Monday, January 23, 2006

James Purdy





Something that has not happened to me in years: I got obsessed with a writer. James Purdy. As I was a cockey Spicerian through my very late teens until my early twenties, I did not allow myself to read fiction. I told myself I could only believe in poetry. And then I started writing a novel. Don't ask. So now I am trying to make up my deficiency in prose. A few months back Ben Marcus wrote an article against Jonathan Franzen in Harper's. Inside the article Marcus took time to mention writers whom he respected and admired, but who were largely ignored. I used his lists as a starting point. I googled James Purdy, liked the description of his work, and went out the next day to purchase "Eustace Chislom and the Works." Now I am the slowest of slow readers, but I read this book in a few hours spread out over three days. I stayed up late to find out what would happen next. The story is set in Chicago during the depression and focuses on a series of younger men, one who wants to be a poet (Eustace). The characters are gritty and tragic. And some ugly things happen, like an illegal abortion. That scene is so horrible, so difficult to read because of the violence of it. It's an excellent scene, and yet I hope to never read it again.

My speed reading of this book made me ask myself if a good story made a good writer. I don't think it does, or my prejudice is that it doesn't. This is seen through my propensity to read novels in which nothing much happens. And my habit of reading the last sentence of any novel I start. The story is not the point. And yet with Purdy I wanted to know what would happen. I lost the face of the language, though the language has a syntactical beauty to it. The characters and the landscapes they inhabited were the beauty in reading Purdy. The artifice of the language was not something I was very conscious of when reading him. It wasn't like reading Joyce, or Faulkner, or Cormac McCarthy. Purdy made me like his books for a different reason than I usually like books. I let go the questions of language and wondered about the lives of the people in the books and the choices they made. And it was great. I didn't feel cheated. I felt like I was taken to the next level. He made me ask myself questions that were greater than language, but could only be posed through the world he created with it.

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