Paul West has long insisted that what is most important to him as a writer is the free play of the imagination. What the imagination invents, he contends, becomes something independent and actual. West himself states the case most clearly when noting that “elasticity, diversity, openness, these are the things that matter to me most.” Thus, his fictions often revolve, both thematically and structurally, around the interplay between the individual and his or her imagination and an absurd, threatening universe. Often these fictions rely heavily on dreams of one sort or another, with characters living in their dreams or living out their dreams or becoming confused about where dreams leave off and the world begins.
Consequently, West’s fictions often abound with a sense of precariousness as characters who are constrained in one form or another struggle to free themselves and find their places in the world. Sanity frequently becomes the central issue in these lives, with protagonists taking on the forces of conventionality in their private wars with the drab and mundane. Typical West heroes are outsiders, often marginal or largely inconsequential figures, who will not or cannot conform to the forces about them and who, in striking out on their own, pay steep prices for their individuality.
A Quality of Mercy
A Quality of Mercy, West’s first novel and a work that he largely disowned, deals with a collection of embittered and failed lives overseen by Camden Smeaton, the novel’s central consciousness. The novel is otherwise unmemorable except that it anticipates concerns that West more successfully developed in later novels: alienation, immersion in dream and illusion, the idea of an irrational universe, and the use of stylistic fragmentation.
Tenement of Clay
On the other hand, Tenement of Clay, West’s second novel, stands as a far more accomplished work, controlled, stylistically inventive, morally probing. Here West introduces the reader to the voices of two narrators, each of whom is compelling and unique. The work is divided into three chapters, the two shortest forming a frame offered by Pee Wee Lazarus, a dwarf wrestler whose direct idiom immediately assaults the reader and demands his or her attention.
West’s desire is to “involve” the reader in his tale, a story that revolves around Papa Nick, narrator of the middle section, who along with Lazarus meets a taciturn giant he names Lacland. Lacland appears to have no home or clear destination, so Nick takes him back to his rooms, where Nick presides over a private flophouse for local bums. Kept in the darkened basement, Lacland soon develops, under Lazarus’s perverse tutelage, a sexual appetite and his own abusive language. After a series of horrible misadventures, Lacland reverts to his despondency and silence and eventually becomes Nick’s legal ward.
All these events, extreme and dramatic as they may appear, actually operate as a backdrop to Nick’s personal turmoil. For years he has carried on a fitful relationship with Venetia, a former film actor, who exhorts him to abandon his altruism toward the derelicts and to run off with her to a life of leisure. When Nick physically collapses from the burden of Lacland and Lazarus’s escapades, Venetia nurses him back to health, leaves him when he returns to his bums, and dies in a car crash in Florida.
The novel’s soul comes in the form of Nick’s constant ruminations, which offer a way of coping with and sometimes solving the dilemmas of his existence. Gradually the line between straight narration and Nick’s hallucinations begins to dissolve; the two become one, and the reader learns something fundamental about this world: Dream and reality invade each other; there is no escaping one for the other.
The novel is furthermore important for the moral questions it raises. Perhaps the most telling of these involves one’s responsibilities to other human beings; in particular terms, is Nick responsible for the lives he admits into his home? As Lacland and Lazarus demonstrate, Nick has assumed the role of a Dr. Frankenstein and created his own monsters, whom he has unwittingly unleashed on the world. Is the answer to this dilemma incarceration? Lacland’s temporary internment in the basement suggests that it is not.
For Nick, these are the questions that finally come with life itself, and his failure to arrive at any fixed solution suggests a form of authorial honesty about the complexity of modern existence. In this context, the epigraph from Samuel Beckett makes sense: “If there were only darkness, all would be clear. It is because there is not only darkness but also light that our situation becomes inexplicable.”
