William H. Gass Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2572

William H. Gass joins a number of contemporary writers—including John Barth and Alain Robbe-Grillet, among others—who have made a significant contribution to the development of short fiction while publishing a relatively small number of stories. Aside from a few uncollected stories published in journals (and most of these are sections...

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William H. Gass joins a number of contemporary writers—including John Barth and Alain Robbe-Grillet, among others—who have made a significant contribution to the development of short fiction while publishing a relatively small number of stories. Aside from a few uncollected stories published in journals (and most of these are sections of longer works in progress), Gass’s initial contribution to short fiction rests on one slender collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and Other Stories, containing only five selections. Yet these five are enough to show that Gass is a master of the form, at once innovative and adept at manipulating characterization, plot, and tone, the conventions of the short story.

Calling Gass a master of the conventions of fiction is perhaps ironic, since the bulk of his own criticism seems to lead to the conclusion that one’s perceptions of those conventions are generally skewed at best and are often completely wrongheaded. Yet Gass’s theories represent less a prescription for writing than a description of what good writing has always involved. Gass emphasizes merely what he feels to be the obvious: that writing is an activity of word choice and placement. Plot, then, is not a sequence of actions but a sequence of words; a character is not a fictive “mirror” of a human being but a set of images, no more. Not surprisingly, Gass’s primary concern is style; indeed, he prefers to call himself a “stylist” rather than a novelist or short-story writer. In the novella The Cartesian Sonata, he refers to his method of writing as “pencil carving,” a habit of repeated light tracings that eventually burn into paper or wood grain. It is this layering of words that constitutes Gass’s style.

How does this affect the reader’s understanding of Gass’s short stories? At the very least, one should be aware that Gass’s fictions depend upon a developing pattern of imagery and that this pattern of imagery does not become more important than characterization or plot but that characterization and plot are no more than patterns of imagery themselves. Thus, one should see each of Gass’s works as a developing metaphor, bound by its own rules, not the rules of the world.

This emphasis on imagery as metaphor indicates that the aesthetic foundation of Gass’s work is poetic as well as fictive. As much as any prose writer in American literature, perhaps as much as any writer since Wallace Stevens, Gass is concerned with the sound of words and their rhythms. His prose is strikingly rhythmical and alliterative; in fact, in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and The Cartesian Sonata, Gass quite deliberately employs prose rhyme. It is impossible, however, to read Gass’s stories and be satisfied merely by an examination of his syntax, since the reader is constantly drawn into the characters’ lives, their actions and motivations. The readers cannot help comparing the characters’ worlds with their own, and Gass nowhere enjoins them from doing so; he simply reminds readers not to weigh down characters and plot with any more “reality” than inheres in the words that compose them.

An overview of Gass’s stories reveals that the figures in his carpet of words are structural and thematic, as well as syntactical. Each story, for example, is told from a limited first-person point of view. Characters in effect create the world in which they live through the images in which, consciously or unconsciously, they perceive their world. Thus, the way the worlds appear is less a comment on the worlds than on the narrators. In essence, the fictive worlds are twice removed from “actual” reality: once by virtue of being Gass’s creations, twice by virtue of being the narrators’ creations.

“Order of Insects”

This may perhaps be no more than an overly elaborate way of describing what happens with any limited perspective, yet Gass’s fiction causes the reader more problems—intriguing problems—because his narrators are so unreliable. The narrator of “Order of Insects,” for example, is a wife and mother who has moved into a new home, only to find it invaded by insects. She quickly becomes obsessed with the bugs; at first horrified, she comes to see their dead bodies as “wonderfully shaped.” Her obsession is not shared by other members of the family, however; indeed, the reader is not certain that anyone else is aware of the bugs or that the insects even exist. Rather, her obsession is the chief manifestation of her unhappiness, her horror at her roles of woman, wife, and mother. She is never so interested in the insects alive as dead; she comes to see the lifeless husks as the true souls of the insects. To the wife and mother, what is eternal, what lasts, is not warmth and love but the dry, physical residue of life.

