Sunday, March 16, 2014

The startlingly original voice of James Purdy (Books - Eustace Chisholm and the Works; Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue by James Purdy)

James Purdy's voice is dirt plain and when he is telling a gritty story of desperation in depression era Southside Chicago, as he did in Eustace Chisholm and the Works (GMP Publishers Ltd., 1967/1987) his diction is almost like the furniture.  It it is part of the world.  You expect it to be there.
"What do I do, Ace?" Daniel covered his eyes with his palms.

"Tell him you're crazy about him."

"I can't do that."

"Let him tell you then."

"If I had the money, I'd take him with me to some far-off place."

Eustace Chisholm stared at Daniel, incredulous at having heard the last sentence, then, in exasperation, said: "You're in the farthest away place in the world now, mate.  You couldn't get any farther away than where you're living with Amos.  You're in the asshole of the universe and you don't need to waste more than a half cent of shoeleather to get back.  Go home and take him in your arms and tell him he's all you've got.  That's what you are to him too, and you'd better hurry, for it won't last for long for either of you, and so why spend any more of your time, his, or mine."
That story is one in which the main character, a gay poet, is dealt with cruelly by life.  It gives Eustace a cruel eye, from which he writes, and a hard disposition.  But in Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue (William Morrow & Co, 1997), the protagonist is an older woman, diminutive, frightened, and the plot more fantastical. One feels constantly - this is a work of art - but still it is about the cruellest of subjects, the grief of a parent (Carrie) for a deceased child (Gertrude).

Daddy is failing.  Oh, is he ever.  What will I do when he is gone?  And the chilling thought came to me like someone whispering behind my armchair: You will write down everything you can remember, Carrie, about Gertrude, your daughter, Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue, Chicago.

We never got on, Gertrude and I.  Yet I believe we loved one another.  I often sit all day thinking of my own failings.  Daddy knows this and it makes him even more irritable and bad-tempered.  "You should take up your music again," he scolds.

He and I both sang once in the church choir, that is where we met, in fact.  And we also sang for a while in the chorus of the Chicago Opera, oh so many years ago I shiver to recall.

Daddy found some of my notes about Gertrude.  To my surprise it did not make him too angry.  But he would not say what he thought.  Daddy's lips now form one very thin bloodless line.  The doctor mentioned his pale lips, and when the doctor mentions anything it means there's something wrong. He never mentions anything good after his examination.

"Daddy will be leaving me," I keep saying and my voice chokes. (I do talk to myself more and more.)

And when Daddy goes, how strange, there will only be Gertrude to occupy my thoughts with.

The meat of Carrie's story, and it is Carrie's story which Purdy tells, is of a creative and intelligent person who shuts herself down because she believes that is what is expected of her.  When we meet her, she is reeling from the death of her daughter a number of years earlier.  Gertrude, an artist, was, at least in part, drawn to making art as a means by which she could reject her parents' repression and express herself.  She condemned her parents choice to, as she said, live life not to understand themselves. To reject them, she becomes part of an underworld of sensual excess, gathering daily lessons in self in the context of every extreme.  A world where her parents could not follow - not an uncommon metaphor for the journey an experimental artist takes, one who rejects more commercial and readily accepted forms of art.  So, Carrie acquires a guide, two guides actually - one a literature professor and hostess of arty salons and the second a handsome young man -  to ferry her to this underworld, so that she may come to know daughter and build some sort of relationship to her loss, and through this, to better know herself.

The worlds of this novel alternate between a genteel seediness and druggy dream. The language is cast into sharp relief by the fantasy elements of the plot.  This book has an angularity whose nearest approximation is Tennessee Williams's later works like Two Character Play.  These too are also self conscious about artifice, as this novel opens with the line you will write down everything you can remember, Carrie, the play is about two characters performing a play.  It's gritty improvisations alternate with expansively operatic drug-induced scenes. It's themes are the big ones - madness, terror of loss, what we live for. Many people rejected Williams's later plays for their messiness, their unwillingness to cave in to familiar theatrical conventions, their embarrassing extremes of emotional range.  I think they are meaningful experiments with fewer easy solutions than his earlier works.  In James Purdy, I am finding an artist who is similarly willing to take chances, similarly interested in the people society would sooner discard, similarly poetic, but with a striking plainness to his diction that makes him entirely his own man.  I am glad that the publication of his collected stories alerted me to his works and I intend to make my way through every one of their startlingly original pages.  

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