Jul/Aug 2023  •   Reviews & Interviews

Purgatory

Review by Nicholas Clemente


Purgatory.
Ian Townsend.
Tragickal. 2022. 131 pp.
ISBN 9781738783007.


Writing is a mysterious process. Sometimes we forget. That's why we need outsider writers and outsider presses to remind us. The tone of a book, the gestalt of its vision—these are creative decisions that have already been decided before a book ever reaches an editor (if it has an editor). These are creative decisions that exist in some ambiguous state of potentiality before someone begins the process of writing. That's why it can't be taught, that's why it can't be bought, that's why it is something that is unfortunately very difficult to sell.

The success of Purgatory has nothing to do with its language, its plotting, its characterization (though these are not necessarily lacking). Purgatory is all about tone. It's all about setting: a fictional city named Purgatory situated surrealistically in real life America. Nonfictional details keep creeping in around the edges of the fiction—other American cities are named repeatedly, and the fictional Purgatory major league baseball team (The Grey Sox) play games against real MLB teams. But wait—the New York Giants, who face the Grey Sox in the fictional World Series, haven't been a team since 1957. So what era are we in? I couldn't help but notice a conspicuous absence of cell phones or computers in the book. But the cynical characters drifting through a drug-ridden inner city clearly belong to the second half of the 20th century, not the first. So does that mean we are in the eighties? The nineties? No—we are in a dream, baby.

The main character—at least, the one with whom we spend the most time—is referred to only as "the skeleton man." And yet every other character is given a proper name; most of the time both a first and last name, in fact. Almost as if he is a figure out of the underground comics scene, a grotesque caricature dropped into the world of everyday men and women. Like the technique used to draw him is totally different from the technique used to draw everyone else. Some aspects of the book seem intentionally rough, like lines of loose cross hatching left at the edge of an ink cityscape. If the current marketplace of fiction seems to prefer products tailor-made for adaptation into high-definition Netflix dramas, Purgatory is more like a movie shot on a camcorder, with sets built of cardboard, and all your friends in the lead roles.

To be clear, this is an endorsement and not a criticism. This book moves along magically. Framed sort of as a murder mystery, except there's no mystery, since the reader knows immediately who committed the murder. The mystery is all in the tone of the book: all the peripheral characters, detectives and psychologists and bureaucrats and bored housewives, searching for the source of the death that hangs in the air above Purgatory. Do they ever find it? Read to the end to find out! I sped through this novel in a few days, like a Gen Xer on some shabby couch in some shabby city center with nothing else to occupy his time, dying of loneliness, dying of boredom.