William H. Gass Essay - Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 2)

Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 2)

Gass, William H(oward) 1924–

American novelist and philosopher, author of Omensetter's Luck. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

[William H.] Gass is a virtuoso of the short, hard sentence and the gaunt detail; one is almost reconciled to bald, agricultural realism before he recognizes a rich vein of fantasy, indeed of poetry, running through the stories [in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country]. Certainly it's the simplicity of the materials and the richness of the imaginative art controlling them that most impresses one in the first and longest piece, "The Pedersen Kid." "Icicles," in a more bubbling and open vein of fantasy, plays with the grotesque pathos of an infested real-estate salesman; while "Mrs. Mean" only slowly reveals itself as a study in obsession. If there's a single word for saying what pleases one most about these stories, it's poise. They deal with violent feelings and blind conflicts but without baggy language or excess gestures. They are modern, in the sense that one can't imagine them being written without a pretty good perspective on the work of Faulkner; yet they never become "modernistic." The techniques, which are various and imaginative, are always in the service of vision and feeling. Mr. Gass's stories are strict and beautiful pieces of writing without waste or falsity or indulgence. And so long as fiction like this can blossom at the unexpected moment, I don't suppose we need to worry, for the time being, about the state of the art.

Robert Martin Adams, in Hudson Review, Spring, 1968, pp. 230-31.

Here on my desk is William H. Gass's Omensetter's Luck, which I have no hesitation in calling the most important work of fiction by an American in this literary generation…. [On] the one hand Gass's novel is marvelously original, a whole Olympic broad jump beyond what almost any other American has been writing, the first full replenishment of language we have had for a very long time, the first convincing fusion of speculative thought and hard, accurate sensuality that we have had, it is tempting to say, since Melville.

Yet there is also something refractory, stiff, retrograde. For Omensetter's Luck hangs back at times and most crucially at the time of its greatest potentiality for freedom, burrowing for comfort and safety into the familiar, not daring fully to cast off its cargo of literary inheritance, employing certain ritualistic narrative procedures which its entire pioneering thrust denies and seeks to abolish. It is as though Gass, having ventured out without looking back, has been overtaken and seduced by the past, which cannot conceive of being wholly left behind.

Yet just because of this, this freedom caught by the tail, it seems to me to make up that kind of incomplete, contingent and vulnerable miracle which can renew an art more powerfully than total revolutions, those hermetic masterpieces whose price is always a sterile autarchy….

[In] Gass's book, materials from the world outside fiction are turned, or as nearly as the resistance of tradition will allow, into what Robbe-Grillet calls interrogations, which is to say that they are released from their incarceration in our habits of thought and perception, our smooth, completed, self-confident and mostly literary way of deciding what we know before we know what it is we have to learn….

The novel is Gass's prose, his style, which is not committed to something beyond itself, not an instrument of an idea. In language of amazing range and resiliency, full of the most exact wit, learning and contemporary emblems, yet also full of lyric urgency and sensuous body, making the most extraordinary juxtapositions, inventing, coining, relaxing at the right moments and charging again when they are over, never settling for the rounded achievement or the finished product, he fashions his tale of the mind, which is the tale of his writing a novel….

[Though] the book is self-divided and suffers from a certain opacity and unclarity that are direct results of the intrusion of plot, the writing survives the tow of the past, even though it is prevented by it from reaching the fullest open water. Again and again Gass brings to birth unknown realities, truths about truth, questions out of what had been acceptances…. What Gass has written is a work of the imagination and the mind whose study is the mind and imagination themselves as they grant us the instruments of knowing, which are at the same time the sources of all our inability to know.

Richard Gilman, "William H. Gass," in his The Confusion of Realms (© 1963, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1969, pp. 69-79.

