Jack’s Naughty Bits: Paul West, Portable People

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Jack's Naughty Bits

a phrase bandied about in philosophy classrooms that gives me enormous pleasure:
the problem of other minds. Much as I would like these words to refer to the irremovable-thorn-in-the-side
fact that other people have ideas and opinions of their own (why?, I ask,
why?), the phrase is actually used to talk about the fact that neither Descartes, nor Russell
nor anybody else has been able to prove with certainty that there are intelligences beyond
their own. The upshot is that the only consciousness you can attest to is yours, and all else
could be a hallucination, an error, a fabrication (to this, however, my response was
always, If I was cooking this whole thing up, there would be a lot more free parking).


In writing, of course, the phrase could be adapted quite readily to speak to the difficulty of
creating characters that aren’t mere extensions of the author. Not surprisingly, the
protagonists in my early stories were chaps rather like myself — lonely, emotionally stunted
ne’er-do-wells who talked a lot better than they listened. Only later did I even dare to try to
generate characters from my own imagination. And even those, as it turned out,
tended to be drawn from some distant corner of my self. We bear a lot of people within us,
and to be a decent fiction writer you end up seeking out even the Rhode Island delegates
from the Congress of Identity.


It is the mark of a truly gifted writer to be able to go beyond this. Not only must they enter
into the minds of others, they have to make the minds themselves. Paul West takes this
challenge to an extreme in his “novel” Portable People, a collection of channeled
voices from the living, and the long- and recently-dead, with characters as diverse as
Imelda Marcos and Lord Byron’s doctor. West’s gift is dazzling: no two sound alike
(beyond suspiciously prodigious vocabularies), and, what’s more, no two seem to share a
philosophical or ethical position. Each is a discrete human writ large on three pages or less.
So the scandal of a crotchety and mischievous Rodin (excerpted below) is
counterbalanced elsewhere by the proud and surgical Edith Sitwell or the consummately
disdainful Hermann Goering. West speaks more voices than the whispering winds.

* * *  

From Portable People by Paul West

Auguste Rodin

God’s dong, if such a thing can be, is a velvet hammer made of love that thumps the stars
home, where they belong, in the moist pleat of the empyrean. Surely He needs no goading
on, unlike myself, finger-dipping each and every cleft of every model, and all that a mere
preliminary to what goes on after the day’s work is done, and we twist the big key
clockwise. That is when I get my girls to tongue one another before my very eyes. It is
almost as if the sculpting is mere prelude to the venery. By midnight, they are all going
their ways, about their business, with Rodin syrup dribbling from them as they walk, like
molten marble. Those who pose for me must taste my will, upended like ducks on a pond.


When my Balzac, now, strides forth with upright phallus in his fist, from
behind he must be read as a giant lingam marching to India. I mean these
burly semblances to stun, my Lord, as when, for Becque and sundry
appreciative madams, I turn actor and behead with a sword the plaster
statues arranged in front of me. Those who cry out, in abuse, “Rodin is a
great big prick” are right. I am always and ever the policeman’s son,
neither peasant nor poet.


I receive on Sundays, as my copy of The Guide to the Pleasures of Paris
says, married to that carthorse, Rose, who gave me a son with a broken
brain, abandoned by Camille, who once adored me and now in the asylum
murmurs, “So this is what I get for all I did.” At least she, unlike my
Yankee heiress Claire, fat and daubed and drunk, never kept leaving the
dinner table to go and throw up, as now, or play her creaky gramophone
while my public sits around me, hearing me tell them yet again that it was
indeed I who stove in Isadora Duncan, pommeling that little ear-like hole
between her lively legs, and it was also I who, like the milkman
delivering, brought her weekly orgasm to little sad Gwen John in her rented
room. I snapped her like a wineglass stem, but made her coo all the same.


When I get Upstairs, His Nibs and I are going to go on such a masterful
rampage the angels will cry to be raped, neuter as they are, and none shall
contain us, we shall be so massive in our roistering, from the hand-gallop
to the common swyve, with our humpbacked fists banged deep into the soft
clay of eternity.

© Paul West