Story Rating: 3.75 stars
Audio Rating: 4.5 stars
Narrator: Darcy Stark
Length: 9 hours, 17 minutes
In 1970, William “Will” Morgan was a twenty-six-year-old law student, in love and living with his boyfriend, David, when he unwillingly become the host of It—a sentient presence Will came to call the Spirit of Vengeance. It allowed Will to hear the cries of the souls of recently murdered innocents and compelled him to avenge them. After forty years as a host, Will has become Gar, an emotionless persona he donned to bury his compassion and shield his conscience from the reality of living a life devoid of any human connection beyond killing other murderers. Imagine Gar’s puzzlement when a young man on the metro named Ryan sparks not only interest and curiosity within him, but concern as well. When Ryan disembarks and Gar is overcome by a different call, one that he experienced only once before in his forty years as host, he instantly recognizes what it is and goes after Ryan.
As the two men spend time together, Gar slowly gives way to Will and the return of his humanity and all its questions, contradictions, and overwhelming messiness. Moreover, Will/Gar realizes that the connection he feels with Ryan is reciprocated in a manner neither man understands. Unfortunately, answers are hard to find and sometimes even harder to understand. The men try to fully explore the nature of Will/Gar’s Purpose and the entity he hosts and begin the slow process of unraveling Its mysteries. The process is complicated further by the fact that the bond they share and Will/Gar’s Purpose are interconnected in startling and dangerous ways; that despite his efforts, Will/Gar’s kills have been noticed by the FBI; and they are facing the vulnerabilities inherent in caring for someone. For Will/Gar, the price of reconnecting fully with his humanity and living as Will may be too high and too painful for him to accept.
Upon reading the blurb for Purpose, I was immediately intrigued by the concept of an avenging spirit that requires a human host to kill and the ramifications of what that kind of existence would have. Overall, I really enjoyed how Gordon uses the concept to explore humanity, justice, and survival mechanisms, as well as his eventual explanation of what the Purpose turns out to be. While the Purpose and entity from which it arises are categorized as a spirit, the story is not paranormal. If anything, Purpose has more sci-fi/spec-fic elements. Will/Gar’s long time as a host grants him not only enhanced strength, speed, and resilience, but an enhanced mind as well— one he uses to create tech that helps him navigate the world relatively unseen, among other psychic gifts.
“Someone died tonight.”
These are Will/Gar’s introductory words; they are a simple statement of fact, a call to action and invitation into Will/Gar’s life. Before meeting Ryan, Gar is essentially inhuman, in body, emotions and mind—an avenging killing machine who only finds satisfaction in creating interesting kills and a job well done. He has lived the majority of his life as Gar, and Ryan’s presence in his life forces Will out of hiding and makes Will/Gar question the Purpose, his actions, his seeming indifference to killing, and his choices in ways he hasn’t in more than three decades. Since trying to speak to the entity in the beginning provided no answers, Will/Gar’s has used his access to the memories of Its previous hosts to determine what the Purpose wanted and how to live this life. He disappeared from his family’s world, avoided companionship, and followed a straightforward, undeviating path of vigilante murder until Ryan. Ryan’s aversion to killing and brutality, even if seemingly deserved, permeates Will/Gar’s life and heart and provides a link to his buried past and humanness. In turn, Will/Gar begins to question if he can satisfy the Purpose in a way that would help him avoid both killing and the madness that destroyed previous hosts who denied or ignored the Purpose.
These aspects of the story are all compelling, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. Unfortunately, they are somewhat overshadowed by Ryan, whose somewhat unpleasant personality detracts from the kindness, compassion, and clemency missing from Will/Gar’s life that Ryan is supposed to illustrate. The romantic aspect of their relationship just didn’t work for me as I found Ryan simply insufferable. After a series of bad boyfriends, with the last outing Ryan to his parents and leaving him homeless, I wanted to sympathize with him, especially as he is meant to be a voice of reason/conscience for Will/Gar. I tried DESPERATELY to like him, as disliking a character can be distracting, but as his and Will/Gar’s interactions perpetually cycle through Ryan being petulant and truculent and Will/Gar distressed about upsetting Ryan and rushing to soothe him, Ryan just became exhausting and I don’t have Will/Gar’s patience. You would think the vengeance machine with no social skills would be the main communication barrier they have. Nope. Ryan is inflexible, quick-tempered, stubbornly defiant (usually reminiscent of those TSTL characters in horrors), insecure, and selfish. Given that the events of the story and their relationship occur in a compressed time period of a few weeks and the story is told only from Will/Gar’s POV, learning to deal with Ryan’s less charming personality traits was not possible for me; moreover, as Will/Gar is the only character with a perceptible arc and growth, Ryan’s more annoying attributes stay sharp-edged and persistent throughout.