The novel’s title comes from a passage in John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel (1681-1682), and certainly the images of tenements abound in the work: all the buildings in this metropolis Lazarus calls New Babylon, especially Nick’s flophouse, the grave into which Venetia is lowered, and the human body itself, which contains and in many cases entraps the spirit. In their concerns with their corporeal selves, most of these characters miss the important questions Nick poses throughout. Life, then, amounts to inhabiting one vast tenement, and the point is never escape, but how one chooses to live that life.
With his next novel, Alley Jaggers, West moved even further into depicting a consciousness at odds with the rest of the world. Alley is as compelling a narrator as Lazarus or Nick, and like them he speaks in a language that is distinct and unique, an idiom that oddly combines Irish brogue, Midlands accent, and personal argot.
Alley is a profoundly frustrated little man who realizes that he is unfulfilled by his job and marriage but who has no idea how to remedy his situation. He spends his most satisfying moments dreaming of horses and the elaborate names owners concoct for them and creating airplanes in his attic retreat. Alley wants desperately to make an impression of some kind, and one of his creations, an androgynous, semihuman form emitting a silent scream, both intrigues his fellow workers and stands as an effigy of his own condition.
Eventually his boredom and frustration explode into violence when he accidentally kills a young woman during an unsuccessful sexual tryst. In fear and confusion, he wraps her body in plaster and makes a companion for his own statue. When the police inevitably discover the body, Alley has finally and inadvertently stumbled into prominence: In the police he finds his first willing audience in years.
West’s purpose here is far more sophisticated than the old cliché of the criminal as artist or as misunderstood noble creature. Instead, Alley represents the alienated individual, the small person cut off from any meaningful existence who struggles in hopeless confusion to make his life somehow mean something. Alley is locked in the prison of himself, both convict and jailer at once, and remains in fundamental confusion about what to do. Nevertheless, his most vital moments are spent in his imagination, which is infinitely more extravagant and vital than his quotidian existence.
I’m Expecting to Live Quite Soon
The second novel in the Jaggers trilogy, I’m Expecting to Live Quite Soon, represents an entirely different turn in West’s career. Here he not only shifts his attention from Alley to his much maligned wife, Dot, but also creates a more controlled, straightforward type ofnarrative. The real daring in this work comes in West’s attempt to enter the consciousness of a woman, to take the same world of the first novel and shift the perspective to see through the eyes of another member of the family.
Where Alley was frustrated and irresponsible to anyone outside himself, Dot lives a life of devotion and caring: attending to Alley’s irascible mother, ministering to her dying father in a nursing home, and visiting Alley in the mental hospital. Like Alley, she needs a release from boredom and conventionality, which eventually she achieves through immersion in her sensual self. The measure of her change can be seen in her eventual decision to throw over her old life and run away to Birmingham with Jimsmith Williams, a black bus driver.
Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas
Bela Lugosi’s White Christmas, the final volume in the trilogy, finds Alley (now referred to as AJ) in analysis with Dr. Withington (With) in a state institution. Who is counseling whom becomes vague as With is drawn increasingly into AJ’s fractured mind, and the two eventually reverse roles, thus effecting AJ’s temporary freedom and With’s incarceration.
More than any of the previous novels, this one dramatically stakes its claim to stylistic and linguistic experimentation. Attempting to enter AJ’s mind as fully as possible, West fashions one of his densest, most verbally complex fictions. While the reader is often at a loss to understand the exact meaning of many passages, what one does comprehend is AJ’s indefatigable desire to experience as much as he can as quickly as he can. The result is criminal melee with AJ commandeering a bulldozer and digging up graves in search of his dead father, threatening customers in a bar, sodomizing and murdering a cow, covering himself with the animal’s blood and sawdust, and starting a fire in a factory near his mother’s home.
AJ’s immersion in his own mind becomes so complete that, like a Beckett character, he reaches a state of almost total silence by the end of the novel. Once again, West examines the line between madness and sanity, originality and convention, but like all of his fictions, the work is no polemic; AJ is neither saint nor hopelessly...
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