- Reviewed by
Between them, the authors of the books under review take as their principal subjects, by my count, major works by fifty writers and refer in passing to countless other writers and literary works as well. Paul West is a prolific novelist who here shows us that he is also a prolific book-reviewer. Sheer Fiction is a compendium of thirty-nine book reviews that were published in weekly periodicals between 1976 and 1986, with six informal essays on the nature of fiction preceding the reviews. Arnold Weinstein's The Fiction of Relationship is a more scholarly book but obeys a similarly inclusive impulse, surveying the work of twenty-one writers from Sophocles to Calvino. The first phrase of Weinstein's conclusion, "Ever since Homer constructed the Iliad, " gives an idea of the breadth of critical perspective operating in both works.
The occasional pieces that begin Sheer Fiction provide a kind of manifesto of critical theory-and-practice by a novelist who reads everything as a personal lesson in craft and who unabashedly judges everything in terms of his own novelistic production. West's recent novels include Lord Byron's Doctor and The Rat Man of Paris; they are discursive, plotted, realistic fictions, and West wastes no time displaying his preferences for the kind of fiction he himself writes. And in displaying other various and sundry prejudices as well. "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. I have always been impressed by the interchangeability of the prose done by different students [End Page 307] in graduate workshops; their stories and chapters are as alike as bottles of liquid paper, and this is where minimalism must have begun. . . ."
Whether one likes minimalism or not, this kind of polemic, bolstered by prejudices that simply do not stand up to examination, is the order of the day. Epithets like "literary taxidermist," "hack," and "self-righteous ordinariness" characterize vaguely defined groups of writers who appear to share little besides West's deprecation. Formulations like "Fiction is not only truthful to the housing of mankind, it is also truthful to its host mind . . ." add to the annoyance of these opening pieces and occasionally made this reader want to turn West's epithets against him.
Matters do improve when one reaches the book reviews. Once West stops generalizing and concentrates on a given text, his anger seems to subside and his focus sharpens. To give credit where it is due, he has read a great deal, and the fiction under review (primarily translations of European and Latin American fiction) is interesting. As a Latin Americanist, I was drawn to the reviews of Latin American fiction, where West makes several insightful observations about the texts he discusses. In a discussion of political fictions García Márquez's The Autumn of the Patriarch, Alejo Carpentier's Reasons of State, and Roa Bastos's I the Supreme, West speculates on the complexity of cultures where "the mix of superstition and megalomania turns bloodily festive and charmingly ridiculous at the same time" and mentions Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars in this context. In his review of The Last Song of Manuel Sendero by Ariel Dorfman, he applauds "a whole new range of libertine cosmologies fleshed out with the density of monuments." These are thought-provoking (rather than merely provoking) phrases and do suggest entryways into the novels under review.
Still, this book puzzles me. Who is the audience for such a miscellany? What purpose do West and his publishers intend to serve by making these occasional pieces available in book form? The primary purpose of book reviews, it seems to me, is to make readers aware of new publications when they are published. Why would people who read those reviews—and the fiction reviewed in them—want a compendium after the fact? Perhaps to catch up? At best, these reviews suggest themes...