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Mr. Difficult Jr.

In defense of William Gass's fiction

William H. Gass died on December 6, 2017, at the age of ninety-three. The ensuing tributes, appreciations, and encomiums all had a familiar ring to them, since for the last decade it has been the practice of critics to write about him as if he were already dead, or presently expected to die. It called to mind, the practice, Elizabeth Hardwick’s judgment of Nathanael West, that he “puts the critics in the position of a crusading doctor reviving the moribund.” Her assessment of West’s status as a writer is similarly apt: “It may be that [he] is not so much neglected as unread while more or less well known, a condition obscure and not subject to arithmetic.” Apt, perhaps, until last week, when Knopf published The William H. Gass Reader.

Although, if the publication of a new book was all that was required to secure for the man the kind of wide audience he deserves, readers have had ample opportunity to discover Gass’s work in the past ten years. After all, A Temple of Texts came out in 2006; it is as reader-friendly a collection of essays as any he’s ever published, filled as it is with pieces in praise of great authors, a master’s class on the masters—from Rabelais and Erasmus to Henry James and Gertrude Stein; his contemporaries Gaddis, Coover, Hawkes, and Elkin; and, of courses, Rilke, from whom Gass cribbed the whole project of praise in the first place (“What chance have you, in so many forms, / under each mask, to speak a true phrase? / —I praise.”). In the time since, Gass published, in order: Life Sentences, another book of essays; Middle C, a novel many critics positively gushed over because they managed to discern a plot; and Eyes, a collection of novellas and stories short enough to only slightly strain the attention span of the Internet generation. And yet, the larger audience never materialized: no new fan clubs set up web sites in the master’s honor (there is, after all these years, only one), there was no sudden revival of interest in the work of one of the greatest living American authors. The reviews that did appear, often far past the books’ publication dates, either had a perfunctory air or were written by some of Hardwick’s crusading doctors; in either case, often his essays and criticism were lionized at the expense of his fiction, a crime so common it might as well be law.

With joy or in anger, the reader discovers an author who saw fit to write an entire essay about the word “and.”

Will it be different this time, with this book? Probably not. But this is in part because the Reader has a different purpose than anything he has previously published. The book is organized into four main silos: a group of five essays with a more personal bent serve as an “Introduction”; these are followed by ten excerpts from his novels and five shorter pieces of fiction; then, under the heading “Artists” are fourteen essays about specific authors, along with an essay about Calvino’s Invisible Cities and two about evil, as if it, too, were an artist. Finally, the last section is simply titled “Theory,” and it includes fifteen essays containing Gass’s more generalized ideas about the composition of literature; a small sample of the essay titles offers some idea of this section’s scope: “The Concept of Character in Fiction”; “The Music of Prose”; “The Book as a Container of Consciousness”; “The Test of Time.” Within each silo there is no discernible order; the book is not chronologically arranged, so there is no impression of growth or change over time; if a reader were to page through this volume from one cover to the other, they might come away with the impression that the author began his career fully formed, like Athena, a god of wisdom sprung from the migraine of another, greater god wondering why Gertrude Stein is so damn good, and subsequently spent the rest of his life explaining the world to his readers.

On its face, then, the Reader is both a tribute to the long and varied career of William H. Gass, critic, philosophy professor, and writer of stories—a tribute that prematurely became a memorial—and a portrait the artist wishes to present to posterity. It seems clear that it was always destined for the library shelf, designed to lure a specific reader in, with its large size (at over nine hundred paperback pages, it weighs a little under three pounds) and its comprehensive collection; the kind of reader who shares Gass’s love for stalking the stacks for some worthy quarry. With joy or in anger, the reader might then page through this book to discover who the author is who saw fit to write an entire essay about the word “and.” On the other hand, because of a few significant omissions, and because of the way Gass’s other works have been cannibalized to produce this text, it reminds me of a kind of zoo or asylum: the work as a whole is meant for some high-minded study, but the inhabitants are nevertheless forlornly caged or rubber-roomed and kind of crazy.

Like any longstanding reader of Gass, I have my favorites, and so my quibbles about what failed to make the final cut should be taken for just that, and although there is much that I would add, there is little I’d subtract. But as disappointed as I am that one of my favorite stories, “Icicles,” which is about a lonely and incompetent real estate agent who, like nearly all of Gass’s protagonists, lives a deflected life, isn’t included, I think the book suffers for the omission of the revised and expanded preface of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. It is one of three pieces Gass published in which he analyzed his own fiction directly (“Finding a Form” is also omitted, but “Retrospection,” the most recently written of the three, serves as a kind of preface for the Reader as a whole) and beyond being the most beautifully written of them all, offers a glimpse of Gass as the author unknown, with no hope for audience or recognition, written as it was after his debut novel, Omensetter’s Luck, unexpectedly received critical acclaim. Part of why the piece is so disarming is he seems genuinely surprised about his success—and why wouldn’t he be? He had remained unpublished until his early forties.

