William H. Gass

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Richard J. Schneider (review date Winter 1979-1980)

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SOURCE: A review of The World Within the Word, in Modern Fiction Studies, Vol. 25, No. 4, Winter, 1979-1980, pp. 757-58.

[In the following favorable review of The World Within the Word, Schneider discusses Gass's critical views on literature.]

Following close on the heels of John Gardner's On Moral Fiction, William Gass's second collection of essays seems almost a counter-attack. To Gardner's call for fiction of moral concern, Gass replies that “Poetry [which for Gass usually includes fiction and essays] is not a kind of communication, but a construction in consciousness.” On the thread of this premise, Gass strings essays about an impressively eclectic range of topics, including suicide, psychology, philosophy, mathematics, and linguistics as well as literature.

Gass begins by stripping the reader of two widespread misconceptions about what “poetry” is. In several essays on death and suicide, Gass reminds us that literature is not the cathartic escape from life, either for the writer or the reader, that most readers take it to be. Using Hart Crane, Malcolm Lowry, and his own mother as examples, he insists that although suicide may be an escape from life, literature certainly is not. Though an artist may refuse to face the challenge of his own life, he cannot refuse the challenge of his art's form: “Poetry is cathartic only for the unserious, for in front of the rush of expressive need stands the barrier of form.” Writing is harder than living: “Writing. Not writing. Twin terrors. Putting one's mother into words. … It may have been easier to put her in her grave.” The second misconception Gass attempts to destroy is that literature imitates life. For him life and art are irreconcilably separate. In discussions of Faulkner, Stein, Colette, Proust, Valéry, Sartre, Nabokov, Freud, and Henry Miller, he emphasizes that all of these writers forged in their writing the order they failed to find in their lives. “Faulkner's life,” for instance, “was nothing until it found its way into Faulkner's language. Faulkner's language was largely unintrigued by Faulkner's life.” Such writers write not to communicate ideas to their readers but to create themselves and their worlds through language.

Having attacked at length these misconceptions about the writer and his art, Gass concludes with three essays which explain his own concept of the function of language in literature. In the best of the three, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” he theorizes about language while making a case for short fiction as the most significant genre in contemporary literature. Novelists, he complains, no longer recognize “the vast difference between the literary use of language and any other,” and our poets “have embraced carelessness like a cocotte.” He likes essayists who, like him, “experiment with the interplay of genres,” but he admires most such writers of short fiction as Nabokov, Borges, Beckett, and Barth for “their esthetic exploitation of language, … their depth of commitment, to their medium, … their range of conceptual understanding, … [and] the purity of their closed forms.” For these writers, as for Gass himself, a word is like the carrot we use to make a snowman's nose: “the carrot does not simply stand for or resemble a nose, it literally is a nose now” (Gass's emphases). Words are things in themselves, not merely imitations of things. They create a world which need not be related to the moral systems of our own world.

Poetry is not communication? Art is harder than life? Words create their own worlds? Though not new, these continue to be difficult ideas to swallow for those who view literature as a moral vehicle....

(This entire section contains 705 words.)

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Of course, probably neither Gardner's moral view nor Gass's formalist view of literature is wholly right. Just as Gardner's fiction reveals his love for the texture of words, Gass's own beautifully crafted sentences in his essays and fiction are often filled with deep moral concern about the unfulfilled potential of our lives. Gass's ideas are becoming increasingly convincing and increasingly important, however, in light of our society's increasing carelessness about language. Whether or not we agree with his premises, we must thank him for patiently insisting that we re-examine the potential of language and literature in the hope of reducing “the number of dunderheads reading Balzac the way they would skimBusiness Week.


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William H. Gass 1924-

(Full name William Howard Gass) American novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

The following entry presents an overview of Gass's career through 1998. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 2, 8, 11, 15, and 39.

A precise and highly regarded literary stylist, William H. Gass prefers to be known as a “writer of prose” rather than a novelist, short story writer, postmodern theorist, or essayist, as his body of work attests to. Gass is distinguished for his preoccupation with the literary and the philosophical facets of language, particularly his view that a writer should not attempt to represent the world through mimesis, the imitation of nature, but should instead use language to create his or her own imaginary world. For his emphatic insistence on the purely aesthetic significance of the written text, Gass has become known as a literary figure who defies the restrictions of genre. His innovative works, including the novels Omensetter's Luck (1966) and The Tunnel, (1994), the novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, (1971), and several volumes of critical essays, have earned Gass a reputation as a brilliant and imaginative literary experimenter.

