By Greg Gerke.
Willam H. Gass’s new story collection, Eyes, contains two stalwart novellas (his self-proclaimed natural breath of prose writing), “In Camera,” and “Charity” — of which the novel, Middle C, would have been (what else?) the middle piece of the three, but it grew into a novel published in 2013 — and four short fictions, his shortest since “The Order of Insects” in the landmark In the Heart of the Heart of the Country from 1968. As is custom for Gass, these fictions have exemplary sentences: long and short, full of metaphor, rich sound, syncopation, intelligence, gravity, and comedy — architectural wonders both intricate and unbridled as Gaudi’s buildings and grand and severe as Serra’s steel. They are treats both for the mind whose mouth speaks them aloud or the mind with an inner ear to the sound of thought philosophical, lyrical, and holy hewn. Sound before story? Guts before glory? Maybe, but in Gass the sound is the story. One leads the other like wind gusting up a kite, but the wind is also the story because it gives the tale good weight, though it can sometimes be invisible, just like Gass’s famed metaphor in a public debate with John Gardner about fiction as Gardner said, “…what I think is beautiful, he [Gass] would not yet think is sufficiently ornate. The difference is that my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground,” to which Gass replied, “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.” Now what about the form equals content, another debate that may have more interest to diagnosticians of art than artists themselves since so much of art is the unconscious gaberdined as order.
“In Camera”’s Mr. Gab, loves certain photographs and has a rare print shop where he moons over his valuables as Gass’s narrator describes an August Sander pic of a hotelkeeper and wife: “…the innkeeper’s arms clasped behind him so that the swell of his stomach would suggest to a hesitant guest hearty fare; well, they were both girthy and full-fleshed folk as far as that goes, her eyes in a bit of a squint, his like raisins drowning in the plump of his cheeks.” Such a metaphor does not grow a branch in the reader’s mind but inaugurates a sweet gooey sensation, so that this photograph is worth these fifty words transferring the Sander to the modern mind though the photo is unseen. And in “The Man Who Spoke with His Hands,” that man is described thus: “And despite all of this nearly continuous motion, the Professors hardly noticed them; took little heed of this habit; were not distracted as much by the fingers as by the light which rollicked from their owner’s bald head, pale as paper. He was a man, compact and even slight, whom one could nevertheless pick out of a crowd as one would the most attractive piece of fruit from a bin. His hair would have been brown had he had any.” Again metaphor and harmony — six out of ten words in the last sentence start with -h and four out of six begin -ha. Short sentences with a few clauses. Showing not telling, but really the story is being told — related might be a better word — so the reader knows who they are hearing about. The way Gass writes is a show, yet, supra-ironically, in the showiest time of human civilization, show-women and men are taken to task as showing off — Not being very Alice Munro-like, are they? the current gatekeepers wag their fingers.
A year ago, a youngish novelist published a diatribe in Dissent on many illustrious and/or popular writers of English prose — essentially a thumbs up/thumbs down appraisal, but all his thumbs, with caveats, pointed south and he seemed to ask for literature that is not too knowledgeable, not too in love with itself, but pleasurable for the reader. Gass (though called a genius) and his late friend, William Gaddis, were bandied about as both mean and snide, though only Gaddis is smug and classist. It was symptomatic of much paper-thin criticism, codifying people or art into one’s favorites list, like asking one’s internet date to fit all the nit-picky criteria before agreeing to meet. Gass’s interest in decrepit characters has often drawn rebuke, from the history professor William Fredrick Kohler’s nastiness in The Tunnel (A Professor! It’s just Gass, some critics cried, forgetting that there is the poet, the poem, and the speaker of the poem — even in fiction) to the phantom and phony Joseph Skizzen in Middle C, who poses as a music professor (Gass!). And don’t forget “Mrs. Mean,” the narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” who “want[s] to rise so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody” and the abusive families in “The Peterson Kid” and “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s.” In the two novellas, “In Camera,” and “Charity,” there are two more uncharming men to add to the heap, though the former’s Mr. Gab has u-Stu (short for “you stupid kid”), the deformed son of a former wife, but not Gab’s issue, as counterpoint. “Charity” only has Hugh Hamilton Hardy, a repugnant lawyer who is sick of strangers asking him for money in all the ways people do, though he eventually confronts his miserliness with help from the past in this kaleidoscopic seventy-page opera that often shifts space and time. There is little sympathy for this character, the modern yardstick for connecting to the reader, but as the words accrete, there is a unique sense of this cur, who sucks a woman’s toes and has her stand on him, the other admittedly no one aspires to be, but maybe at this hate-filled time more than any other, we need to put ourselves in the soul of the other to learn how to get along. No matter how much selective reading and viewing or surgical friendship (I only do this with him-I’ll never do that), we surely all inhabit the same planet. The book, as Gass has said, is a container of consciousness, and as Gass has also averred, “The world is not simply good and bad on different weekends like an inconsistent pitcher; we devour what we savor and what sustains us; out of ruins more ruins will later, in their polished towers, rise; lust is the muscle of love: its strength, its coarseness, its brutality; the heart beats and is beaten by its beating; not a shadow falls without the sun’s shine and the sun sears what it saves.” People have been uncomfortably identifying themselves and running scared from Richard III, Othello, MacBeth for four hundred years. What makes this time an exception? How does Gass come to describe such a sot? Here is one 115-word sentence:
Hardy’s passivity was perfect, he’d been told — although it hadn’t gotten him a raise in two years due to tough times, he’d been also told — because it was not subservient or cautious or lacking in oomph, but gave off an aura of calm confidence and certainty about the legal, if not the moral, superiority of his position, a nimbus which could have come from nothing but a clear and steady we’ll-wheel-you-into-suicide point of view, accompanied by a softly polished face, a cuff and color odor as seductively alluring as perfume from a scratch patch, yet a posture exhibited by the suit that resembled, in representing the claimant’s attitude, a volcanic cone only momentarily covered with cooling snow.
