Style and Technique
Gass has used multiple techniques to emphasize the complexity of theme and subject of this story. The story’s title and structure, its patterns of imagery, allusions, and brilliant stylistic transformations all add to the reader’s ability to understand and respond, both intellectually and emotionally. The fragmented, nonlinear structure suggests the manner in which the mind actually works, as opposed to the rules of logic. The narrator is both lacking in will and obsessed with thoughts of his lost love, with fears of death and age, and with his isolation from his environment and his community. These topics appear again and again; even when he tries to concentrate, his mind moves in circles, and he sees similar patterns wherever he looks. The Ferris wheel, seasons, old records—all these cycles the narrator identifies as deadening ruts. He is unwilling to consider the cycle as an image of natural completion and harmony.
Stylistically, Gass uses sentences that move, almost unnoticeably, from flat, blunt, factual realism to highly evocative, poetically imaginative flights of fancy. He will even alternate the two types of sentences in one section, suggesting the internal conflicts of the narrator. Finally, his use of allusions to other poets illuminates the story and offers the reader standards for judging the narrator’s conclusions. The use of Whitmanesque lists, the narrator’s rejection of Rilke’s spiritual poetry, and, most significant, the opening quotation from William Butler Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium” hand the reader keys to a poet’s ideal belief in something beyond this physical world and beyond his isolated intelligence. The line from Yeats, for example, is a triumphal affirmation of an eternal world of pattern and artistic design achieved by acts of will, a world of the soul and imagination, to replace this natural world, in which time, age, and death make humans seem paltry, only a heart fastened to a dying animal. In contrast, the poet-narrator of this story, eloquently but with pity and hate, can only describe the dying animal’s longings, for he lacks both the will and the imagination of a Yeats. His heart and that of “his country” remain thin and gray.