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REVIEW: Mervyn Peake: Mr. Pye
8.20.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Mervyn Peake is best known for his sprawling masterpiece of gothic fantasy, the Gormenghast trilogy. In it, he describes an enormously detailed, but entirely self-contained community. An entire world exists within the walls of the castle of Gormenghast, and its inhabitants seem completely unaware of anything outside (until the third book of the trilogy, Titus Alone, that is).

Mr. Pye, Peake’s much overlooked (and currently out-of-print) “other” novel, is set in a similarly self-contained community. The island of Sark is located about 80 miles off the coast of England, in the English Channel. It is only three miles long and a mile-and-a-half wide with a population of about 550, but it is self-governing, with its own parliament (called the “Chief Pleas”) and the last feudal constitution in the Western World. No cars are allowed on Sark, so people get around by horse-drawn carriage.

Sark is a real place, but you can see why it would make an attractive setting for a bizarre, fantastical novel. In Mr. Pye, a mysterious stranger arrives on Sark with a mission to “turn the island inside-out like a salted leach.” Mr. Pye is a fat little man with unlimited energy, which he uses to perform all manner of good deeds, all in the name of the “Great Pal” (his nickname for God). He settles age-old feuds, warms the hearts of bitter old ladies, and organizes a picnic on the beach. Within a short time he is well on his way to realizing his dream of turning the island into a “cosmos of healthy and far-reaching love.”

Then something strange happens. He starts to grow wings. In a panic he leaves Sark and consults expensive doctors in London, but nobody knows what to make of it. The only explanation he can think of is that he has been too good and is transforming into an angel. In a desperate attempt to combat the transformation be begins to perform evil acts. He kicks over children’s sandcastles, he drains the island’s supply of drinking water, and he performs shady satanic rituals involving a goat.

Mr. Pye’s naughty acts pay off. The wings disappear and he begins to win back the love and trust of the islanders, but now he has developed a taste for sin and he continues to perform his questionable activities with the goat. Soon he has a new problem: he starts to grow horns. He tries to balance his goodness and sin, but to no avail. He ends up with both wings and horns, and when the islanders discover what their beloved Mr. Pye has become they are terrified and call the police. In the end Mr. Pye is forced to escape from Sark by using his wings to fly away across the sea.

Mr. Pye is a truly weird book. I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It would be easy to say it is a parable about good and evil, but it isn’t really. It’s just the story of a man who grows wings and horns. There doesn’t really seem to be any moral or lesson. It’s just a funny little story about a funny little man set on a funny little island.

Mr. Pye is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings” crossed with an episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. If you have a taste for the bizarre, you’ll love it.

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