Biographical Information

Born in Fargo, North Dakota, early on Gass moved with his family to Warren, Ohio. His Depression-era childhood was complicated by his mother's alcoholism and his father's crippling arthritis. Gass's inability to deal with his family's problems influenced his decision during college to adopt a formalist aesthetic, which afforded him emotional detachment in his writing. Gass studied for a year at Kenyon College in Ohio, then spent a brief period at Ohio Wesleyan University. He entered World War II service in 1943. After the war, Gass returned to Kenyon, where he majored in philosophy and audited classes given by poet John Crowe Ransom. After graduating from Kenyon, Gass entered Cornell University, where he continued his study of philosophy. A lack of courses on aesthetic theory impelled him to study the philosophy of language. Having studied the theory of metaphor under Max Black, Gass produced a dissertation entitled “A Philosophical Investigation of Metaphor.” While at Cornell, Gass was influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, particularly his investigations into the language-mind-reality relationship and his conception of philosophy as an activity done for its own sake, divorced from content. Gass was also inspired by the work of Gertrude Stein and began experimenting with the sentence as the basic unit of writing. Gass joined the faculty of the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1950 as an instructor of philosophy and was awarded his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1954. After leaving Wooster, Gass taught at Purdue University until 1969. In 1958 Gass had several stories published by the magazine Accent, which also published sections from the novel Omensetter's Luck. Gass spent a dozen years writing this novel; at one point the only manuscript copy was stolen, hampering his progress. Though Omensetter's Luck was rejected by several publishers, it was eventually printed and established Gass as a significant American literary figure. His next book, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), a collection of five stories, solidified his popularity among critics and academics. In 1969 Gass began teaching at Washington University in St. Louis, where, since 1979, he has held the position of David May Distinguished University Professor in the Humanities. Gass subsequently published several books, including Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, and On Being Blue (1975), before finishing his magnum opus, The Tunnel in 1994. Known as a slow, careful writer, Gass began The Tunnel nearly thirty years before its publication, in the meantime releasing portions in literary journals. The Tunnel won both the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the American Book Award in 1996. Two of his essay collections, The Habitations of the Word (1984) and Finding a Form (1996), have won the National Book Critics Circle award for criticism. Gass won the National Institute for Arts and Letters prize for literature in 1975.

Major Works

In both his experimental fiction and critical essays, Gass evinces his preoccupation with the importance of the word over content and form over plot. The novel Omensetter's Luck, for example, is divided into different sections and incorporates several narrative styles and the use of experimental techniques to subvert the conventions of realism. The protagonist, Brackett Omensetter, displays, like Adam before the Fall, a naturalness and lack of self-consciousness. Arriving with his family in a small Ohio town in the 1890s, Omensetter stands in direct contrast with the town's preacher, Jethro Furber, who is obsessed with death and sex. Furber, believing that Man's Fall necessitates a separation from nature, views Omensetter's lack of a sense of guilt as a personal threat. Isolated from other individuals, Furber attempts to find refuge in the rhetoric offered by his own mind. Despite the book's emphasis on language over narrative conventions, however, a dramatic conflict does exist between Omensetter and Furber, demonstrating a tension that exists in Gass's work between the use of language as an end in itself and language as a means to an end. Similar to the depiction of Furber in Omensetter's Luck, the story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country focuses on lonely individuals. These characters retreat into fantasy and reveal their inner selves only through their patterned use of language. The title story considers an isolated narrator who attempts to create an aesthetic unity around his life by organizing descriptions of his town into blocks of prose poems, a process that only isolates him further.

Gass's own aesthetic principles are put forth in Fiction and the Figures of Life. Collecting together essays by the author on language, philosophy, and literature, the work argues for the virtues of art. Gass maintains that, as opposed to the functional use of words as signs in everyday language, words in novels are aesthetic signs that serve only an aesthetic design. The novelist, in turn, should not be concerned primarily with providing an accurate portrayal of the world; instead, according to Gass, the novelist should create his own aesthetic world based on language. In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Gass illustrated his belief that words in literature are not just vehicles with which to view the world, but are aesthetic objects in themselves. This “essay-novella,” as Gass termed it, calls attention to the physical aspects of language through its use of variously colored and textured paper, photographs, and its experiments with typefaces. The virtually plotless book presents sections that correspond to the stages of sexual intercourse that the narrator, Baby Babs Masters, is having with her lover. In so doing, the book invites readers to respond to the sensuousness of language. The extended essay On Being Blue continues Gass's exploration of the complex manner in which words relate to the world. Gass looks at the many meanings of the word “blue” and the attributes of “blueness.” While the essay collection The Habitations of the Word further delineates Gass's defense of art as a state not governed by moral conventions, a more personal argument for the autonomy of language in fiction is presented in Finding a Form. The Tunnel, Gass's long-awaited masterwork, eschews morality for the sake of art in unusually discomfiting terms. The novel centers upon the reprehensible narrator William Kohler, a history professor who has almost completed his own magnum opus, called Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, a sympathetic treatment of the Third Reich. Instead of writing the remaining introduction, Kohler begins to dig a tunnel out of his basement, the act of digging carrying him further from finishing his book. Gass's insistence on the insignificance of plot in fiction finds its representation in Kohler's futile tunnel project. Much of the novel involves Kohler's reminiscences about his family, his Nazi sympathizing former professor in Germany, Kohler's debates with department colleagues, and his perceptions of his personal life. As The Tunnel's narrator makes correlations between his domestic life and the Holocaust, an event normally viewed as having such extreme moral implications that it prohibits comparisons to other circumstances, the novel reiterates Gass's stance that words in fiction are removed from moral responsibility.

