Review of The Backstreets of Purgatory: Delusion and Dark Humor in Glasgow

…the only way to honour her [Finn’s Italian paternal grandmother] as she deserved to be honoured, was to completely piss off his social-climbing mother, subvert his turgid middle-class upbringing — and commit entirely to the role of misunderstood artist. Which he’d done with fervor until the pretence and reality had become inseparable.

The fact was his tutor didn’t know one end of the paintbrush from another. He didn’t need permission from an uptight spinster to paint what he wanted to paint….The picture was clear….He should be out there with the people…not hanging around here, being misunderstood and dragged down by these pretentious losers.

from The Backstreets of Purgatory by Helen Taylor

From the outset, The Backstreets of Purgatory promises its readers “art, insanity, and Irn-Bru”. The Glasgow-based novel, which follows the tribulations of its protagonist (Finn Garvie) and those of his overlapping social circles, initially might come across as the latest entry in the familiar tale of the tortured artist. However, it’s soon apparent that author Helen Taylor intends to take this story in a rather (darkly humorous) different direction. Early on, Taylor presents the ironic situation in which Finn, having devoted a considerable portion of his life to playing the “misunderstood artist”, decides to decamp from his art school before earning his coveted Master’s degree on grounds that he was “being misunderstood”.* And given that Finn is funded (perhaps reluctantly) by his middle-class parents, he isn’t exactly the sort one pictures when imagining an impoverished but gifted artist descending into madness. But that’s rather the point here. The relationship between suffering and great art is at best a murky one, and it’s clear that The Backstreets of Purgatory intends to challenge what readers “know” about art and mental health.

As a character-driven novel, The Backstreets of Purgtory delivers with its lovingly drawn if all-too human ensemble. Taylor’s empathetic narration (split among four narrators) provides a multifaceted portraiture of the core characters that is nonetheless a very much warts-and-all approach (not unlike Carvaggio’s style of realistic painting). As a result, we might see a character valorized in one chapter (eg, Finn rescues an inebriated Maurice from sleeping rough) but later witness their more ignominious side (in Lizzi’s case, when she forgets her professional ethics in a misguided effort to protect Finn). The three other narrators (intriguingly, all female) also provide alternative (and arguably, corrective) perspectives to Finn’s narrative—and sometimes, to each other’s viewpoints. Since their relationships with Finn range from intimate to indirect connection, we get a sense of how Finn affects not only him, but people close to him but also their larger community, a refreshing change from the tendency to observe mental illness as though it occurs within a vacuum.

For Finn, the appearance of Purgatory parolee, Carvaggio (his artistic hero and alleged ancestor) seems to be an answer to his artistic conundrum. Coupled with the inspiration provided by Kassia (an au pair from Poland), Finn is hopeful that he’ll finally paint something meaningful. However, Carvaggio’s arrival instead marks a period of crisis for Finn and company, attributable to misleading appearances, hasty assumptions, miscommunication, and, often, Finn himself. As Finn and his friendships deteriorate, Finn also finds that both muse and mentor are less helpful than hoped, with Carvaggio living up to his hellraiser reputation. Nonetheless, the shocking conclusion, complete with its untidy (though very realistic) resolution, will leave readers unsettled as they ponder the underlying issues that contribute to troubled persons’ faltering sanity or sobriety long after they finish reading this novel.

Summary (TL;DR): The Backstreets of Purgatory is both a profane and darkly humorous novel that examines several weighty issues, ranging from mental illness, substance abuse, and gender inequality.§ An immersive read with well-drawn characters that builds to a devastating finale, the reader will feel this book’s impact long after they finish it.

NOTES:


*Arguably, Finn hasn’t been misunderstood but understood all too well. Finn’s reaction—one of outright rejection of criticism from a more learned woman coupled with expecting to be top of his class—is a neat mixture of fragile ego, entitlement, and underlying misogyny suggestive of toxic masculinity.

While this novel includes discussion of a famous artist and his body of work, it’s not necessary to be well versed in Carvaggio’s oeuvre, as the novel provides sufficient background information. For those interested in his biography or the artworks whose names are used as chapter titles in The Backstreets of Purgatory, I recommended checking here.