These omissions are important only insofar as they affect the overall effect the book achieves, and to assess that we must assess the book’s goals. Although the collection could be viewed as just a vessel for a variety of works he published over the course of his career, each serving as a kind of data point on a chart, it would be essentially without value, for as Gass has stated, raw information has only ever been of importance to unthoughtful minds. “What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data’s in.” And so, the questions of what this Reader is, and what it seeks to do, are of paramount importance. I have no doubt it is a teaching tool, a book designed with the beginner in mind, but the beginner at what? As an introduction to and survey of the work of William H. Gass, it must be judged as a modest failure; but, as a kind of advanced Basal reader, those books once used to teach young American children how to read, it might be judged a modest success.

As I have gone through the books on my shelf hunting for missing favorites, it has occurred to me that some of my objections stem from the same sense of disquiet that briefly settles after a song on the radio fails to segue to the next song on its album; and so, as I thought about a better book of Gass’s essays that would execute the charge of teaching the novice reader what to look for and how to read, and I thought that “To a Young Friend Charged With Possession of the Classics” and “Influence” would be worthy inclusions, it occurred to me further that the better book already exists, and it is the book those essays appear in, and from which several others have been plucked to be included in the current collection: A Temple of Texts. That book illustrates why the good books are not just good but worth your time. Then again, the same could be said about his other collections of essays, as all of them are organized along similar lines—more pointed and personal works in the vanguard followed by essays on literary figures, with more general explorations of literary theory bringing up the rear—yet all of them better, if only because they have a clearer sense of purpose—to instruct, to correct common errors, to edify—whereas the selection in this book suffers for having as its proximate subject “the writing of William H. Gass.” That, and none of the other books of essays really have to wrestle with the fact of his fiction.

The way this book is constructed, with the more personal essays serving as an introduction to selections of Gass’s fiction, followed by a far more substantial offering of theory and criticism, seems to suggest an upside-down hierarchy of importance, where the great work he spent a lifetime on is offered up as mere context for the nonfiction, rather than the other way around. This is why the book must be considered a failure if it is meant to be a survey of his work: of the over nine hundred pages in this book, only about 270 are devoted to his fiction; of those 270, just thirty-eight are from his masterpiece, The Tunnel, which wends its way through more than six hundred pages of text.

To those who might counter that objection with, “He was old; excerpts take time and a discerning eye; who are you to judge his use of excerpts that have previously been published?” Well, fine, but what about including a bit more from Cartesian Sonata? “The Writing on the Wall,” which shows Gass at his most “metafictional,” starting as it does with the narrator constructing a character bit by bit, is the correct size for an excerpt and shows a side of Gass otherwise unseen in this collection; and what about “The Clairvoyant,” which shows that same character, now fully formed, old, and unhappily married, receiving signals and signs and sounds from objects all around her house?

All her senses were acute, but she could hear and see and feel most marvelously well: the tremor in her neighbor’s face, the scrape of cloud, the grumble of molasses, like her soul, folding from its bottle, the rattle of smoke in a pipe, and the squeak of a suede glove fingering a chair tassel like the startled outcry of a mouse.

Or what of “The Master of Secret Revenges,” which offers the unfamiliar Gass reader a better idea of his meaner side, and his humor; at the very least for Luther Penner, the master of the title, and the vision he has when he looks at his schoolmate and sees the kid’s soul, white but spangled by his crimes against Penner. Each of these stories could have been excerpted with little to no alteration. And yet, perhaps one of the most telling signs that the selection is woefully incomplete is that there is no section at all with the Reverend Jethro Furber, the repressed, sex-mad, fulminating preacher whose narrative both comprises the majority of Omensetter’s Luck and offers a glimmer of the style Gass would eventually adopt for The Tunnel.

What is most distressing about these omissions is not just that his fiction is underrepresented; it is that they seem to suggest that Gass, who compiled this book as he neared the end of his life, had become resigned to the fact that his greatest work would be ignored, and sought, finally, to give the general audience what they want. And so what we’re left with is a tombstone, beautifully inscribed but a tombstone nevertheless, for a writer whose larger legacy may be buried by the fickle winds of popular literary opinion.