Critical Reception

Critics and scholars have praised Gass for his technical accomplishments, his discerning insight into how words are used and perceived, and his deft handling of words to create a remarkable array of inventive metaphors. Upon its publication, Omensetter's Luck was recognized as a startling achievement for its combination of trenchant thought and physical language. The work prompted comparisons with literary formalists James Joyce and William Faulkner, and the Symbolists in light of Gass's pursuit of technique for its own sake. However, for his relentless efforts to discredit and break free from conventional narrative forms, Gass is often referred to as a postmodern writer and grouped with contemporaries Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, John Barth, and Thomas Pynchon. Gass's critical essays on the primacy of language and the written word, particularly in The Habitations of the Word and Finding a Form, are highly regarded. Commentators note that in On Being Blue Gass effectively combines philosophy and imaginative speculation to create a text that blurs the definition of the discursive essay. Critics immediately hailed The Tunnel as an important accomplishment, though many reviewers acknowledged that additional time would be required to study and adequately assess the complicated work's significance. While Gass's rejection of such conventions as character, plot, and realism has been seen as a desire to separate the novel from a smothering emphasis on moralizing, some critics have expressed impatience with his writing. Noting that not everyone is as dissatisfied as Gass with fiction's attempts at realism, such critics contend that Gass's word associations do not compensate for the elimination of conventional structure and that he has substituted literary gimmicks for characters. Nevertheless, Gass's imaginative and indefatigable defense of the aesthetic value of language within fiction has accorded him a unique status and critical renown among twentieth-century American writers.

Charles Caramello (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: “Fleshing Out Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife,” in Silverless Mirrors: Book, Self, and Postmodern American Fiction, Tallahassee, FL: University Presses of Florida, 1983, pp. 97-111.

[In the following essay, Caramello examines Gass's postmodern ambivalence toward authority, textuality, and the deconstruction of reality in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.]

If dreams are made of imagination, I'm not afraid of my own creation.

Rodgers and Hart, “Isn't It Romantic?”

But though he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though someone else were Master.

John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”

William H. Gass calls a brief encounter with Wittgenstein “the most important intellectual experience of my life”;1 he is acidic on the topic of Sartrean engagement in literature;2 he describes himself as “very much a Valérian”;3 and he consistently argues that art “teaches nothing. It simply shows us what beauty, perfection, sensuality, and meaning are” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 274). The title of his collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, implies a position: there is no heart at the center of fiction; there is only language, the phrase “the heart.” The title of his second collection of essays, The World Within the Word, neatly encoding both an aesthetics and a metaphysics, expresses a position: language contains a world, language seeks to contain the world that contains it.

The epistemic shift that Derrida associates with “the end of the book and the beginning of writing” and that Roland Barthes designates as that “from work to text”—the shift we have considered at length—bears directly on the issues raised by Gass's fiction. Derrida, we recall, speaks of the cultural categories of “a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body.” Predicated on a metaphysics of presence and authority—on the idea of the Book—the dichotomy collapses once one acknowledges the decentered play of “writing.”4 William Gass would seem to have acknowledged this play. But if we can consider Barthes's “work” and “Text” as analogous to Derrida's “book” and “writing”—recalling Barthes's use of “work” to refer to the concept of literature as that which is produced by a discrete authorial presence and “Text” to refer to the concept of literature as that which is produced largely in its reception, that which is cut loose in the intertext, that which participates in the phenomenon that he describes as “the death of the author,” that in which there is “no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins”5—then we might have to place Gass on the side of book, work, and authority.

Indeed, Gass's work reveals a deep ambivalence on this matter of textuality and authority, the ambivalence that obtains throughout postmodern American fiction. His brief novella, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, published over a decade ago, both represents and manifests this ambivalence.6


It is appropriate that the first line of the preface to Gass's first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life, refers to Valéry, for Gass avows himself among the most formalistic of contemporary American writers.7 We might note, very briefly, that for Valéry poetry is to prose as dancing is to walking;8 that poetry “stimulates us to reconstruct it identically” (72); that a poem should reveal “an intimate union between the word and the mind” (74); that “a poem is really a kind of machine for producing the poetic state of mind by means of words” (79). While ordinary spoken language is transparent and autodestructive—“Its task is fulfilled when each sentence has been completely abolished, annulled, and replaced by the meaning”—“poetic language must preserve itself, through itself, and remain the same, not to be altered by the act of intelligence that finds or gives it a meaning” (171). The poet himself “is no longer the disheveled madman,” but “a cool scientist, almost an algebraist, in the service of a subtle dreamer” (315). The poet must dream, that is, but he must also transform this dream into “an artificial and ideal order by means of a material of vulgar origin” (192): common language. The poet must, moreover, be as precise as possible, for the inherent multivalence of poetic language predisposes it to violation, allows the reader to “corrupt” or “disfigure” its meaning (204). The extreme of interpretation—to reduce a poem to its prose statement, “to make of a poem a matter for instruction or examinations”—is “no slight matter of heresy,” but “a real perversion” (98).