Described in visceral detail that brings the city to life, Glasgow (particularly its West End) seems to function much like a village in that everyone either knows each other or knows a friend of a friend, giving it an atmosphere that ranges from close-knit to claustrophobic. It’s partly due to this cozy sense of community that Taylor succeeds in making it plausible that many of the major characters, regardless of their divergent backgrounds, meet and interact.

§Throughout the novel, several incidents demonstrate how women (regardless of class, race, or finances) receive unequal treatment ranging catcalling (street harassment) to increased domestic workload. For example, Dr. Esme Blythe’s relative security (in terms of finance and family) does not prevent her from being among the many working women who complete the majority of household and child-rearing tasks while her spouse idles on his phone (a fact made more heinous since he’s content to let her do the washing up despite her severe eczema).

Lifting The Bell Jar

Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise involved with properly reading Sylvia Plath’s novel,1 The Bell Jar, is discovering how a coming-of-age story set in the summer of 1953 manages to seem contemporary even as it remains so firmly rooted in its own period.2 Undoubtedly, there are timeless aspects to story arcs that move characters from innocence to experience, just as we find that the issues women grapple with in this book (the double standard, for one) are all too familiar. But what makes The Bell Jar so relatable is its captivating protagonist, Esther Greenwood. Esther is witty, sensitive, occasionally angry, often funny—and not at all what a reader expects to discover in a novel renowned for its suicidal heroine.3 But as The Bell Jar often proves, our assumptions don’t always match our expectations.

“There is nothing like puking with somebody to make you into old friends.”

The Grim and the Glamorous

From the outset, the sharply observant Esther is aware of how appearances might mislead. Plath’s narrator, an older Esther, describes the morbid thoughts she had about executions and cadavers when she spent part of her summer in New York City at age 19. But from the outside, Esther’s life seems to have all the hallmarks of an American success story: Hailing from an impoverished middle-class background, she’s a “scholarship girl” who wins a position as a summer intern at women’s magazine—an incredible opportunity for someone with writing aspirations—where she attends parties and receives gifts. As she explains, anyone would assume she was “having the time of [her] life” when she instead struggles to get “[her]self to react”. Just as Esther wryly undercuts the image of the glamorous party the interns attend by pointing out the male guests were hired for the photo shoot, Plath exposes the invisible illness haunting a smart young woman’s New York adventure. Plath’s handling here is sure: stereotypical portrayals of mental illness4 are eschewed by showing Esther as nearly indistinguishable from the other smiling interns (significantly, they’re dressed alike) in the magazine spread. In doing so, Plath dispels the notion that people with mental illnesses are monstrous (think Bertha from Jane Eyre). She also demonstrates that psychological distress can occur even in fortunate circumstances.

“So I began to think maybe it was true that when you were married and had children it was like being brainwashed, and afterward you went about as numb as a slave in a totalitarian state.”

Psyche Under Pressure

Having stripped away Esther’s smiling veneer, Plath better acquaints the reader with Esther’s background and aspirations. Esther, as magazine editor Jay Cee quips, “wants to be everything”: writer, academic, editor, traveler, lover, wife and mother. And while they are the most socially acceptable choices, Esther feels most ambivalent towards marriage and motherhood. Raised by a widowed working mother, Esther sees the pitfalls of marriage (financial vulnerability, drudgery) more clearly than fellow intern, Betsy, a naïve Midwesterner who wants a traditional marriage. Doreen, in contrast, rebels against deadlines and social mores alike in her quest for adventure in New York. While Esther shares Doreen’s cynicism and humor, she finds Doreen’s seemingly violent sexual encounters repellent and untenable given her limited means. Esther is left with uncertainty, as neither model suits her.