It is important to point out just how peculiar Gass’s fiction is, and how entirely different it is from his criticism. While they may share some surface similarities—the love of lists, the profusion of metaphor (“I could swat away six and still write eight”), the reliance on patterned assonance and alliteration—there is a fundamental difference: in his nonfiction, Gass is only ever explaining his thinking; in his fiction, Gass attempts to create the mind that is engaged in the act of thinking. “A novel is a mind aware of a world,” he states—cutting against the contemporary mania for novels as worlds themselves—and his idea of a realism worth the name is not the text that offers a description of Dublin so accurate you might build it in miniature, but the text that brings Bloom’s interior life in line with our own daily experience; we do not wake up, buy breakfast, and then consider how to win back the affection of an adulterous wife; rather, we wake up, consider our failures, check our email, mull an odd dream, crave a cookie, hear a bell, pet a cat, buy a breakfast that reminds us of our mortality, then and only then do we think, “Oh God, my wife is cheating on me!” And that is the kind of realism he pursued and sought to refine in his fiction.

Reading a Gass essay is like getting in a cop car; you’re either along for the ride or you’re railing against the bars.

There are any number of examples in the Reader that could serve to illustrate this idea, as it animated all of his fiction, but one of my  favorite passages from Omensetter’s Luck, from the section titled “The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber,” is particularly illustrative. Pimber, a crabbed man in a loveless relationship, has become the reluctant landlord of the book’s eponymous enigma, Brackett Omensetter, a man so good, so guileless, that he recalls the unfallen Adam living as an animal might, with an animal’s happiness, and an animal’s naked vulnerability to the caprices of the natural world and his human neighbors. The fact of Omensetter’s existence has unsettled Pimber so much that he has entered a despair so deep it might as well be a well, and, here, in this passage, as he walks through the woods to collect Omensetter’s rent, he considers a solution to his predicament.

The path took Henry Pimber past the slag across the meadow creek, where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge and the trees of the separating wood began in rows as the lean road in his dream began, narrowing to nothing in the blank horizon, for train rails narrow behind anybody’s journey; and he named them as he passed them: elm, oak, hazel, larch, and chestnut tree, as though he might have been the fallen Adam passing them and calling out their soft familiar names, as though familiar names might make some friends for him by being spoken to the unfamiliar and unfriendly world which he was told had been his paradise. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been? For he had hated every day he’d lived. Ash, birch, maple. Every day he thought would last forever, and the night forever, and the dawn drag eternally another long and empty day to light forever; yet they sped away, the day, the night clicked past, as he walked by the creek by the hornbeam tree, the elders, the sorrels, cedars, and the fir; for as he named them, sounding their soft names in his lonely skull, the fire of fall was on them, and he named the days he’d lost. It was still sorrowful to die. Eternity, for them, had ended. And he would fall, when it came his time, like an unseen leaf, the bud that was the glory of his birth forgot before remembered. He named the aspen, beech, and willow and he said aloud the locust when he saw it leafless like a battlefield. In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?

What distinguishes this passage is the rhythm of its construction and the role language plays in defining the psychology of the character. I suppose one could make it through the first part of the first sentence without noticing the rhythm Gass is creating, but the image of the hornbeam is introduced at a pace as measured as a dirge—“where his only hornbeam hardened slowly in the southern shadow of the ridge”—and the slow and broad sounds of the repeated “o”—“meadow,” “slowly,” “shadow,” “rows,” “narrow,” “narrow”—give way to the mincing steps provided by the quick succession of “m” and “n” sounds—“he named them as he passed them . . . as though he might have been the fallen Adam”—shifting the sentence away from a view to the exterior that surrounds Pimber—the trees—to the interior of his lonely skull, and the theme of the passage: the fall imagery as evidence of decay, as evidence of the consequences of the Fall.

Gass has been accused of taking too much license with his love of lists, and a cursory reading of this passage—when read at speed, with only an eye for the bones of the matter—might lead a reader to say, “Boy, that’s a lot of trees.” (There are seventeen, by my count, including the lone hornbeam.) But there is more going on here than a lonely man walking alone through the woods in despair, taking cold comfort from saying the names of the trees as he passes them. Gass manages a crescendo of feeling, language, and image so that the text itself paints the image it describes, and the paragraph becomes a representation of the character’s movements even as it reveals the working of his mind.

