modern narrative lucidity and precision. Its focus is always sharp; its pacing, calm and sedate, the language vivid. Gin, the narrator from a distance, is content to tell her story in long stretches, with background enough from her brother’s explanations to fill in the parts she could not possibly know first hand. (Indeed, most of the plot detail of Port Mungo - essentially Jack’s life story - is known to her only at second-hand!) But for an articulate and attentive sister, who is fairly in love with her brother, or, at least, her idea of him, this is no obstacle. The evidence dribbles in throughout the nearly 40-year history, even as it must for a detective intent on piecing together the story of a crime. And it lulls one into complicity. Gin is a true admirer of her brother, a true believer in his talent, an ardent advocate of his dedication - as both father and artist - and a complete fool. But we are drawn by her narration, and by McGrath’s technique, into her way of seeing things as surely and as inextricably as by quicksand. Figuratively speaking, the result is similar also!
   The story centers on the mysterious death (accident?, suicide?, or murder?) of Peg, one of Jack’s daughters, at 16 years of age, and of the aftermath and its effects on the entire family. This is the backstory of Gin’s account. Each of these two bohemian parents bears some suspicion against the other for this tragedy, and the off-stage brother, Gerald, has yet another opinion and reaction; and for this each seems to have good reason; but the central relationship between Jack and Vera endures, albeit in an altered state, such as it ever was. What effect the pain and guilt of this experience have on Jack’s psyche and prospects as an artist consumes his sister and constitutes the story she feels she has to tell. That is, until Anna, Jack’s second daughter, comes to New York to learn from her father the circumstances of her sister’s death. Here the story pivots.
   If Gin, the bookish one, had titled her putative memoir, it might have read “Heart of Darkness II; The Return”. But Patrick McGrath titled it Port Mungo, as though it were the story of a place, or perhaps, thinking metaphorically, of a state of mind or soul, recalling the common expression of pop psychology ‘He’s in a bad place right now’. And indeed, by the end, he is--or damn well should be!
     Isn’t there a moral dimension here? After all, a child is dead, possibly by murder, or worse by 'coerced suicide.' Another child is assaulted, and brought into a situation of danger and madness. The result is, literally, sickening for Anna and, figuratively so, for us!  My question concerns, not what the characters think of this event, but what the author thinks of it. Still, it is Jack's downfall and Gin’s disillusionment that remain the obvious and stubborn focus of the terror and pity that her memoir, and McGrath’s book, evokes. Even at the last, it seems clear that it is her disappointment that accounts for her breakdown—not the abysmal tragedy of the Rathbone girls. Is this apparent myopia just the result of the ‘unreliable narrator’ technique? Or does it really belong to the author? Is the shocking death of Jack, and his sister’s tearful response, intended to be a moral reflection on the earlier tragedy, or on her own current state of moral dysfunction, or simply another pathetic event?

    Frankly, I am still in a quandary about Port Mungo. Though I enjoyed the journey immensely, I am not yet sure how I feel about the destination. I am not at all clear about whether he, McGrath, has just let me off with a tear-jerker ending, or whether the narrator's final emotional breakdown signals something "significant." Maybe I ask too much; or, maybe, he's just not up to it.
    Port Mungo is either a psychological thriller, merely--as such, it is still really well done and worth the time spent reading, but finally ho-hum, or it is a serious attempt at something more. 'Something more' would validate the time spent thinking about it (as well as the time spent reading) and, in my view, make it an important work. The elements of mystery concerning the death of Peg, and the subsequent mystery of the circumstances of Jack's death, affecting as it does his other daughter, make me expect something more. But what if there isn't anything more?

    Sometimes authors are best judged only in relation to the totality of their works. (This is almost always true of genre authors!) I get the impression from other reviewers that McGrath has certain themes he employs again and again, the way other writers employ crimes in a crime novel series. They (crimes and such, as themes) add up to an area of interest or fixation, but not more. I think I will have to see more of Patrick McGrath before I decide. Meanwhile, it is a weakness of PM, in my view, that this can't be decided on its own merits. In this beautifully written book, there seem to be too many unanswered questions; which makes for rather formulaic dramatic episodes, e.g. the teary ending, but does little to 'resolve' the accrued tensions. Ultimately, this may be a philosophical difference of opinion between me and McGrath.
   It is a near platitude in common use that 'reality' is a 'construct', erected - usually for ignoble reasons of power and/or denial - out of pieces of the world mixed and blended with our own perspectives (read: self-interest); it is a "convenient fiction," so you make of it what you will and that's that. If that is his premise, the aporetic ending makes good thematic sense. The narrator idealizes her brother and cries at his death. The End! Make of it what you will. The details of their history are just so much colorful clutter; interesting for the moment - the journey - but otherwise (w/respect to the destination) insignificant. She had "her reality", and you, reader, are freely invited to have yours.
    An older school of thought (the sane one) clings to the notion that (relativity and perspective, notwithstanding) 'why' and 'how' are not simply up for grabs, but are important questions requiring grounded answers. This old school doesn't hold that people can't disagree, or see things differently. It just asks that the differing views be established by evidence, or theory, or reasonable argument. I.e. not simply left up for grabs.
    My issue with McGrath's PM is this: I cannot yet see to answer the 'why?' regarding a few crucial details of the book's ending, especially as these answers bear on the author's moral perspective. So I am left to wonder, did he overlook them? (= his failure) or, did he not intend them? (=the failure of his philosophy). Of course, there is always the chance that I have simply missed something crucial--but I like to reserve that possibility to the last!!

