Thursday, July 12, 2012

In A Shallow Grave by James Purdy

There is a dreamlike landscape in which James Purdy’s fiction resides. It is similar to that of Nathanael West and John Hawkes, something like a spiritual re-imagining of a physical reality, so that nothing is tangible, exactly, in a corporeal sense, yet everything is rooted in a consciousness so vivid it becomes real. Purdy himself suggests: “I don’t really think my work is fantasy so much as it’s unconscious.” In other words, his stories are lived dreams. It is, as a result, a very particular world his characters inhabit. And there is something quite beautiful about it.

In A Shallow Grave is a short novel which manages to say a great deal. It is written in Purdy’s characteristically sparse prose, drawing the reader into the fictive dream through the simplicity of the language and the directness of the descriptions. It is not in any sense a realist novel and anyone approaching it in that vein will undoubtedly be perplexed. Don Adams, in discussing this point in a recent article, [opens in a PDF] points to Purdy’s allegorical realism, suggesting it attempts to “challenge the assumptions of the conventional reality we know … to envision a different world altogether.” Anyone reading In A Shallow Grave needs to bear this in mind.

The narrator is Garnet Montrose, a GI who has been hideously disfigured in the Korean War. The wounds he receives in an attack which kills most of his troop are so serious he, too, should have died. Indeed, he later says “I do not even believe in death because what I am is emptier than death itself.” He is, essentially, in a living death, his world the shallow grave of the novel’s title. He is “marked with the coating of death”, unlike his fallen comrades who are now “at least safe-dead”, while Garnet is forced “to live …with the appearance of one from the under-kingdom.” It is clear from this, then, that we are being presented with an allegorical restatement of life and living, death and community, love, grace, peace.

So severe are Garnet’s injuries he requires the assistance of a helper and goes about advertising for one. Most people are repulsed by his physical appearance and flee in tears or terror or both. Two men show greater resolve. They become the pillars on which Garnet begins to build a new edifice to support his life. The first, a black man, Quintus Pearch, becomes his reader, reading aloud from books that neither of them understand. The second is the divine Daventry, an outwardly attractive man but for his lack of front teeth, an enigma who breathes an ethereal presence over Garnet’s existence. These three men become embroiled in a strange, intense, claustrophobic relationship. Gradually, they are swept together by love.

Purdy says of Garnet that in the course of the novel he is “demolished and reborn”. This rebirth can only be effected through the presence of Quintus and Daventry, and of the Widow Rance, with whom Garnet is initially besotted and to whom he sends, through the intercessions of Quintus and Daventry, a series of love letters. In the course of the novel he does lose everything: he has already effectively lost his life, become “somebody immemorial, drained of everything except some tiny shreds of memory”, and he finally loses his house when his loans are foreclosed. But this is a James Purdy novel, and although Purdy’s world is a violent and difficult place, it remains a place where love can take hold and, once rooted, can do immaculate things. Purdy explains that although Garnet has lost everything, he has at least “learned to love a man”.

From that, of course, you’ll infer that there is a gay theme in the novel. And indeed there is. But what I find intriguing about Purdy’s fiction is the way he approaches these matters. His second novel, The Nephew, written as long ago as 1961, approaches the subject of homosexuality in a fresher, more realistic and more engaging way than the vast majority of novels today. Purdy complained that he was misunderstood and neglected and even attacked by the gay community and it isn’t hard to see why, because he refuses to adopt any of its conventions. An outsider, he is utterly scathing, for example, about political correctness:

what they call politically acceptable I call philistinism and stupidity. I think the women’s movement has harmed writers, and so have some of the black movements, because they feel you should write about people the way they should be.
Liberals, he suggests, labour under a “false idealism”, a “cosmetic respectibility.” There is something refreshing in Purdy’s honesty and his refusal to peddle stereotypes, either negative or positive. “Life is not full of perfect political solutions,” he says, and his fiction offers the clear truth of it: “Humanity,” he tells us, “is ... on a sinking ship.” But that is not to say there is no hope: Purdy is not a nihilist, and while he can clearly see man’s flaws there nonetheless resides in him a great love for humanity. And it is this love which shines through his fiction, whether it is straight or gay or same-race or inter-racial. It is part of the dream landscape he builds: we are talking essences here, the nature of love itself, that raw emotion, not the mechanics of homosexual or straight attraction. His novels inhabit a loftier plane and his allegorical style allows for a free examination of the truths that are so often hidden or bastardised or contorted in the work of other writers.

In A Shallow Grave presents us with a complex, beautiful study of human love and compassion. A quote from one of the unreadable books read by Quintus and Garnet tells us: “Man is little more than a glyph which punctuates space, but once gone is as unrecollectable as smoke or clouds.” Perhaps that is true, and perhaps that is the fate of all of us, but human life compels us, for the brief time of our habitation on this earth, to seek something else. The religious might call this grace; others might say beauty. And beauty, of course, is as much an emotion as a physical construct. The unconventional beauties of In A Shallow Grave teach us that.

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