James Purdy Purdy, James (Vol. 10) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Purdy, James 1923–

An American novelist and short story writer, Purdy is the author of various "black comedies," including Malcolm and The Nephew. Noted for his terse style and ironic tone, Purdy pictures a world similar to Samuel Beckett's in its grotesque emptiness and sadness. His works are designed to emphasize the sterility of modern American life, and his characters seem to simply exist with no discernible past and an ephemeral relationship with the physical world. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)

Frank Baldanza

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The structure of a typical Purdy short story has … [an epiphanic effect]: a selected moment or series of moments that body forth a spiritual or psychological state of exalted confrontation between one person who is in extremis, and an auditor who is deeply but always powerlessly perceptive….

Of Purdy's twenty-two collected short stories in Color of Darkness and Children Is All, fourteen (roughly two-thirds) are … "duologues," conversational confrontations between two persons, and some of the longer works, like the novella "63: Dream Palace," are built up out of duologues, with only a rare scene involving three speakers. (p. 256)

The eloquently pervasive theme of all of Purdy's works is the failures of love, and these failures have their source in the orphanhood and half-orphanhood of children who, as adults, pass on the anguished, lonely legacy to their own offspring. Purdy's handling of the half-orphan situation employs the brief short story to represent the fetishism of one-parent children and the troubled anguish of deserted, sacrificial-possessive mothers; a frequent subtheme is the essentially epistemological problem of very young children's understanding of the listings and failures of adult love which victimize and deprive them. An almost equal number of stories, and two plays, present the problem from the mother's point of view, culminating in "Cracks," where the archetypal mother is...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Jean E. Kennard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The] world of James Purdy's novels is the Post-existential one of Heller's and of Barth's: the world has no meaning which can be rationally discovered; human beings have no innate identity; human action is futile. It is true, too, that although Purdy's techniques appear at first to be closer to realism than Heller's and Barth's, in the sense that fewer obviously impossible events take place and that his settings are familiar places—Brooklyn, Chicago, towns in the Midwest—his intention is usually theirs: to reject the reader, to destroy his illusions about the novel as a form, and hence to bring about in him the experience of the absurd. Most of Purdy's techniques are, in fact, those of the other novelists of number [Ihab Hassan's label for certain Post-existential fantasists, here including also Heller, Barth, and Vonnegut, whose language creates worlds of "pure and arbitrary order," which it then systematically destroys. This novelist of number] deliberately omits the motivations of his characters and indicates no causal relationship between events. His tone frequently conflicts with his subject; his dialogue has few logical connections.

Nevertheless, Purdy differs significantly from Heller and Barth in the effect that the Post-existential dilemma has upon him. For him it is cause for despair rather than for ironic laughter. The characters of Purdy's novels are human beings whose needs are desperate and whose agony is extreme. This agony is so apparent to us, perhaps, because of Purdy's emphasis on one aspect of the absurd dilemma: the failure of human communication which a purely subjective world and the lack of any innate human identity make inevitable.

The failure of communication is present in two forms in each of Purdy's novels. First, it is seen as a failure of all love relationships; for Purdy, love is primarily a matter of communication…. The progress in each of Purdy's novels is the same: it is a movement towards the loss of the hope of love…. (pp. 82-3)

The second, equally important failure of communication in Purdy's novels is the failure of art. More than any of the other novelists of number Purdy resembles Beckett in illustrating the concept of art as fidelity to failure…. Each of [Purdy's failed writers] fails to communicate through words, finding either that the truth, being subjective, escapes him, or that language is inadequate to express it. Purdy's own novels give us precisely that sense of attempted expression which fails, of art struggling against its own impossibility. Yet they exist, expressions of the paradox of their own existence. Like all novels of number they take the reader towards nothingness; each novel, like its reader, struggles but fails to make sense of the experience it records. (pp. 83-4)

The themes of "63: Dream Palace" [an early novella] are more fully developed in Purdy's first full-length novel, Malcolm. Using the picaresque novel pattern of a young man setting out to learn about life through a series of adventures, Purdy ironically tells the story of a young man who is used by everyone he meets and learns nothing.

Purdy stresses the "nothingness" at the core of his central character; Malcolm is an illustration of the non-identity of Sartre's being-for-itself. He looks like a "foreigner" and appears to belong "nowhere and to nobody."… He describes himself as "a cypher and a blank,"… claims that he hardly feels he exists, and has no knowledge of such facts about himself as his date of birth. When he dies and is buried, it is rumored that there is no corpse at the funeral.

