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...
(The entire section contains 3347 words.)
Unlock This Study Guide Now
Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this William H. Gass study guide. You'll get access to all of the William H. Gass content, as well as access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
- Critical Essays