Paul West West, Paul (Vol. 14) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

West, Paul 1930–

A novelist, critic, poet, teacher, essayist, and short story writer, West is an Englishman now living in America. He became known for the zany inventiveness of the Alley Jaggers novels; but it is Words for a Deaf Daughter that reveals his essential optimism. (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-16, rev. ed.)

Carl Sagan

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul West's Gala … is a kind of sequel to his much acclaimed and extraordinarily sensitive Words for a Deaf Daughter, a nonfiction work about his brain-injured child. Gala is a kind of wish fulfillment of a hoped-for but unrealized summer visit by his daughter. It is notable for many reasons, one of which is its rich use of scientific facts and metaphor in the development of the story. Major ideas in astronomy and in the genetic code are woven skillfully into the text both overtly and subtly…. (p. 28)

Carl Sagan, "Carl Sagan on Science," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 175, No. 21, November 20, 1976, pp. 26-30.

Walton Beacham

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Paul West is probably tired of being called an "intelligent writer," and finding himself compared to Anthony Burgess and Vladimir Nabokov book after book…. Worse, Paul West is probably tired of being categorized as an English writer and set in the tradition of those he admires: D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster….

Paul West is a complicated man—his books almost as complex—full of enormous energy which he has somehow never managed to unleash, although his works are impressive and the list of them nearly as long as those of the writers he admires….

[If] we, as readers, are ever to understand and appreciate West, as we finally learned to appreciate Burgess and Nabokov after so many embarrassing misperceptions, then we must establish how he uses the mind, through metaphor, to impose order on a disordered universe.

In his critical essays, West says that metaphor is the means by which the mind can search for relationships which will settle the heart, and he proposes an intriguing premise for art. Modern man's inclination, West says, is to ask, "why is there chaos in life?" when the question should be, "why is there any order at all?"… West offers as a working axiom that we cannot assume order as a means of questioning disorder, except as the mind is capable of imposing metaphor, and it is the mind that so troubles West and haunts his books.

In Words for a Deaf Daughter, one of the most difficult matters for West to accept is that Mandy is not only stone deaf but that she may also be brain damaged. For years the parents sustain hope that Mandy's difficulties with life are a result of her hearing defect, and much of the sympathy and emotion of Mandy's story comes when the parents, having finally learned that their daughter does not possess normal intelligence, are able to allow Mandy her own world and to accept it as if it were theirs. (p. 21)

In all his imaginative books from The Snow Leopard (poems), to the trilogy, to Colonel Mint (novel), West establishes a world in which the competition between structure and disorder drives man deeper into himself, so that if he ever emerges, it is as a creature who is frantic to control those forces larger than himself. He cries against the cosmos in defiance of his subservience, and struggles to establish order over the chaos as proof of his autonomy.

No wonder, then, that with all this behind him West feels compelled to try to release himself from his daughter by exploring the universe with her. He is like a god, who having formed an imperfect creation must diminish his responsibility by giving his creature his own powers and freedom. Gala, says West in the preface, is a kind of wish fulfillment, by which he means that he can establish through imagination a relationship with his daughter that is impossible in real life. Gala is a "fictional sequel" to Words for a Deaf Daughter—it is Mandy come home at age 14 from her special school in England for a two-week reunion with her father. "Gala" means celebration; it means Galatea; it means galaxy, but it is much more. The novel attempts to impose order on two lives by reducing the universe to Mandy's level of understanding and making her its master. (pp. 21-2)

Mandy's fictional name...

(The entire section is 1374 words.)

J. D. O'Hara

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

A gala is a festive celebration, an abnormal interruption in life's routine. Gala is also Greek for milk, and thence the source of those astronomical splashes the galaxies, especially our own Milky Way. Milk is also linked to our infancy and hence our origins, genetic and familial. Linked so to life at its personal origin and its widest impersonal extension, milk is too valuable to treat lightly, yet we must not cry over it spilt.

Such observations are brought home to our business and bosom by [Gala]. Its narrator is the father of a 14-year-old girl nicknamed Milk…. Milk is exuberant, amusing, and lovely….

Milk is also hopelessly retarded, brain-damaged from birth, and almost completely deaf…. [In] this fictional sequel to his biographical Words for a Deaf Daughter novelist and father Paul West engages in a heroic endeavor to come to terms with the fact of Milk's flawed existence. His attempt encompasses a wide range of extravagant colors, sights, and events with which he fills up Milk's mind. It also includes his survey of a universe of abnormalities, a totality of surds in which our reasonable normality looks no less deviant than the grotesque facts of physical existence….

[We] are put continually in Milk's charming, frightening, heartrending presence; we are reminded of the continuous strain of caring for a loved and potentially explosive mind …; we are always aware,...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"Eloquence is variety," a character says toward the end of "Gala," and if the equation is true then this autobiographical novel is wildly eloquent. Paul West … has a style as full of exotic ingredients as God's bouillabaisse and, in its references to nature, as comprehensive as Noah's inventory….

[If] these pages were printed in stanzas and with quirky line-breaks, they could easily pass for verse of a very high order….

Paul West [invents] … startling, dazzling meditations. His mind traveling in a comet's path, he intersects the fixed orbits of other people's preoccupations. He muses on history, biology, philosophy, literature, music, love, London, New York (which he describes as "tonic, lush, optional"), religion, divorce, anthropology. He has thrown a mental party for his readers—a gala, a festivity that links two human beings to the constellations.

Edmund White, "God's Bouillabaisse," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1977 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 3, 1977, p. 13.

Jay L. Halio

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Centered mostly on a minuscule geographical area … and for a finite period of time, Gala succeeds in establishing the enormous perspective of man in the universe—perspective, that is, not place, although place helps provide the perspective, of course. Deulius constantly raises questions, often evoked by trying to make sense out of his daughter's congenital birth defect. Bowled over by his first good look at the Milky Way, and repeatedly amazed by it afterward, "What," he asks, "am I to make of that chunk of the universe in the context of Milk herself?" He can find no answer, and probably there is none, yet he continues to engage in "interrogative speculation." "Bold questions, yet somehow always askew or ill defined, come and go in my mind like sharks which cannot stop." Still the reunion is an unexpected success, far better than he dared hope. And the end is managed with lightness, humor, and poignancy. The interrogative speculation will continue, as the short epilogue indicates; much is learned, more is left to learn. (pp. 254-55)

Jay L. Halio, "Persons Placed and Displaced," in The Southern Review (copyright, 1979, by Jay L. Halio), Vol. 15, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 250-56.∗