William H. Gass Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

William H. Gass Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 2572 words.)