*           *           * 


    My nagging doubts about this book were further, and fully, exacerbated by my reading of another work, the short story “Gravel”, by Alice Munroe (New Yorker Magazine June 27, 2011), only a day after finishing Port Mungo. The two works are so similar in plot and theme, it seems to me, as to cry out for similar treatment. (In fact, I worry now that the blatantly polemical nature of the one is too strongly influencing my appreciation of the other!) In both works the parents of two girls split apart, one daughter (the elder of the two) dies tragically, as if in protest, and the parents make their way into the future with barely a moral scratch! The parallels are uncanny. Seems like a trend is developing! So I compared this novel to Munroe’s “Gravel” and asked myself, ‘Is the current generation of writers involved in a moral assessment of their parents’ generation, or of their own younger selves (Munroe is approaching 80 years), for the willful neglect and de facto abuse of their children?

     McGrath’s goal as a novelist in the old tradition, it seems, is to stick to the depiction of individuals. I can hardly fault him there, for the job he has done is superb. But it begs a question: Is McGrath doing more than merely exciting the emotions of pity and terror, which are the classic cathartic emotions of tragedy since the time of the ancients. (see Aristotle’s Poetics)?  Does he need to do more? At what or whom should we direct these feelings?
    Jack Rathbone is obviously a monstrous pervert. Aided and abetted perhaps, by the indulgence of a tenderhearted, but weak-minded father, and certainly, by a slightly-less abhorrently twisted sister, whose loyalty borders on incestuous thrall, Jack is apparently able to lie to everyone except his flighty wife, Vera, whom he goads into alcoholism and exile from his and her children’s lives. I think we can say without exaggeration that the responsibility for the daughter, Peg’s tragedy lies squarely with him. His sister’s lovesick blindness and his wife’s inept complicity are merely pathetic instances of fecklessness, but not much more—certainly not in comparison to his own culpability
   Is it possible that McGrath just didn’t imagine this theme reverberating, so to speak, in a wider moral space? This is possible, of course, but I think it unlikely. Much of the pathos and suspense of the novel depends upon our sense of both the tragic loss of life of the innocent child and the tension aroused by the pressing question of responsibility. The moral tragedy is central to the book’s agenda, whatever that is.  We, the readers, know that these answers matter, not just as they effect Gin’s idealized vision of her brother, but also as they effect our view of her -- and Jack and Vera, among others. It is hard, even impossible, to fully sympathize with a person or a character when you do not know what they are suffering from. Not only does McGrath leave open to interpretation the question of moral complicity, or the prospect of a (partially?) redeeming acknowledgment; he seems to simply skirt the issue of moral judgment entirely.
     It seems clear that McGrath does not purport to say anything grand about the entire generation. Indeed, one could argue on the evidence of Gerald, Jack’s brother, who steps in after Peg’s death to rescue and raise Anna, the second child of the ‘marriage’, that the opposite is true! It is not a whole family or a generation which has failed, but two or three members of a family in one (or two) generation(s). That is quite a different story.
  The question remains: has McGrath given any indication as to the moral quality of this experience? Has he even taken a stand? Can we draw any conclusion regarding his view of the tragedy? In purely literary terms, how does the tragedy of Peg’s death function in the novel? Is Anna’s horrific experience and indictment? If so, of whom?


