The Universe, and Other Fictions by Paul West

About Paul West: “Paul West (February 23, 1930) was an English-born novelist, literary historian and poet, the author of 24 novels, who lived in America since the early 1960s. He resided in upstate New York with his wife, the writer, poet and well-known naturalist Diane Ackerman, until his death in 2015. Paul, still remembered with affection by his old colleagues and friends in England as a big, jolly man, was born in Eckington, which is near (and now considered a part of) Sheffield in South Yorkshire, but was during West’s childhood a Derbyshire village associated with the famous literary Sitwells of Renishaw.”

“When a story has been swallowed, it is home and true. Fictitious planets can have real moons.”

To compare, DFW’s Oblivion and Joseph McElroy’s Night Soul are truly denser collections than West’s, even though some of the stories in this collection could benefit from a reread. And but so this is a phenomenal if (surprise, surprise) uneven collection of 18 stories with humor and wit and darkness. My favorite stories were literary science fiction or fantasy, as it were. Stories that could be the mythologies for our modern age, the way they fictionalize science with anthropomorphism and other traditional tics.

“Life With Atlas” features the dialogue of an ancient Greek vase depiction of Atlas that seems to contain a piece of his consciousness when in fact he really is hefting not just the earth but the entire Milky Way. There is the philhellenism that one can find in certain stories in Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse. But there is also our modern view of the cosmos, including black holes and quasars. One of Atlas’ daughters (who are later sentenced to become the stars of the Pleiades ) soothes his perpetual exertion by rubbing parts of his massive face. “She’d even, once a month, clean up my back; I mean squeeze out the black holes, clean out the pores. I was mostly accumulated cosmic dust, I guess. Time was I never knew where my back ended and space began, so I guess it’s no miracle I was pitted with tiny craters where shrunken stars of almost incalculable gravity stuck and stayed put, all the time getting smaller and heavier, black to the point of invisibility.”

“Tan Salaam” is about an African stylite perched atop a pile of elephant feces and while the immediate significance behind the story escapes me, I still enjoyed it.

“How to Marry a Hummingbird” is a slice-of-life story in the vein of John Updike so it’s not very interesting on the whole.

“The Sun in Heat” is a story that could fit within Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics and is narrated by the sun who is horny and the victim of unrequited love. Not for a human or another star but for a galaxy named M 20, or, as he calls her, “Trif (for Trifid), envying the phallic telescopes on Earth, especially Flagstaff and vile-named Lick, which nightly preserved her obscenest poses on cold color film.”

“Brain Cell 9,999,999,999” is another powerhouse story and is narrated from the point of view of a brain cell in none other than Shakespeare’s skull. It’s even more clever than you might think and elucidates both neuronal anatomy/mechanics and a certain controversy regarding one of Shakespeare’s lines. Here’s a taste: “I inhabit an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always meant to be ‘meaningful,’ though not commercial, am not in trade, am not obliged to deliver the goods. So the fault, if fault there be, lies with another part of the loom—the motoric switches no doubt—as well as with mine hosts’ own sloven nature.”

“The Basement of Kilimanjaro” is a methodical story with prose and concepts that reminded me of Don DeLillo’s obsessions. It’s about a journalist or representative of the U.S. escorted by a ‘Handy Man’ (named after the species of human) as he visits a pseudo-secret Russian something. And that’s the point, the something could be nothing or could be anything. It speaks to our inability to be content with not knowing and our compulsion to rather believe in something, even if it’s ridiculous, than accept the Void.

“Those Pearls His Eyes” is about a physicist who looks at a total eclipse and finds that his vision is slowly transformed, enhanced in its ability to zoom into the realm of the microscopic, to the point of insanity. Wonderful sort of Nabokovian synesthetic descriptions of what it might be like to have this tragic power.

“Occupied by a Through Passenger” is another slice-of-life story, something you might find in the New Yorker, for example, but it did have a palpable sadness to it.

“Sinbad’s Head” is about a book, by no means unique, that ostensibly kills its readers. No, this isn’t Stephen King. There is much more going on here than mere ‘entertainment.’

“The Universe, And Other Fictions” was another Cosmicomic-esque tale but was missing something that I can’t quite figure out. It was essentially about the two personalities the universe might have if it were steady-state or expanding/contracting eternally. Interesting but ultimately unfulfilling.

Overall, this collection is worthy of your time, if not just for the few high-soaring ones of the bunch. Perhaps in another universe this wrongfully neglected collection is read more widely.

Fun facts: Not only does this collection have a blurb from Joseph McElroy, but the jacket artwork is credited to one David Lynch. Is it the Lynch? I think so…looks like his art style. And someone on Goodreads says that Carl Sagan was a West fan. All cool stuff. And an essay by Paul West, titled “In Defense of Purple Prose,” demonstrates that West’s heart was in the right place. As a writer, I found myself warmed by a feeling of communion while reading it. Here is a quote:

“Of course, purple is not only highly colored prose. It is the world written up, intensified and made pleasurably palpable, not only to suggest the impetuous abundance of Creation, but also to add to it by showing – showing off – the expansive power of the mind itself, its unique knack for making itself at home among trees, dawns, viruses, and then turning them into something else: a word, a daub, a sonata. The impulse here is to make everything larger than life, almost to overrespond, maybe because, habituated to life written down, in both senses, we become inured and have to be awakened with something almost intolerably vivid.”

I very much look forward to reading his novels.

Editor’s note: The aim of Invisible Books is to shine a light on wrongly neglected and forgotten books and their authors. To help bring more attention to these works of art, please share this article on social media.

George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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