A GALA IS A festive celebration, and abnormal interruption in life's routine.
Gala s also Greek for milk, and thence the source of those astronomical splashes the galaxies, especially our own Milky Way. Milk is also linked to our infancy and hence our origins, genetic and familial. Linked so to life at its personal origin and its widest impersonal extention, milk is too valuable to treat lightly, yet we must not cry over it spilt.
Such observations are brought home to our business and bosom by Paul West's latest novel. Its narrator is the father of a 14-year-old girl nicknamed Milk, the daughter of a broken marriage, whose brief visit to her father is the subject of this painfully beautiful novel. Milk is exuberant, amusing, and lovely, and the narrator's descriptions of her evoke the essence of feminine childhood, as when after a long sleep Milk stumbles out of her bedroom: "She appears, a somnambulist Viking, her eyes almost concave with inertia, her legs flapping utidily."
With her father, whom she calls Yah, and his mistress Pi, Milk builds a model Milky Way in the basement before she is flown back to England and her mother. Mathematically pi is a constand surd and here the third point needed to determine a circle. Add weh (woe) to Yah and one has a grieving creator of child and universe. Yah's real name, Deulius, implies dole, grief.
Why all this fuss? Because lovely and amusing Milk is also hopelessly retarded, brain-damaged from birth, and almost completely deaf. Her being has been aborted by a slip in the transmission of the RNA genetic code, making her "Milk, whom the universe bungled into an unselfconscious surd." But her flaw has not lobotomized her sensitive, intelligent and loving father, and in this fictional sequel to his biographical Words for a Deaf Daughter novelist and father Paul West engages in a heroic endeavor to come to terms with the fact of Milk's flawed existence. His attempt encompasses a wide range of extravagant colors, sights, and events with which he fills up Milk's mind. It also includes his survey of a universe of abnormalities, a totality of surds in which our reasonable normality looks no less devaint than the grotesque facts of physical existence. From the port-wine birthmark across a stranger's face to Milk among the galaxies, West interweaves images of the abnormal and deformed out there in "the brash big unending inhuman self-centered helpless to-do, with which our minds go on shadow-boxing to no point . . . The least we can do is to muse on all that is not ourselves, the most is to see how accidental our presence is."
To move from the RNA molecule, 'the spiral alphabet the lords it over us, whatever else we think we are," to our (our!) 16-billion-year-old universe might be merely an amusing game of relativities. ("Some of the Hyades are coolish and red, maybe a thousand million years old. Milk is in her middle teens.") That the largest star is 2700 times the size of our sun, but tranparent, and that the brightest star is a million times brighter than our sun, but invisible, and that all this to-do from RNA to universe is meaningless and impossible to evaluate - such notions might be merely idly mind-expanding. But we are put continually in Milk's charming, frightening, heartrending presence; we are reminded of the continuous strain of caring for a loved and potentially explosive mind (after an absorbing session with the model galaxy the narrator notes: "Used up an hour, that did, but no more," even as he grieves over Milk's short stay), we are always aware, even during the story's most amusing and intriguing moments, that "part of the story of this book's story is the acid-on-the-nerves of writing it at all."
Luckily there is no way to compare pains, no way to know if Milk's predicament is worse even than her father's. We can never know how she feels; but we can all imagine how he feels, imagine what it is to be linked by love to such sorrow and affliction. And West spares us and himself nothing except self-pity. His narrator faces all the nightmares, even that of the police state in which the deformed are punished, even that ultimate pain in which the permanently maimed child is imagined as her perfected self, whole, witty, learned, and articulate. "(I known, I know, you've been waiting all your life for this conversation.")
At the visit's end the narrator is exhausted. You will be, too. But the getting there, in all its sadness, obsession, hysteria, eloquence, and even boredom, will have justified the fuss we make about the arts. This is a beautiful novel. Beauty is difficult.