The key to the passage lies in its coda—“In God’s name, when was that? When had that been?”—as it is designed to make your reading eye skip back and up, because one of the first tricks the paragraph pulls is to build on the idea that every passage through space necessarily connotes the passage of time—traveling from point A to point B necessarily means traveling from x start time to y end time—and contrasting the linear journeys of A to B and x to y with the meandering and recursive movements of the mind. A similar contrast exists between the common conception of reading as an essentially linear activity—we read, in English, left to right, line by line, leaving what we’ve read behind like an empty bottle thrown out of a moving car’s window—and reading as it really is—a bundle of fits and starts, backtrackings, reassessments, and reminders: Was the bottle really empty? What was the odd flavor in its dregs? What did that taste recall? Oh, I need to pee, why did I throw it away at all? This understanding of a sentence, a paragraph, or any block of text as a thing revisited even as it’s read is a hallmark of Gass’s writing style, and, consequently, everything he has written, and it offers a kind of justification for Gass’s insistent repetitions of words and sounds. The words and their variants are easy enough to spot by even the most unpracticed eye—“names,” “pass,” “familiar”—all the more noticeable as the bloodless rules of the writing of newspaper articles and opinion pieces revile repetition as if it were a disease—but it is the repetition of sounds that makes the passage swell with emotion and meaning.

Consider for a moment the decision to include the character’s full name at the beginning of this paragraph. The reader at this point knows the man’s name, and yet if you omit either “Henry” or “Pimber” and read the sentence again, the rhythm seems a little off. But if you omit the first name there is a different effect than if you omit the last, and the whole sentence seems to list toward the ending, because the elongated “e” at the end of Henry is crucial to the construction of the passage as a whole. There are, to add to the count, forty-eight instances of the elongated “e” sound, and that includes the occurrences of “been” (which includes the two in the coda), for although neither Gass nor Pimber with their Midwestern accents would likely pronounce the word in the way a Briton or Southerner might, it performs the same role as any of the “e” sounds—in “he,” in “Henry,” in “beech,” in, of course, “tree”—one that is neither strictly assonance nor rhyme; the sound serves to form a series of elongated stresses, each of which is a rhythmic marker. And they are not alone; once you start noticing the patterning it is difficult to stop. Another more obvious example is Gass’s deployment of definite articles, and those moments when he chooses to forego them (“the elders, the sorrels, cedars, and the fir”). But the less obvious repetitions are also important, and although Gass has been criticized for his free use of alliteration, assonance, and rhyme, it is through those devices that the greater pattern is seen and can emerge. The final bit of arithmetic I will ask you to consider is the tally of instances of “f” and “l” sounds—twenty-seven and fifty-seven, respectively—and quite aside from the choral effect of these frequent repetitions, they accomplish another feat entirely, one that, when combined with the other organizing sound of the elongated “e,” can be seen in the phrase “leafless like a battlefield”; namely, that it is a visual representation in language of a walk through a denuded wood.

I do not mean to suggest that Gass employed a paint-by-numbers approach to literary composition, nor am I saying that this sort of arithmetic is necessary to experience the effects of his fiction. Even the cursory reader will feel the inexorable forward movement of this passage, the movement of Henry’s walking and the passing of Pimber through time, and even the inattentive reader will understand that the man has a sadness upon him, some kind of weight that turns his thoughts toward death; and even the most disinterested student, forced to read this section of Omensetter’s Luck on assignment, will remark on the many tree names, and may even understand the allusion, and why a fallen Adam might resort to turning over the names he assigned to the natural world in perfection as empty solace for his degraded condition. But to examine the passage in the way I have attempted is merely to understand how its effects are created, and why Gass writes in his peculiar way, and to understand Gass’s view that characters in fiction are designed by the language used to describe them—not just the details of their appearance or the quotations of their speech, but the syntax and repetitions of sounds that surround and make up their psychological state. The tension in the passage exists between two somewhat simple poles of emotion—“He had hated every day he’d lived” and “It was still sorrowful to die”—but it is the language that fills the spaces between those two clipped sentences where that tension takes wing and comes alive.

Gass’s essays flatter the reader’s ego, whereas with his fiction the reader is left on their own.

