Many moons ago, when I had just reached the legal drinking age and was introduced to the wonderful world of drunken adults, many of my peers preferred quantity over quality when selecting their beverages. As a result, a drink which was surprisingly popular in the circles I used to frequent at the time could only be found in dark corners of local supermarkets. It came in plain white cans which were decorated with the word “beer”. And that was it. No images, no fancy brand name. “It does what it says on the tin,” people used to say, before cracking open another one.
“It does what it says on the tin” is a phrase which could also be applied to a novel I finished recently: The Grotesque by Patrick McGrath. It’s a story about a scientist who has been struck by a debilitating stroke and now, unable to move or speak, tells us how his butler is to blame for the current state of affairs. “For a man who turns into a vegetable – isn’t that a grotesque?” he wonders, before telling the reader he suspects his Butler, Fledge, is having an affair with his wife which is driving Doris, Fledge’s wife, into alcoholism and Cleo, the narrator’s daughter, into insanity. So far, everything seems clear: the narrator, also known as Sir Hugo, has turned into a grotesque being and we’re reading a classical gothic novel. “Yes, there he stands,” Sir Hugo exclaims dramatically, “tall and straight and sleek and elegant and handsome and, looking over, he sees – himself. But it is himself transformed, it is a stunted and grinning reflection he sees – as though he has looked into a distorting mirror and found himself turned into a grotesque. I am his grotesque double; he reads in me an outward sign of his own corruption.” However, “Fledge is the grotesque – not I!” Sir Hugo concludes, leaving it to the reader to decide whether Fledge is actually the evil monster he is made to be, or whether Hugo is making it all up. As readers, we can never be certain – we’re trapped inside Hugo’s head like he is trapped in his body. The Grotesque is explicitly grotesque on multiple levels: it is loaded with mutilated and deformed bodies, it contains doubles and transformations and ghosts, it distorts boundaries between seemingly stable categories, and it helpfully tells us that it’s doing all this from the very beginning.
How different was my experience of Journey to the End of the Night. I finished reading this book a few weeks ago, and I still don’t know what the title stands for (Google could probably provide me with an answer to this question, but screw that). The novel is a journey into the night, for sure, but I don’t think we ever reached the end. Rarely have I read a book so dark, so cynical, and so horrible. And I mean that as a compliment. For Journey is also darkly humorous, particularly when it narrates the stories of people who desperately try to live their lives and utterly fail to do so because they are undermined by their fear, greed, or stupidity. Not a very cheerful message, but definitely a poignant one. The first section of the story is set during the First World War, and graphically describes how one of the main character’s fellow soldiers is blown to pieces on the battle field. Life goes on in the trenches, however, and the narrator is told to travel to a nearby village where a pig is being butchered, in order to secure some meat for his peers. Upon witnessing the pig’s carcass and smelling its blood, the narrator vomits and collapses. This climactic moment comes early in the story, but it sets the tone for all the events yet to come.
Journey is grotesque in its own right: it also has the mutilated bodies, the transformations and the wonky boundaries. But contrary to The Grotesque, it refuses to clarify what’s going on. Is there some kind of message to be distracted from the narrator’s angry diatribes? To what extent is this all autobiographical? And is there light at the end of the tunnel? We never find out. No matter how useful and enjoyable a clearly signposted story can be – I highly recommend McGrath’s novel, which I finished in less than two days – the confusion Journey caused, however frustrating, is still keeping me occupied several weeks after I finished the last page. Perhaps it’s due to the state I was in when I read the novel – I wasn’t looking for easy answers and welcomed Celine’s assertion that life is often an incomprehensible mess – but I’ll leave the literary “beers” for now, and move on to the bottles filled with mysterious green liquid and labels printed in Russian, Chinese, or some other language I can’t read. Confusion can be worse than a bad hangover, but in this case the trouble is totally worth it.