Friday, January 6, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh - Ian McDonald

Ian McDonald is, in my opinion, one of the most interesting writers working in speculative fiction today. To date, I have read eleven of his novels and one collection, and enjoyed all but one of them. This particular story is one of his earlier ones. It was published in 1988 in a collection that appeared at the same time as his d├ębut novel Desolation Road. It was nominated for a Nebula the following year but seems to have garnered little attention beyond that. The most recent publication is in the collection The Best of Ian McDonald (2016), of which I own a copy. I haven't been able to find it online so it might be a bit hard to get hold of. That is a shame, it is a very good story.

During his period in Arles, Vincent van Gogh is working at a frantic pace. He paints what he sees around him, ignoring a lack of money, a lack of sleep and a lack of materials. He has to paint to keep his fear of pain and madness at bay. One day, a traveller from the future arrives. He introduces himself as The King of Pain and wants Vincent to paint his portrait. It is a work Van Gogh will never finish.

McDonald covers the final couple of years of Van Gogh's life, starting with the period in Arles. People familiar with his life and work will recognize a lot of details in the story. The vibrant colours in his paintings, the sunflowers, the wheat fields, the starry night, the yellow house, the bedroom, the crows, and of course the sun. The biographical details match well too. McDonald weaves the meetings with The King of Pain in with Van Gogh's bouts of madness. The period in the hospital in Arles after he cut off part of his ear features prominently in it as well. I suspect anyone who knows a bit more about Van Gogh will see more of the details and possibly a link between the writing and his style of painting.

What I particularly like about the story is the way it plays with the stereotype of the tormented artist and then gives it a good twist at the end of the story. Much has been made of Van Gogh 's creativity and how it might have been influenced by mental problems. His health was most certainly impacted by alcohol abuse and a lack of proper food and sleep but what the exact nature of his mental problems was will never be known. He is without a doubt a tragic figure as well as a brilliant artist. It is perhaps not surprising that The King of Pain seeks him out. The climax of the story, Van Gogh's death, is not quite what you might expect from what is known about his life.

Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh is quite different from the novels that McDonald would write after the turn of the century. People who like McDonald's early work, will probably connect more easily with it. If you are interested in how his style developed over the years, this story is definitely one you will want to read.

Story Details
Title: Unfinished Portrait of the King of Pain by Van Gogh
Author: Ian McDonald
Language: English
Originally published: The collection Empire Dreams, 1988
Read in: The Best of Ian McDonald, 2016
Story length: Novelette, wordcount unknown
Awards: Nebula nominated
Available online: Not that I'm aware of.

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