    Is an individual account ever a sufficient ground for extrapolating a moral? I should think so only when the individual is sufficiently established as a type—a representative of a class or a generation or a nation. And this is not easily done, convincingly, by the single case. His qualities must be definite. That is, the author must define him, unmistakably, as such a representative, so that our judgments apply as readily to the class as to the character. This is nowhere done in Port Mungo. Instead he presents us with a case study, if you will, of vicious self-absorption, on the part of a pack: Jack, Vera, and Gin --in varying degrees of turpitude and morbidity. 
   Where Patrick McGrath is content to expose a febrile idolization of this monster as a terrible illusion in the single case of Gin Rathbone, Munroe has different object in mind: she means to indict a generation. The difference is clear in the style and approach she adopts in the telling of her tale.
   In “Gravel” we have a story told in the flat, affectless voice of an un-named narrator, whose family broke apart when she and her sister, Cora, where still very young girls and her mother took up with an itinerant actor from Summer stock. Pregnant, and fearing the worst (thatthis child was a bastard), she left her salesman husband in town, and moved her girls to the country – right next to an abandoned gravel pit - in a bid for the freedom to run naked in the open meadows. (Think ‘Born Free’ and the 70’s set. There is a connection!)
   Once there, the girls, we are told, are left more and more to their own devices as mom comes to terms with her boyfriend, Neal, and her new pregnancy and the girls learn to wait while their Dad picks himself up and moves on to his next adventure. Not too much time goes by before Cora, on a late winter day when the gravel pit is submerged in snowmelt and rainwater, concocts a plan to throw the family dog into the too deep pool of standing water and to jump in after it: to save him! Our tiny narrator is instructed by Cora to alert the adults to the danger, right away. She is not successful, and Cora drowns. (A conversation with Neal later in life reveals that he was too stoned at the time to react—and besides, he is not a swimmer himself!) Why did she do it? This is the question that haunts the narrator throughout her life. Alone, the 'dis-embodied' voice in which the now grown narrator tells of her attempts to come to terms with her sister's death, and her own part in the tragedy, speaks volumes about the psychological harm done to her by this senseless adventure of a generation of adults. But the facts are clear, again: a child is needlessly dead, and another is scared for life. The intent of the author is unmistakable!
   Their neglect is not innocent: it is the studied ignorance of someone who eschews all established “wisdom” (learning) in favor of finding out for himself (as Jack does in relation to his art) and indulging their fantasies of ‘naked’ freedom and new beginnings (as the mother does in “Gravel”) at the expense of their own children's survival and welfare. Though she nowhere utters these judgments explicitly, she makes the case very clearly.
   Child rearing and protection is like medicine in this way: you don’t want to start from scratch with each new generation. For the results of such a course are deadly; maybe not for those who assume this idiotic reinvention of the wheel just to say we did it, but for the children who depend on them. This is, arguably, what that generation did: certainly if we base the argument on the evidence of these texts. It threw off the past, eschewing all traditional wisdom, authority and caution, and indulged in fantasies of ;naked freedom' and innocent irresponsibility. The children became pets or projects or experiments or anything else – any category that was not one of the traditional ones (such as innocent, or vulnerable, or in need of real care) --thereby becoming victims, ultimately.

   I can’t help but think that this is an indictment of a generation for its selfish obsession with personal expression and independence of all restraint and responsibility.

   Each in his and her own way, these writers have presented this story in more or less detail. It is the details, or lack thereof, that we have to note. Munroe, in the short story, does not present her characters as anything other or more than a mouthpiece for the inanities of the 70’s. Perhaps her outrage precludes any closer, more sympathetic - or nuanced - portrayal. The depictions are as flimsy as the muslin skirts adopted by the narrator’s mother when she went native with her vagrant lover. She offers not even a physical description of them. Why? apparently, because it is not relevant.
   What is relevant is the lexicon of 1970’s foolishness each adult reaches into to underpin their actions. This is how Munroe makes clear that these characters are of a type--specifically, of a generation or, at least, of the philosophy of a generation. The mother we really know only as the emerging free spirit - housewife turned "theatre" volunteer - who rebels and later scorns her former, middle-class existence (why? We're not told!) in favor of an inchoate fantasy of rustic abandon. The cliché is so obvious that Munroe doesn’t (and doesn’t need to) elaborate.
   The father is known only by his "new-age" acquiescence; his 'non-judgmental' indulgence of his ex-wife's betrayal, rewarded as it is by newfound conjugal bliss, even after his daughter’s senseless death!! These are instantly recognizable tropes of the 1970's generation. The father is also, then, a type: the hero of 70’s folk/feminist psychology: the man who astutely realizes that his wife’s inevitable rebellion is really his fault and is, therefore, unassailable. But it is the boyfriend, Neal - that stalwart man of “principles”, who is too stoned and afraid to try to save one child from drowning, and summarily abandons another, because it was “not in his plans” to be a father - who offers the clearest and neatest (if also most vapid) statement of who these people are, and the “Let it Be” philosophy Munroe is railing against:
         “The thing is to be happy,” he said. “No matter what. Just try that.
         You can. It gets to be easier and easier. It’s nothing to do with
   Such a load of crap from a proven idiot! And this occurs years after the tragic events of the story, when only the narrator seems to still carry the wounds. Nothing has changed! (It is not just "filler" that even the 7-year old Cora knows more about wolves and their ways - read: the real world! - than Neal does. Munroe wants us to know she despises his type for, among other things, a pathetic and culpable ignorance!) The reiteration of his emptiness is an exclamation point to her indictment.
   Indeed, the only characters who are given, relatively - and ironically - speaking, full development by Munroe are the children, the two sisters in this dysfunctional family.  The damaged narrator and the tragic Cora are seen pretty clearly as kids really are; albeit through the foggy lens of the narrator’s tortured memory, with the gaps one might expect from the consciousness of a tortured soul and the memory of one who was five at the time of the related events. The author tries to do what their parents would not: allow them to be.
   This is an unmistakable point of view, executed in an unmistakably dogmatic style. Though the characters are (mostly) roughly drawn straw-men, the author's moral assessment of them is patently clear. Our sympathies (and Munroe's) are with the narrator and her dead sister, without her needing to say so. Instead, she insinuates the judgment in the narrator's description of her lasting memory of her sister's final act: she still pictures her, as we might picture her parents and their ilk
           “running at the water and throwing [themselves], as if in triumph,
            and [we're] still caught, waiting for her to explain to me, waiting
            for the splash.”

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