This pattern holds true when Esther examines her options for the future, since her unconventional ambitions don’t mesh well with social expectations for women in the sexist 1950s. Evoking the image of a fig tree with diverging branches, Esther sees her choices as being mutually exclusive. Certainly, the various people attempting to influence her future path imply as much: instructors indicate family must be sacrificed for career, her mother pressures her to learn a marketable skill (dictation) instead of gambling on a writing career, society and family insists her proper role is that of wife, and chauvinist Buddy Willard, the boy she’s dating, insinuates a few kids might cure that urge to write poems.5 Coupled with her ongoing pressure to excel academically,6 Esther appears to experience herself almost as two fragments: the outwardly cheerful achiever and the angry hidden self who chafes against her limitations. Approaching her final year of school, she finds herself filled with crippling indecision and feels that her successes thus far are meaningless outside college.7 While there’s no definitive explanation as to what precipitates depression, Plath could be arguing that society is what ails Esther.

“I hated the very idea of the eighteenth century, with all those smug men writing tight little couplets and being so dead keen on reason.”

The Bell Jar Descends and Lifts

It is, however, apparent that an attempted rape rapidly followed by a serious academic disappointment serve as the triggering events for Esther’s mental health crisis. Although Esther’s breakdown is foreshadowed, the change it brings in her startles: she stops bathing, sleeps poorly, and, alarmingly, cannot write. Plath spends the latter half of the novel exploring misconceptions and stigmas surrounding mental health issues as well as critiquing how this illness is treated. Mrs. Greenwood, for example, fails to understand that Esther’s condition is not a choice and believes Esther could get better if she just tried or instead helped out others suffering greater misfortunes. As a layperson, her erroneous views are understandable, whereas Dr. Gordon (her first psychiatrist) disinterest in discussing her issues almost seems negligent, particularly after her prescribed shock therapy is administered incorrectly. Esther, desperate to avoid another traumatic shock session and convinced that her case is impossible, attempts suicide. Still alive and agitated, Esther is placed in a series of asylums. As it becomes clear to Esther once her scholarship sponsor pays for her to move to a better institution, money determines the quality of the patient’s care.

Not long after Esther settles into the new asylum, Esther meets Joan Gilling. Not only do they share the same hometown, church, and acquaintances, but they’ve both dated Buddy (neither are fans) and attempted suicide. While foils Betsy and Doreen represent extremes of sexual values, Joan serves as a near double to Esther since her journey through mental illness darkly mirrors Esther’s own until Joan succeeds in killing herself. While it’s never clear why one lives and the other does not, Joan’s death reminds readers and Esther’s alike that might also have been Esther’s fate. Esther, however, continues improving. And though some remain wary of her or wish to move on as though nothing happened (her mother in particular), Esther accepts that her illness is an important part of her history that she cannot ignore as there’s no guarantee that the bell jar wont’ descend again. It’s with this sobering, but clear-eyed acceptance that Esther moves toward whatever her future holds.

NOTES:


  1. Unlike the first time I picked it up and partially skimmed it during a busy term (I was studying abroad), which really didn’t do it justice. 
  2. And that includes the period’s casual racism and homophobia. Significantly, Esther kicks the only non-white character, a black worker at a mental institute, with little provocation. While her disturbed mindset plays a role in her aggression, she nonetheless appears to have at least some latent prejudices regarding race and sexual orientation. 
  3. While The Bell Jar is Plath’s roman à clef, I won’t be discussing making any comparisons with Plath’s life (something which has been done extensively anyway) as it tends to divert attention from discussing the book. 
  4. Plath makes this point repeatedly, particularly after Esther is institutionalized, that the mentally ill do not appear different from saner individuals. 
  5. So much is wrong with Buddy. Presented to Esther as a desirable marital prospect, he acts like the spiritual heir to the physician doctor from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” when Buddy tells Esther that her stuffed nose is psychosomatic and claims she’s neurotic. More reprehensibly, this “fine and clean” young man who focuses so much on Esther’s minimal sexual experience happens to be a hypocrite since he’s actually had a sexual affair. Although Buddy’s hypocrisy incenses Esther, it’s his paramour who is described as “some slutty waitress”, a detail suggesting Esther’s internalized misogyny. 
  6. Fearing that she will fail a chemistry course, Esther manipulates her image as a good student to escape taking this course and earns accolades for her intellectual maturity, something which she later feels crushing guilt for doing. 
  7. Esther potentially suffers from impostor syndrome: she describes an incident in which Jay Cee questions her focus and career plans as unmasking her.