American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

OUT OF MY DEPTHS: A SWIMMER IN THE UNIVERSE (1983). Following the tradition of early American colonizers who struggle to conquer a new and wealthy land of freedom, Paul West (1930-?) offers in this book a first-person narrative meditation in which the aim is to conquer the whole universe. The protagonist, presumably West himself, has been for more than thirty years trying to learn how to swim. Eventually, he succeeds. Swimming in the book is a metaphor for apprehending life and death; the complete narration becomes an allegory for human existence.

As Edgar Allan Poe* had in Eureka (1847), West in Out of My Depths has written a prose poem that joins old and new literary, philosophic, and scientific orientations. West’s expansive novel echoes Homer’s Odyssey in the ninth-century b.c., Galileo Galilei’s Discourse on Things That Float (1612), Henry David Thoreau’s* Walden (1854), Samuel Beckett’s Molloy (1951), and Jacques Derrida’s more contemporary deconstructionism, among other works.

West presents his self-contemplation in five chapters. “Sea Fever,” the first, shows his desperation at being unable to swim and proposes that the reader take a trip into the depths of the mind. “A Trough in Time,” the second chapter, is the beginning of the journey; here the protagonist learns how to float and focuses attention on the important aspects of existence. Chapters 3 and 4, “Old-Style Backstroke” and “Breaststroke to Dive,” represent the first stages of acquiring the ability to swim as well as seizing an awareness about life and death. In “My Tutor Shows Me How,” which closes the book, the narrator finally comprehends natural order and becomes a true “swimmer in the universe.”

Margarita Rigal-Aragon