Gass, too, has been a consistent defender of poetry as a special discourse; he argues that words undergo “ontological transformations” when shifted from common language to contextualized poetic forms.9 He feels likewise, however, about prose literature; he argues that “there are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions”; that “the lines of the novelist … are not likely interpretations of anything, but are the thing itself”; that “there are no events but words in fiction” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 17, 18, 30). He maintains that “the novelist, if he is any good, will keep us kindly imprisoned in his language” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 8) and that the reader should “feel the way he feels when he listens to music—when he listens properly, that is.”10 Although Gass wants the reader's “effort of understanding a work,” he does not want his or her “creative co-operation” (“P-V,” 133). “Anything that the reader is creatively going to be asked to put in,” he says, “I'll put in. I don't want him meddling around with my stuff” (“P-V,” 147).11 He opposes “pretentious claims for literature as a source of knowledge” (GI, 33) and believes, generally, that the work is a closed spatial construction with, at best, an indirect relationship to the world. One of Gass's preferred metaphors for fiction is sculpture. Fiction, he writes, is like a statue pointing with “outstretched arm and finger”: “Though pointing, the finger bids us stay instead, and we journey slowly back along the tension of the arm. In our hearts we know what actually surrounds the statue. The same surrounds every other work of art: empty space and silence” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 49).

The interior monologue of a woman named Babs, the narrative of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is printed with widely varied typefaces on pages of varied colors and textures—pages enclosed within front and back cover photographs of a nude female torso. The book presents itself as the sculptured body of a woman, self-contained and self-generated. At the same time, however, this book as woman is obsessed with sexual penetration and claims to want to remain open to it. On the one hand, we have Gass, coupling with his own imagination, creating an interior monologue seamless with its physical vehicle—a perfect union, it would seem, of mind and word, of intelligence and body. From this perspective, Gass remains in control—orchestrating language and graphics—of a purely formalistic fiction. On the other hand, we have the reader faced with a highly discontinuous text, a fiction he or she cannot fulfill, a fiction whose varied designs, colors, and textures, whose metaphoric flights and narrative dislocations, whose elaborate fabric of reference (in just sixty pages: Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dryden, Goethe, Tolstoy, Gogol, Lawrence, Hardy, James, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Apollinaire, Stein, Joyce, Beckett, and many others), all resist reading as anything less than writing. From this perspective, author relinquishes his control to the fortuities of the intertext. On the one hand, we have a voyeur's art; on the other hand, we have an appeal for book and reader to couple and to come together. And between clashing conceptions of the writer as master and the reader as lover stands this ambiguous literary text itself: a book as woman that seems to dissociate itself from both Molly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle while clearly dependent on their priority;12 an erotic text that oscillates between, in Roland Barthes's terms, plaisir and jouissance.

Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife exemplifies the problematics of the book in postmodernism for two reasons. First, Gass has exploited the physics of the book to flesh out fiction, to make the book a body, to render concrete his aesthetics of an opaque, palpable language. Second, his metaphysics and his erotics of the Book reveal an ambivalence—concentrated in this virtuosic performance— with respect to the positions of author and reader in relation to the literary text. Although the metaphor of sculpture does describe, almost literally, this book that presents itself as the body of a woman, metaphors of performance, which also recur in it, may be, finally, more appropriate. Gass, that is, makes the book perform in the play of textuality, but he also remains authoritarian about the status of the performing selves associated with that play. If we consider the problematics of writer, reader, and book separately, we will see how ambivalent Gass's position is.

The novelist, Gass has written, wants language to be “an utterly receptive woman” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 13); his business is not “to render the world,” but “to make one, and to make one from the only medium of which he is a master—language” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 24). In Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife we read that the penis is “the very instrument and emblem of the imagination” (49), and someone in this theater of voices adds: “Yet I have put my hand upon this body, here, as no man ever has, and I have even felt my pencil stir, grow great with blood. But never has it swollen up in love. It moves in anger, always, against its paper” (51). We also read that the “man of imagination”

experiences his speech as he does himself when he's most fit, when he is One—and moving smoothly as a stream. Imagination is, as Sam [a voice in the text] said, the unifying power, and the acts of the imagination are our most free and natural; they represent us at our best. (51)

The elements of this phallo- and logocentric vision culminate in the work's final lines:

It's not the languid pissing prose we've got, we need; but poetry, the human muse, full up, erect and on the charge, impetuous and hot and loud and wild like Messalina going to the stews, or those damn rockets streaming headstrong into the stars. (60)

In sum, we find an attitude that Charles Rosen has characterized well with reference, appropriately, to Liszt's Grande Fantaisie on themes from Mozart's Don Giovanni: “the virtuosity of Liszt's fantasy,” Rosen notes, “acts as a symbol of virility and dominance, a displacement of erotic mastery.”13 Gass, in fact, points to such a displacement himself in his titular wordplay: Will he master his lonesome wife?

