Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Review of Mr. Pye by Mervyn Peake

Although it wasn't my first choice, I'm liking Michael Daunt (né Schadenfreude) as Mr. Pye. (This would have been my first choice, especially after thumbing through the index.) It's fun to picture the publisher of quiblit magazine as a moral shepherd, gently guiding a small flock to some ideal productive behavior that is liberated from our vices. There's good material at quiblit, excellent writers, a chance of an audience, and Mike does a great job of tying it all together. That our angel from heaven is as tempted by malicious glee as the rest of us makes the venture so much more delicious, but (mixing up my mythologies), surely in the celestial balance, his heart would be judged lighter than a little blue feather. Quiblit deserves its wings.


In the novel Mr. Pye, You can see a little bit of Gormenghast, Peake's (deservedly) more famous and more popular brainchild. There is some of the the castle's oppressive stone landscape reflected in the sea-carved features of the island setting, and both places are populated with a similar set of grotesques. Mr. Pye is more human-scaled though, and anchored to known geography. It's also a great deal shorter, and more thematically driven, as if the author had a different mission than letting the great, looming masonry create a mood. Oddly, I don't think this served him all that well: at his best, Mervyn Peake created brilliant edifices of prose that I always want to call "painterly", luridly colored, overly shadowed, heavily textured, and in which the details of visual composition are conceived to the point that their relevance surpasses the dynamical stuff of plot. A good deal of that was lost with Pye's softened setting and constrained scope, and while I usually support excision of superfluous detail, Peake sacrificed what he was best at.

The story takes place on Sark, a small island in the English Channel. Peake actually spent a good deal of his life there, as an artist before the war and later with his family, and his characters of the painter Thorpe and the titular Pye, the two aliens in the island society, are almost surely depictions of the author himself. It's a fascinating viewpoint, because each are loaded up with profound measures of love and contempt, as if they're two little vehicles of intense self-deprecation, executed with enough social intelligence to loathe the self-absorption as much as anything. Thorpe, a minor character, is merely a dope, easily swayed but impervious to conversion, a man with an occasional eye but who is lacking either sufficient motivation or sufficient talent to turn those visions into anything like an artistic truth. Mr. Pye is ostensibly a man of all the right kinds of conviction, an earnest seeker who is punished for the effort. (It would be an interesting exercise to contrast Peake's conception of himself the artist to Franz Kafka's. Both suffer for their genius, but Kafka goes for martyrdom, the art ultimately understood only by the artist, and Peake finds only derision in that pose.)

In the novel, Harold Pye comes to Sark to gently proselytize a vague message of goodness, a church of God the great omnipresent Pal, winning the locals over by wit, respect, and example. Pye is so self-possessed, so pure, so sweet, and so right that he begins to transform the moral landscape of the island. He's so good that his Pal gives him wings, which, on real people, isn't precisely a blessing. To get rid of the horrifying things, he abandons his evangelism to try to work them off with sin, the results of which have their own unsettling supernatural manifestation. He's a weird character, and it's hard to judge what the author is trying to communicate about him. Until he gets the growths, Mr. Pye reads like some allegorical figure, too simplified to really be connected to this world, and his human reaction, when it comes, doesn't feel fitting. With that normal response interjected, the reader is left questioning how the man got his fortune, how he embraced that honesty, and what he sacrificed for it. Except for this sudden earthly motiviation (and a couple of briefly glimpsed Peake-ish attributes, a penchant for nonsense verse and doodles) Pye remains more cherub than man until the end.

I want to tell you that Peake doesn't play his spiritual dichotomies well either. Pye's goodness is of an ecumenical sort, pushing at ideas of spiritual harmony, forgiveness, and emotional moderation, and those wings, they make more sense as divine irony than as a vehicle for character study. At the climax of Pye's evangelism, the author throws the putrefying corpse of a whale onto the shore, and this feels allegorical too--it feels like celestial sabotage--but still, the authorial voice is not ironic, doesn't feel like deadpan. The evil that Pye undertakes to remove his wings isn't the naturally opposite antisocial sort, but instead tends more biblical. In an effort to make his wings shink, the character engages in some petty vandalism, which is funny, and yes, he corrupts one comically deserving member, but other than that, he refrains from actually hurting anyone or from going after the obvious avenues of emotional abuse (or gratification). Instead, he's diverted to some silly off-camera Satanism, something suggestively involving goats.

I want to tell you that these things don't balance at all, but the book feels subtler and more powerful in hindsight than it felt while I was reading. As constructed, it works a lot better as a backhanded condemnation of God. It would explain the charitable positivist religiosity, which only resulted in the well-timed punishment by a capricious deity. It would explain the goofy nature of evil, and the (uncondemned) sexual characters that came closer to naturalism than the Great Pal ever did. Does the author hate Pye for his self-satisfied benevolence? I can tell you that I didn't connect to it that much, but there's not enough to him to really annoy either. And in context, Pye's good works produce good humanist consequences, which makes it tough to paint subtle irony onto what's written. The bad deeds that follow (pitching the old bat down the stairs, say) are as intentionally nasty as the prior events were wholesome, and they don't really come out as unintended consequence of good effort. While subtlety and humor had their places in the novel, they didn't enter in here, and I can't decide whether these explanations are my own clever revisionism or if they were intentional. For me to buy into the deeper meaning of Mr. Pye, I'd have to believe that the author meant it. I could be convinced of that, I think.

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