Monday, December 15, 2008
Malcolm by James Purdy
Malcolm is a novel which, because of its measured simplicity, is extraordinarily complex. It is a highly stylised fable in which the surreal is presented as entirely conventional. There is an extreme sense of disconnection, of alienation. This is a depiction of a society where the individual has lost his sense of belonging and where meaning has become arbitrary. It is also extremely funny.
The story begins in picaresque fashion, with Malcolm being introduced in successive chapters to a range of unusual individuals. Malcolm is first presented to us sitting on a bench day after day, waiting. Just waiting. He has lost his father – literally so, as he doesn’t appear to have died, he simply isn’t there – which one would ordinarily take to be symbolic of the end of childhood or reaching maturity, but this clearly isn’t the case with Malcolm. Paradox is at the heart of this novel. Malcolm is an innocent who cannot engage with the world. He is taken in hand by the peculiar Mr Cox, who arranges for him to meet, in turn, a range of his acquaintances. First there is Estel Blanc, a mortician who seems unaware that he is black. Then there is Kermit, who does not realise that he is a midget, and who is married to a prostitute, Laureen, who subsequently runs off with a Japanese wrestler. Girard Girard and his wife are billionaires. Eloisa and Jerome Brace are an artist and a jazz musician respectively. Each of these extraordinary characters is introduced as coolly as though they were merely a range of everyday functionaries.
Malcolm orbits these people’s worlds and everything shifts. Everything, that is, except Malcolm, who remains throughout impervious to the dramas building around him. Marriages disintegrate. Feuds and fights emerge. People fall out, break down. Yet all of this is told in a deliberately flat style, almost banal, and the characterisation is strictly two-dimensional. The characters are established as stereotypes representing different aspects of American culture – philistines and aesthetes, revealing greed, neuroticism, irreality – and through their responses and lack of responses the hopelessness at the heart of American society is revealed. To each of them, Malcolm displays a lack of tact that could either be described as naïve guilelessness or downright rudeness. He calls Blanc an Abyssinian, repeatedly refers to Kermit as a midget even when it is clear that he hates this. He accuses Mme Girard of being drunk. He rebuffs offers of friendship. And so we have another paradox in this highly paradoxical novel: this child, this symbol of innocence who is bamboozled by adult society, is in every respect as discourteous and problematical than it.
And yet each of them becomes besotted by Malcolm. He is described as royalty. Girard Girard seeks to assume the mantle of his father. Kermit sees him as a kindred spirit. Eloisa paints him, Mme Gerard adores him. Only Blanc the mortician repels him, finding him too immature and telling him to return ‘in twenty years’. The adoration of Malcolm reaches its zenith with the introduction of Melba, the world-famous chanteuse, who immediately decides she must marry him. And so Malcolm, the innocent, the child who has remained impervious to the adult machinations around him, is thrust into marriage and adulthood. It is a disaster. The novel ends with him dying of ‘alcoholism and sexual exhaustion’. Life, Purdy is telling us, is meaningless. Existence is absurd. It consists of events and happenings, all unavoidable, all simultaneously significant and meaningless. They touch you, wound even, ultimately kill, yet somehow existence appears to obtain in a bubble outside of the self. As Thomas M. Lorch describes it, ‘the novel portays humanity revolving about an abyss’. What is real is not real, and what is not real becomes real. Malcolm describes himself as a ‘cypher’ and, in the end, his death affects no-one, least of all him.
Yet, through this, Purdy presents us with the final, and greatest, paradox. In presenting us with nothingness, and in deliberately describing the action in such bland and emotionless language, Purdy actually creates a sense of loss: there is nothing to lose, he is telling us, and yet we feel the loss greatly. What he does is to create a world of genuine nihilism, where nobody communicates, nobody connects, so that we can, in negative, imagine what a world in harmony might be like.
 Thomas M. Lorch. Purdy's "Malcolm": A Unique Vision of Radical Emptiness. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Summer, 1965), p. 212.