Museum at Purgatory

Collections and the afterlife Nick Bantock's latest strange and wonderful novel-with-pictures offers eccentric views of what happens after death. MUSEUM AT PURGATORY
Elizabeth NicksonThe Globe and Mail. Toronto, Ont.: Oct 9, 1999. pg. D.19

Nick Bantock's latest strange and wonderful novel-with-pictures offers eccentric views of what happens after death. MUSEUM AT PURGATORY

Collections and the afterlife

Saturday, October 9, 1999

HarperCollins, 113 pages, $29.95

The curator and his collections are an underlying theme of this intricate and textured short book. Along with the nature, meaning and purpose of life and death, redemption, personal growth, the function of objects as shamanic tools, the collective unconscious and Purgatory as the place of ultimate therapy. Nick Bantock's Museum at Purgatory is nothing short of postmodern lectio divina .



Bantock, the left coast Canadian visualist and writer, who has achieved success all over the world with his singular Griffin and Sabine trilogy, undertakes in Museum at Purgatory to explain what happens when we die. His is a brave and noble attempt, for there is little in world literature about this process that is not either cloying or terrifying. Why exactly, one wonders, is the afterlife always stupider, meaner and scarier than real life -- or incredibly boring -- when surely, if it exists at all, it's a lot more interesting and fun?

This is the attitude Bantock takes toward his story of the Curator and 10 of his collectors in their journey through Purgatory. Purgatory is the place we first arrive after death, having travelled there through the Dreamwell, the tunnel into which we all deposit our dreams every night. The Curator's collectors are object fetishists, who have found the meaning and purpose of their human existence in things. Bantock is tweaking our current obsessions, but in a glancing way; we barely notice we are being teased. These folks pitch up in the Museum in which, although its facade remains unchanged, the interior unfolds limitlessly in "an architectural system of Möbius expansion, the infinite cubic capacity allow[ing] an unrestricted exhibition space within a structure of minimal exterior dimension."

The collecting souls are at the Museum to assess themselves and "come to terms with those conflicting elements not dealt with previously." There is no godlike external judge. They decide their own destinations, to one or the other of the Utopian or Dystopian states, to reflect the specific need of the spirit in question.

Bantock then takes us through the dilemma and collection of each individual. It is here that his talent strikes one most forcibly, for each object is fully imagined and realized, then photographed. Every photographed object is visually dense, and clogged with meaning both for the fictional collector, the Curator and ourselves. Every collection is odder than odd, and has a poignant story attached. Alice Seline Winter is as timid as a pygmy sparrow, and collected aberrational artifacts; Eugene Delancet (obsessed by stamps) had a passionate and sexual relationship with his sister after their parents died, when they were young; Lisbeth Gazio, a compulsive travel addict, makes shrines and boxes; Petro Amorfe studies entomechanics.

All these people have crippling character flaws, many had parents who either created or exacerbated these defects. The collections help them to assuage their pain, and in Purgatory they obsessively examine their collections, as if they were meditative objects, until the objects reveal their underlying purpose. As the Curator, himself a very flawed soul, comes to understand, collections are the method by which one takes in encrypted information from the collective unconscious. Through its omissions, a collection will point to the unresolved conflicts that still have to be breached in order that an individual might progress.

We see all these collections, or some of them, in great detail. Fifty bugs and spare body parts nestle in a Chinese typesetting drawer, each drawer named after a well-known graveyard. We see a series of invented game boards: Tantra is a game of sexual titillation, redesigned for Purgatory, where sex is a matter of passionate mediation, not lust; Pangur Ban is a tiger-stalking game; On the Nail an addictive gambling game. Pages of spinning tops, each wholly fictitious, made by a collector who perpetrated a great hoax on the museum world when he was alive.

Bantock gives us his explanation of language formation -- dream and waking pictures initially undistinguished by humans, evolved into picturegrams, further stylized into symbols and finally abstract text formations. The dislocated psyches in Purgatory's Museum can only be reintegrated through their images, when word and picture marry.

This is a wonderful book, entirely original and sweet-minded. The language is clear and funny, and nothing insults the reader's intelligence. Bantock, as The Washington Post pointed out, is creating his own form of literature out in the land of the weird: intricate meditations that don't shut out the world or reject it, but embrace it at its fullest and most chaotic.


Contributing reviewer Elizabeth Nickson is the author of The Monkey-Puzzle Tree . She also writes the Wednesday Fifth Column for The Globe and Mail.