Paul West: “So much fiction today is like mustard rubbed on the belly, take it or leave it.”
In some parts of the world, mustard rubs are as common as, say, cubes of transparent hunter green jello lodged in the throat, as common as a cliché about Brownian motion and antsy adolescents, as men of imagination among scholars. What happens, though, when mustard-belly-rubbing is the very base of excitement, above which almost anything goes, and the writer takes the world and recreates it as the semi-god that he is, reveling in his inability to be bored? The result: West’s fiction.
West’s phrases are incurably optimistic about the writer’s power to create something new; if not a totally new object, then certainly a new way to express it. His approach is modernist and expansive. He makes every sentence an occasion, skirts universals in favor microcosms, drives some readers batty. As one poor soul who shelled out good cash for a copy of West’s Master Class realized, this book about a fiction workshop (of all things) would not teach him to write the next winner of the National Book Award. He excoriated West for bloviated, egocentric, Latin-and-Greek-and-French-ridden verbosity. He was especially incensed that the hyperbolic writing in the book purported to be actual conversation from a fiction workshop. Those who have never met West but read the book might defend West’s tendency toward similes, literary references, toward the realization of metaphors, simply as an acceptable form of literary license. Of course, only someone who has been around West might tell you, “No, he really talks this way.” That’s precisely the sort of thing people used to say about Proust. “No, he speaks in really really long sentences that come together in the end.” An example from West, off the top of his head as he’s advising a student to cram so-called invisible words in the interstices of a sentence: “Faulkner will give you pages of dithyrambic humming, perhaps ungraphed, then clinch all that poly-racket with one physical ingot. After pages of rant he writes, in a para to itself, the simple adroit phrase I heard you. It’s as if all that went before is a big balloon of tendentious gas, against which he will pit his one little phrase. The effect is huge, I think, a cymbal tinkle after much Bruckner.” Spoken aloud with a teacher’s earnestness, the class hones in, brows furrowed. In writing, however, language seems more embarrassed. Such haughty, steamy, arrogance and pretentiousness, will surely drive our future National Book Award winner to seek a refund. Though he’ll forgive the same pretentious language if he hears it on HBO’s Deadwood series, amid guns, gambling, prostitutes, he will vomit if, god forbid, someone commits the dialogue of Deadwood to print. And it does little good to insist that this is just West being West. If the bookbuyer holds West in contempt for his purple brain, then he must find the company of geniuses who prefer to keep their ideas to themselves. Or else just admit there’s more comfort in mediocrity.
West’s maximal expression is rooted in a project that's lasted for a half-century.
In a recent controversy between West and J.M. Coetzee, West’s tendency to embellish history with purple flourishes came under Coetzee’s critical eye. In his book Elizabeth Costello, Coetzee uses his protagonist Costello to criticize what he sees as West’s fetishization of violence in the novel, The Very Rich Hours of Count von Stauffenberg, in which West reconstructs executions after a plot to kill Hitler. Coetzee’s Costello declares the book “obscene” and she repeats the word for its talismanic power to ward off so-called evil, to prevent the mind from venturing into history’s dark places. West’s depiction of the dingy execution room absolves the writer of responsibility to the truth (since very little about the executions remains in the record, other than a one paragraph description of the implements used); Costello states that West capitalizes on the gruesome killings (and indeed on the memory of the dead) with a flourish of description that draws attention to the writer’s considerable skills. Costello is concerned about the dignity of those who suffered death by torture, and the needlessness of describing a scene in exquisite detail when a summation of the historical record will do. Though Coetzee’s Costello realizes that the prohibition on dredging up the evil of the past may amount to censorship, she appeals to West at the level of ethics instead. A writer should not debauch his readers, he should uplift them. Indeed, literature itself should not be used to drag readers to the depths.
Costello says that absolute evil passes through us like electricity. We’re excited when reading ghoulish depictions, and it becomes a fetish, a sickness all the more debasing when the deaths depicted actually occurred. (I’ll note of course that Costello is a fictional construction, but the fact is, Coetzee delivered a similar critique of West’s book in an earlier essay.) The cellar of executions in 1944 should remain a forbidden place for writers, Costello asserts. West, by contrast, has been known to state that literature is meant to unfit us for society. Between the two views, fiction as society-building, fiction as a means of disturbance and chaos, a whole debate ensues among a great many other fiction writers.