While Will/Gar’s adoration of Ryan and Ryan’s unhappiness with Will/Gar killing people is supposed to show Ryan’s goodness and humanity, the manner in which he tries to talk Will/Gar out of killing and examining the Purpose, particularly early on, seems more rooted in getting the life he wants than caring about others. Between the fact that Ryan literally can’t leave Will/Gar in the beginning because of their connection (although he wanted and tried to) and Will/Gar’s constant need to please Ryan, their relationship feels more like a homeless twenty-something twink making the best out of his situation when he gets stuck with a sixty-something gay man who can’t believe his luck and wants nothing more than to please his young beau. While Will/Gar’s sole mission is to make Ryan happy/smile (repeated many times since Ryan is often upset), Ryan does not show similar care and respect for Will/Gar.
For example, when Ryan learns about one of Will/Gar’s abilities, he’s disbelieving when told it has never been used with him. Although Will/Gar is hurt that Ryan believes him capable of disrespecting Ryan in that way, he calmly explains he would never violate Ryan or his trust like that. Yet when Ryan has the opportunity to access this gift, he tries it on Will/Gar and is disgruntled to learn Will/Gar is immune. Will/Gar finds it amusing; Ryan is resentful and glosses over the violation of privacy Ryan was so quick to accuse Will/Gar of, but attempted himself at the first opportunity. It is in ways both subtly problematic and obviously bothersome that kills the believability of a viable partnership for the two. While I understand Ryan acts as the catalyst to Will/Gar’s transformation and is supposed to spur him into questioning his accepted status quo, having them be in a relationship in which Ryan acknowledges and benefits from the fact that Will/Gar treats him like a king and something precious as he shows little to no equal consideration for Will/Gar as his boyfriend undercuts Ryan’s importance in Will/Gar’s life for so long that even the ending’s resolution to this inequity doesn’t make it better. I never thought I’d feel like the Gay Punisher with thousands of kills under his belt deserves better than the normal, suburban boy, but there it is.
While not overly impressed by Ryan, I am impressed with Darcy Stark’s performance as the narrator. His pacing is as deliberate as Will/Gar’s personality and fits well with the story’s tone. Moreover, just as Will sees Gar as someone separate from himself at first, Stark uses a specific voice for when Gar is front and center and a similar, yet modulated one for Will/Gar. Stark even manages another variant for situations and times of emotional vulnerability that are as “purely Will” as possible. Stark’s nuanced portrayal of Will/Gar and how it changes given how the main character views himself is a lovely piece of craftsmanship and shows Stark’s understanding of the character and engagement with the material. Additionally, the majority of the secondary characters have distinct voices that fit well, with only a couple of upper-ranking law-enforcement officials slipping into slightly difficult to distinguish territory towards the end. Although, most of the “thugs” are generically menacing sounding, they are only present for short scenes before meeting Vengeance, so it didn’t detract from Stark’s general care with the characters and portrayals. Despite my personal low tolerance for obstinate, contrary brats, I found Purpose to be a compelling sci-fi-esque mystery and journey of discovery that is more about the exploration than the individual pieces, and Stark’s narration makes it even worthier of a listen.
Now on a more personal level. There is one element of the story that disquieted me somewhat—an element that over the years, I have often left unaddressed in my reviews (unless egregiously painful) and that is the depiction of race in the story. Full disclosure—I am not saying Gordon portrayed characters in a racist way, nor do I believe there is anything racist in the story. What I say next is more a personal reflection on how the exclusion and inclusion of race may convey unintended allusions.
As a triple minority— queer, black and female— I’ve gotten used to consuming media with what I call my “Friends Vision.” It’s the dissociation and almost cognitive dissonance I need to enjoy entertainment that is improbably populated almost exclusively with people society has deemed “normal”—cis, straight, able-bodied, neurotypical, and white. Therefore, I generally don’t think about characters as anything other than white or how described; I make a note of race/ethnicity (or use of a religion if ethnicity is too much effort) if the author does: that “Muslim” cab-driver, the black bellhop/mugger/rapist, the Arab terrorist, or the abused hijab-wearing victim.
