Masks Within Masks Within Narratives: Notes on “The Compleat Purge”


Trisha Low
The Compleat Purge
Kenning Editions; 290 p.

Trisha Low’s The Compleat Purge isn’t really the kind of book that lends itself well to summaries. It’s something more to be experienced: it’s a play on narrative forms, though at the center of the layered narratives is an abundance of howling, mournful emotion. Reading it, I sometimes felt as though I was walking through a deeply polarizing gallery show: the way that form and purpose coincide, meditate on one another, and form something wholly different. Is it fiction? Is it art? I couldn’t tell you — though I will say that, however you choose to file it, The Compleat Purge definitely left its mark on me.

It’s hard not to, given that the book’s first section is comprised of a series of wills by its author (or at least someone who shares her name). What emerges from these is both a kind of coming-of-age portrait, charting shifting relationships with friends, family, and geography — as well as the elephant in the room, which is to say the looming presence of deep depression. From there, Low moves to a bizarre hybrid of forms — half chatroom, in which two participants don indie rock-inspired identities and discuss problematic relationships, and half pastiche of anachronistic literary forms.

I’m probably committing a cardinal sin here by alluding to an author who’s blurbed the book in question, but: I definitely found parallels between Low’s book and Barbara Browning’s The Correspondence Artist. Each plays with notions of the author; each finds the narrator donning different masks — sometimes donning masks atop masks — to get at a deeper emotional truth. And in the case of Low’s book, there’s a gulf between the giddy thrill of adopting other identities and the uncontrolled sadness that’s at the root of much of the actions described therein. For all of the tender moments and bleakly funny revenge fantasies that crop up here, it’s also one that opens with a small child being profoundly depressed. For all that there are experiments in form on display, The Compleat Purge isn’t simply an experiment in form. It’s a hybrid in the best sense of the word, bridging styles to get at something deeper; volleying out a series of cloaks to get at something much more essential.

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