The title, however, alludes not only to the romantic impulse (Goethe's Wilheim Meister) and, perhaps, to an opposed idea of the pure poem (Mallarmé as le MaŒtre), but, more important, to Shakespeare.14 With reference to the Sonnets, Northrop Frye has articulated a crucial element of sexual-textual mastery:

The true father or shaping spirit of the poem is the form of the poem itself, and this form is a manifestation of the universal spirit of poetry, the “onlie begetter” of Shakespeare's sonnets who was not Shakespeare himself, much less that depressing ghost Mr. W. H., but Shakespeare's subject, the master-mistress of his passion. When a poet speaks of the internal spirit which shapes the poem, he is apt to drop the traditional appeal to female Muses and think of himself as in a feminine, or at least receptive, relation to some god or lord, whether Apollo, Dionysus, Eros, Christ, or (as in Milton) the Holy Spirit.15

The poet, that is, can invert his masculine posture and claim to be mastered by all of poetry as a context and by the things of the world. Gass refers to such an inversion when he writes of D. H. Lawrence: “Yet when Lawrence felt he could go unprotected, when he allowed things, landscapes, people, to enter him … then there was no greater sensualist, no more vital, free, and complete a man, no more loyal and tender a lover” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 220). He also affects its practice in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. We should recall that a central theme of the book is that the wife's lovers “protect” themselves with condoms; that as she strives for “completion,” she complains of her having to “complete” her lovers (“I dream like Madame Bovary. Only I don't die during endings. I never die. They fall asleep on me and shrivel up. I write the finis for them, close the covers, shelf the book” [7]); that her principal objection is that her lovers lack “tenderness.” The ambiguity with regard to the question of mastery as it pertains to the master-writer, then, also informs the question of completion as it pertains to the lover-reader. As complement to the wordplay on the husband's name (Will he master his lonesome wife?), Gass has a tacit and less subtle wordplay based on the lover's name, Phil Gelvin: Will Phil fulfill her by filling her with Phil?

When Larry McCaffery—in a fine essay called “The Art of Metafiction: William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife”—identifies “the central metaphor of the whole work: that a parallel exists—or should exist—between a woman and her lover, between the work of art and the artist, between a book and its reader,”16 he identifies the problem correctly. But in his determination to interpret this work as a “remarkably pure” metafiction, McCaffery effects a reduction of its ambiguity that, in my opinion, causes him to misformulate important implications of this metaphor.

I do not believe that Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife finally coincides with McCaffery's reading of it:

Gass, thus, invites one to enter his work of art—a woman made of words and paper—with the same sort of excitement, participation, and creative energy as one would enter a woman's body in sexual intercourse. … Unfortunately, as we discover from Babs, all too frequently those who enter her do so without enthusiasm, often seemingly unaware that she is there at all. (“AM,” 25)

McCaffery's reading fails to account for a fundamental ambiguity in this work as a book: it is here, as a physical object, but, as Gass has elsewhere argued, a book is also not here; it is a Platonic idea, separate from its physical manifestation and from its reader who, when similarly abstracted, “is just as far away and metaphysical as the book” (see “P-V,” 141-44).

The identity of the wife-book, then, is also internally ambiguous, not only because she-it is “created” by an author and a reader whose statuses are ambiguous, but because her-its status as self-creator is ambiguous. The wife-book appears to be autotelic:

Departure is my name. I travel, dream. I feel sometimes as if I were imagination (that spider goddess and threadspinning muse)—imagination imagining itself imagine. Then I am as it is, reflecting on my own revolving, as though a record might take down its turning and in that self-responsive way comprise a song which sings its singing back upon its notes as purely as a mirror, and like a mirror endlessly unimages itself, yet is none the less an image (just as much a woman, gauzy muse and hot-pants goddess quite the same), for all that generosity—for all that giving of itself and flowing constantly away. (7)

(The passage, printed on a page whose opposite mirrors it, is rife with images of reflexivity, mirroring, and turning.) Rendering visually Gass's fiction-as-sculpture metaphor, a photograph of a woman's arm emerges from the binding on the first page after the cover and points to the title Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. This is not Michelangelo's finger of God instilling vitality in Adam— which it visually echoes and which would be consistent with the idea of the author as master—but the finger of the wife creating herself as a self-inspired Eve. She is imagination imagining herself imagine in a masturbatory play that, as Gass has her say, does not require cheap and mimetic pornography or fetish objects to produce pleasure:

when I am masturbating I—by Christ—call, witch up, conjure images and pictures, visions, fancies, wishes … wishes! They're obedient to no one. I have faeries straddle me, and angels, demons, stallions, dogs, as well as women. I will translate, just as Bottom was, my poor homeless lonely finger into anything. (45)

As desiring machine, the wife Gass creates is actually less desirous of her reader, despite her protests, than she is of herself.

And who is this wife, this imagination imagining herself imagine, if not the book as a textual performance? McCaffery goes wrong, I believe, when he identifies her only as “lady language.” That identification results from a misreading of this important sentence: “I am that lady language chose to make her playhouse of” (59). The “lady” is not “language”; “language” is also feminine (“her”), but it is not the predicate noun of the “I” of the sentence. “I” and “lady” refer to something of which language makes a playhouse: that something appears to be imagination performing itself in a book as a “writerly” text. The book is the playhouse of imagination in both senses of the word “playhouse.” It is a place for games: a place where the play of language plays (with) itself; and it is a theater: a performance space for the presumably interacting performances of writer, book, and reader.

