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The Painting of the Urban Dreamscape in Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo

Magali FALCO

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“Black is the silence of the body after death, the close of life” (Wassily Kandisky, 1911)

1In Patrick McGrath’s latest novel, Port Mungo, the artist’s journey through various urban landscapes definitely gives shape to the maturing textual dreamscape that characterizes McGrath’s fiction. In his first novel, The Grotesque, he explored the “Gothicism” of the English countryside, then dug into ideas of the London urban landscape as a reflective setting for his characters’ madness, in Spider and Asylum in particular. Then, Martha Peake represented a turning point inasmuch as McGrath set oppositions between the old London of the 1760’s and the new world embodied by the construction of the American urban landscape in Boston. In Port Mungo, McGrath eventually deepens his analysis of the bi-dimensional aspect within the English culture (conservative England and free America born from England) which he sets against another location: Port Mungo, the symbol of wildness, exoticism and primal origins, the novel being significantly entitled after this primitive location.

  • 1  The novel still plays - in a very sophisticated way - on Gothic tropes, such as the double, the ha (...)

2Interestingly enough, the route through various cities throughout his work partakes of a reflection on generic issues, as McGrath meditates upon the offspring of the Gothic – the American Gothic born out of the English Gothic. Although the tropes of the Gothic are almost entirely subdued in Port Mungo,1 the different fantasy spaces in the novel shed light on McGrath’s entire neo-Gothic work as well as on his conception of artistic creation that is deliberately moving toward the mainstream with his latest novel. The route of the main character, the painter Jack Rathbone, through various urban landscapes, is narrowly connected to his artistic inspiration, for each painting is modelled on the location. Port Mungo recounts the internal narcissistic journey of the artist from the English urban landscape through the American urban jungle that will end in the most primitive setting of Port Mungo, the heart of darkness as the true place of imagination.

  • 2  Already in Martha Peake McGrath had dramatized the dialectical relationship between England and Am (...)

3As far as McGrath as a writer is concerned, Port Mungo is a mise en abyme of the narcissistic work of the artist. Those spaces have first and foremost a biographical resonance; McGrath freed himself from Old England as a young man to find fulfilment as an artist in New York City2. Thus, McGrath paints the portrait of his artistic self as a young and older man under Jack’s features. His personal development as an artist and the evolution of his work on the Gothic genre have both been patterned by cities and landscapes onto which the imagination and dreams have found unknown spaces to project themselves. McGrath was once an English gentleman in New York at the beginning of his artistic career; he also spent some time on an island on the west coast of Canada before going to New York to confront the urban jungle of Manhattan. At the heart of his artistic freedom lies the divorce from England, the epitome of the burdening authority of the father. Somehow McGrath followed the same route as Jack’s to find himself, although he was more successful than his character; moreover, Port Mungo is a fictional location, the real setting of wild and uncivilized imagination where Jack has the revelation about his deep artistic nature.

4The artist is presented in Port Mungo as a double figure, since McGrath has created both a male and female version of the narcissistic creator. Jack Rathbone, the painter, travels from a city to another with Vera Savage, his female counterpart and a painter herself who teaches him how to become an artist. Their passionate relationship is echoed in their relationship with space. The two painters are looking for the ultimate image inspired by the city as they are striving to escape from the confinement of the location. Their quest is narrated from the point of view of Jack’s sister, Gin, who is a sedentary character and unreliable as ever; strangely enough, the role she assigns herself is that of “Jack’s shadow” as she entertains an unclear incestuous love for him:

As for me [Gin], I had decided soon after our arrival in the capital that the best part I could play in this drama of conquest was that of the sage and silent sister. I accompanied him everywhere and, ever watchful, wasted no opportunity to murmur my counsel in his ear. (Port Mungo, 21-éé2)

5She settled in New York City after Jack moved to Port Mungo and recounts the story from this city, which is the pivotal location where the characters keep coming back to look for the truth and for their own truth. A place of freedom, New York is also the city of grief in so far as Jack comes back to mourn his daughter, Peg, who drowned in Port Mungo. As a consequence of this tragic event, Peg’s little sister, the four-year old Anna, is placed under the protection of Gerald, Jack and Gin’s older brother who lives in England. Twenty years later, Anna leaves England for New York to look for the truth about Peg’s death. Throughout the novel London, New York and Port Mungo constitute a geographical triangle where each location alternately enables the reader to have a different point of view on this tragedy.

  • 3  “It was a strange, violent night in New York. As though a spirit were abroad, or a posse of demons (...)
  • 4  “McGrath himself spent some years on a remote North Pacific island, and writes with great authorit (...)