Malcolm is an orphan; at least, his father has disappeared and is presumed dead, but his relationship to his father, his need for him, is central to the novel. It is clear that Malcolm's father's absence is intended to represent the absence of God in the modern world. Whether God ever existed or was simply a creation of man's desire for meaning, as Sartre and Camus claim, Purdy never makes clear. (pp. 87-8)

In the absence of God man will seek to find his own meaning, and Malcolm sets out to do this through visiting a series of addresses provided by Mr. Cox, called significantly the astrologer. It is through communication with people, then, that Malcolm first tries to come to terms with life, but as always in Purdy's novels, this proves impossible. Malcolm can be read as an account of the failure of many types of love. Each character with whom the boy comes into contact is insulated from reality and genuine human communication by his own obsessive illusion, by his own particular perversion of love. (p. 88)

Purdy stresses the negative aspects of Sartre's theory that being-for-itself is nothingness, that we have objective reality only to others. Identity is elusive to all the characters in Malcolm, so they cling to labels…. Language, they appear to feel, can create reality; Purdy knows better. (p. 89)

[Malcolm loses] his illusions, his hope of his father's return. On his deathbed he desperately turns writer in the vain hope that language will make some sense of his experience. He attempts to record his conversations with those he has met. This too is a failure; he is writing in a foreign language in delirium. Malcolm, then, is a novel of a young man's initiation into disillusionment…. Malcolm dies because there is no new direction to take. He has run out of addresses.

Malcolm, like "63: Dream Palace," opens deceptively: "in front of one of the most palatial hotels in the world, a very young man was accustomed to sit on a bench which, when the light fell a certain way shone like gold."… The effect of providing such details as the gold color of the bench, when nothing else is revealed, is to suggest that these details are highly meaningful, to raise the reader's expectations of discovering the significance. The point of them in Purdy's fiction seems to be simply that they are completely irrelevant: the aim is to frustrate the reader's expectations.

Similarly, the introduction of Malcolm himself, which takes place in the second paragraph, is a parody of similar introductions to be found in realistic novels where the reader is given the necessary information to place the protagonist in his background. The paragraph develops through a series of negatives; we learn nothing about Malcolm except what he is not: he "seemed to belong nowhere and to nobody, and even his persistent waiting on the bench achieved evidently no purpose, for he seldom spoke to anybody, and there was something about his elegant and untouched appearance that discouraged even those who were moved by his solitariness."… It is as if the novelist were attempting to begin but finding little he can say for certain; art is struggling with its own impossibility.

Purdy's description of the subsequent meeting with Mr. Cox contains many sentences suggesting meaning when there is none or emphasizing in contradiction to the sense…. What Purdy is doing in the first few pages of Malcolm is to suggest by means of such techniques the impossibility of establishing reality through words. He is attacking our preconceptions about language, is pointing out that language is that "absurd structure of sounds and marks" Roquentin sees it to be in Nausea.

The failure of communication is dramatized in Malcolm, as in "63: Dream Palace," through conversations in which characters reply to each other in a series of nonsequiturs. Although the characters frequently continue as if they had fully expected an illogical reply, their mutual lack of comprehension is obvious to the reader. (pp. 89-91)

Just as individual sentences cancel each other out, so too the action of the novel progressively unmakes itself. All relationships disintegrate…. As Malcolm follows up the addresses, each interview cancels the one before it; the new characters defame the old, as if … they feel they exist only by defaming others. There is progressively less relationship between the scenes, and Malcolm is eventually found drifting aimlessly from one place to another.

Each scene also tends to disintegrate, the characters becoming increasingly grotesque, the action more extreme. Purdy's method is to describe his characters only after we are used to their names and have been listening to their conversation. We are lulled into what we take to be a familiar scene and are then suddenly forced to recognize its grotesqueness…. It is not that these characters are impossibilities; they can be met elsewhere in life and in fiction. But Purdy has so many of them in one novel that he leaves the impression that the whole human race is distorted and grotesque in some way or another.

The struggle between the necessity to write and the impossibility of writing is clearly demonstrated in the final pages of the novel. The action, the langauge, the...

(The entire section is 3685 words.)

