The Sensuous Woman

By James Purdy.
182 pp. New York:
William Morrow & Company. $19.95.


What ever happened to James Purdy? Though his early fiction earned him wide recognition some 40 years ago as an author of major stature, he has been all but absent from the American literary scene for a decade or more. His recent books, while appearing to considerable acclaim in Britain, have been accorded scant attention on these shores, where they have seen print thanks mostly to the efforts of relatively small publishing houses.

“Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue” is vintage Purdy. A slim, dialogue-heavy book consisting of short chapters and paragraphs, Purdy’s 16th novel bears a particularly strong resemblance to his third, ”The Nephew” (1960). In that book, a retired small-town schoolteacher named Alma sets out to compose a memoir of her recently deceased nephew, who lived with her and her brother, only to realize that she never really knew him at all. In the new novel, an aging, timid Chicago woman named Carrie Kinsella — who, like Alma and many other Purdy characters, leads a grim, uneventful death-in-life — begins taking notes about her daughter, Gertrude, a famous artist who died two years earlier.

Always uneasy with Gertrude’s flamboyant carnality, the specifics of which she never wished to know, Carrie now finds herself reflecting that her daughter at least lived, while she has not lived at all. (Carrie, by the way, was also the name of a libidinous Windy City painter in Purdy’s 1964 novel, ”Cabot Wright Begins.”) Fearing that she failed her daughter and chagrined that they never loved each other — ”though this,” she says, ”was the one thing both of us wanted” — Carrie becomes obsessed with learning as much as she can about Gertrude’s life, which was mostly a mystery to her. Over the objections of her husband, Vic, and despite her own delicate constitution (she is constantly taking smelling salts), Carrie determines that she has found her ”life’s purpose in dead vanished Gertrude.”

Love, death, family, emotional estrangement — these are among Purdy’s major themes, and few writers have written less sentimentally about any of them. In Purdy’s world, the absence of love can be a source of agony — but then, so can its presence. The family, time and again, is the context within which that agony is lived out day by day, and the setting beyond which a protagonist must journey in search of illumination, intimacy and identity.

Yet here, as is routinely the case in Purdy, that search yields ambiguous results. Carrie’s quest leads her into the orbits of one offbeat personage after another: Vic’s sister, Gwendolyn, a worldly expatriate who, like Gertrude, has ”lived”; Evelyn Mae, a rich cryptographer and literary scholar who likens Carrie to Demeter, ”the earth mother who lost her daughter Persephone to the King of the Underworld”; and Cy Mellerick, a young lawyer who bears an uncanny resemblance to Carrie’s long-dead first love.

These encounters are marked by an odd inconclusiveness. Though they seem to point toward certain developments and resolutions, loose ends accumulate. Gwendolyn initiates an ambitious effort to help Carrie, yet returns abruptly to Europe; gestures of self-revelation are made, but real interpersonal knowledge remains elusive. ”We none of us, I’m afraid, know anybody or know one another,” says Alma’s brother Boyd in ”The Nephew,” and the line would not be out of place in ”Gertrude,” in which Carrie’s friendships, for all their peculiar intensity, remain in some sense unconsummated, like flirtations in feverish dreams.

A truth that Purdy seeks to underscore here — and one that is central to his fiction — is that even lives that seem thoroughly banal are far more mysterious, far harder to understand and to explain, than most of us recognize or acknowledge. As Carrie puts it, ”Behind all this tame, insipid life we were leading on Stony Island Avenue, there was in existence something after all mysterious, strange, and yes frightening.” To touch another person’s life, in short, is to touch a mystery. (No veteran of Purdy’s fiction will find the title of his new novel puzzling, by the way: for in Purdy’s world, every heart is a stone and every man an island.)

Another essential truth for Purdy is that language must play a role in any attempt to shed light on that mystery. Carrie discovers early on that she is not the only member of her family who has turned to writing in an effort to make sense of things. First she finds Gertrude’s ”Record Book”; soon afterward, she runs across a stupendously long catalogue, entitled ”An Index of the Forgotten Items of America,” that Vic has been secretly compiling for decades. Yet both works are incomplete — and the latter seems crushingly pathetic in its failure.

Or should one focus not on the failure but on the heroic scale of the effort? The answer, like much else here, is deliberately unclear. In the end, all that is certain is that Purdy is as profoundly conflicted as ever about the ability of writing to penetrate mystery. Words, after all, may serve as much to conceal as to convey the essence of a self, of life, of the world. Certainly this is the way they are often used by Purdy’s characters, whose conversation, as Tony Tanner has observed, reflects the ways in which words can ”take the place of emotion,” providing an ”illusion of communication” when they are in fact ”obscuring or distorting what we have to say.”

The use of language to conceal is, indeed, a recurring motif in ”Gertrude.” Both the narration and the dialogue are written in English that is often stilted: Purdy’s characters eschew contractions, interject phrases like ”by George” and employ old-fashioned words like ”tomfoolery.” One might almost conclude that ”Gertrude” is set in some bygone time — except for the fact that one of Vic’s favorite words is ”confab.” (These kinds of mixed signals are typical of Purdy, whose design is, in part, to keep readers constantly off-balance.) By using formal, antiquated language, Purdy draws attention to the artificiality of civilized society and reminds us of the dark human realities that churn beneath its surface. Moreover, the occasional deliberate awkwardnesses (when Carrie, reaching an epiphany, feels she is descending, Demeter-like, into the underworld, she says not ”The farther I descended, the darker it grew” but ”More fearful darkness increased with my continued descent”) have an effect rather like that of a subtly warped camera lens: they invite us to attend more carefully to the way the elements of the world around us actually interconnect, as opposed to the ways in which familiar social and literary conventions have conditioned us to perceive that world.

And there’s the rub: many readers are so thoroughly accustomed to more conventional means of seeing and representing that they may well dismiss a book like ”Gertrude” as simply puzzling, off-putting, weird. This is unfortunate, for Purdy is a powerful writer whose work deserves a far wider readership in his own country than it has enjoyed in recent years. To be sure, his insistence on setting his fiction on ever-shifting ground, his combination of compassion and ardor with an absolute rejection of any sentimental impulse, and his consistent refusal to tie up the loose ends can prove frustrating even to highly sophisticated readers. But most people with lively minds will find the rewards of Purdy’s art to be worth the effort. It is to be hoped that the publication of ”Gertrude of Stony Island Avenue” will draw more such readers to this singular American visionary.