6Each space has a strong theatrical function: not only does it represent a backdrop for the artist’s maturing self, but it is also the setting for the different stages of the plot, like a play in three acts. The first part of the novel is set in England, the place synonymous with childhood as well as sexual and artistic education. London is the scene of the nodal encounter with Vera Savage, who triggers off the desire to elope and to free himself in Jack’s heart. We find few descriptions of the city since it is associated with stasis. The couple travels by boat, on the Queen Mary, to New York, the place of “restless energy, of unfettered creativity, of limitless freedom, and limitless aspiration -” (Port Mungo, 28). Once in the city, which is the urban variation of the jungle in Port Mungo, they start wandering from street to street to look for inspiration, to no avail. It is after having spent a whole night -“that long dark night of the soul” (Port Mungo, 47) – looking at the Statue of Liberty that Jack paints a picture entitled The Rising, corresponding to the birth of the artist3. Jack will come back to New York twenty years later to give full expression to his “malarial paintings”, which were inspired by the sickness and the darkness of Port Mungo, but most certainly by his own sickness of artistic narcissism. By the end of the novel, we understand how New York refers to mental isolation and loss, and how the city also witnesses the artist’s death when Jack dies in Gin’s attic. As for Port Mungo, a transitional space for the artist, it is situated in the mangrove swamps of the Gulf of Honduras. By going to Port Mungo, Jack reaches the heart of darkness, where the artist takes shape and finds back his most primitive self:4

He found there a reflection of himself, he said, and the meaning of his life as an artist was the effort to translate that identification directly onto canvas. I thought of his repeated motifs, the rain forests and rivers, the serpents, the birds, the gleaming mythic bodies, and much as I came to admire that work I never properly understood how he saw himself in those paintings. (Port Mungo, 79-80)

  • 5  “He would come back to New York but only when he had something to offer New York, he would return (...)

7The main spring and enduring inspiration throughout this dark journey is Vera, whose artistic talent and skills feed Jack’s own paintings. But if Port Mungo’s wildness leads Jack to artistic maturity,5 it also encourages his giving up to bestial instincts while Vera is sinking into alcoholism.

8As a consequence, the framework for the new Gothic novel is no longer the house or the cathedral, but the wild architecture of the city which encourages the projection of the imagination and becomes a fantasy space; the city stands as an open space for the reader, the writer and the fictional artistic figure. McGrath constructs his fiction in relation to space inasmuch as it is linked to the passing of time and to the different stages of personal and artistic maturity: the labyrinth of the city must be understood as a metaphor of the labyrinth of life. Therefore, the two painters construct and deconstruct themselves in relation to the urban landscape and to its opposite: a savage landscape which is embedded in Vera’s very name. McGrath draws his artistic force from an anti-urban Gothic which he transmits to Jack, or rather, he returns to the origins of the Gothic, to the barbaric.

  • 6  Quoted in The

9It is remarkable that the voyage from one location to another is as significant in the novel as the location itself, which explains the omnipresence of water in Port Mungo. On the one hand, the sea does establish a connection between London, New York and Port Mungo, as the lovers systematically travel by boat; on the other hand, water symbolically carries the restless artist. There is a strong sense of the artist as being a river, constantly moving forward, following the stream of life towards decay and death. It is not a surprise if Peg died by drowning: she has literally been swallowed up by the “current” of the novel. But what Jack is really attempting to do is to metaphorically bend over his boat to decipher his own image reflected by water, such as it is represented in his most achieved painting: Narcissus. Therefore, we could also read Port Mungo as a voyage through the artistic self and its unspeakable secrets. The truth about Peg’s death is forever buried in Port Mungo; McGrath has managed to keep the mystery unresolved until the last page so that, as Ben Naparstek puts it: “Yet while McGrath blasts away at the stubborn illusions of his unreliable narrator, he refuses to posit a definitive interpretation of events in their place, ensuring that truth remains as muddy and opaque as the mangrove swamps that haunt Gin’s tale.”6

  • 7  “For it confirmed that the years in Port Mungo had done nothing to civilize him, in fact I had the (...)
  • 8  Quoted in the article by