I ignore the impossibility inherent in stories told in locations such as New York City or even “ethnic” locations like “Africa” in which these “normals” are the only people present when, for instance, NYC is one of the most diverse places in the world in regards to intersections of race, religion, culture, and ethnicity and “ethnic” places are literally filled with the people who live there. I overlook the fact that usually, the exotic location/“foreign land” is named if European or a well-known or high-class travel destination, whereas you get the name of the continent in an alarming number of stories as opposed to, you know, individual African countries with their myriad languages, cultures, etc. for these locales.
So, when the first group to meet bloody vengeance was a bunch of drug-dealing black thugs, I let it flow past me. When the next set of would be killers are also black thugs, well, they are in DC after all. However, when the villain(s) for almost every call for vengeance ends up being a black person, except for the one Hispanic gang (with the appropriate MS-13 reference), it was almost impossible to ignore. However, this is not the first time Friends Vision hasn’t been enough. When that happens, I create a palatable head-cannon. For Purpose it’s this: Gordon is making a statement about the rampant lack of real justice found in bad neighborhoods and poor areas. Statistically, these areas are heavily policed, but have more unsolved crimes. Additionally, they tend to have a higher population of non-whites/minorities. Great.
Except for the fact the Will/Gar is white and is immediately targeted in one instance because of that whiteness while out to avenge a child that was raped and murdered. While there is mention of the people here grieving and being worried he’s a journalist there to profit from their pain, there are NO good people in this neighborhood. Someone literally tries to run him over with a car, and unlike other cases where Will/Gar fed the emotions/prodded people into violence or behaviors that got the perpetrator killed, Will/Gar admits to Ryan he didn’t have to incite the crowd to beat the rapist bloody and break his back. He actually had to calm them down when the police came. Even the mom’s pain and the people’s ange,r which should have painted them as sympathetic, simply made them seem no better than the monsters Will/Gar hunts. This is compounded by the fact that the only other portrayal of neighbors and loved-ones of Vengeance’s wrath showed them to be heartless scavengers.
The fact that the one white man Will/Gar is called to take vengeance upon gets to be a fleshed-out sympathetic character and the “innocent” soul was a mercenary homewrecker in life and vengeful and bloodthirsty in death, is not surprising and almost made me want to cry. Not because I believe Gordon was trying to portray minorities as the source of the violence, drugs, and homophobia of the world, or because I didn’t believe my own head-cannon, but because it was so blasé and unremarkable in its portrayals. I truly believe that my head-cannon is correct—these populations saw Vengeance because they are overlooked, impoverished, and seen as less important by society as a whole. There is ugliness and complicity in families of drug-dealers and criminals. However, that is not all that is there in those people and neighborhoods and in many cases not even most. Consistent, negative portrayals like this remind me that being invisible is, a lot of times, better than being visible, especially when what is portrayed is stereotypically negative and what is believed (either consciously or subconsciously) by many of the people with whom I interact.
Being seen as “one of the good ones” (and yes I have been told that) always reminds me of what the baseline is: angry, violent, incoherent. Bad. Reminds me that at 5-foot nothing there is a reason a woman will clutch her purse and cross the street when she sees me walking towards her. Reminds me there is a reason that a fellow college student, a stranger, felt comfortable and entitled to ask me “how it feels to take a more deserving white guy’s spot”.
If you’ve come this far with me and kept and open mind, thank you. The main take-away is simply this: be mindful. Be mindful of that stray thought or assumption you have about a person’s sexuality or intelligence or presence somewhere. Acknowledge it. Question it. Recognize the possibility for harm even when the intention is absent of it. Recognize that sometimes the shorthands we use to generalize can be hurtful; that coded language like “thugs” is a common dog-whistle used against black people. Recognize that EVERYONE’S lived experience is different, no matter what groups you identify with for the simple fact that every individual’s brain is different, creating inherently different sensorial and perceived realities. Add that to different parents, upbringings, socioeconomic standings, etc., then “normal” is what we define it as. When you look at a bell curve and say “that’s normal”, understand that, NO, that is AVERAGE—simply ONE generalized, oversimplified way to describe individuals.