Wednesday, August 17, 2016
The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark
'I liked Dougal,' Humphrey said.
Here they were, kneeling at the altar. The vicar was reading from the prayer book. Dixie took a lacy handkerchief from her sleeve and gently patted her nose. Humphrey noticed the whiff of scent which came from the handkerchief.
The vicar said to Humphrey, 'Wilt thou have this woman to be thy wedded wife?'
'No,' Humphrey said, 'to be quite frank I won't.'
They say there's only two stories: a fish out of water and a stranger comes to town. Muriel Spark's The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a quintessential example of the second type. It's all about what happens when the hermetic nature of a community is interrupted by an outsider, who, in this case is not only destabilizing, but outright destructive.
The stranger in this case is a Scotsman named Dougal Douglas, who is hired as an "Arts man" (whatever that means) at a textile manufacturer in the working-class London neighborhood of Peckham. Dougal's task seems to be to improve the lives of the menial laborers at Meadows, Meade & Grimley, a job which he insists will require extensive research into the town, the factory, and its workers, but which consists mostly of not working. When he does talk to his co-workers about work, it's usually to encourage them to take unasked-for days off. Otherwise, he spends his time not showing up, befriending the locals, and working a subtle wedge into the many relationships which precede him in Peckham. He gets a job at a rival company, and doesn't show up to that one, either. Sometimes, he asks people to feel the lumps on his head, which he insists are the vestiges of two horns, sawed off his head at birth.
It's strange to think of Spark as subtle, but she's remarkably reticent when it comes to the deeper themes of her works. Like Nabokov, half the time she seems to be playing games with the reader, baiting them into looking for deeper meanings that may not be there at all. Unlike Nabokov, it's the sparseness of the novels and their bare-bones plots which can make such investigations futile; like looking for messages in spiderwebs.
But if there's something more profound going on in The Ballad of Peckham Rye than the mere joy of destruction, I think it's this: Dougal presents himself as a kind of Satan-figure, and his arrival in town really does end in disaster. His friend Humphrey, who likes Dougal, answers "no" at the altar when he's about to marry Dixie, who doesn't. His boss, Mr. Druce, commits a brutal murder out of jealousy toward Dougal. But Dougal doesn't kill anyone; his worst sins, really, are skipping out on work, encouraging absenteeism, and ardent flirting. In Dougal, Spark blurs the line between social and moral transgressions. We laugh at the kind of banal corporate moralizing that we see in modern society all the time--I'm thinking of the boss in Office Space, droning on about cover sheets--but what if professionalism really were a bulwark between good and evil? Or politeness?
The frightening thing about Dougal is that he seems to revel in the destruction he causes, then skips town. He's not so different from Spark in that way, who clearly loves to be gruesome and doesn't care to linger on the repercussions. I'd like to think that Spark, herself a Scottish transplant in London (and who, according to her biography, rather enjoyed stirring up trouble), saw the devilish Dougal as a representation of herself.