A Tight Fit

Narrow RoomsNarrow Rooms by James Purdy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The most forceful impression of Narrow Rooms is how politically incorrect a novel it is. In a modern age where all LGBT people are supposed to be happy, well-adjusted poster children for homo-normativity, Purdy’s novel is like a runny dog turd smeared on a hot pavement.

A gothic tour de force of lust, perversion, obsession and violence, all often on the same page, Narrow Rooms ostensibly centres on a lovers’ triangle gone wrong. To give away any more of the lurid plot, especially the ending, would be to deprive Purdy’s novel of much of its impact. This is a book to experience; beware that it will probably hit you like a sledgehammer in the nuts.

What struck me immediately about Narrow Rooms is how pared down the writing is. Gone is the often ornamental writing and baroque plot contrivances of earlier novels like Cabot Wright Begins and Eustace Chisholm and the Works.

Here Purdy strips his writing bare, just as he lays bare the tortured souls of this wretched trilogy of characters. As a result, the book reads like a parable, while also having the impact of a Biblical story. This is also quite a brief novel, barely 200 pages, that moves inexorably from Sidney arriving home from jail to the domestic apocalypse unleashed at the end.

What is one to make of Purdy’s contention that true love is as much a destructive force as it is a creative one? That desire or even lust thwarted is liable to fester in a person, leading him to lash out with all the pain and rejection that he himself feels he has been dealt?

I constantly use the male pronoun, although I would hesitate to label this a ‘gay’ novel, despite the proliferation of gay sex, which runs the gamut from enthusiastic tonguing to eyebrow-raising S&M (and this all in a 1978 novel).

Despite the violence and anguish, can one ultimately see this as a novel of hope rather than despair? I would like to think so. After this late novel Purdy himself had about 20 years left to live, holed up in the Brooklyn, NY apartment where he stayed for 45 years until his death in 2009, largely ignored by the literary establishment that had so fêted him at the start of his career.

And yet I do not think this is a bitter novel. Instead it is a remarkable distillation of the uncompromising vision that Purdy had been honing throughout his career. As Paul Binding writes in the 1985 Introduction to the reprint: “If love is what frequently brings people into damned-seeing states of being, it – and it alone – is what brings about redemption.”

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