Wednesday, February 27, 2013


Paul West, author
An excerpt from Paul West's book The Invisible Riviera, forthcoming this spring from Onager Editions.

MURMURING SOMETHING ABOUT ICE CREAM, Light Lomax went outside to taste the already half-spent day. Dimly, I began to return to my theme of the night before, barbarously calculating the odds of a universe divided by the sum total of UFO’s, with neither quantity known nor even guessable. It was hopeless, and surely worth abandoning, but I relished dividing the odds by three: planets a swarm with life, planets where life no longer flourished, and planets inhospitable as bleached arid stars.

Strangely, it brought me a measure of self-esteem thus to divide things off. Something semi-precise where all was moving. Why so grateful, all of a sudden, for this piece of sublunary choplogic? I wrote it off as paddling in the deep throes of the universe for too long. It was the acme of mental fatigue, when the overtaxed brain gave up and cried for Mamma to remove the impossible conundrum of the previous night. Yet part of me, the disobedient side, liked fondling the universe in this way, doomed to solve nothing but yet intoxicated to mingle with the grand unknowables for half-an-hour before mental fatigue set in and the thrill of discovering anything lapsed into the old ignorance of before.

Try for half an hour, I thought, and then cancel. Why does it thrill me to waste time in this way? A mental itch, it all came back to the same insoluble: Why in the entire history of mankind had the UFO’s not been heard from even once? Boredom? Contempt? Bloody-mindedness? Massive patience? With what? Why persist with it further? Nothing else to do? Here my mind stopped. Nothing else to do? Strange to say, my mind may just have solved the enigma. Was it really the eureka of the whole thing? In the tradition of hurry up and wait forever? Time must have a stop after all. If so, why not this one? For an instant all thoughts of waiting for something vanished, replaced by an opaque ether, and oh the relief I felt thus to fall asleep with nothing to wake up for. Or to. Then it was gone. The old obligation to make sense of things returned with a vengeance, and I settled down to work on the impossible all over again, passionate to construct something where all was nothingness.

Five decades of this fol-de-rol had brought me nowhere, apart from the usual tokens of the trade, D. Litts, and other medals, but little else of what truly mattered. My mind gazed back to the old notion of nothing else to do, noting how ungraspable the concept was, except that in this case the emphasis was on nothing else, invoking a mass of discarded butterflies not worth chasing. My mind gave thanks for something to desire.

Still and all, the concept of nothing haunted me, the very notion of a universe so vast and yet so—untouchable. And if not, so blank. Something missing, I thought, my mind invaded by the preposterous, sudden thoughts of one life-teeming Earth among so many millions of suns. Only one, and look how much of a mess we had made of that. If this were all, creation was a dismal failure and worth keeping silent about from beginning to end. I paused in my quest and for once tasted the silence of things, the hiss of blank creation.

In a dream, I fudged up some breakfast (a couple of slices of rye bread and some antique cheese) to make who knew what impact on my stomach. Both rye and cheese had traveled with me all the way from Manhattan and I assumed Light Lomax had fared better leaving food to the mercies of the locals.

In one sense, I could go home again. I need not have come at all, or only half-way; it was not a matter of distance traveled so much as an impulse from the brain within. No, in truth, I had been obliged to travel to find that particular impulse to begin with. None of this cooled my unquenched alien ardor. I waited for Light Lomax to return.

“How many of them have you seen?”

“None. How many have you?”

“One, for half an hour.”

“Poor odds. Some have seen them daily,” commented Light, “all different. Those are the people you should be talking to.”

“Drop the whole matter, then.”

“Do you really want to discuss it?”

“No. I can see you’re not in the mood.”

“Mood has nothing to do with it. You’ve not assembled the evidence.”

“By my own lights, I have. Screw your evidence.”

“Screw yours.”

We had reached an impasse, not for the first time, and there was nothing to be done about it. I was adamant, Light Lomax was intractable. Perhaps, having come this far, we should have separated, never to speak again. Darwin and Christ had met, more or less, and disagreed. It was not the outcome I had been waiting for and neither of us would yield.

I thought back to my one personal UFO, its vast body turned toward me, like a giant of the sky arrived to consult one of the local astronomers. Rounded windows, pointed nose, no sound, its color a muted beige. How vivid, how resplendent. No sign of occupants. No movement. Then it had flown sideways, up and away, at incalculable speed. Never seen again, although dozens of friendlies had seen something similar and marveled. This was my UFO, by unnatural right, watching me, playing the waiting game.

On another front, during our vigil in Mongolia, there had been the willingness of the local women to make use of their bodies, as if we were visiting tax-inspectors or pedigree-obsessed mountebanks. Jolly, roly-poly, olive-skinned and of a fearsome body-odor, these doxies rolled in the hay with us to our heart’s content, obliging us this way and that with incongruous naiveté. We might have been a herd of horses or a convocation of orangutans for all the difference our human status made to them. To them we were as homunculi, fit for service, but nothing else, a species of local stag ripe for plucking now and then.

We drifted along with what they put on offer, dreading the day when the shutters went down and the doxies turned their attentions elsewhere. We became used to their perfunctory, absent-minded caresses, making of us draft animals with better things to think about.

Astonishing, really, this rough-and-ready sexuality contrasted with the high-strung desire and speculations we busied our minds with—despite the fundamental disagreement that divided us. There was something that bound our feeble clips to that sublunary desire. The smell of the byre, maybe, or the smell of an often poked finger into that or this aperture.

These ladies knew everything and found it boring and their constant silence during our times together only made them more ferocious, as if the pair of us were neighbor automatons, out for a spree. We plugged on, we plugged in, forgetting we were born to be disappointed and tucked in among other human corpses in the end.

So time passed in its funereal way, between tupping and astronomy, neither getting us very far except for my abiding—although recently arrived at—conviction that the UFO’s were waiting us out, eyes in the sky since the dark, Dark Ages. I could see myself among them, a successor to Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, who once had languished by his lens until his soul ached and the lovely hunk of rock swam into view, seen (by humans at least) for the first time.

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PAUL WEST is the author of 50 books. He has received awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Lannan Prize for Fiction and the Halperin-Kaminsky Prize. He was named a Literary Lion by the New York Public Library and a Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters by the French Government. He has also been a runner-up for the National Book Circle Award and the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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