We should recall that Babs, the wife, is not only a “whore” (8, 11, 54), but that she was a stripper (9, 23). She also says, however: “Until my flesh began to lose its grip, I danced in the blue light with the best, and then I married Willie so I could dance the same dance still, the dance I'm dancing now, and not feel lonely” (9). She remains a performer, performing the stripper's dance in language, the dance of the tease, which she must also perform as a sexual performance that defers orgasm. It is not the case, unfortunately, that “in performance, all difficulties disappear” (29). If I can do so with good humor, I would say that McCaffery—as the book shouts at its reader—has “BEEN HAD … FROM START TO FINISH” (53). As Willie (the whore) Master, Gass no more invites the reader to enter this woman than she herself extends such an invitation. To her, legitimately, the reader is a “sad sour stew-faced sonofabitch” (53) for whom she has considerable contempt. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is stripper's art, but what disturbs is not simply its deferral of orgasm; it is that the deferral, the dance, also seems to lack an affirmative joy.


In The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes writes:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. In these cases [texts of pleasure], there is no tear, no edges: a gradual unveiling: the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing the sexual organ (schoolboy's dream) or in knowing the end of the story (novelistic satisfaction). Paradoxically (since it is mass-consumed), this is a far more intellectual pleasure than the other: [it is] an Oedipal pleasure (to denude, to know, to learn the origin and the end), if it is true that every narrative (every unveiling of the truth) is a staging of the (absent, hidden, or hypostatized) father—which would explain the solidarity of narrative forms, of family structures, and of prohibitions of nudity, all collected in our culture in the myth of Noah's sons covering his nakedness.17

What disturbs about Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is that it appears to be striptease within a striptease, revealing the apparatus of revealing—“the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance” (PT, 10)—but that it does not, finally, effect this apparent unmaking. For crucial to Barthes's idea of the text as tissue is that it does not veil a truth; it is, rather, a “perpetual interweaving; lost in this tissue—this texture—the subject unmakes himself, like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web” (PT, 64).

The wife as subject is certainly made to unmake herself (“a mirror endlessly unimag[ing] itself”) in this fashion, as, more important, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife appears to unmake the reader as subject in terms that Barthes uses to describe the plaisir-jouissance overlap:

Text of pleasure [plaisir] the text that contents, fills, grants euphoria; the text that comes from culture and does not break with it, is linked to a comfortable practice of reading. Text of bliss [jouissance]: the text that imposes a state of loss, the text that discomforts …, unsettles the reader's historical, cultural, psychological assumptions, the consistency of his tastes, values, memories, brings to a crisis his relation with language. (PT, 14)

Gass's book guarantees such a loss for the reader, who must chase asterisked footnotes several pages ahead of the narrative's body, who must balance multiple narrations on the same page, who is accused of being a foot fetishist for reading the footnotes, and who is told in one particularly nasty note that he (the implied reader of this work is clearly male, a Baudelairean double: “dear brother, lover, fellow reader”) is a “bastard” hated with “a niggerish hate,” an “ass-plugger” trapped “deep inside me like they say in the songs, fast as a ship in antartic ice” (19-20).18 Even the reader who has played the game, who has not been “a literalist at loving,” is told “YOU'VE BEEN HAD … FROM START TO FINISH” (53). Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, moreover, sounds like the “writing aloud” (l'écriture … haute voix) that Barthes identifies with textual jouissance: “we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language” (PT, 66-67).

What disturbs is that Gass does not unmake himself as master, does not subvert his own authority (although he does render it ambiguous), and does not disrupt our cultural or sexual assumptions. Without shame, that is, Gass exposes the nudity of the wife (on the cover), and he forces her to strip beyond her legitimate attack on the male reader to this capitulation: “But let's not quarrel. Though you'll [Phil Gelvin] not be back, your brother will. Tell him he is responsible for me, and that I give as good as I receive. If he will be attentive, thoughtful, warm and kind, I shall be passionate and beautiful” (59). Gass, in short, must force her to capitulate to the male reader's fantasy because that reader, Gass knows from Baudelaire, is his, the writer's, double. Even more, Gass forces her to mouth the phallic plea for metaphor at the book's end. Gass does not stage his unveiling as a master, or father, in the text or—since his formalist aesthetics precludes it—through the “Text.” He does not reveal Noah's nakedness, allowing the reader the gratifying but traumatic glimpses that Joyce does in the closure-disclosure apparatus of Finnegans Wake. But neither does he quite stage an appearance-as-disappearance. He displaces erotic mastery as virtuosity; he makes the woman speak his voice, the voice of the male. What disturbs in this book is its sexual encroachment, its hegemony of the female voice towards ends not altogether pleasant. Chronologically following Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Gass's book seems ideologically to lag behind them.

