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Wyndham Lewis: Monstre Gai

Though published twenty-seven years after Childermass, the first in this trilogy, this novel takes off from where the previous one left off. At the end of Childermass, Pullman and Sattersthwaite were waiting to get into the Magnetic City, which they thought might be Heaven. Indeed, at the very beginning of this book, they do get into the Magnetic City, though the journey is not too pleasant, and find that the Magnetic City is not really Heaven but more a Purgatory Mark 2. The first thing they notice is that, contrary to what they experienced before, they now have resumed some basic human urges, namely hunger, thirst and the need to urinate. They also soon discover that, as before, the Magnetic City, at least initially, retains some of the features of an English public school, namely a bunch of mainly though not exclusively English men, no women (and, as a result, rampant homosexuality), a class structure with prefects and servants and no alcohol or tobacco, at least officially, though both can be obtained illicitly. However, they soon discover the differences. Vegetarianism reigns, with no meat available. They have to find housing and are soon being temporarily put up by Mannock, an English gentleman. They also find that though there is a capitalist system – shops with goods for sale – they are given free money just by going to the bank. How much money they get seems to depend on what their station had been on Earth. Pullman, for example, gets more money than Sattersthwaite.

However, their first major surprise comes soon after, when the city is under some sort of attack. It turns out that Lucifer has launched a fierce attack on the city, not least because he resents the inhabitants who obtained the favour of God over him. A lot of damage is caused and quite a few people are killed. (Yes, dead people can be killed though not in the same way we can.) We soon realise that the Magnetic City is just as political as anywhere on Earth. Not only is there open warfare between Satan and God (or, at least, God’s subordinates) but there is also internal political dissent. The Bailiff, whom we had met in Childermass, makes a greater appearance here and soon starts courting Pullman, making sure he has a lovely flat, increasing his spending allowance, giving him a succession of servants (all of whom turn out to have their faults, hence their frequent replacement) and inviting him to lunch (a rare treat). We also learn why he is interested in Pullman. It is he that seems to be at the forefront of the political activity in the city. But who is the Bailiff and what is his role? Pullman is slow to realise but we soon find out from others that he is not what he seems.

There are other political figures. Firstly there is the governor, a strange non-human creature who also briefly courts Pullman, and there are also the police chief and Father Ryan. Pullman is a lapsed Catholic but still has some affection for the religion and it seems that Father Ryan may well represent the force of good in the City, though this is not clear. It is also not clear if God is Catholic. Sattersthwaite does not, initially, have much of a place with Pullman, who is getting tired of him and he is sent off on his own. He ends up with a gang that goes around mugging and even murdering the well-to-do, though, it would seem, more for fun than for the money. We also learn of the women. They are kept in a compound of their own, separate from the men. They have their own organisation – police, government, public administration – but it is clear that this does not work well (the not very subtle implication is that women cannot manage these things) and there is a lot of crime, including murder. However, the whole organisation is not well run and seems to be run not unlike a US city controlled by gangs. The Devil vs. God war hovers very much in the background and comes to the fore now and then. We even meet emissaries of the Devil who are naturally not very pleasant creatures. It is a fascinating if thoroughly unconvincing take on the afterlife, with an English public school as the model and, at the end, we are left with a cliff-hanger as Pullman is taken off somewhere else.

Publishing history

First published 1955 by John Calder