Book Commentary: A Thousand Words for Paul West

Paul West’s goal as a writer is to expand consciousness through the uninhibited play of the imagination, to revel in the glory of words, not to preach lessons in civic duty. And that anarchistic intensity has gotten him into trouble with those who mistakenly believe that exploring the mind of evil indicates approval.

By Bill Marx

Paul West — one of the finest writers alive.

Helen Epstein’s Arts Fuse review of Diane Ackerman’s memoir One Hundred Words for Love, the inspiring story of her efforts to nurture her husband Paul West after a massive stroke at the age of 74 paralyzed his ability to communicate, needs to be supplemented by proclamations of his stature as a prize-winning writer of over 40 volumes of fiction and nonfiction. He is one of the great living writers, and I will stand by what I wrote about him in the late 1980s in a piece 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.”

As West wrote in his 1995 memoir A Stroke of Genius: Illness and Self-Discovery about his own lifelong bouts with stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and migraines, “an illness faced down, transcended, or even talked to death, becomes a prized possession, first draft of a novel you cannot bear to destroy but keep by you to hearten and remind.” As West’s condition continues to improve, including signs that he is writing again, attention must be paid to his powerful body of work, which has had its detractors because he is an unabashed maximalist of language, a linguistic Magus. In his prose, West pursues the wild autonomy of the imagination, dramatizing the amoral nooks and exultant crannies of existence for readers because “the gist of it all is a mind fully deployed, and here “mind” includes the imagination, will find the merest thing an inexhaustible object of wonderment, itself included.”

The goal is to expand a narrowed consciousness through the uninhibited play of possibility, to revel in the glory of words, not to preach lessons in do-gooding. And that anarchistic intensity has gotten him into trouble with those who mistakenly believe that depicting the mind of evil somehow indicates approval. The puritan mindset, at least among literary critics, is alive and well.

As West goes on to argue in his essay “In Defense of Purple Prose”:

“Of course, purple is not only highly colored prose. It is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing—showing off—the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened by something intolerably vivid. When the deep purple blooms, you are looking at a dimension, not a posy.”

This is not to say that West could not be terse or pointed; only that those looking to literature for neat moral lessons and crabbed vocabulary will be disappointed. The triumph of minimalism among literary critics and American writing programs has, for the moment, pushed West and other wizards of words, including William Gass, John Barth, Robert Coover, and Stanley Elkin, aside. I am confident that they will be rediscovered by readers in the future, tired of bottom-feeding vocabulary, domestic realism, and pint-sized visions—until then West must be remembered as one of the major American purveyors of a counter-tradition—the confounders of creative caution.

As an unabashed champion of the maximalism, I became a small part of the battle between West and his moralist/minimalist foes in the early 1990s. Perhaps because of the strength of my Boston Phoenix meditation on West, I was commissioned by Jack Beatty, then Senior Editor of The Atlantic, to write a review of West’s 1991 novel The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper. The result was a debacle—I handed in the review, didn’t hear anything for months, and then received a letter from Beatty in which he posited that he could not run the piece because “writers have to concern themselves with the moral consequences of their art . . . and magazines must be socially responsible—they cannot, we cannot, publish something that asks us to admire the literary merit of a book about chopping women up.”

This was bosh—there was nothing in the review that suggested that West was rooting for Jack the Ripper, and to say that some topics cannot be written about in fiction is nonsense. In fact, by dramatizing the thoughts of the women who were killed, the book did more justice to the victims than the countless nonfiction books about the murders that exploited an identification with the killer and ignored those he destroyed.

I was outraged and made some noise about philistinism in surprisingly high places. The New York Times‘s Book Notes column, then written by Roger Cohen, took note: “Is it politically correct to write novels about mass murderers of women? Apparently, The Atlantic thinks not.” Anxious to protect the public from such a dangerous book (and to cover his rear), Beatty ran a short, mixed-to-negative review of The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper in The Atlantic.

Years later Beatty left the magazine to join the chattering media pundit classes, where knee-jerk thinking is not only welcome but demanded. The Nation contacted me after the NYT column and published my review of West’s novel. (Playboy also wanted to publish the review.) It was during the brouhaha that I first talked to West—he was amusingly flabbergasted and wrote a piece for The Journal of Contemporary Fiction denouncing The Atlantic‘s decision. I then penned an afterword for the US publication of West’s second novel, Tenement of Clay, for McPherson and Company.