10Port Mungo symbolizes a transition in McGrath’s body of work, since the figure of the artist clearly emerges and becomes the central character, along with the exploration of the labyrinth-like city in relation to a primitive landscape as both inspiring and a recipient for art. Therefore McGrath returns to the uncivilized origins of creation as Jack is strongly attracted by the wild south in spite of himself. The painter has a strong dialogic relationship with his environment: McGrath presents three locations like three metaphorical canvases enabling the painting of the artist’s violence and anger at different stages of his life, the events in Port Mungo influencing the New York pictures. The triangle made out of the three places slowly close on Jack until he is irremediably trapped at the end of the novel, which explains the sense of claustrophobia that arises as Jack progresses through his journey. Conversely, Port Mungo and New York influence his own painting of his devouring dreamscape he is striving to create as he regresses to a state of primitivism7 and allows his savage impulses to express themselves. McGrath explains: “I wanted to see the two painters against a Caribbean backdrop, both for the vividness and exoticism of it all, and also to allow them to self-destruct far from the constraints of the homeland and the city.”8

11In parallel, those three locations trace back the evolution of the Gothic novel, from the English Gothic to the American Gothic, and on to postmodernism which is somehow a reflection on the origins. McGrath tells us a tale of the complex relationship between the shaping of the artist and his endless search in the city which enables the painting of a decaying portrait of the artist, and the blurring of the Gothic tradition into the web of postmodernism.

  • 9  New York is to some extent personified and represented as narcissistic.

12As an imaginary place, Port Mungo refers to the artist’s island at a metaphorical level. By painting the place, the artist actually paints himself, his own isolation from the outside world - the urban landscape -and gives shape to his personal myth. On several occasions, Jack Rathbone is compared to Paul Gauguin, the painter who escaped from Europe to settle in Tahiti where he painted virginal landscapes and primitive life. He too sacrificed his family to his art and his narcissism, in order to give full expression to the savage within himself. In Port Mungo, Jack creates the key painting, Narcissus in the Jungle that will constitute the main theme of his entire work. He will keep painting himself in dreamlike tones in later versions, notably in A Dream of the Lower Waters in New York:9

As soon as I heard the title I knew the painting would be a reworking of his old motif, what he called the Narcissus posture: a figure leaning over a surface in which he finds a distorted reflection, and the reflection clawing up at the leaning figure through a web or latticework of some kind. It had not escaped me that there was a grim correspondence between this and the macabre picture I held in my mind’s eye of the Port Mungo fisherman who’d leaned over the side of his boat one day, out among the mangroves, and discovered to his horror a drowned girl gazing up at him from a tangle of underwater roots. (Port Mungo, 162-163)

  • 10  My translation : “Narcisse est le père et le parrain de tous les peintres mais en lui la peinture (...)

13Alain Chareyre-Méjan’s thesis that “Narcissus is the father and the godfather of all painters but painting does not express itself through him, it allows things to remain in their dreamlike state”10 is relevant in Jack’s case as the painter is so deeply self-absorbed that he enables his nightmarish world to appear on canvas, as if by painting he was re-enacting a pervading feeling of loss:

As to what he was painting, it was disturbing because so strongly pervaded by what I understood to be the emotional residue of loss. Tones and values were heavy, laid thick on splintered armatures of black brushstrokes, and the dominant impression was of heat, sickness, darkness, decay – he referred to them as his ‘malarial’ paintings, and certainly they aroused in the viewer ideas of dank swamps steaming with disease and such. (Port Mungo, 5)

14In terms of Jack’s obsession with art and with the fulfilment of himself as an artist (which is another common point with Gauguin), there is an obvious connection between the tropism of his wild self and his wildest imagination, and the tropics: “He [Jack] needed to sink, he said – to immerse – so as to grope towards some primitive understanding of what he was about” (Port Mungo, 11). Jack follows the path through artistic maturation in Port Mungo to come back to New York and exploit the city as a narcissistic mirror space. McGrath operates a strange synaesthesia between the body of the city, Jack’s body of work and the painter’s own androgynous body as he is painting himself on and on. What Jack has ever done in his own artistic career is representing himself as a young man to avoid looking straight at the reflection of his decaying self.

15At that point the feminine nature of the city becomes obvious, contrary to Patrick McGrath’s other novels where the city was associated with male power. Jack is mirrored by women only (Gin, Vera, Peg, Anna) so that he recognises himself in their long thin white bodies. This pseudo autoeroticism is transposed onto the unclear incestuous relationship he entertains with his two daughters and the phallic paintings that result from the daughters’ mirror-like function.