This reading of “Order of Insects” is not simply conjecture. The woman herself admits to being “ill”: She is as aware as the reader that her obsession reflects an abnormal psychological stance toward life in general. Similarly, the narrator of “Icicles” is painfully aware that he is “not right” and that his obsession with icicles—he sees them as both beautiful and horrifying—is but an extreme symptom of his withdrawal from life. The motif of the withdrawal from life is found in all five stories. In “Mrs. Mean” and in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” the narrators have already retreated, psychologically and physically, to the position of passive observers of life; in “Icicles” and “Order of Insects,” the narrators are in the process of withdrawal; the end of “The Pederson Kid” finds the narrator rejoicing in a “glorious” act of bravery as he sits curled in a cocoon of psychosis.

“The Pederson Kid”

“The Pederson Kid” is overtly Gass’s most traditional story. It possesses an identifiable setting, rich, rounded characters, and action which marches toward a violent climax. Indeed, in the mind of one critic, the story recalls nothing so much as the Upper Michigan stories of Ernest Hemingway. The comparison is understandable, given the story’s bleak landscape, mother/father/son conflict, and violent conclusion; yet a better comparison would be with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (1930), with its tenuous world built on the shifting perspectives of unreliable narrators.

A closer reading of “The Pederson Kid” reveals that, rather than being “traditional,” the story is a perfect example of what Gass’s theories amount to in practice. Describing the action, for example, should be easy enough. Apparently, one bleak winter morning Big Hans, a hired hand on a North Dakota farm, discovers the Pederson Kid, a boy from a neighboring farm, collapsed in the snow. In a delirium, the boy tells of a stranger in yellow gloves who forced his parents into a cellar while the boy escaped and ran miles through a blizzard for help. Jorge—the narrator, a boy a little older than the Pederson Kid—Jorge’s father, and Big Hans start off on a wagon for the Pederson place. After some difficulties they get there and hide in the barn, but all three fear moving across the open space to the house. Finally, Jorge strikes off across the yard. When his father follows, a shot rings out, and his father falls dead. Jorge hides in the house, awaiting death, but the stranger never appears. At the end, Jorge sits in the Pederson house—convinced that the stranger has killed Big Hans and his mother, too, by now—but is “burning up with joy” at the thought of his act of bravery.

Some critics contend that this straightforward plot summary is indeed an accurate rendering of what “actually” happened in the story. Others maintain that in all probability the stranger never existed and that “actually” Jorge shot his own father. In Gass’s terms, however, nothing “actually” happens; the story is a series of words creating images that in turn make up a developing metaphor, a virtual world obeying its own rules and having no meaning beyond the words that compose it.

All the reader can know with any certainty is that Jorge loathes and fears his father, although at one time their relationship was at least a little more amicable; he loathes Big Hans, although once they, too, were much closer; he initially loathes the Pederson Kid, although at the end he comes to identify with him. At the end, in his own mind his act of “bravery” has apparently freed him from his father’s yoke; but this act was largely without volition, and he has been freed less from his father than from any connection with the living world. The reader leaves him thankful for the snow and the “burning up with joy”: fire and ice, the twin images of Hell. No one interpretation of “The Pederson Kid” is any more demonstrably valid than another, and this contributes to, rather than detracts from, the work’s power and endless fascination.

“Mrs. Mean”

A work of less intensity but open to even broader interpretation, perhaps, is “Mrs. Mean.” Mrs. Mean is the name given by the narrator to a neighbor: the vulgar, shrill mother of a brood of children. The story is filled with mythic and religious allusions (as are most of Gass’s stories), which have led certain critics to rather strained interpretations; once again, however, the allusions are the unreliable narrator’s, and what really happens in his fictive world may be far different from his interpretation of it.

