Rick Gekoski: Skilful

Gulliver’s travails

Gekoski focuses the protagonist’s nightmarish vilification around the career and writings of Jonathan Swift


This article is taken from the January/February 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Darke Matter, by Rick Gekoski Constable £16.99

Can exorbitant love turn you into a misanthropist? Perhaps it can, if the underlying character is right. James Darke, retired public school teacher, widower, former cuckold, and possibly worse, is a case in point. Darke’s novelist wife, Suzy, has recently died from a painful kind of cancer.

At the end, distressed by her suffering and desperate to ease her imminent death, Darke laces a cup of tea with a mixture of the drugs he has been prescribed for a heart condition. As he hoped, Suzy does not wake up from this final sleep, and Darke assumes that it was his amateur pharmacology that did the trick. He explains what he has done to his daughter Lucy and his son-in-law Sam, who runs a modish psychotherapy group. At one of his therapy sessions Sam describes (not entirely undeliberately, as we later learn) what his father-in-law has done in an insufficiently anonymised way in front of a group of patients, one of whom is a devout Roman Catholic married to a policeman. 

Darke finds himself being investigated and eventually tried for the murder of his wife, and the novel ends with the foreman of the jury about to give their verdict. (This playful obscuring of the novel’s conclusion has been prepared for earlier, when Darke makes some testy comments about John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and its final suspension between three alternative endings.)

An important context for the novel, then, is our current anxiety about the ethics of assisted dying. The arguments pro and con are given what seem to me, as at present a non-combatant on this issue, a fair hearing. But what enriches this novel beyond the predictable is the skilled way Gekoski entwines his protagonist’s nightmarish experience of being hounded and vilified, for what in the circumstances can be seen as an act of mercy, around the career and writings of Jonathan Swift.

In a twenty-first century version of Gulliver’s experience, Darke and his family are trolled online

Swift had been one of Darke’s favourite authors in his schoolteaching days, and he amuses his young grandson by writing a continuation of Gulliver’s Travels, describing Lemuel Gulliver’s experiences once he has returned to Rotherhithe from the land of the rational horses, the Houyhnhnms, and their helot-like underclass, the bestial Yahoos. Darke’s continuation picks up from the final chapter of Swift’s text, in which Gulliver prefers to live in the stable with his horses rather than endure the company of his wife and children, who now fill him with “Hatred, Disgust and Contempt”:

For, although since my unfortunate Exile from the Houyhnhnm Country, I had compelled myself to tolerate the sight of Yahoos . . . when I began to consider, that by copulating with one of the Yahoo-Species, I had become a Parent of more; it struck me with the utmost Shame, Confusion and Horror.

In Darke’s continuation of Swift’s wonderful satire, Gulliver makes the disastrous decision to proselytise amongst his countrymen in favour of the values and customs of his beloved Houyhnhnms. He is mocked as a “Horse-man” by the mob, prosecuted for the heretical nature of his beliefs, and eventually imprisoned in Newgate. Imprisonment, however, really does reform Darke’s Gulliver, in a way that Swift’s satire gives us no good reason to expect. Darke’s Gulliver comes to see that human beings are not identical to the Yahoos:

For our species, imperfect as it may be, is not entirely that of the Yahoos, who are merely a degraded version of it, and not to be mistaken for that much preferable species, mankind. For men, however venial and disappointing, are touched by grace, and made in the image of a divine spirit, and — for my dear and fragrant Mary constantly reiterates and exemplifies this — have a spirit informed by love.

The resonance between Swift’s book and the experience of Darke is one of both parallelism and inversion. Parallelism, because Darke too experiences persecution by the mob. Following the advice of friends, he decides that his best chance of being acquitted for what he did as his wife lay dying is to make himself the focus of a cause. He and his friends stir up popular awareness of his case, and, in a twenty-first century version of Gulliver’s experience, Darke and his family are trolled online, vilified in public, and threatened with violence. 

But there is also inversion. The slogan Darke chooses for his crusade is “Do You Love Your Dog More Than Your Wife?”, provocatively contrasting the ease of arranging for a pet to be helped out of life once existence has become unendurable with the enormous and intimidating hurdles society places in the path of anyone who wishes to show a similar care for a person they love. 

Darke’s point is that to show greater practical consideration to animals than to humans is an inversion of true values. Yet that is precisely the position of Gulliver once he has returned from the land of the Houyhnhyms. As his residence in the stable shows, he comes to value animals above his fellow men, whom (in contrast to the later attitudes Darke creates for him) he sees as perfect Yahoos. 

James Darke may repudiate Romanticism but nevertheless he is inescapably Romanticism’s child

It is significant that Gulliver does not seem to turn a hair when he is informed that the Houyhnhnms are debating a genocidal extermination of the Yahoos, and in fact suggests a refinement of the policy, namely that the male Yahoos should simply be castrated.

Gekoski’s pastiche of Swiftian style is passable, with only a few lapses into anachronistic turns of phrase. But the prose here is just a carapace, because Swift and Darke, for all his superficially Swiftian curmudgeonliness, inhabit different moral universes. Swift lived long enough to see the beginnings of sentimental ethics in the writings of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, but his own ethics were of a very different stripe, as his explanation of the purpose of a sermon — to tell the people their duty, and to convince them that it is so — makes clear. 

James Darke may repudiate Romanticism (he walks out of a poetry reading party where the chosen poem is “Ode to a Nightingale”), but nevertheless he is inescapably Romanticism’s child — saturated with sentiment, and by no means immune to self-pity. His emotional angularity, which might at first glance look Swiftian, is in fact curdled Romanticism, and that is something very different from the toughness present even in Swift’s acts of apparent kindness. 

A Modest Proposal is not at all points so far from Swift’s innermost thoughts about the Irish as well-intentioned critics sometimes say it is. After all, Swift also wrote and published a completely unironic pamphlet proposing that beggars should be badged.

My tedious but meticulous friend, Dr Dryasdust, informs me of a few errors and slips. Gulliver’s Travels is divided into “Parts”, not “Books”. T. S. Eliot was born and raised in St Louis, not Kansas City. The Nazi salute was “Sieg Heil!”, not “Seig Heil!”. I put it mildly to the good Doctor that these details may have been subtle strokes in Gekoski’s characterisation of James Darke as an unreliable narrator, but he would have none of it.

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