James Purdy: Eustace Chisholm & the Works

This seems to be the month of forgotten 20th century American novelists for me – after Maureen Howard’s brilliant Natural History, now James Purdy with his novel Eustace Chisholm & the Works. Purdy, although dead – he has born in 1914 and died in 2009 -, seems not quite as thoroughly buried as Maureen Howard – it looks like he always had a bit of a cult following and there even seems to be a bit of a revival going on, with his out-of-print works being reissued. Which would certainly be very welcome, because, judging by Eustace Chisholm, he was a very remarkable writer indeed.

Weirdly, and to my considerable surprise, Eustace Chisholm & the Works reminded a lot of William Gaddis’ first novel The Recognitions – while it is shorter and less complex and lacks the vast amounts of erudition Gaddis splattered all across his work, both novels share something that I would like to describe (for lack of a better word) as their motion. Both Eustace Chisholm and The Recognitions are ensemble novels, they do not have a single protagonist whose unfolding story the reader would follow, not even a small group like a couple or a family, but a large cast of characters none of which would stand out as central; and their stories are not presented as continuous threads weaving a tapestry, but rather as isolated, small episodes which the reader has to actively perceive as a mosaic. Unlike the novels of, say, Dos Passos, however, who so far does something quite similar, The Recognitions and Eustace Chisholm do not replace the central character with a central perspective and ordering overview but, so to speak, stay at eye level with their characters and their fragmented worldview – while there is no single central perspective, each character forms the centre of his section of the narrative, resulting in a constant shift of focus throughout the novels, a stop-and-go, jerking, stuttering motion that can induce dizziness and indeed seems to  have led to seasickness in many readers both of Purdy and Gaddis.

Eustace Chisholm & the Works, though, it has to be said, is considerable more accessible than The Recognitions. Where Gaddis often seems to be hellbent on frustrating the reader, Eustace Chisholm, while still a demanding read, appears to do its best to ease readers into its vertiginous structure – indeed, almost to lure them in, only to then shock and repel them with scenes of a harrowing violence that in their sheer, unmitigated brutality have an almost physical impact on the reader. The novel does have its humorous moments, does indeed have so many of them that it reads in part like a comedy, but in the end it is a tragedy that functions as its own satyr play.

And as it should in satyr play, sexuality plays a large part in Eustace Chisholm – more specifically male homosexuality to which the book has a remarkably relaxed and matter-of-course attitude that makes it unusual even today and that might very well have been just as shocking to readers at the time of it its first publishing as the scenes of violence. (And one might also note, to bring this comparison up for the last time, that homosexuality seems to play a structurally similar role in Eustace Chisholm as Catholicism does in The Recognitions.) But if the novel is accepting of homosexuality, its characters are not necessarily so, and in fact it is precisely this which finally gives rice to tragedy out of the farce – everyone in the novel is in some way or other refusing their innermost desires, not even acknowledging even – or possibly particularly – when they get a chance to fulfill them. Turning away their chance at fulfilment and happiness, they find that the denied desires will not be gainsaid but return to haunt them in invariably self-destructive ways.

Eustace Chisholm & the Works has apparently become something of a “gay modern classic” (at least that is what the cover of my edition claims) but it is worth reading not just because of its subject matter but because it attempts (and largely succeeds) to find a literary form for an altered way of life, the lack of a narrative centre or unified thread, the permanently shifting perspective capturing both the dissolution of social ties and the increase in individual freedom in 60s’ subcultures. In other words, this is excellent stuff and James Purdy is definitely a writer I want to read more of.


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