By now, given the many theaters of cruelty audiences have been exposed to since Sade at least, the torturous theaters that predated Sade, there really is little need to rehash a discussion about art’s purest instincts. Nonetheless, it seems that in the world of reading at least, the literary novel is a hallowed object. How else to explain the response to Kathy Acker’s novels, censored in many countries, or to AM Homes’ End of Alice, and perhaps most tellingly, the arrest of JG Ballard’s British publisher? The publisher was brought to trial on charges of indecency. The publisher’s advocate put Ballard on the stand in defense of his client, and he asked him to defend against charges of obscenity. Ballard’s response startled him: “It is obscene.” It had not occurred to the advocate that Ballard would willingly and deliberately write something obscene. The text in question? “Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan,” written in 1968. By now, a writer who tries to disturb readers is simply treading on old ground. Hollywood, I suppose, excels at obscenity, and no last minute optimism detracts from an audience’s desire for gore. Television dramas depict a world of grit and chaos, which is in perfect juxtaposition to a 30-second commercial in which a soiled carpet turns spanky clean in seconds flat.
The difference for Coetzee, of course, is that the words in this particular novel are hot, as the reader conjures the scene of the executions. The words ask the reader to participate in the killings by reenlisting the executioner—step-by-step—as evil’s electricity courses through all those complicit in the book. One might begin to defend West from Coetzee’s criticism by noting that West regularly writes historical fictions, inserting all sorts of creative anachronisms, doing great violence to history, simply because—as he says—history makes for great ransackable material. West wants to create the “total novel”—a phrase he borrows from Mario Vargas Llosa—where anything can fall into the book, unrespectable things like superstition, or taboos. “It’s all available.” Indeed, the fiction writer better than anyone explores the dark areas of history, as the lack of specific information about an event marks the space for writing. As West states, “In the mind of the proprietor, all things happen at once.” The proprietor is the owner of one particular vision of history, and his power in that dominion is omnipresent.
Which is not to say that West avoids an ethical response to Coetzee’s charge about debauched fictions. Not at all. West takes the argument about fiction’s debauchery much further than writers or artists interested in merely disturbing or unsettling the reader (throwing a cherry bomb, essentially, under the settled bottoms of readers in certitude). Rather, behind history’s most violent acts, West sees the ironic work of twisted artists, bad artists, aesthetes of the cruel, but artists all the same. The vein that runs through much of his fiction is that the imagination is not only the means for envisioning ourselves as other than we are (usually as better beings) but it also operates in retrograde. The painter Walter Sickert is fingered as one of the Jack the Ripper figures in West’s Women of Whitechapel, while in the novel Tent of Orange Mist, the Japanese soldiers gathered inside a brothel in Nanking partake in a highly ritualized, exquisite, teatime ceremony of coprophagy. The retching junior officers embarrass themselves in front of their superiors who are connoisseurs of the droppings of comfort women, able to discern spices, herbs and meat in the mix. The conceit, of course, is that men capable of raising the low depths to such ceremony are capable of aestheticizing all manner of behavior. Such is West’s response as well in the depictions of the executions of Hitler’s plotters. West seizes on the fact that a film was made of the executions, a film watched by Hitler and friends among bottles of old Cognac and the finest cigars. The film itself was shown to new recruits, though subsequently destroyed because of its effects on morale. Too strong for the average young Nazi, but hardly enough to make Hitler queasy. A description of the executioner’s dress, his implements and methods, reveals a deliberately chosen slow and painful hanging by piano wire. West elaborates a bit—the executioner smells of celery and mothballs—but the facts around the scene itself do not seem altogether incompatible with West’s depiction. He is certainly inside his line—even though at one point West insists the men were hung with hempen cord, not piano wire, and that thus the “official” history lied. There is all too much thought put into the execution, all too much enjoyment of the long excruciating deaths, too much cognac and cigars. West asserts that any discreet version of these events would be no less shocking than the full depiction, and worse, it would leave out the details which make all the difference when it comes to assessing evil or depravity. “The novelist must sample truth, if he can get it, or quit,” writes West. “To remove such events from history is to view a rosy world that may just not exist.” Going further, West wants to respond to “the downward swerve of [print] literary culture at large” by fashioning a response to “aesthetic decadence” based in the need for writers to exercise their freedoms ever more forcefully: “Not only picking up the stink of mothballs and celery from the executioner but also tracking him home to sausages and dumplings, cuddly kids and torpid Frau. And his habit of talking back to the newspaper. The split heels from diabetes. To pile on detail to summon down to earth the vision of complexity, of contraries, in which humans abound.”
Coetzee, however, bars the novelist from the torture chamber, precisely when the writer begins to revel in the quality of his imaginings. Artists risk becoming Sadists, Coetzee warns, and in this, West ironically agrees. This is precisely why West argues that writers should never censor and exclude: because they can be almost as sadistic as executioners. West writes, finally, that you “start out to denounce horror, yet in the end accept it for its own sake because it reveals the license of creative power. So long as men are vile, so art can be too, maybe even after.”
I’ve moved a long way from rubbing mustard on the belly. Mustard is what we ignore. Take it or leave it. Fiction, though, exercises powers sometimes beyond its control.