So reader, please be forewarned when taking up the West books I am about to recommend. They are not for the weak of mind or heart. Besides the (at times self-indulgent) richness of West’s writing, he sends his hyper-charged fantasy hither and yon, detailing the wondrous as well as the dark, the puerile and the pulverizing, the sublime and the sadistic. In his book Elizabeth Costello, J. M. Coetzee pointedly raises ethical questions about portions of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, West’s novel about the plot to assassinate Hitler. Yet West has his champions: he has been awarded the Lannan Prize for Fiction, an Award in Literature from the American Academy, the Aga Khan Fiction Prize, and the Hazlett Award for Excellence. In France, he has received the designation Chevalier of Arts and Letters.

Here are some of my favorite of his books, besides Tenement of Clay, A Stroke of Genius, and The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper, with an eye on choosing those that serve as the best introductions to West’s “horn-of-plenty bravura.”

1) Notes for a Deaf Daughter and Gala: A Fictional Sequel: The first book is West’s brilliant, empathetic, nonfiction study of his deaf and brain-damaged daughter Mandy; the “sequel” serves up a phantasmagorical fictional continuation of the story. Together they present the Jekyll/Hyde shading of West’s expansive notions of consciousness and language.

2) Rat Man of Paris: One of his most accessible novels—a short, black comic study of grotesque isolation, madness, obsession, and memories of World War II.

3) Love’s Mansion: West lovingly recreates the lives of his mother and father, their lives torn apart by World War I. He also ponders the nature of music and time in one of his most personal and passionate novels.

5) Terrestrials: For the advanced West reader, this is a sci-fi novel like no other—two amnesiac aliens named Booth and Clegg are sent on a mission to spy on Earth, taking on the identities of pilots of a high-altitude reconnaissance plane. The book constructs a hall of galactic fun house mirrors—nothing quite like it.

4) Sheer Fiction (Volumes I-IV): In his literary criticism and commentaries West is an indefatigable champion of the infinite expressive possibilities of the novel, with a particularly sharp eye for international manifestations of fictional boundary bending. His writing is sharp, funny, pungent, and feisty. From the introduction to Volume IV: “Minimalism is close to mediocrity and mindlessness, a way for the ungifted to have a literary career, and for readers who really hate literature to pretend to be reading something serious.”

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.


  1. Shelley on June 21, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Doesn’t it all go back to whether it’s art? Writing that gets us to “identify” with a cruel killer so that the horror recedes, or writing that has a “do-gooder” purpose that doesn’t completely explore the ambiguities of moral action–they both fall short. I haven’t yet read Paul West, so I can’t speak to his work, but I wish him well.

  2. Helen Epstein on June 22, 2011 at 8:32 am

    Your piece makes me want to go out and read Paul West –especially his work about villains. But, having just thought a great deal about the “purple prose” in Ackerman’s work, I wonder whether what you call “maximalism” doesn’t usually work at cross-purposes with narrative. When maximalist style calls so much attention to itself, it breaks up the narrative for no good reason and takes the reader out of the story and into the detail at hand. I have found this a problem in all of Ackerman’s writing I’ve read — except for her poetry where she can fall in love with any metaphor she likes and extend it for as long as she likes without losing anything else.

  3. Ed Desautels on August 31, 2011 at 10:53 am

    Great work, Bill–as usual.

    What essay was it in which Paul referred to “the Gestapo of the plane prose party?” Hilarious! They’re still very much among us. As a maximalist and Westian, I too hope for a backlash against the minimizers, but fear the mass acceleration of all things will only make these things, including minds, smaller. As Paul also said (paraphrasing), “Soon we’ll be awash in so much electronic mediocrity we’ll all go blind.”

    And, I would add, we’ll do so 140 characters at a time. I don’t understand these people who claim style gets in the way of narrative — it’s supposed to be prose fiction, not reportage. And, after all, Robbe-Grillet showed us long ago that style is content, is narrative.

  4. Bill Marx on August 31, 2011 at 1:25 pm

    Hi Ed,

    Thanks for the comment. Diane’s loving book about caring for Paul needed to be augmented with reminders of the enduring power of his best prose works as well as of his take-no-prisoners polemics for the value of writing that does more than the bare “minimum.”

    I can’t explain why readers prefer thin gruel over a banquet, but that appears to be the case, with a school of conservative critics picking off strays who dare to leave the starvation diet reservation. I would love a kickback against small-minded scribblers, but the best we are probably going to have are people like you and others fighting the good fight for writing that communicates the complexity of the world around us.

    Not sure where that West quotation comes from … I will poke around in the Sheer Fiction volumes and see if I can find it.


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