What Gass, again, does not unmake is himself as master: as authority. Important to Barthes's theory of textual-sexual play is his perception of the text as a dismembered body: “the text itself, a diagrammatic and not an imitative structure, can reveal itself in the form of a body, split into fetish objects, into erotic sites” (PT, 56). Gass dismembers the wife in this way, but a writer who says in an interview:

Whenever I find myself working at white heat, I stop until I cool off. I write very slowly, laboriously, without exhilaration, without pleasure, though with a great deal of tension and exasperation. …

and who adds:

I am … a Protestant, wholly inner-directed, and concerned only too exclusively with my salvation, my relation to the beautiful, my state of mind, body, soul. … The interactions which interest me tend to be interactions between parts of my own being. … (GI, 38, 40)

does not seem to have similarly dismembered or dispersed himself.

This protection would be consistent with Gass's aesthetics. He argues that “where language is used as an art it is no longer used merely to communicate. It demands to be treated as a thing, inert and voiceless” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 93); that the writer is the “maker” of a totally self-contained verbal world beyond which “there is literally nothing” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 48); that language is “opaque” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 48); that theories “which think of fiction as a mirror or a window onto life” are “absurd” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 38); that “Relevance is meaningless to [art]. A work of art is made to last as a valuable being in the world. As such it may develop, over time, useful relations to the world; but just as human beings ultimately must find their value in themselves, so works of art must be relevant by being” (GI, 40); that, finally, “books are more real than the world, … they're more high-powered ontologically” (“P-V,” 143). Gass essentially divorces from history both the production and the reception of the text. Although Barthes, for example, explores the disruption of narrative structure and of the physical book in personal and erotic terms, he has also argued that this disruption is politically significant. In an early essay, “Literature and Discontinuity,” he writes (with reference to Michel Butor) that “the Book-as-Object is materially identified with the Book-as-Idea, the technique of printing with the literary institution, so that to attack the material regularity of the work is to attack the very idea of literature.”19 It is to reject the metaphysics of the Book and its sacrosanct Author, and it is to subvert, in some indirect way, the social institutions that depend upon that metaphysics for their legitimacy. Although Gass clearly practices such disruption, he seems not to obviate but to continue to imbue authority with mystery.

The mystification is linked by Gass and by Barthes, albeit differently, to an erotics of literature. Gass writes, for example:

The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed; and though at first it might seem as if the richness of life had been replaced by something less so—senseless noises, abstract meanings, mere shadows of worldly employment—yet the new self with which fine fiction and good poetry should provide you is as wide as the mind is, and musicked deep with feeling. … Because a consciousness electrified by beauty—is that not the aim and emblem and the ending of all finely made love?

Are you afraid?

(Fiction and the Figures of Life, 33)

Consciousness as the end of love: we read in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife that “there's no woman who's not, deep inside her, theoretical” (8); and later: “how close, in the end, is a cunt to a concept—we enter both with joy” (59). The most curious and troubling ambiguity of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is that it embodies woman as book only then to disembody both as pure consciousness. This is the consciousness of Willie Master(bator): ceaseless reverberations between Narcissus and Echo. We can begin to see why Gass also wants to warn of mistaking the word for flesh, of living in fiction “when on our own we scarcely breathe” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 37); why he criticizes Gertrude Stein's work as revealing a “desire to gain by artifice a safety from the world—to find a way of thinking without the risks of feeling” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 89); why he “see[s] no reason to regard literature as a superior source of truth, or even as a reliable source of truth at all” (GI, 33); and why the final injunction of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is: “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART—RETURN TO LIFE” (60).

Freed from the tics of his nervous prose and the archness of his critical prescriptions—concentrated in this book—Gass's ambivalence compels attention. He seems as reluctant, finally, to accept a metonymical textual play of language that fragments the body into erotic sites as he is to accept a metaphorical presence of language that, as in Norman O. Brown, unifies the mind and body as a sensual whole: “Everything is only a metaphor; there is only poetry.”20 For Gass, the bottom line remains separation: fiction as the vehicle of a metaphor whose subject is the world of the reader (see “P-V,” 133).21 The imagining that is the wife, as McCaffery's reading suggests, seems to be here, in the language and in the book:

No one can imagine—simply—merely; one must imagine within words or paint or metal, communicating genes or multiplying numbers. Imagination is its medium realized. You are your body … and the poet is his language (35);

I'm only a string of noises, after all—nothing more really—an arrangement, a column of air moving up and down (36);

The usual view is that you see through me, through what I am really—significant sound (48);

This moon, then, is something like me. For one thing, I'm an image. (56)

This wife, to import a phrase of Susanne Langer with which Gass might agree, is “significant form,” a complete image in herself, and separate from the world: the split between “you, the world; and I, the language” (58) continues to gape. “I can't complain,” she says. “You're supposed to be lonely—getting fucked” (7).

