The following is an excerpt from Paul West’s contribution to Conjunctions:20.
You begin to recognize what it is that runs through everything you do, what continues even at your most distracted: The Novel. You write it to figure out what the darned thing is, and the result is a self-defining enigma. As soon as you’ve come up with your definition, have added it to the sum of novelness—summa fabulissima—the notion of the novel has changed. So you never know what you’re doing, not quite; but you do know that you constantly entertain the yearning to peer long and deep, getting down what it feels like to be all sorts and conditions of humans, not committed to any formula for the novel, but to the energies that shake it into being: the lunge, the saunter, the squint, the eavesdrop, the auscultation, the booby trap. Perhaps the novel is like plastic explosive, taking safely any shape you give it, but sensitive to spark.
What are you doing? I often wonder that as I accumulate pages, and I answer myself that I am writing prose on the occasion of a field full of folk. The novel is an amplified story, yes, but also a percussive meditation, a dithyramb about how it feels to be somebody, a contingency sample of the All. The novel is a camel dragged through the eye of a needle, a toboggan made of words sent careening over the brow of a hill to see what happens to it, a stent fixed into a blood vessel to catch cruising embolisms. I can think of any number of metaphors that satisfy me for half a minute. The novelist is someone who makes a pantomime out of the conversation the mind has with itself. The result is a deponent verb: active in meaning, but passive in form. The reader sits as still as the novelist or composer, unless the novelist be reading aloud, which I suspect the novelist of our 1990s should perhaps not be doing. Perhaps the novel is following twelve-tone music, abstract expressionism; after all, you cannot expect intelligent prose-lovers to watch TV ad nauseam. What can you do when an editor in a well-known publishing house declares, as one did in 1991, “I can’t stand prose more complex than somebody just saying Hi.” The novel is what is new in fiction, what the old novel is evolving into. All I know is that such extremes as we find in Greek tragedy belong in the novel, perhaps to keep mundane and humdrum circumstances company, but scything through them as life scythes through us, dropping us once we have served our genetic purpose. Art cuts across that process, giving us something to justify ourselves by while being treated as mere vessels and conduits by the life force. The novel is no more dedicated to the planet than prose style is to endangered species. The novel is artificial, corresponds to nothing, and, if it has anything to say after all, says it to defy the Creator, saying, “You never thought of that, did you, Kyrie?”
About the novel there is something hubristic, arrogant; trumpeting imagination, praying to prose. Your novelist sits in a brightly lit room full of old newspapers, turning the read into something other. It can be accidental. Wholly dependent on you, like the light bulbs Russian readers have to carry to unlit libraries. Hey Prousto, we say: we/she are manques manques. We come from Detroitus. The novelist going out for a morning walk is terrifying: in one hand he/she grasps the leash-ends of a dozen small model planes whose petrol engines snarl and buzz as the noses leap up and down, yelping like huskies, eager to burst away in different directions. The novelist holds them at bay on their leashes, dreaming up new paragraphs while affronted neighbors gather. The novelist takes a trouvaille and makes a big production of it. Example: hanging on my wall, a souvenir de Paris, a TWA Expedite Baggage label, says the following, in copperplate ballpoint: “il ne sait pas ce qu’il manque”—he doesn’t know what’s missing. I never lock my bag. Hence the comment. I can never find the key. The French crack is a profound remark, whether it means “he doesn’t know what he’s lost” or “he doesn’t know what else he could have.” I could make a novel out of that, and one day probably will. Not far from this house lives a literato with a condom collection; my plumber told me about it, and I wonder what on earth you do with such a thing. Extrapolation of such a trouvaille would be a delight. Am I giving anything away? No, my version would never be yours. Blood arrives on the stickum of an envelope’s flap, and I guess at the cut lip, the sudden sound that prompted the flinch in the licker. Off we go again, speculating. A lovely Italianate girl at a nearby airport has billiard table legs; today, as I pass by her counter, I see she has both wrists in plaster casts. Are her legs dragging her downward, on steps, say? Not much, it’s a beginning, anyway, and the seething commotion of disparate phenomena begins to come together in a magic carpet whose weave is tangential. I keep by me, usually written on hotel paper, hundreds of little observations, ringed in ink, and I glue the sheets together as if making a sail, sometimes having a dozen of them joined side to side. When I use an item I scribble through it, and in reaching it I eye scores of others. Here, on this homemade cloth of gold, I shuffle microcosms, wondering which of them are novels, which of them four-word phrases, which of them inexhaustible objects of contemplation, as for instance “celibate gusto,” which I sometimes use as a teaching example. The phrase just came to me one day, hopped up on to the page to be used. And it was. One day soon a sentence will begin “No stranger to Cleveland and the Midwest,” once I have the rest of it. I keep wanting to write about the peanut fart you get when you open those silver-foil bags the airlines give you: bulging they come, vented they sag. We novelists put the world together, as the old symbolists used to do. Sumballein means “throw together,” either a thing and its word, or a human and its deity.
Is fonseca a dry fountain? Was Nakshidid an ornament of the heart? Whose legs move in the air while he/she contemplates a headstone? Someone sees even in the face of joy a quivering, a quavering, a desire not to die, and so feels incurably sorry for everybody.
Some ideas for novels lie hidden for years, twitched into action by a newspaper story or a song sung on radio. The novel I think I am going to call The Tent of Orange Mist came to life when I read that certain Korean women, of ripe years, were filing suit against the Japanese government for forcing them into prostitution in World War Two. The creation of brothels full of such women, the Japanese argued, would deter their troops from raping local women during the rape of Asia. Historians place the number of such women at 100,000 to 200,000. The Japanese chief cabinet secretary said his government had ruled out hearings at which the first group of Korean women could testify—such hearings might violate the privacy of other victims. The striking fact in all this was the price list: one yen for a Chinese woman, one and a half for a Korean woman, two for a Japanese woman.
So this is another historical impersonation, the type of novel I thought I had abandoned, after several exercises in the mode. Clearly it has not abandoned me. It has been more than interesting to investigate Japanese sexual practices, some of which appear in the novel. The Tent in the title is the brothel’s name. In my first draft, I used the city of Nanking, infamously raped in 1937, but change it here to Shanghai (also raped and plundered) for the sake of the double entendre, the allegorical touch. This novel belongs, I think, with Rat Man of Paris, being about civilians being taken prisoners of war without any of the rights traditionally assigned to POWs. The book’s epigraph draws attention to this. I should add that writing this book has lured me into the subtleties and sorceries of the Chinese and Japanese languages, from which maze I may never emerge, at least no longer speaking English.