“Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe.” — Paul West
I have written often about Paul West, who died at the age of 85 last year on October 18th. In A Thousand Words for Paul West, I argue that he is among America’s finest writers, a proud maximalist who pressed language to its limits. And I stand by what I wrote about him in the late 1980s in an article for The Boston Phoenix: “No contemporary American prose writer can touch him for sustained rhapsodic invention — he creates a hyperbolic hymn to joy, a swashbuckling swirl of sentences. West stands as an authentic voice in the wilderness, a visionary who plugs the ghosts of history and morality into his textual dream machines.”
On the one-year anniversary of West’s death, it feels necessary to hear his rampaging voice once again, making good on its lordly claim to supply “horn-of-plenty bravura.” The author of over 50 books, he rarely failed to boggle the mind, and he kicks up some stardust in this interview with Arts Fuse writer (and fellow West admirer) Vincent Czyz. A version of this piece was published in the Summer 1999 issue of New Millennium Writings. — Bill Marx
By Vincent Czyz
The first time I heard Paul West speak in his lovely English lilt, he said something I have never forgotten: “You should go to your grave astonished.” Astonished that the Reaper has finally tracked you down? Not exactly (after all, you know he’ll be showing up sooner or later anyhow). Rather, astonished at the seemingly infinite array of miracles stitched together to form creation — from giant blue stars large enough to fit 25 of our suns across their bulging equators to inexplicably flash-frozen mammoths.
First and foremost, for West the novel “voices the gut feeling of being alive.” In his “Middle River Stump Jump: a Credo,” published in Conjunctions 21, he continues: “For a long time now, over a dozen books, I have been trying to create images of human completeness, not only of the way the mind talks to itself (most of which vanishes), but also of our mind’s, our body’s, placement in the cosmic scheme of things. In other words, I try to depict the internal and universal flux, and to show how the former simulates the latter, possibly the latter the former.”
Rather an unlikely goal for someone who came out of an “obscure coal-mining town bang in the middle of the Sitwell Derbyshire estate” — that is, Eckington, England, where West was born. Since his mother married beneath her own class, West’s odds for sinking or rising in Britain’s rigidly structured society were about even. Responding to his mother’s avid interest in his schooling, he ascended, eventually earning a place at Oxford University.
Studying for a master’s degree at Columbia University in New York City was to dramatically alter the course of West’s life. His sense of America had to some extent been formed by big band music and Hollywood westerns. He was not, however, prepared for New York, a city that “seemed designed for living in twenty-four hours a day,” he says, “unlike London and Montreal, say.” One “fond memory is of arriving at Grand Central Station at four o’clock one morning and smelling fresh-made coffee, for all the world as if time had no bite, dawn had no sting, and all the languorous but hard-boiled lyrics about Manhattan had come true.” It left him reeling with “the cosmopolitan, the frontier, the atavistic, the slang, the willingness to do almost anything that hadn’t been done before.” This was a welcome change to West, who complained that “in UK they would do something only if it had been done already. Of course, this was all before political correctness and minimalism; the NYC of the 1950s and ’60s was a much more swinging, open-hearted place.”
Although West is best known as a novelist (he found “the short story frustrating” due to its “lack of elbow room” and to his “passion for the long sentence”), he began his creative writing career with poetry. Poetry, he said, “allowed my prose to be intense.”
Given a mother who was a pianist and an abiding interest in painting (he’s written a book on the painter James Ensor), it wasn’t entirely inevitable that West would become a writer. When he compared writing to the other arts, however, he concluded that “language we used for all kinds of other purposes. It was holistic, ecumenical, vulgar. Language contains more before you even begin to write. It’s there in the etymology that contains all those predecessing throats and larynxes. I’ve always had a keen sense of ancestors, and writing seems a form of ancestor-worship.”
As for phrase-making, striking a sentence as if minting a new coin for circulation, few can compete with West for originality and sheer lyricism. In his credo he mentions “the unforgettable sentence” and fears “we are living in the last epoch that will attend to style.” Extravagantly disdainful of the flat, humdrum, deliberately uniform prose that could have come off an assembly line, West exhorts writers to extravagance.
“It’s no good being anonymous,” he says, “as the TLS discovered with its critics (the latter got up to all kinds of ruses to identify their pieces with). Even those who exercised a plain prose style have extraordinary idiosyncrasy of subject-matter — Swift and Bunyan, say. In any case, I think that what guarantees you glory is idiosyncrasy, differentness, oddness, which is what all we Oxbridge scholarship candidates tried for in the old days.
