This is the second of James Purdy’s novels that I’ve read and I was not prepared for how different it would be from the first in style.
This novel begins as the narrator’s elderly husband tries to recover from a stroke. This event has brought his eventual death into view and Carrie, his younger and extremely deferential wife, copes by turning her attention to her memories of her long-dead daughter, a successful artist. The narrative is Carrie’s memoir telling of her coming-into-herself as a person as she steps out of her cloistered, conservative home to investigate her daughter’s sexual adventures and to understand her bohemian life.
As the story begins, Carrie is like soft clay, untouched by anything except her own sense of her untouchedness. As she meets other people—first her sister-in-law, then a man-hating Elizabethan obsessed with Edmund Spencer, and finally a man who reminds her of her first love but who was one of her daughter’s lovers—as she meets these people, she receives their way of being in the world into herself. She is not, however, adrift. What others mistake as impressionability and lack of identity is in fact a budding openness to life made possible by her not-yet-defined and not-yet-understood (but still weighty and valuable) sense of herself as having a self. At the end of the novel, Carrie is sensitive, loving, and strong.
This solid simplicity does not exhaust, however, the sophistication of the text we’re given. Although written in Carrie’s plain voice—simple sentences, naive diction, stacks of short paragraphs—the text is run-through with allusions to the myth of Persephone and The Fairie Queen. The resulting complexity of this memoir is extreme. There are echoes and repetitions and allusions galore. This complexity may not be Carrie’s alone—Purdy’s voice is there too, the allusions may belong to him—but it isn’t not Carrie’s voice either and so her simpleness can be read—at least possibly—as a bright reduction of life to essentials. In some of the best moments, this reduction manifests the dark clarity of a dream. All of this is handled with such a sureness and lightness of touch that the book reads as small and particular even though it is also, simultaneously, a heady meditation on the artist’s creation of the self.
As was the case in In a Shallow Grave, the ending here is happy, self-consciously so. But Carrie has earned her happiness in a way that the war veteran in that earlier novel hadn’t. I think the other characters are lucky to have her in their lives.
Shifting gears, this novel reminded me during long stretches of Washington Square. This in turn made me think of Wright Morris, a now more-or-less forgotten mid-century novelist I read a lot of in the 90s. My sense of him then was that many of his novels were working through the style and subjects of his immediate predecessors, Hemmingway, Fitzgerald, Wolfe, etc. Purdy is a much better writer than Morris and possess a much stronger point of view. But given the way both Purdy’s novels evoked other works for me, I’m curious to what extent the stylistic differences in the two I’ve read might be the sign of a similar hearkening back and working though.