Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Paul West, Caliban's Filibuster (1971)

God, that title! Whatever else you may say about this book, it doesn't get much better than this, titlewise. Damn.

West (1930-2015) was a prolific novelist. His books are inconsistently in-print; some have been reprinted in recent years, and others remain resolutely out-of. This particular title was published by this great small press I discovered called Verbivoracious, that's devoted to publishing mainly reprints of avant-garde and experimental fiction that lacks the commercial wherewithal to remain available on economic grounds. So a (much) smaller Dalkey Archive with a more limited focus. They've reprinted all kinds of cool stuff that I'd like to explore. Earlier this year, they reprinted The Exagggerations of Peter Prince, which--when I read it, I expressed surprise hadn't happened already. Though I note that their version appears to be in a normal rectangular format, which makes one wonder--given how much that book relied on its square shape for so much of its typographical devilment, it's hard to see how this works. Anyway. I should probably shut up. It's not very disciplined of me to have inserted this barely-relevant tangent in this review. But I did!  I think in a review of this--of all books--a lack of discipline can be forgiven and is in fact thematically relevant.

So...what's this book about? Well, I can summarize it, sort of, but...well. So our protagonist wants to be a great novelist, but instead he's a hack screenwriter working with a large, sleazy producer named Sammy Zeuss on exploitation movies. They are accompanied by a z-grade actor, McAndrew. I surmise that the protagonist is putatively named "Caliban" because he sees himself as dirty and degraded with Zeuss as a Prospero-like character, forcing him to do his will. In any case, these three are on their way on a transpacific flight to Japan to make a movie called Geisha from Venus, and as they travel, Caliban has antagonistic dialogues with his unconscious and--the meat of the book--engages in a series of long, bizarre fantasies ("Filibusters," we might say) about escape, casting McAndrew as himself. Of these there are three: one, where he's a fantastically rich tycoon; one where he's a brilliant professor; and one where he's some kind of colonialist witch doctor. These, we can presume, represent his own fantasies for himself: transcendent, wealth, intellect, and finally magic.

So that sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? Well, probably not, but in fact, it's significantly less straightforward than that. These filibusters of his are incredibly extravagent, bizarre fantasias, where much of the time it's pretty darned hard to say what the heck is going on. I was strongly reminded of Gilbert Sorrentino in parts, in that a lot of it is substantially hermetic and more in love with language than concerned with anything so bourgeois as concrete meaning. The book includes an interview with the author by George Plimpton which clarifies a lot of the themes, but if reading a book where you're inevitably going to be spending ninety percent of the time in one level of bafflement or another bothers you, this definitely isn't something you'll be interested in in any case. That's not me, though, and I liked it a lot. Is it self-indulgent? Yeah, probably, but if you don't push things past their breaking point, you'll never know how far you can go (that's good when it comes to novels; less so when it comes to republican evil). I can't guarantee I'll read more of West's ouevre...but I can't guarantee I won't, either.


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