Jerome Charyn

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"In a Shallow Grave" is a modern Book of Revelation, filled with prophesies, visions and demoniac landscapes. The moon appears to Garnet [the narrator] "by daylight, horned and angry and discolored." The novel itself is "horned" like Garnet's daytime moon. It holds us because we are stuck in the powerful, swaying rhythms of Garnet's voice.

This comes as a surprise, because Purdy's most recent novels, "The House of the Solitary Maggot" and "I Am Elijah Thrush," have been cranky, meandering exercises. The books tend to creak. They reflect in a sorry way the beautiful, ribbed dream world of "Malcolm," Purdy's first novel.

The new book perhaps will bring to Purdy the wider audience he deserves. Written in a sparse yet rough-edged style, it indicates the dilemmas of Purdy's writing. There have always been briers in his voice, as if he meant to tear at his readers with a kind of harsh music. Purdy is one of the most uncompromising of American novelists. Working in his own dark corner, he has collected his half-fables about a corrosive universe where children search for their fathers and are waylaid by endless charlatans and fools.

The very awkwardness of his lines, that deliberate scratching of the reader's ear, is Purdy's greatest strength. It allows him to mix evil and naiveté without spilling over into melodrama and tedious morality plays. There are no "legitimate" people in Purdy's novels, just fleshy ghosts like Garnet and Potter Daventry. Underneath Purdy's brittle language is a sadness that is heartbreaking, the horror of isolated beings who manage to collide for a moment, do a funny dance and go their separate ways. (p. 3)

Jerome Charyn, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 8, 1976.

Katha Pollitt

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although its subject is physical passion, "Narrow Rooms" is strangely bodiless. There's almost no characterization, which makes it hard to remember who's supposed to be dominating and murdering whom—I tried to keep a running score, but I still don't get that bit about Gareth and Brian and the train. Clearly, James Purdy thinks his story is fraught with significance, but the four boys are so interchangeable that I found myself wondering as I read what all the fuss was about: Why didn't they just draw straws for one another's favors, or take turns?

Contributing to the general aura of implausibility and thinness is the complete absence of a sense of place. This is a real loss, because Mr. Purdy's last book, "In a Shallow Grave," rather beautifully evoked the seacoast of Virginia and its inhabitants. A touch of local color is provided by folksy old Doc Ulric (who, because he is given nothing to do, seems invented for that sole purpose), and the boys sometimes say "ain't" and "cain't," although a lot of the time they don't bother. For the most part, though, Mr. Purdy seems uninterested in grounding his fantasies in accurate, or even credible, detail….

"Narrow Rooms" is well below the level of Mr. Purdy's past work, which has its witty moments (parts of "I Am Elijah Thrush") and even, in a bizarre way, its tender ones (the first half of "In a Shallow Grave," before the blood starts flowing). The abundance of clichés here—whereby a stopped grandfather clock is "the very embodiment still of Father Time" and West Virginia is continually referred to as the "Mountain State"—is puzzling in a writer whose prose has always been, if anything, too rarefied. Maybe the lackluster writing is a sign that even Mr. Purdy found his rural foursome a wearisome crew. (p. 46)

Katha Pollitt, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1978 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 23, 1978.

Paul Bresnick

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For Purdy, Christ's message was the last great event—the critical idea—in the history of human consciousness: "love one another as I have loved you." But Purdy is also a Calvinist (by way of Presbyterianism); he's a firm believer in man's fallen state…. When you put Christ and Calvin together, you wind up with the conflict at the heart of Purdy's vision: Christ held out the hope for love; lapsarian man continually assures love's defeat; hence, terror.

So Purdy's books are love/horror stories. In a significant sense, they are typically American tales of love and death…. They are chronicles of thwarted, aborted, twisted, hopeless, failed love. Purdy examines aspects of eros...

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David Bianco

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Narrow Rooms] is a tightly woven short novel set in a rural Southern landscape….

Although there are some explicit love scenes between two men, Purdy's interest in homosexuality does not seem to be pornographic. Sidney, Brian, Gareth, and Roy are all misfits. In a sense, they are lost souls who have become victims of their own illusions. The strong drama of the four men is maintained by their obedience to an unspoken and unwritten code, making it seem as if they are acting out a predetermined fate.

The story is filled with moments of violence and passion. It is easy to become involved with the characters and share their hopeless frustrations, even as their twisted logic and odd behavior keep them distanced from us. No irrelevant details intrude into Purdy's concise narrative as it moves to its chilling, grotesque climax. (p. 71)

David Bianco, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), June, 1978.