Alan Taylor makes late-night conversation with Patrick
McGrath, a New Yorker with a creepy new novel and ideas on breakfast that would make your crusts curl.
Andy's tartan army was whooping it up in the Scotia Bar pre-prandial to the latest World Cup excursion. A bagpiper gave it laldie. as they say west of Shotts. and every vacant seat was heavy with carry-outs camouﬂaged as luggage. Brendan the barman said you should have
seen it in the afternoon. It was now near seven and the army was at last advancing towards the door. Patrick McGrath had already found the bar and was sticking to it like a limpet. How will I know him? I asked his editor. ‘Look at the picture on the book jacket‘. she said. ‘I can‘t think
of another author who is so recognisable from his photograph.‘ Just in case there was a problem I was carrying a copy of Blood and Water. his chic collection ofshort squibs. and The Grotesque. his one and only novel. a humdinger ofa horror. But there was no mistaking Patrick McGrath. Dark-haired. deep-eyed. garbed in a green-striped shirt. he stood out like an orange in the Pope's fruit bowl.
This was his first return to Glasgow since he was a nipper and heaven knows what he made of it. As we reorganist the pub furniture he rehearsed his entry for Who‘s Who. Birth in London. infancy in Glasgow. upbringing in Berkshire. emigration to Canada. flight to the West Coast. then several years on a north Pacific island teaching Indian children: ‘The Malcolm Lowry scene - including the drink. A good place to go once you are a writer. No place to begin.‘
Now he lives in New York and it‘s from there that The (iroresqiw has emerged. ‘A Creepy Tale of the Haughty and Naughty‘ pronounced the Washington Post. at once homing in on the novel‘s twin fascinations — the genre of the Gothic spine-chiller and an obsession with the la-di-da Coals. a downwardly mobile Manor family who come straight out of Ivy Compton-Burnett. That‘s my theory anyway. Others go for Robert Louis
Stevenson. Evelyn Waugh. Edgar Allan Poe. Ronald Firbank and Saki. Even as we spoke a passing journo gave up the name of Mervyn Peake.
Patrick McGrath nodded. He is more ready than most to acknowledge his influences. even his borrowings. At the beginning ofthe book its misanthropic. cataleptic
narrator. Sir Hugo Coal. describes how he orders his new butler. Fledge. to fetch his pet toad from his tank and feed him a few maggots. It is not something I recommend you to read as an accompaniment to macaroni cheese. What kind ofa perverted mind. I hazarded. writes something like that? ‘Oh. I got that from Gilbert White‘s History of Selbourne.‘ he admitted before the Chinese water torture started. ‘He tells of an aristocratic lady who kept a toad and fed it maggots at the dining-room table. I take a gruesome pleasure in it: the idea ofdevouring and being devoured.‘
What McGrath is alluding to. I suppose. is the savage demise ofone Sidney Giblet. would-be son-in-Iaw to Sir Hugo. whose flesh is fed to the family‘s pigs and consumed by them at breakfast in rashers and sausages. It is a delicious irony. quietly dished up on a bed ofbad feeling. For the Coals are a family without warmth. none more so than Sir Henry who is telling the story in reﬂection. trapped in a wheelchair and in his own thoughts while his wife fumbles with Fledge - a la Lady Chatterley — literally while his back is turned.
Who can‘t help feeling sorry for Sir Hugo? Our sentiments are subtly shifted and by the end of the book the monster master has won our sympathy. ‘It is'. says McGrath. ‘the Dorian Gray idea — the beauty of the outer surfaces and the moral rottenness within. It is not Sir Hugo who is the true grotesque but Fledge.‘ Yet the book is not as simple as that. It is. for instance. riven with doubles. twists and ambiguities and Patrick McGrath admits to revelling in ‘the perverseness. the weirdness. of the macabre.‘ Though Sir Hugo‘s gardener. George. ‘swings‘ for Sidney's murder we are not convinced he did it. or ifwc can take the narrative at face value.
McGrath has it on the authority of Oliver Sachs that a cataleptic is capable of thought but even then we cannot be sure that this one is telling the truth. There is a danger here, too. of the Gothic gloss overcoating the social comedy. and of the book being hijacked by devotees ofClive Barker and Stephen King. Que] domage. say I. So be it. says Patrick McGrath. though he sees merely an overlap in subject matter. ‘lfthere is horror. it‘s psychological.‘ he says. It
was not. I must say. a comparison that would have occurred to me. But I was struck by its not superficial similarity to Kazuo lshiguro‘s hot favourite for the Booker Prize. The Remains ofthe Day. in which a butler does more than pour dry sherry.
That. however. is another story. The Grotesque is published by Viking priced [I I . 95.
The List 27 October — 9 November 1989 9