The following is excerpted from Manifesto: Maximalist Expressionism, or “Shut/-/Up(!) Fiction”.
In his afterword to Paul West’s novel Tenement of Clay, critic Bill Marx quotes West on the nature of his narratives (what Marx refers to, somewhat irritatingly, as West’s “streams of dreams”). These narratives, West said, “…which appear to be the voices of those characters, are their covert, clandestine, underground, interior voices, not the voices they use to talk to other people with.” It’s a notion that impressed me greatly and which, I believe, ties in with T.S. Eliot’s comment about prose “that is altogether alive.”* These interior voices allow the writer to take many liberties. Her narrators and characters can become engaging phrase-makers, indulge in idiosyncratic distortions, wander into tangents that, on the surface, appear to have nothing to do with the “work” of the book, but by which, nonetheless, they reveal themselves. Expressionistic, I suppose, the use and juxtaposition of these verbal renderings of consciousness results, I would argue, in a prose that is indeed “altogether alive,” and in characters much more immediate than those rendered in the prose of the “competent newspaper writer or government official.”
The old cliché about fiction is that you have to lie to tell the truth. I’ll buy it, but I’ll add that to achieve characters who will strike the reader as “real” and “alive” you have to distort reality by accessing that interior voice about which West speaks. To do so is to invest your characters with the stuff of personality, all that mental bric-a-brac that make us the complex animals we are. The reader, it seems to me, takes in all this stuff and becomes interested in the mind that can conceive of a “peanut butter-and-banana sandwich, furry with the psychedelia of exotic molds,” of the “bitter dolor” on a nun’s breath. For me, there is a clear and direct link between this “move to the interior” on the part of a writer and the successful rendering of his characters.
*T.S. Eliot, from his introduction to Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood:
I do not want to suggest that the distinction of the book is primarily verbal, and still less that the astonishing language covers a vacuity of content. Unless the term “novel” has become too debased to apply, and if it means a book in which living characters are created and shown in significant relationship, this book is a novel. And I do not mean that Miss Barnes’s style is “poetic prose.” But I do mean that most contemporary novels are not really “written.” They obtain what reality they have largely from an accurate rendering of noises that human beings currently make in their daily simple needs of communication; and what part of a novel is not composed of these noises consists of a prose which is no more alive than that of a competent newspaper writer or government official.