An excerpt from "The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy," available here.
When James Purdy died in 2009 at the age of 94, most people who still recognized his name surely judged that he had long outlived whatever relevance he and his books might once have had. Although he published almost 30 books, according to the James Purdy Society website only 9 of them remained in print, and these did not include the novels that won Purdy his once-estimable reputation, among them Malcolm, The Nephew, and Cabot Wright Begins. That these books were at the time of his death apparently not valued highly enough by publishers to make them available to readers seems compelling evidence either that the American cultural memory cannot sustain a writer lacking at least one “big” book, or that Purdy’s work doesn’t deserve continued recognition.
While the first explanation is unfortunately probably true enough, it doesn’t satisfactorily account for the neglect of James Purdy, whose novels during the 1960s, at least, were reviewed by prominent critics and remain sufficiently provocative in subject and theme that readers might still find them controversial—as did some contemporaneous reviewers who dismissed them as sensational or even immoral. As to the second explanation, no one who has been intrigued to read deeply into Purdy’s singularly disturbing stories and novels would be able to say this work might just as well be forgotten. However, after reading more of Purdy’s fiction, we can perhaps begin to understand why it was never entirely welcomed by the critical gatekeepers—popular and academic—who by default keep a writer’s reputation alive in book reviews and scholarly journals and on course syllabi, and why it was never likely to appeal to a large audience. At the same time, we can also begin to recognize that the very qualities of Purdy’s work that might explain its failure to maintain greater cultural visibility are also the qualities that make his work so remarkable—and that should win it a future audience.
Although in some ways Purdy was altogether attuned to the literary spirit of his time, especially in the 1950s and 60s, he gradually and increasingly became much less so. However, the way in which he remained true to his vision, style, and assumptions makes his fiction that much more valuable to future readers. Looking at Purdy’s most representative books shows why Purdy’s fiction was at first difficult simply to ignore but increasingly was ignored, in part, no doubt, because Purdy was ultimately a prolific writer, but also because Purdy did consistently adhere to core stylistic and formal assumptions and explore recurring themes. If readers and critics (particularly the latter) found this a convenient excuse to dismiss Purdy’s books, especially the later ones, as repetitive, the underlying resistance to Purdy’s work, I would argue, is a resistance not so much to repetition as to the challenge his fiction poses to passive or inattentive reading. On the one hand, it is as devoted to telling the truth about human existence as any body of work by an American writer, while on the other it relentlessly questions fiction’s capacity to reveal that truth. Further, Purdy’s fiction can seem straightforward and transparent, quite immediate in its visceral power, while at the same time frequently working quite subtly and indirectly, which an inattentive reader can miss. These are not the only challenges Purdy’s work presents, but in my opinion they most immediately explain its gradual loss of favor.
Purdy’s alienation from the dominant literary culture as represented by both publishers and reviewers ultimately became quite profound, prompted, no doubt, by his acknowledgment of the perceived irrelevance of his books, although publishers had demonstrated indifference, if not outright hostility, to his earliest fiction as well. (His first important work, 63: Dream Palace, was published in Great Britain after it could find no publisher in the United States.) Yet it is also the case that Purdy did very little on his part to ameliorate the situation. He gave few friendly interviews, did not participate in any efforts to better “position” his work in the literary marketplace, and above all never tried to write differently in order to make his fiction more amenable to conventional expectations of “literary fiction.” For readers, journalists, or critics who are more interested in writers than writing, more concerned about business than literature, Purdy’s attitude might have understandably been frustrating. Similarly, some readers and critics might rightly have found Purdy’s fiction stubbornly idiosyncratic, but dismissing it as idiosyncratic before determining if those idiosyncrasies actually amount to a sustained artistic vision hardly seems a very serious response.
Indeed, those of us who have read deeply into Purdy’s fiction quickly enough realize that what could be called its idiosyncrasies are in fact its greatest strengths and that Purdy didn’t merely write one or two individually adventurous, original stories or novels but instead created a comprehensively original body of work, each separate work providing a variation on Purdy’s themes and methods but also exemplifying his larger achievement. Purdy wrote few, if any, really weak books, and so almost all of them are equally good introductions to his work. In many ways, a reader who first approaches Purdy through one of his last novels will encounter the same Purdy one will find in his earliest novels, but an uninitiated reader might still want to start at the beginning to best see how he develops his distinctive fictional world. The terms and contours of that world are in fact remarkably apparent in Purdy’s first extended work of fiction, the novella 63: Dream Palace.