Hardy’s passivity was perfect, he’d been told — The subject of the sentence is Hardy’s passivity — the point of view of his attitude in life, a key ingredient of his shtick. He doesn’t judge it to be so — others do.
although it hadn’t gotten him a raise in two years due to tough times, he’d been also told—because it was not subservient or cautious or lacking in oomph, — But in this first clause there is comedy because his way of living doesn’t translate into more money. Still the passivity was perfect because it was ostentatious.
but gave off an aura of calm confidence and certainty about the legal, if not the moral, superiority of his position, — But because the passivity was levelheaded and reminding of his business, the legal, as “off an aura of,” becomes a saucy sauce of vowels with a diphthong pinned in the middle like a dab of butter.
a nimbus which could have come from nothing but a clear and steady we’ll-wheel-you-into-suicide point of view, — What is that aura? Now the narrator says it’s a “nimbus” and the metaphor grows with “could have come” being the sweet music that sends it on, and “clear” completing the trio of hard c sounds.
accompanied by a softly polished face, — But the nimbus is pulled inside out back to his physical being, his face, so sight unseen to seen and then smell — Hardy’s passivity is really being expressed, it’s not a small thing — qualities that make the character live in a reader’s mind.
a cuff and color odor as seductively alluring as perfume from a scratch patch, — And now his passivity is also accompanied by more hard c’s, “a cuff and color odor,” (odor slant rhymes with “aura” and “moral”) but the odor has its own double simile, “as seductively alluring as perfume from a scratch patch,” with double p’s.
yet a posture exhibited by the suit that resembled, in representing the claimant’s attitude, a volcanic cone only momentarily covered with cooling snow — But Hardy isn’t that easy because he also has a posture that goes along with his face and odor, a posture that takes the cake, because his haberdashery resembled, like his client’s force (he is a lawyer, but something of a hired gun), “a volcanic cone only momentarily covered with cooling snow.” Two more hard c’s, and one grand metaphor of his real power and success, his posture that threatens by sight with a little “They that have power to hurt but will do none” gloss proving that the man’s stance in life mirrors the anger in his mind.
Gass, like many before him, but few after, examines characters that are flops and successful hypocrites because flaws interest him more than luck, but also because his fictional universe is not that of making the right moral choices, those have already been made or not, but the result of civilization’s one step forward, three steps back build. He wears his rue with a difference. In “The Toy Chest,” the final piece and the last work composed, a man remembers his youth, his toys, and the toys that women would present, eventually taking over for the trains that couldn’t: “We were sitting right here alongside the toy chest. She said hers composed the toy chest now…I never again had a happiness so brief, so intense, so scared.”
Gass, a former philosophy professor, but more appropriately a philosopher of the word and sentence, has devoted his life to showing how the world is within the word and how a sentence has a soul and is its own story, developing spindle diagrams of sentences that he first debuted when speaking of the work of Gertrude Stein in the 1970s. In the last literary years there has been renewed interest in Gordon Lish and his theory of consecution, writing sentence upon sentence by means of repetition of what came before, be it word or sound, built from the work of Harold Bloom, Denis Donoghue, and Julia Kristeva. Gass and Lish are squarely in the same tradition — if you don’t have music no one will listen or at least won’t listen very hard. It stretches back to Stein, Joyce, James, Melville, Dickinson, Emerson and over the ocean to the authors of Baroque prose, Shakespeare, and back to the nameless bards and authors of the Bible, and to Homer. This tradition has nothing to do with the moralizing realism that’s come to dominate US literary fiction or the epiphany moment whether in prose or verse. Some ask for fiction to show us how to live and some ask for entertainment. Absent religion, the pagan Pater says, “For art comes to you proposing frankly to give nothing but the highest quality to your moments as they pass, and simply for those moments’ sake.” Politicians pander, but parents, teachers, and friends, or some combination, are those consistent pitchers who help us learn how to live and what to do. Literary language communicates something ineffable, even parables work by metaphor. Rilke, Gass’s lodestar, had the gumption to end a poem, “You must change your life,” yet art is not usually as easy as self-help. It presents alternative realities that may be accepted, reviled, or ignored. So sentences come to us giving nothing but the beauty of their words — more than enough, or as Gass said, “Because a consciousness electrified by beauty — is that not the aim and emblem and the ending of all finely made love?”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared in Tin House, Paris Review Daily, LA Review of Books, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review Online, and others. A book, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, has just been released from Queens Ferry Press.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, December 8th, 2015.