The Purgatory Press/After The End is a book of two parts, which skillfully contributes to the tradition of narrative innovation in the contemporary short story. The first section, “The Purgatory Press”, is a novella made up of fictional entries in the catalogue of a now-defunct publishing house, Purgatory Press. The second half of the work,” After The End”, is a more traditional collection of short stories. These, too, examine unrealised or failed ideas, particularly thwarted artistic endeavour.
Culbert embeds his work firmly in the tradition of postmodern narrative fiction. The catalogue structure is reminiscent of Leanne Shapton’s 2009 novel Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris: Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry. Each entry in the Purgatory Press catalogue represents a possible non-fiction publication but one that is simultaneously impossible, being simply idea in the author’s head. In the main these fictional books discuss art and the artists who make it. The ideas that the artists want to realise are either unfeasible, laughable, or both: bloated ideas with little value, making perverse the Duchampian maxim that “everything is art”. Culbert’s levity is tinged with sadness, for behind these grotesque creations are the artists, thwarted and all-too-human.
There is a book in the Purgatory Press catalogue on overlooked artist Chuck Banning, who takes self-portraits of his “broad, fatuous and blank smile in front of scenes of the most appalling wretchedness and horror” such as Rwandan massacre scenes, and whose smile is an “obscenity that draws our ire”. Reader, beware, however – Culbert states, “had he lived into this century, Chuck Banning’s career would have blossomed”: a scornful reflection on an era of twitter-reportage and amateur disaster footage. Then there is a fictional publication called Alan Johnson, Outsider Artist, documenting with oblivious sincerity the work of an autistic man who painted a single concrete slab with layers of paint. Culbert’s system is to explore the prejudices of the reader: we feel the absurdity and emptiness of the regard for these characters, and then are forced into a position of sympathy for the characters themselves. These are clever stories, piercing the self-important bubble of the art world.
The second half of the book, “After The End”, musing on the absurdity of post-modernity in general. In “Echos [sic]” lovers exchange passionate notes in arcane constructions – each undercut with “sent from my BlackBerry” or “sent from my Android device”; a man is decapitated and finds it improves his sex life as his lovers are less self-conscious; a woman lies about meeting Hitchcock to gain attention. One story from After The End that works particularly well is the shortest one, “Incidence”. It describes a man in a “pitifully cramped” apartment, attempting to make it look larger by installing a mirror and wishing he could use the space behind the mirror. There is not enough room, Culbert insists, for us all, with our dreams and our possessions, to exist. We are too cramped, consigned to the fringes: we exist in increasingly liminal pockets of space.
Culbert’s fiction is deft, his prose clean, his message bleak. The Purgatory Press/After The End feels accomplished but rather hollow, perhaps in homage to his perception of the world. Nevertheless, there is a certain bitter taste of dissatisfaction. In a world of hyper-consumerism where signs are empty of meaning, sincerity can be a radical form of reclamation, and something that Culbert seems to consider beneath his notice. The work is slick and knowing, feeling a little like an experimental Bret Easton Ellis – and thus falls slightly short of what Culbert is doubtless capable of.