William H. Gass Essay - Critical Essays

William H. Gass American Literature Analysis

Anyone who has read the first page of Gass’s famous On Being Blue must recall the dazzling, virtuoso performance of the author, who manages, in the first few paragraphs, to evoke every possible connotation of the word “blue,” including the blues and such phrases as blue laws, blue stockings, blue blazers, and blue pencils. This playfulness with language, this delight in turning words around and examining them as if they were resplendent prisms or baffling puzzle cubes, is characteristic of Gass’s fiction.

Again and again, one is struck by the fact that Gass’s short stories and novels, however enticing and entertaining they may be, somehow evade the standard storytelling function of most narratives. Gass’s stories are not so much about something as they are explorations of how to look at something, how to discover the multiple possibilities inherent in the simplest moment or action. In a real sense, Gass is a proponent of art for art’s sake. He is not interested in delivering a familiar moral or preaching a popular message, and he is rarely interested in realism as such.

A typical Gass story makes relatively few historical or chronological references to the everyday world. His narrative plots tend to be spare and minimal, even though a great deal seems to happen in each story. The reader thus may be hard put to summarize or encapsulate a Gass story, yet that story will leave its audience with an indelible sense of having experienced a richly imagined world—or a sense of having lived in the mind of an unforgettable character. Much of Gass’s fiction is focused on the choices and thought processes of such characters. Gass often creates a kind of stream of consciousness in which every perception, doubt, dream, fear, or memory of a character bursts upon the page in a rushing torrent of words. Once again, it is the individual word, with all of its associations and musical reverberations, that becomes the principal unit of composition.

In a real sense, then, Gass’s language-oriented technique is his basic theme. Everything he writes in some way reflects on his fundamental notion that words do not merely create reality; they are, finally, the only reality. This technique does not, however, absolutely exclude other interpretations or thematic possibilities. Words fail the narrator in Gass’s novel The Tunnel. Although Professor Kohler has written an entire book seeking to discover the truth of Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, he is no closer to it at the end than he was at the beginning. In fact, he finds it necessary to add even more misinformation to justify his viewpoint. He is equally unable to discover the truth of his own life through words. Gass is certainly moved by the theme of human loneliness and alienation; he is fascinated by the spectacle of individuals cut off psychologically or socially from the rest of society. He is equally fascinated by the impossibility (or near impossibility) of arriving at any fundamental truth in human life. His works often suggest that ambiguity, misunderstanding, and confusion tend to be the norm.

This skepticism on Gass’s part may well result from his professional training as a philosopher in general, or from his specific attention to the philosophy of language. After all, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, Ludwig Wittgenstein, theorized that language is a game that people learn to play by virtue of their humanity. The rules of the language game are arbitrary, for words can mean anything the speaker wants them to mean, as Lewis Carroll’s Alice, for example, discovers on her confusing journey through Wonderland.

Despite his spare plots, general themes of uncertainty and misunderstanding, and love of individual words (a kind of poet’s attention to craftsmanship), Gass does not leave the reader in a sort of literary vacuum, a minimalist universe with only bare outlines and skeletons. In fact, he provides one of the richest textures of detail in contemporary American fiction. His fictions positively bristle with details about weather, facial appearances, architectural details, slang terms, odd names, nicknames, bits of song and poetry, and passages from the Bible. In The Tunnel, he also uses different font styles, drawings, and cartoons. Perhaps the secret of Gass’s success is that he invites the reader to make a fresh interpretation or reordering of the wealth of details always present in his narratives.

Therefore, what Gass provides most consistently is an overwhelming sense of the richness and complexity of day-to-day life. The subject most frequently evoked by that rich detailing is Gass’s native Midwest, the region where he has spent most of his life. Midwestern weather, snowstorms, sunsets, fields, flowers, trees, farm buildings, and turreted Gothic mansions abound in his fiction. For all his avant-garde experimentation, Gass always keeps his attention on what he calls the “heart of the heart of the country.”

Gass has always maintained a kind of love-hate relationship with the Midwest. On one hand, its pastoral beauties and traditional patterns of social life have fascinated him and provided him with the raw material for his experimental storytelling. On the other hand, however, he has utterly rejected the small-mindedness, bigotry, and cultural conservatism that often characterize small-town life in the heartland. One might observe that Gass’s literary experimentation and philosophical independence might not have occurred in the first place if he had not experienced a kind of artistic claustrophobia in his youth.

In “A Revised and Expanded Preface,” written in 1981 for the second edition of his classic work In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories(originally published in 1968), Gass speaks passionately and sometimes bitterly about his origins. Racial slurs (“nigs, micks, wops, spicks, bohunks, polacks, kikes”) were spoken abundantly in his hometown. Gass’s response to this poisonous atmosphere (which he described in many of his later works) was to seek refuge in art. He read widely and deeply, developing a taste for the works of modern writers such as Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Thomas Mann, and William Faulkner—in short, all the masters of twentieth century literary experimentation. In the process, Gass determined to become a writer himself and to define himself as an artist with “a soul, a special speech, a style.” For Gass, there is no discontinuity between his life as an artist and the rest of his existence; the two are inseparably intertwined. “I was born somewhere in the middle of my first book,” he explains. The rest of his life can be seen as a brilliantly successful process of self-discovery through one artistic creation after another.

“The Pedersen Kid”

First published: 1968 (collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories, 1968)

Type of work: Short story

An adolescent boy survives a blizzard in the Midwest and thereby finds his own identity.

On the surface, at least, “The Pedersen Kid” is a relatively simple tale. A Scandinavian family, the Jorgensens, are trying to keep warm during a howling blizzard that has virtually rendered them snowbound. The family consists of Ma (Hed), a kindly, self-effacing woman, and Pa, a boorish, drunken lout who hides his whiskey bottles all over the house and expresses his displeasure by dumping the contents of his chamber pot on the heads of his victims. Jorge, their son and the narrator of the tale, fears and despises him, as does Big Hans, the hired hand who works for the family and lives in the house with them. It is Big Hans who finds the Pedersen kid, half-buried in a snowdrift in front of the Jorgensen farmhouse.

Although he first seems to be dead (the first of many ambiguities in the story), Ma revives the young child (his exact age is another ambiguity—he could be two or even four years old) with the help of Big Hans and Jorge. Pa awakens, fuming as always, but eventually he, Big Hans, and Jorge determine to visit the...

(The entire section is 3347 words.)