16That is where the main Gothic motif lies: the incest taboo, which seemed to have caused Peg’s death. When Anna comes back to New York like a ghost returning from the past to enquire about her own story, she offers to pause for him. As a consequence, Jack only manages to paint the reflection of himself he finds in his own daughter, and traces the contours of a white androgynous thin body like his own, the portrait of the artist as a young man, namely, when he was 17 and met Vera. By the end of the novel, the picture of the artist haunted by his own artistic self emerges to the surface. The final image of Jack is reminiscent of the picture of Dorian Gray when Jack as a hideous diseased artist dies beside his own self-portrait as a beautiful youth. A parallel could also be drawn with Poe’s ‘Oval Portrait’, where in a strange reversed process, it’s not the model who is swallowed by the painting, but rather, the artist who consumes himself as his work is progressing: he finally dies when has completed his own painting.

17McGrath’s insightful reflections on artistic creation as deeply narcissistic offer a dialogue with the hybrid nature of the Gothic: his fascination with androgyny and sexual ambiguity linked to the artist haunted by himself dates back to McGrath first collection of short stories – Blood and Water and Other Tales – and explains his recreation of the Gothic genre and the shifting away of the conventional boundaries. In Port Mungo, the different locations mirror the ambiguous body and take part in both the construction and decay of the self. As a result, McGrath stages in three different places the uncanny, endless duplication of the same body both strange and familiar, as if Jack’s paintings were nothing more than the reproduction of an evanescent Gothic double.

  • 11  McGrath has long been fascinated with the delicate balance between artistic activity and madness: (...)

18At the centre of this endless narcissistic journey lies a terrible family secret that will not be clearly articulated until the end of the novel: this secret is inscribed in the violent urban architecture of New York and the tropical heat of Port Mungo. McGrath questions the dialectics between creation and decay, but also between a work of art and sanity. Port Mungo figures both the urban and tropical nightmares, two haunting places from which the artist cannot escape. Jack has been caught up by his own myth of the artist and has created instead the myth of the guilty, murderous narcissistic artist.11

19It is relevant to draw a final parallel with McGrath’s own journey through different urban “bodies” that has similarly given shape to his body of work, from the Gothic to the mature kernel of darker creative forces, McGrath’s wild dreamscape. In his meditation on the urban Gothic, Patrick McGrath actually gives rise to the darkness of the artist’s creative forces. The acknowledgements part in Port Mungo is worth being pondered over. McGrath writes: “No man is an island, apparently, but by the middle of a book most writers get to feeling distinctly peninsular. […] We go into the room alone, and we stay in the room alone […]” (Port Mungo, 243). Port Mungo is the painting of the anxiety of the artist locked in that room, as Jack is locked up in his own narcissism. The narrator, Gin, also writes in her room in Manhattan Jack’s urban and tropical adventures, and dreams of her own incestuous passion for her brother. She finally manages to keep him to herself, as a reflection of her other self.

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Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray. Intro. Isobel Murray. Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1974.

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1  The novel still plays - in a very sophisticated way - on Gothic tropes, such as the double, the haunting of the past and of family secrets.

2  Already in Martha Peake McGrath had dramatized the dialectical relationship between England and America, and pondered over such issues as English and American Gothic in relation to the freedom of artistic creation. These central themes are further developed in Port Mungo.

3  “It was a strange, violent night in New York. As though a spirit were abroad, or a posse of demons. There were jangling discordant energies wherever they went. Shouting cops, restive crowds, snarled traffic.” (Port Mungo, 44)

4  “McGrath himself spent some years on a remote North Pacific island, and writes with great authority about Jack’s mission to make contact with his inner savage.” (“Danger:artist at work”, Guardian Unlimited Books. May 15, 2004.,6121,1216932,00.html )

5  “He would come back to New York but only when he had something to offer New York, he would return a mature painter with a body of work.” (Port Mungo, 46)

6  Quoted in The

7  “For it confirmed that the years in Port Mungo had done nothing to civilize him, in fact I had the distinct impression that he’d deliberately destroyed in himself all remaining traces of a social decorum learned as a child in a country he no longer called home.” (Port Mungo, 2)

8  Quoted in the article by

9  New York is to some extent personified and represented as narcissistic.

10  My translation : “Narcisse est le père et le parrain de tous les peintres mais en lui la peinture ne parle pas, elle laisse être les choses à leur sommeil de chose.” (Chareyre-Méjan, 19)

11  McGrath has long been fascinated with the delicate balance between artistic activity and madness: to some extent, Jack keeps painting to control his own madness, as Edgar Stark in Asylum controls his violent mad impulses by working on his clay.

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Référence électronique

Magali FALCO, « The Painting of the Urban Dreamscape in Patrick McGrath’s Port Mungo », E-rea [En ligne], 5.2 | 2007, document 5, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2007, consulté le 23 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.168

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Magali FALCO

Université de Provence

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