Thursday, May 1, 2008

In Praise of Literary Heroism

The Shadow Factory by Paul West.

“Can you think without words?” Paul West, a playful, prolific, and erudite master writer, was forced to contemplate this paradox in the wake of a massive stroke. The author of many remarkable and diverse novels, including The Immensity of the Here and Now, Cheops, and Terrestrials, and a string of vivid memoirs, West was already hospitalized for a drastic kidney infection when he was struck down and hurled into the void of global aphasia. His right arm was paralyzed. He could barely swallow. He could not speak. After months of heroic effort, he uttered his first complete sentence, “I speak good coffee.” His doctors were adamant: he would never write again. But over the years, West has overcome adversity in many forms. Persistent, ardent, witty, life-loving, deeply curious, and aided and abetted by his indefatigable, brilliant, and loving wife, the writer Diane Ackerman, he proved the good doctors wrong, regaining his great facility with language, and writing this astonishing work, the first aphasic memoir. A dispatch from the “shadow factory” of an abruptly silenced inner realm in which a radiant mind struggles to burn through dark matter.

West was determined “to be as sentient an observer as possible” even in this frightening, wordless state, and so he was. And in this philosophical, positive, and dream-like chronicle, a work that booms like Shakespeare and clicks like Beckett, West describes the lightning strike that changed everything, the voices he heard, and the slight alterations in sensation that gave him hope. As he ponders the nature of muteness, the solace of reason, and the maddening gap between thought and speech, he does not dwell on the fear, anger, and “silent frustration” engendered by his ordeal, but instead discerns an eerie beauty in his journey from the dim “languageless wasteland” into the full sun of life and the music of words, glorious words. “We live, most of us, in a world of dumb recalcitrance, saved occasionally by inspired seers.” West is just such a being. We all benefit from his valor and artistry. Watch for his next novel.

No comments: