restricted access Understanding Paul West (review)
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Reviewed by
David W. Madden. Understanding Paul West. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1993. xii + 171 pp. $29.95 cloth.

"Language is a mystery from which we can make mysteries that were not there before, skulking in the matrix like penicillin, but came into being with us, evincing our uniqueness. To use language thus is a reverent homage to our predecessors, who come to life in every tone we muster." So writes Paul West, whose loyalty to the lavish is everywhere evident in his fifteen novels to date, but also demonstrated in short stories, literary criticism, memoirs, and biographical sketches, all of which evoke West's sense of wonder at his "blessed membership" in "a universe absolutely pumped cramful of marvels." His full-throatedness and celebration of eloquence stunningly refute minimalist examples of diminished expectations, which West most famously disdains in his essay "In Defense of Purple Prose," a testimony and a contribution to linguistic energy and abundance; for West, language that is "revved up, ample, intense, incandescent or flamboyant" is language purpled—not bruised by abuse but restored to its rightful, royal status.

A British-born writer writing in America, multi- and cross-generic in his enterprises, West has proved especially resistant to academic categories, but it seems clear that West belongs in the same resonant fellowship as Stanley Elkin, William Gass, and John Hawkes, to name three writers with similarly self-conscious commitments to style and who campaign for the [End Page 386] ongoing richness and relevance of fiction at the level of the sentence. What is surprising, however—inexcusable, in fact, to a reviewer who has so often been left breathless with admiration after a virtuoso passage—is that Paul West has received far less critical attention than they.

This would be reason enough to congratulate David W. Madden for his introduction to the complex, various pleasures of this under-attended author in Understanding Paul West, the first book-length treatment of West's work. As guest-editor of the section of the Spring 1991 Review of Contemporary Fiction devoted to Paul West, Madden staked his claim as chief proponent and regulator of West's reputation. Understanding Paul West complements that collection with a systematic investigation of the principal fiction, beginning with the earlier forays into realism (most notably in the Alley Jaggers Trilogy), moving through the overtly experimental novels of the 1970s (including Caliban's Filibuster and Gala), and then considering the dense historical novels of the 1980s (if such a designation could sufficiently prepare for the complex charms and challenges of The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, The Place in Flowers Where Pollen Rests, or The Women of Whitechapel and Jack the Ripper).

Madden is more than equal to the task. He does an excellent job of balancing plot analysis, explication of themes and issues, and attention to West's own commentary in a way that allows Understanding Paul West to accomplish the avowed goal of the series to provide guides for students and nonacademic readers without shortchanging the breadth of innovation under discussion. In addition to focusing on West's polymathy—the research informing the novels ranges from World War II military strategies to nineteenth-century crime tabloids, from Hopi lore to astrophysics—Madden finds in the fiction a fundamental interest in the development and justification of the role of the artist, as well as a preoccupation with the price and the rewards of aesthetic enchantment. Madden treats these general themes as touchstones throughout the book to help correlate the individual analyses of remarkably diverse texts. Happily, even within the confines of the series format, Madden not only manages to do justice to the scope of West's output but also quotes liberally from his subject in order to offer a taste of the stylistic intrepidness that is West's signature achievement.

I suspect that many devotees of Paul West know him through his nonfiction; Words for a Deaf Daughter and Out of My Depths: A Swimmer in the Universe, for example, have been no less significant contributions to his reception, nor are they any less attuned to the lyrical possibilities of prose than the novels. Although such...


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