Book Reviews: 

The Museum at Purgatory

Quotes from Publishers Weekly,
Sept 27,1999.

"The author/artist of Griffin and Sabine, The Venetian's Wife and The Forgetting Room creates another lavishly illustrated fantasia, this time drawing up the fictional catalogue of a museum located in Purgatory.  Envisioning that shadowy middle kingdom as a vast storehouse for the memories and artifacts of earthly existence, Bantock invents his own compelling version of the afterlife, in which the dead are required to examine objects called from their lives and thereby decide their own fate ... his exactingly detailed four-color illustrations, vivified by imaginative flourishes and fanciful devices make his books unique among their genre."

Passions Beyond The Pale

Reviewed by Brian Bethune
Quotes from Maclean's Magazine
November 15, 1999.

"None of Nick Bantock's previous books has been for the literal-minded, and his new novel is no exception. Like the best-selling Griffin & Sabine trilogy (1991-1993), which made his reputation, The Museum at Purgatory is an illustrated book in which the written half is given a kind of dream-like reality by the exquisite graphics ... Mischievousness is a quality shot right through The Museum at Purgatory ... Edward Fitzgerald (the) 19th-century English translator of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayam, the only real-life figure in the novel, brought six magic Persian carpets with him from the Other Side. Bantock's faultless faux-Victorian tale of intrigue explaining their origin is one of the book's high points ... Bantock, of course, is not just mocking the art world here, but also slyly pointing at his own creations -- the dozens of beautiful but fake objects he painstakingly constructed to illustrate his characters' imaginary collections." 

Meditation on Collecting and the Soul

Reviewed by Tom Crockett
Quotes from The Virginian-Pilot
October 31, 1999.

"Can collecting be an artistic process? Can it be a spiritual practice? Nick Bantock's latest book, The Museum at Purgatory, suggests that passionate collecting may reflect the soul-work we are meant to do while we are alive. And, if we fail to do this soul-work in life, we may need to spend time with our collections after death ... In the Griffin & Sabine trilogy that brought him fame, and in later works such as The Egyptian Jukebox and The Venetian's Wife, Bantock made the stories he was telling seem more real by illustrating them with fantastic images and artifacts.

In The Forgetting Room, he moved deep into the heart of both his imagery and his own artistic process. What he discovers there seems to animate his latest work. And where, in The Forgetting Room, Bantock had something to say about the artist as human being, with The Museum at Purgatory he explores the human being as artist.

The marvelous artifacts and imagery he assembles in support of each vignette suggest the issues the collector failed to properly address in life. By extention, we readers might see which of these issues we may be failing to address in our own lives. This succeeds, in part, because Bantock is writing about soul issues with which he himself may have wrestled ... This collection of tales is both beautiful and memorable." "

Collections and  the Afterlife

Reviewed by
Elizabeth Nickson
From The Globe and Mail,
October 9, 1999.

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. 

Reprinted with permission from reviewer Elizabeth Nickson, who is the author of  The Monkey-Puzzle Tree. She also writes the Wednesday Fifth Column for The Globe and Mail.

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