Although William H. Gass is well known as a fiction writer, beginning with his novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and his short-story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories (1968) and culminating with his 1995 masterpiece The Tunnel, it may very well be that in the future his literary reputation will rest equally on his critical essays. A profound and thoughtful philosopher and critic, Gass, along with John Barth and Robert Coover, was largely responsible for narrative experimentation and the theory of self-reflexive fiction in the 1960’s; moreover, he is the most important spokesperson for the importance of aesthetic form during an era that would like to ignore form and aesthetic value in favor of cultural subject matter and political messages. More cantankerous than ever before, in this fifth collection of miscellaneous nonfiction pieces, Gass continues to defend literary art against know-nothing foes and pedantic friends alike.
The six essays in the first section, titled “Literary Matters,” are the most thoughtful and the least grumpy. Here Gass explores the nature of narrative, scolds experimentation for the sake of experimentation, praises Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities, 1974) as one of the purer works of the imagination, looks at the function of lists as an ontological and literary device, and defends the “test of time” as a criteria for what constitutes a literary masterpiece.
In “The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications,” Gass applies his usual formalist approach and examination of the basic differences between phenomenal reality and consciously constructed narratives, as well as the difference between telling stories and fashioning fictions. Gass calls to attention the way that stories break up the natural continuum of life into events and then rearrange those events to suggest causality and significance and thus reassure readers that their lives are not random, but rather have a purpose and a direction.
Although Gass does not say anything startling and new about the nature of narrative in this essay, he does remind his readers in his usual, articulate, and interesting way about the important difference between story and fiction. For example, whereas fictions have an identifiable perspective, that is, they are told from the position of a personal pronoun, stories do not usually have a point a view, but seem anonymous, as if from a god. Moreover, because stories break up the natural continuum or flow of experience, they see the world as made up of blocks, which they organize by means of repetition, patterning, and structure. Stories, Gass says, love it when they move in the direction of a chant or suggest a secret. While fictions are fraught with explanation and mere mimesis, stories are mythic and mysterious.
In his discussion of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, Gass argues that Marco Polo’s Divisament dou monde (fourteenth century; The Travels of Marco Polo, 1579), filled with marvels and mysteries, is as much about the nature and importance of storytelling as is Alf layla wa- laylah (c. ninth-tenth century; The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, 1708). What Polo and Calvino understood and what, Gass says, others frequently misunderstand is that a city is not a group of buildings through which run highways and streets, but rather a “subtle pattern of powers.” This is the nature of all arts, for even though one may begin by examining the particular, such as buildings, bridges, parts—collecting facts and describing things as one believes they really are—eventually this gives way to a city in which terms are replaced by relations and in which roles define their representatives rather than vice versa. Reality does not consist of things, Gass says, echoing the credo of the 1920’s Russian formalists and the 1960’s French structuralists, but rather of multiple systems of relationships.
One of the most entertaining essays in this first section is “I’ve Got a Little List,” in which Gass examines the philosophic and literary uses of lists, from the factual to the imaginary. Gass is interested both with how lists confer equality on their members and how they create hierarchies. Finding philosophic significance in a simple list, as he once did in an entire book on the color blue, Gass is interested in the fact that lists detach objects from their place in the physical world and enumerate them elsewhere in the realm of the mind. He creates his own list of the ways lists are organized—as items encountered, by an external system, by the order of things, and in terms of a principle...
(The entire section is 1923 words.)