“If you’re a prose stylist — there aren’t many (Nabokov, William Gass, Guy Davenport) — you’ll find the conformists coming after you for enjoying yourself, punishing you as children do eccentrics. It’s OK, it is only the wrath of paralytics watching the able-bodied swinging by. They would give anything to be stylists, but they never make it; it’s a gift, a twist, a perversion. In my books, if somebody can’t put your name to a paragraph of your prose unidentified, then you’ve flunked as a writer. Imagine: who could mistake a paragraph of Marcel Proust, say, or Thomas Mann or Georges Bernanos, William Faulkner, Thomas Carlyle, Walter Pater, Virginia Woolf. All this huffing and puffing about the plain, severe style is a pseudo-democratic con-game whose players fear nothing more than they fear language—even complex combinations of simple words.”
At five feet nine or so, West is squarish because his body has as much bulk as his prose. Seeing him on the street, you would certainly look to go around because you can see in his step, in the set of his shoulders, he’s not used to moving out of the way—neither for you nor for the critics. His wavy hair, which looks to be the consistency of metal wire, is a strange hue, a brown tinted red. Yet for all his imposing presence, his voice and manner are friendly, he is gentle with the most naïve question from a young writer or admiring fan and, with surprisingly quick wit for a man of his size, he is adept at putting either at ease. Indeed, he is funny enough that had he really wanted to, he could have put together a passable stage show. For his peers, however, critics and fellow writers who should have savvy enough to hold their own, he packs a Tyson-like wallop. In his essay “The Shapelessness of Things to Come,” he provides a fitting conclusion to his harangue on minimalism: “Surely the passion for the plain, the homespun, the banal is itself a form of betrayal, a refusal to look honestly at a complex universe.”
Tenement of Clay, a novel whose main character is a 41-inch midget wrestler named Pee Wee Lazarus, was, in West’s eyes, his first novel (he disowns two earlier books). A tale of inner-city erosion and the oft-homeless people wandering its least inhabitable streets, Tenement began West’s examination of the lower strata of human life. Many books later, in The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, West places a fictionalized version of the painter Walter Sickert among London’s “sluts, tramps, beggars, arse-wigglers, dung-sweepers, pariahs and thieves.” It’s not an infatuation with the seamier side of life per se, according to West, it’s just that these people don’t receive the attention they merit. As the title suggests, the novel gives priority not to the Ripper, but to his victims, doomed women who “were nobody’s, rancid blooms who once had beauty and some hope, but now in the main bad livers, ruined kidneys and little to show for it save an acute, intricate knowledge of men at their least subtle.”
Rat Man of Paris, a novel about a homeless Parisian man haunted by the horrors of the Nazi occupation, is another example of West placing thumb and forefinger on the outcast, reading the texture of that life by feel, and giving it back to us in print. In 1995 there was The Tent of Orange Mist, told from the point of view of a Chinese woman forced into prostitution by Japanese occupiers during World War II. West animates the stories of these so-called “comfort girls,” allotting them in fiction what was denied them in their lives.
As one might guess from a style that sometimes rubs wingtips with the baroque and from West’s penchant for peering into the largely overlooked corners of life, he is hell-bent on literary experimentation. One of the things that drew him to America, in fact, was its pioneering spirit, its passion for taking risks. This contrasted sharply with the England from which he had emigrated. In Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, West wrote, “It’s the same with all of us in this country: we’re paralyzed by tradition, the right thing, the done thing, all of us bourgeois. It’s the tradition of being inert, of letting life come to you; and if it doesn’t, it’s not the done thing to go after it.”
The America of the 1950s and ’60s was a welcoming place for the avant-garde writer but, in West’s view, all that has changed. “The nouveau roman was more acclaimed here [America] than in France at first. Then the pendulum swung the other way, to black comedy, which took us away from the verbal and psychological experiment toward the societal, the campus, the suburban. American publishers/readers didn’t care for home-grown innovation, I don’t know why. Odd thing, I found here the very same cautious Puritanism I’d left England to leave behind. I should have gone to Paris or Buenos Aires, or even to Brazil, that perpetually underrated land of amazing fiction. I think that spunkiness in American life lasts only a short time, except maybe in painting. The literary arts don’t impress the public as arts but as mercantile commodities, maybe because the writers aren’t arty enough and are really pathic sociologues.”
Early on in his career, West moved away from realism, from the realist conventions of the novel. He often dispenses with straightforward chronology, with chapter-by-chapter progress, with clearly defined beginnings, middles, and ends. He looks to unusual sources and finds inspirations for his structurally wild stories. In Caliban’s Filibuster, for example, a sort of interior monologue spanning the duration of a plane trip to Japan, West used the progression of colors in the rainbow as well as the international dateline as structural devices. In Gala, the constellations along the Milky Way as well as elemental DNA coding organize his stream-of-consciousness narrative. The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, the tale of a Hopi Indian returning to life on the mesa, is divided into four parts corresponding to the Hopi belief that there have been four worlds, of which this one is but the latest.