The story is composed almost entirely of the narrator’s observations as he and his wife spy on Mrs. Mean from their house across the street. He sees a woman loud, vulgar, violent, and sadistic to her children; indeed, in the narrator’s mind she assumes a malevolence of almost mythic proportions. Any parent reading the story, however, might see Mrs. Mean as simply a mother harried to distraction by a pack of children who seem to have very little fear of the “monster” that the narrator perceives. The narrator deems it “unnaturally sacrificial” when the children run into their house, not away from their house when chased by their mother. What is unnatural, however, is the narrator’s inability to understand a simple domestic situation and his obsession with observing life instead of participating in it. At the end, he has withdrawn into his room, locked away even from his wife, but desperate to join the world of Mrs. Mean—which is, after all, simply the world of the living.

Another observer of, rather than participant in, life is the narrator of the title story.

“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”

One of the most frequently anthologized stories of contemporary literature, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is strikingly innovative; it achieves what all great writers strive for: the perfect wedding of form and content. The story concerns a poet, the narrator, who has “retired” to a small Indiana town after a failed love affair. He is in the heart of the country geographically, and in the heart of that heart since he is still in the heart’s domain: the country of love.

The story is divided into sections ranging from a few sentences to a few pages in length, and each section is entitled with a descriptive phrase such as “Politics,” “Vital Data,” “Education,” and so forth. In a sense, the story is an anatomy of a rural community, but, as in the other stories, what the narrator describes reveals more about him than about the objects of his descriptions. For example, although the sections may initially appear to be randomly arranged (there is a subtle movement from winter through spring, summer, fall, and back to winter at the story’s end), certain recurring elements bind them together to form a psychological and spiritual portrait of the narrator. As much as he may try to make his descriptions flat and objective, for example, as much as he may try to refine himself out of his own story, the narrator can never escape his memories of love. He as much as admits that his interest in politics, for example, simply fills a vacuum left by lost love.

Even when his memories of love do not intrude directly into certain sections, his despair colors whatever he touches. For example, the persons to whom he returns again and again in his descriptions are the old, the feeble, the lonely: projections of himself. On the rarer occasions when he describes persons who are younger and more vital, he cannot empathize: They are faceless, dangerous. It is a measure of his fall when he thinks of his lost love in terms of “youth and child” but now is obsessed with the lonely and the dying.

The story is fragmented, then, because the narrator’s psyche is fragmented; he is out of harmony with his own life. The “organic” qualities of the story, however, go beyond that. The narrator is a poet, and as a result “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” is a “poetic” fiction. The sentences are rhythmical and alliterative; he even deliberately employs prose rhyme. The descriptions are imagistic, frequently recalling T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, Richard Aldington, and Robert Lowell more than any prose masters. Indeed, the first “Politics” section as a poem would rival some of the finest efforts of the contemporary period.

The Cartesian Sonata

Gass’s The Cartesian Sonata is a further examination of narrative fragmentation. The three-part narrative begins with the Sterne-like promise that “this is the story of Ella Bend Hess,” a clairvoyant woman who is subjected to various abuses which she knows about in advance. What follows the opening line, though, are mutterings of the narrator and tergiversations of truth in connected digressive fragments, these all yielding a composite picture of Ella rather than a traditional story about her. The reader moves linearly through the asynchronous images of Ella getting her shoes from a traveling salesman, the salesman’s uncle’s story of a man shot in the foot, a description of the museum that displays the boot, Peg Crandall’s nude portrait session and the artist’s lust, the narrator’s writing habit and interest in graffiti, an explanation of Ella’s talent as due to ultrasensitivity (“She was almost totally attention and antennae”), and visits to other seers including Professor Logrus and Madame Betz. The concluding section is a circular stream-of-consciousness rendering of Ella’s husband’s thoughts. He reviews his abuse of Ella and the possibility of her death, and the section is peppered with vertical ellipsis and self-deprecation. The effect of these disjunctive elements is that of montage, of the reader’s whole understanding of the subject as greater than the sum of the parts.

Hyperbole is hard to avoid when evaluating the work of Gass. He is an enormously talented writer and critic—so talented as to be initially daunting, perhaps, to some readers. That is unfortunate, for enjoyment of his stories never relies on knowledge of his theories or subtle grasp of his technical expertise, although these can add to the pleasure. “The Pederson Kid” and “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” in particular, are destined to become hallmarks of contemporary short fiction.

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