Written by RM Vaughan

Pervatory, originally titled What We Do Here, We Do For Ourselves, opens with a scene familiar to anyone who has experienced the confines of a mental health institution. A brutal respite from life, where cold yellowish walls and uncaring staff provide a make-shift sanctuary from the outside world.

The protagonist of Pervatory, Martin Murray Heather, embarks on a journey through the pages of Vaughan’s posthumously released novel by Coach House Books. The narrative plays with Vaughan’s own mental health issues which ultimately led to his untimely suicide in October of 2020.

Pervatory was introduced to the word at a book launch at The Black Eagle and attended by some of Toronto’s art community. During the event, a man was spread eagle near the back of the room while a muscle bound daddy flogged away, a spectacle that Vaughn himself would likely be proud of. The launch notably avoided the topic of suicide, a recurring phenomenon at such events. The reticence to discuss the cause of death raises questions about our societal discomfort and personal guilt surrounding suicide.

Pervatory was found as a completed novel after RM Vaughan’s death, and according to editor Alana Wilcox of Coach House Books, no additional content had been added by the publisher, save for the usual editing Vaughan would encounter such as changing tense, grammatical fixes, and some work resolving timeline issues.

Getting flogged at RM Vaughan's book launch.
Getting flogged at RM Vaughan’s book launch.

Gorgeously designed by Fiona Smith, the cover of “Pervatory” features a graphic illustration of a orifice within a face, with the back cover referencing the Tarot Tower Card which represents danger, crisis, sudden change, destruction, higher learning, and liberation. The character Martin, as well as Vaughn himself, look towards the Tarot as a child who is seeking direction from a parent.

The semi-autobiographical nature of the work includes amusing tales about the children of Berlin, which almost faced exclusion through the editing process, but thankfully remain, and are hilariously rendered accounts. Martin Murray Heather, a name fitting for a Torontonian, treats the reader to a humourous comparison of the people who live in Hogtown versus those living in Germany, drawing parallels between the blandness of the former and the peculiar charm of the latter.  

German glamour is cheap, grubby, and smells a bit of lard and worn shoes. To be glamorous in Germany is to be conspicuously languid, half-awake, like a hippie. Oh, everyone tries.

-Martin Murray Heather, from “Pervatory”

One can assume that Martin is a synonym for RM Vaughn himself, not unlike the characters in the book who are given pseudonyms like “J,” “B,” and “K” to shield against potential hurt feelings or legal repercussions. After all, there are real people behind these letters.

The protagonist grapples with mysterious letters, hand-penned in Russian, which are accompanied by symbolic, demonic drawings. This sub-plot provides an ongoing mystery to Martin, one that also gives way to moments of reflection and self-discovery.

Alexander, a hookup-turned-lover, becomes a central figure, pushing Martin to confront his yearning for love and connection. Martin’s language barrier adds an extra layer of challenge, as he struggles to speak German, which is most often interpreted as a cultural faux pas.

In the midst of his journey, Martin critiques Canadian artists, exposing the transient nature of their attention and the fickleness of their support. The narrative further delves into Martin’s navigation of German culture, addressing sensitive topics like the Nazi era, while exploring wonderfully dirty and dark encounters with many, many men. Martin’s sexual escapades provide a window into his quest for connection, portrayed as a void, capable of consuming everything he is, and is not.

I am not bragging. Most of these situations became exciting
or ironically glamorous only after the fact. Often, at the time, I just felt stupid and detached. But not always.

-Martin Murray Heather, from “Pervatory”

And then there’s a strange, reoccurring dream about a dog, a river and a deep back pocket. This dream, affecting his waking hours, proves to hold a peculiar significance for him, in that in the dream he’s always reaching into the pocket but never quite reaching what’s hiding deep inside.

Pervatory offers a poignant exploration of love, identity, mental health, and the intricacies of human connection set against the backdrop of a city filled with contradictions. The novel is a testament to RM Vaughan’s literary prowess, marked by his historic ability to elevate artists with a few keystrokes.

The least confusing aspect of living in Berlin was my relationship to other artists. It was exactly the same as the take-and-take relationship I had with creative people in Toronto. I was a conduit to the magic world of press, nothing more.

-Martin Murray Heather, from “Pervatory”

Knowing that Vaughan himself had spent a considerable amount of time in Germany, Pervatory offers an unofficial glimpse into his life, love, and struggles as a genius artist living at the fate of his mental health and painting him as a wildly misunderstood, struggling to find his place in the world. A blazing work worthy of praise and exploration by anyone who is living in, or on, the perimeters of the art world.

BUY THE BOOK: Pervatory.

Review by Raymond Helkio for The Reading Salon.

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