Like West himself, many of his characters discover that inner freedom — which resists the siren song of authority — can in some measure compensate for constraining external circumstances. Thus, while many of his characters are confined — Oswald (from The Place) to the Hopi reservation, Caliban to an airplane, and Alley Jaggers (in the final book of a trilogy) to an asylum — they are encouraged to let their minds wander. Thus, Caliban meanders through his monologue, Oswald takes to the realms of astronomy and Hopi myth, and Alley loses himself in the convolute corridors of his own deluded consciousness.
Another multicolored rock thrown at the “mirror” many novelists endeavor to hold up to reality, Colonel Mint tells the story of an astronaut who, while returning to earth, spies an angel. The notion of a universe that derives great satisfaction from poking holes in our rational conceptions of it is among West’s most prominent themes. More importantly however, Colonel Mint stands as a testament to a society bent on obliterating anyone who sees things differently; that is, anyone whose point of view threatens to upset the strait-jacketed status quo.
Toward the end of The Place, Oswald winds up with something even stranger than Mint’s angel: a battered suitcase containing four stars (yes, the kind that heat planets). A critic for the New York Times Book Review, hoping this incident could be explained by a dream or hallucination, was forced to cite it as a flaw in the novel once it became clear that this was not the case. He could not accept it as being as “real” as the rest of the narrative.
West, however, believes that empirical reality includes the unexplained; the cracked mirror a writer holds up to the world is — paradoxically — a truer representation of the cosmos we live in (a diamond far from flawless to be sure) than narratives patted on the head for being “faithful” to the real.
“Astronomers,” West points out, “spend much of their time dealing with enigmas: stars older than the universe. How short-sighted and invalid we will be if we attend to and credit only the rationally explicable. I have seen a huge UFO. I was trained in aircraft recognition and know it was not of our orthodoxy. From a hover-start it did a vertical U-turn at over a thousand miles an hour, climbing faster and faster. It had hovered over Cornell’s campus for ten minutes.” West, who owns “a gorgeous twelve-inch catadioptric telescope” has “spent years peering out and up, awed and thrilled.” This celestial spying has affected his writing “Sometimes visually (Gala), sometimes through myth (The Place),” providing him with symbols and driving him to attempt — his ambition inflamed rather than tempered — “converting stars into words.”
When asked about his literary influences, West offers: “From Sartre self-assertion; from De Quincey the involute; from Samuel Beckett the performative erudite voice of the chronic emeritus; from Eliot how to quote revealingly. Add Proust, supplanting ‘life’ with words; and Nabokov — the same. Except Nabokov was more of a phrasemaker, one of the best.”
West maintains that “Most art comes from some Nietzschean urge to alter and control. Few artists end up in the Pentagon, so they indulge in a substitute activity that other people, non-artists as well, need. Another reason for creating, though, is the desire to express life’s texture in words, which the world is not made of. That kind of manipulation. Compare chocolate with what Nabokov makes of it in that novel in whose movie Dirk Bogarde starred (Despair).”
For West, the imagination is the royal road to rebellion; the overthrow of the established order is the result (the proof) of an inner freedom. His character Alley Jaggers’s “main desire is to get the universe — the Earth, at any rate — back to the plasticity it might have had as an idea in the mind of God. Before things acquired their fixed natures: tigers their stripes, water vapor the ability to form as, say, cumulus cloud, and man his multipurpose mouth. Jaggers finds life’s compartments infuriating, so he reconceives it in imagination — the faculty we’re given for the express purpose of flying in the face of the First Cause.”
West has the startlingly primitive belief — primitive in the way it parallels certain tribal worldviews — that “Whatever anybody imagines has been added to the sum of creation. It’s not a matter of whether or not it reproduces or replicates what is visible to everybody else.” The universe, therefore, is a process, not a construction, a slow, infinite (and infinitely layered) accretion rather than a final amount added up like a grocery receipt.
For West, we are caught in an existential trap, finding ourselves overwhelmed by “so much that is not us,” estranged by the gift (sometimes the bane) of consciousness. For solace, his characters often seek to latch onto something larger than themselves. Rat Man, for example, wanted “not the cause of himself, [but] something outside of him that will magnify him.” Oswald voices a similar desire and manages — if only briefly — to achieve it: “I came home as something they wanted to see. Something bigger than me flashed through me, I’m sure of that, and not just adrenaline, not just the syrup of homemade delight; work the frenzy high enough you scare yourself and them more than halfway to death and something comes in, something takes over. You become a suitcase star. You are never the same again.”
