more on James Purdy and the “via negativa”

In the previous post I had recommended a fine piece on James Purdy’s short novel In a Shallow Grave. It is by Don Adams and can be found here, in the online journal Hyperion.

I’d tried to read some of Purdy’s work awhile back and was unable to finish. There is certainly no one quite like him, and he is not for everyone. His fictions continually push various kinds of stylistic, narrative, and thematic boundaries. The worlds he creates are never comfortable – or predictable. They contain much loneliness and repression, grotesqueries and obsessions, strange sudden violence.

I just made another (successful, this time) attempt however, with a different book – the aforesaid In a Shallow Grave – and after a day or two of absorbing it a bit further, letting it settle, have realized there is much I appreciate in it. Don Adams’s essay has helped further my understanding, making a strong and well-rounded case for the novel as spiritual allegory.

The story concerns – and is written in the rough narrative voice of – a man called Garnet Montrose, a war veteran so horribly disfigured by injuries that his appearance resembles someone turned inside out, his vein-exposing face (the color of “mulberry wine”) instantly emetic in effect to those who catch sight of him. He spends his days on the property he has inherited – near the Virginia coast – reading (or rather being read to) completely randomly from the miscellany of books in his grandfather’s collection, most of which he barely comprehends, having only received an eighth-grade education.

Into his life appear two “applicants,” helpers, somewhat younger men – one black, one white – one of whom reads to him and massages circulation back into his feet, the other of whom takes down dictated letters to Garnet’s old sweetheart, “the Widow Rance,” and delivers them, and who also, well … this is the mystery of the book, because this second “applicant,” one Potter Daventry, emerges as a strange kind of Christ-figure, though not quite like any I’ve come across before. There’s also an old deserted dance-hall – Garnet’s great “secret” – and a hurricane finale.

It’s a strange ride, but not without its own mysterious touches of tenderness and beauty. Garnet at the start of the novel is a man more than half-dead, a man whom almost no one can set eyes upon without uncontrollably retching. But the experience of love comes to him in unexpected and inexplicable ways, from Daventry, and from Garnet’s other companion, Quintus Perch.

I like this summation from the Adams essay:

[Purdy] … flies in the face of our intellectual culture’s predilection to believe that human nature and experience may be accounted for rationally in terms of the behavioral sciences. According to such theories, human nature is a series of hard-wired drives and impulses, genetic encodings and cultural adaptations, that may be thoroughly explored and explained, given a limited social and cultural context… Purdy’s entire effort as a fictive creator is to counter such assumptions regarding our ability to account rationally and exhaustively for human nature and experience as a whole. In his interview with Christopher Lane, Purdy bemoaned the failure of critics to comprehend his counter-conventional fiction, noting that, “intellectuals are the worst sinners because they want everything clear and life is not clear.”

Purdy’s fictive contrariness and negations, his creation of characters and worlds that are inexplicable in and through the behavioralist thought systems by which we typically account for our realities, is that against which readers habituated to mimetic realism often instinctively rebel when first encountering his fiction, as my experience with my students demonstrated. But readers who are willing to engage the text’s alternative realism on its symbolic and archetypal terms eventually come to understand that Purdy’s multiple-ramifying allegorized world, which refuses the consolations of the conventional in affirming the unfathomable mysteries of being, is paradoxically more true to life and more respecting of the real than the fictive mimicries of actuality we are more accustomed to encountering and consuming. For these willing initiates, Purdy’s unconscious allegories … serve as fictive revelations, prompting them to discover the affirming power and purpose of negation for their own lives and worlds.