In "Omensetter's Luck" and "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country," [Gass] has written some of the freshest and most finely disciplined fictional prose to have appeared in America since World War II. Nearly all of the essays in this collection of occasional pieces ["Fiction and the Figures of Life"] are a pleasure to read and some—it almost seems shocking to say it—are works of beauty. It has happened before—one thinks of Keats's letters and some fragments of Lawrence—that the unlikely combination of criticism, philosophy and metaphorical inventiveness has resulted in a kind of poetry. In fact, that this can happen illustrates one of Gass's favorite theories, which is that philosophy and fiction are both "divine games," that they do not so much interpret reality as contribute to it….

[It] really won't do to raise our voices at Mr. Gass. He knows what he is saying. And he is not a dogmatist. True, his words can be emphatic and vivid, but they are not bricks in a temple. Whatever his various assertions may be, the impression he gives of himself as a critic is that of a man thinking….

Mr. Gass is not a critic of puzzling contradictions. In a variety of ways—by means of startling metaphor and philosophical cajolery—he does the same thing in each essay: he calls our attention to art. It sounds like a simple enough achievement until we remember how few critics do it or, as Gass suggests, how many seem bent upon doing the contrary. He is not incapable of finding messages in literature or of assessing their relative worth, he simply feels that to overemphasize abstract meaning is to replace "the work with its interpretation, another way of robbing it of its reality." Mr. Gass is not a fastidious esthete or a doctrinal fanatic. He is a moderate man—an artist—pressed to extremes by circumstances…. Gass's criticism, in the best tradition of eloquence, wit and passion, is a defense of "poesy" in a time of need.

Robert Kiely, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 21, 1971, pp. 3, 26.

[Omensetter's Luck] makes demands upon us, like life. It is not a digest of life or a facsimile of life. Gass is not "ordering experience," sending us on to higher morality; he is not documenting anything. The work is there, and the work is beautiful. the experience of it is a significant and exciting ordeal from which we cannot emerge unchanged….

Omensetter's Luck is an imperfect novel. It is needlessly fuddled with a plot drawn out of some prior conception of the novel, and it slogs into being with a prologue that might have worked better as an epilogue, if it works at all. The comparison of Gilean, Ohio (in which the novel is set), and Gilead seems at times to weigh too heavily in the prose, and there is even one line in the novel that might be considered a cliché.

Omensetter's Luck is also, page after page, one of the most exciting, energetic, and beautiful novels we can ever hope to read. It is a rich fever, a parade of secrets, a novel as American as Huckleberry Finn and as torturously comic as Ulysses….

Though the essays [Fiction and the Figures of Life] are written with unfailing grace, the reader of Mr. Gass's fiction will find them redundant, for the subject of the fictions is often fiction. In his essay, "The Concept in Fiction," Gass is erudite and analytical about the names of characters. In Omensetter's Luck he is convincing….

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country … is perhaps the most successful and beautiful work he has published. An unnamed narrator describes a town in Indiana. He speaks of grass, stores, neighbors, cats, and Christmas. The story is made of things, a surface of ordinary objects, plain people and insignificant acts, yet it is a story of love lost or art failed (the surface holds at least that much), and it makes an almost unbearable sadness as it is read. Line after line of lovely longing shines into the reader….

[Beyond the graphical and typographical] tricks of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is an important fiction on the art of fiction. The lady of the novella is fiction herself, now in middle age, remembering her lovers, seeing the fall of her youth in a mirror, recalling intimacies with sardonic and sad wit. She recognizes mortality, the inevitable passing. But Gass rescues her, as he has rescued the novel, with language brilliantly and newly used. Fiction need not become those crones walking down the street on the way to death, a new life is promised, and Gass, father and first master of the new life, closes what might have been one of the marvels of fiction with a charge spoken by the lonesome muse to her future lovers.

Earl Shorris, "The Well-Spoken Passions of William H. Gass," in Harper's (copyright © 1972, by Minneapolis Star and Tribune Co., Inc.; reprinted from the May, 1972 issue of Harper's Magazine by permission of the author), May, 1972, pp. 96-100.