“People yearn for some kind of amplification aggrandizement,” explains West, “and religion provides it, but so does the military, the sports club, the Browning study circle. I suppose the ultimate, most barbaric existentialist test is to assert yourself — carve your scar on the universe, as Malraux used to say — without any institutional attachments, without joining.”
He asserts that he is “not here to protect people from the world, but to attune them to it … that’s why, qua novelist, I try to attend all that’s going on. I keep scrapbooks and — how’s this for a microcosm — I have an increasing bundle of index cards on which I’ve pasted important things — scenes, facts, news items, photos — that I keep referring to, sometimes using them over and over like playing cards. I used one last night about the bogus colors astronomers sometimes use for nebulae and such. Here it is, the Lagoon nebula, whose red glow of ionized hydrogen is a real red whereas in an adjacent picture, the false-color red indicates ionized sulfur. I find such a phenomenon worth long study because it reveals what we can do with our world and get away with doing. Pretty colors seem to matter every bit as much as the truth. Myself, I think false colors confuse anyone who wants real astronomy.”
For all of the detailed commentary that may come after a book has been published, West finds that moving from a gut feeling — from some bit of imagery swelling like an abscess in his cerebral cortex — onto the page, roping this or that swift-hoofed steer of a concept in a lasso of words, is a more or less inexplicable process: “Writing to me was always something primitive, akin to woodwork or sculpting; a mystery indeed, and I am no good at explaining what I am doing even when the work is going well. The whole thing is more like a trance or a spell, closer to Charlie Parker than to Immanuel Kant.”
West is sure of one thing; prose should never be threadbare. In his rousing essay “In Defense of Purple Prose,” included in the first volume of his criticism collection Sheer Fiction, he encourages the lush: “Purple, I suggest, when it isn’t just showing off, is phrase-coining; an attempt to build longish units of language that more or less replicate sizeable chunks of Being in much the same way as the hiss-crack-cuckoo words mimic a sound. There is language that plunges in, not too proud to steal a noise from Mother Nature, and there is language that prides itself on the distance it keeps itself at. Then there is purple which, from quite a distance away, plunges back into phenomena all over again, only to emerge with a bigger verbal ostentation.”
If we try — as writers, thinkers, philosophizers — to tally it all up, we find that … well there is no total. At least according to West. And this may well be the base of the pillar that holds up the turtle, which, in turn, holds up the elephant on whose mythical back the whole cosmic show rests. There is nothing fixed, absolute, certain. Instead, what we find ourselves confronting are the clichéd reactions and overbearing conventions that stifle and stunt the imagination. Where there is no originality, there is no vitality. When we dismiss a primitive sense of awe before the natural realm, we close ourselves off to a vast dimension of life.
West, by way of his striking style, mind-bending quirks in structure, and profoundly insightful observations, tries to reaffirm our place in the scheme of things as the only self-aware beings we know of, to give us back something that routine and the mundane have all but worn away. The world refuses to conform to our idea of it. If that is true, as West seems to believe, we should refuse to conform to the world’s idea of us. His is a fiction inspired by and interwoven with both the social and natural aspects of the world — but it is the world as refracted through the mind of West himself, a fiction that encourages the reader to take notice of his or her own warpings of the space-time continuum. For it is there, where the things that shouldn’t happen do, where individual perception differs from mass consensus, that the boundaries of the ordinary, of the taken-for-granted, begin to fray and we find ourselves standing on the terra incognita of an undiscovered country.
West frequently insists that the role of fiction is to add to the sum of creation, not merely mirror or represent it. And here he presents a striking parallel to the painter Vincent van Gogh who, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, wrote “[F]or me, Millet and Lhermitte are the real artists, for the very reason that they do not paint things as they are, traced in a dry analytical way…. [M]y great longing is to learn to make those very incorrectnesses, those deviations, remodellings, changes of reality so that they may become, yes, untruth if you like — but more true than the literal truth.”
A toast then, as West might say, to untruth.
Vince Czyz is the author of The Christos Mosaic, a novel, and Adrift in a Vanishing City, a collection of short fiction. He is the recipient of the Faulkner Prize for Short Fiction and two NJ Arts Council fellowships. The 2011 Capote Fellow, his work has appeared in many publications, including New England Review, Shenandoah, AGNI, The Massachusetts Review, Georgetown Review, Quiddity, Tampa Review, Boston Review, and Louisiana Literature.