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The Museum At Purgatory: A Wondrous Strange Tale
Nick Bantock
Harper Perennial paperback $15

review by Amy Harlib

Nick Bantock, a British expatriate now residing in the Pacific Northwest of the USA, is a writer and artist who has had a successful career creating books combining inventive collages, surreal graphics and eccentric sculptural constructs (in photographs), with lightweight if witty and sweet metaphysical fables. Bantock's most famous and bestselling work was the epistolary fantasy, the Griffin And Sabine trilogy.

In The Museum At Purgatory, his easily obtainable and best book since the well-known trio, Bantock follows a weirder course but keeps to his own unmistakable, instantly recognisable style. The tale is narrated by Non, the curator of the museum in Purgatory which is a city (according to Non's explanation), that is constantly in flux, with its buildings, its trees, its light and colours ceaselessly shifting shape. In this place of ambiguity, souls come to reassess their lives. Bantock's fascinating concept here is that human minds are basically conduits for information which gets 'deposited' via dreams into the collective unconscious and each soul must, before they depart, answer the question whether he or she has "contributed enough to the greater consciousness" to progress further on to a Utopian State, or, failing that, resign themselves to a Dystopia. Those souls that belong to collectors fall under Non's purview for he looks after them and their treasures in his museum.

After Non's introduction, there follows a catalogue as it were, of some of the museum's most interesting holdings and here Bantock's imagination and cleverness runs rampant. Along with brief texts that offer biographical profiles of a handful of collectors, there are full-colour graphic images and equally colourful photographs of created objects that purport to be the obsessive/compulsive fruits of these imaginary folks hoarding propensities.

There are 10 'galleries' (out of the myriad warrens of the uncanny institution), that Non has selected for this erstwhile catalogue - the contents chosen for their outstanding eccentricity and fascination, for the personalities and predicaments of their owners are expressed and reflected in the accumulated things which are displayed. Thus, there are several pages each devoted to obscure (and unique) objects: magic carpets, shrines and navigational boxes, entomological amalgams, lost posts, games, spinning tops, 'sfumatoglyphics' (a neologism meaning calligraphic, petroglyphic and hieroglyphic markings on stone, wood, paper and animal skin that illustrate the writing's relationship to dream images), miniature mummies, and finally, angels and demons (or rather artefacts supposedly offering proof of sightings of such supernatural beings in the tangible world). In the concluding chapter, Non at last tells his personal bittersweet tale for, it turns out, that his own post-death journey as Curator, gathering together artists and collectors, sifting and analysing their lives, served as his desperate attempt to break the mysterious amnesia that prevented him from embarking on his passage to Heaven or Hell.

Tremendous ingenuity and a great deal of wit and playfulness are evident in The Museum At Purgatory for Bantock obviously put in a great deal of time, thought and effort into creating the images and objects that illustrate these pages and that embody the stories he has written to go with them. This book once again displays Bantock's extraordinary gift for combining words and stunning images to create a weird and compelling tale that, if somewhat detached and academic in its prose style, nevertheless rivets the reader and the beholder with the startling genius of the juxtapositions that give meaning to the artistry of the illustrations. Here is a volume that anyone who appreciates genuine artistic vision often enhanced by sly wit and subtle humour will treasure, wanting to gaze at the lavishly colourful pictorial delights therein over and over again.
The Museum at Purgatory

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