It is a kind of life that does not exist in his nonfiction (which is not to say that, at times, Gass did not attempt it—On Being Blue is the best example, although it, too, is not represented at all in this Reader). Despite Gass’s insistence on writing essays that are “maliciously anti-expository,” the demands of argumentation and analysis necessarily rein his style in, which can give some of his work an almost authoritarian air—reading a Gass essay is like getting in a cop car; you’re either along for the ride or you’re railing against the bars—but it also explains why his nonfiction is more widely appreciated than his fiction. Because his goal, in every essay he ever published, was to get the reader to read whatever he is talking about—Calvino’s Invisible Cities, say, or Lowry’s Under the Volcano—in the same way that he does, which means there is a lot of hand-holding, there is much encouragement, and there are unsubtle appeals to the intelligence of the reader, which most often take the form of the assumption that the reader has read but perhaps not understood fully the many books and authors Gass alludes to. Part of the pleasure we derive from reading Gass on Henry James or Gertrude Stein is that for as long as we are reading the essay we possess Gass’s erudition and analytical acuity; we are, in essence, possessed of his reading consciousness, and with it we can more easily see the web of nuance and exquisitely ordered relations that make up some of the most challenging and rewarding examples of literary greatness—examples that are frequently misunderstood, ignored as too difficult or inscrutable, and otherwise unfairly maligned. Gass’s essays make the reader feel as smart as they can be, and so they flatter the reader’s ego, whereas with his fiction the reader is left on their own.

It is better to be left on your own, though it is clear that many are reluctant to be. Time after time in the weeks and months after his death, I’d find myself reading some tribute by a former student, or some reader who has claimed the mantle of the fan, and after much praise for Gass’s work and his generosity of spirit as a teacher, perhaps some brief observations about the wonderful way in which he wrote, the confession would come: the fiction is boring, or not to their taste. Sometimes they would adopt a different frame: they preferred his nonfiction; they preferred his shorter, earlier work; really, they thought of Gass as a philosopher, more than anything. The failure to seriously engage with Gass’s fiction explains the many errors that seem to surround any discussion of his work—the most egregious of which in recent memory is the suggestion Gass predicted Trumpism with The Tunnel, as if the greatest compliment is to cast him as a seer to make him momentarily relevant, like an egg nailed to a wall, when the great theme of the book is that man’s propensity for evil is universal, timeless, and undeniable in the wake of the Holocaust. The added bit of partisan spin is particularly upsetting, in large part because one of Gass’s greatest creations, the Party of the Disappointed People—an imaginary organization comprised of the “men and women, kids and dogs, [who] go through life in a state of modest misery,” replete with doodled designs for pennants, flags, caps, insignia, and buttons in The Tunnel’s pages—is as ecumenical as the ocean.

The Tunnel is the proof that demonstrates Gass’s ideas about fiction.

But the greatest error of all is the failure to understand Gass’s fiction as a progression, that The Tunnel is his masterpiece merely because he spent thirty years scribbling away at it, as if the measure of its quality was time spent, ink spilled, and paper wasted rather than because it is an attempt at excellence that, miraculously, succeeded. The Tunnel is the proof that demonstrates Gass’s ideas about fiction, which he explained in detail and at length in the essays and criticism that so many praise and refined repeatedly in his novels and stories, and William Frederick Kohler, the narrator of the book, is the mind Gass created that lives within its covers. Which is why The William H. Gass Reader as an overview of his work is a failure, for the best evidence of his growth as a novelist, the firmest indication that he always had this one goal in mind, and the proof that he achieved it, lies in the latter, larger portion of Omensetter’s Luck devoted to the book’s protagonist, the Reverend Jethro Furber; in Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife; in On Being Blue; and finally, in The Tunnel. And of these works only the smallest possible fraction of The Tunnel exists in the collection, so the reader of this volume will not understand why Gass moved from the extremely limited narration in the third person of Omensetter’s to Kohler’s all-consuming first person to better portray a consciousness trapped in text, and they will not be able to track the progression of Gass’s use of space on the page, or of drawings, images, and marginalia to underscore and play with the presence of the pages upon which the text rests, and they will almost certainly not understand the role that sex and sensuous language plays in each and every one of his novels, novellas, and stories.

But on the other hand, if the reader of the Reader actually makes it through, and manages to read much of what it contains, then they will be prepared to negotiate the rocks upon which many a critic has foundered; they won’t experience the disorientation of wondering whether it is Gass or his creature Kohler who is sympathetic to Nazism; they won’t have to wonder at why Gass spent time expressing the vilest thoughts in the most beautiful language; they won’t have to consider why Gass thought the limerick a poetic form worthy of practice; they will understand that the belief that the pages within a novel form an observing mind requires the creation of a mind that behaves in all the ways a real mind does: it will fantasize about fucking in equal measure to murder; it will doodle penises on the margins of the page, and think of shitting as often as eating food; it will undertake lengthy considerations of the banal events of its life as often as the glories of literature; it will wonder about the names people use.