But complain of separation she constantly must: her lover “even carried his sperm away in a little rubber sack” (54); “he put his penis in a plastic bag” (55); “Thus we never touched, nor would have, though he feared me greatly, when we fucked. Afterward, he carried his seed off safely in a sack” (55-56). Separation is absolute between writer and reader:

The muddy circle you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup. Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I've set pen, hand, or cup to. … All contact—merest contact—any contact—is impossible, logically impossible (there's not even a crack between us) (39);

between reader and book:

As you see, its center's empty [the same circular stain, now inscribed “This is the moon of daylight”], no glow there. And I am lonely. This stupid creature who just now has left me … did not, in his address, at any time, construct me. He made nothing, I swear—nothing. Empty I began, and empty I remained (55);

between writer and book:

When a letter comes, if you will follow me, there is no author fastened to it like the stamp; the words which speak, they are the body of the speaker. It's just the same with me. These words are all I am. Believe me. Pity me. Not even the Dane is any more than that. (58)

When this letter—this woman as letter, as “I”—comes, she must come alone. The four sections of the book may represent stages of sexual excitation, as McCaffery suggests, but these are not stages of intercourse. This is soft-core porn. Unfulfilled by Phil, from whom she is always separated, Babs is left with her own finger—the finger of the statue, of the masturbator—a finger that Gass has allowed her: “But can you imagine any woman thinking: I've Phyllis folded up in my in-between? It's not such a bad idea, though” (13).22 This is the finger as the penis as the pencil, “moving in anger, always, against its paper.”

Melville's “dead letters,” separated from origin and end, would seem to have reappeared in American fiction, this time as “French letters,” for the brown circular stains in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife are also condom stains.23 The final one encircles the navel of the (photograph of the) woman's body—a woman who is neither, finally, the navel-less Eve associated with Molly Bloom, nor the omphalos of Anna Livia Plurabelle: a phallic OM as the originary Word made feminine and entered into history. But neither is she their joyful decentering. She is the book that we can open but cannot penetrate (the navel as false vagina): the physical book as the metaphysical Book that we, in fact, cannot enter with joy.


The Gass of whom I have been speaking is, in a real sense, as much a persona as a person, as much a construction of quotations as a living writer. And the position of even this “textual” Gass is difficult to state with certainty, for the disposition of voices in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is complex. Gass speaks as Babs, as Willie's wife, “in a feminine, or at least receptive, relation to some god or lord.” But he may also speak “silently,” in the composition itself, as Willie. Willie is his double, just as Phil Gelvin is Willie's double, just as the reader is Phil Gelvin's double. “Responsible” for the wife's creation, Gass may be implying through this chain of substitutions that he is also as “responsible” for her loneliness as the reader is.

Gass has criticized Nabokov's novels as being “attacks upon their readers, though not like … Baudelaire's, who called his lecteur a hypocrite, because he also called him his double, his frère” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 116). He has also written that Nabokov's “novels are frequently formless, or when form presides it's mechanical, lacking instinct, desire, feeling, life (nostalgia is the honest bloodstream of his books, their skin his witty and wonderful eye)” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 117). What Gass seems not to admire in Nabokov is the gamesmanship, especially when it is pedantic and when it does not sever itself from a conception of author as Master so much as refract this mastery in elaborate mirrorings. “Even a sentence which fails the demands of the body,” Gass writes,

which calls upon only the deductive faculty, which does not fuse the total self in a single act of sense and thought and feeling, is artistically incomplete, for when the great dancer leaps, he leaves nothing of himself behind, he leaps with, and into, all he is, and never merely climbs the air with his feet. Nabokov's novels often … seem like those Renaissance designs of flying machines—dreams enclosed in finely drawn lines—which are intended to intrigue, to dazzle, but not to fly.

Form makes a body of a book, puts all its parts in a system of internal relations so severe, uncompromising, and complete that changes in them anywhere alter everything; it also unties the work from its author and the world, establishing, with them, only external relations, and never borrowing its being from things outside itself. A still umbilicaled book is no more formed than a fetus.

(Fiction and the Figures of Life, 118-19)

In his quest for “significant form”—for a self-contained book-body, for an un-umbilicaled “wife”—Gass creates a work that is intended to intrigue, to dazzle, perhaps to couple and to come with its reader, but not to conceive a perpetually open textuality. We might wish to say of Gass what one character in John Rechy's City of Night says of another: “And where his heart should be, there is a novel.”24 Nostalgia, however, may also be the honest bloodstream of Gass's book.

Gass's ironic comments on what Derrida might term the cultural rejection of writing as primary often take a curious expression:

That novels should be made of words, and merely words, is shocking, really. It's as though you had discovered that your wife were made of rubber: the bliss of all those years, the fears … from sponge. … For the novelist to be at all, in any way, like a mathematician is shocking. It's worse than discovering your privates are plastic.

(Fiction and the Figures of Life, 27-28)

We should recall how often penises and breasts appear as balloons in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, how pivotal the image of the “plastic sack” is, and how Babs positions herself as imagination imagining itself imagine against men who no longer can imagine without outside stimuli: “and so they need some flesh-like copy, some sexy pix and rubber lover, a substitute in plasti-goop or blanket-cloth to keep them safe, to keep them clean of fact and fancy” (7). It is impossible to tell, finally, whether Gass champions textuality as sexuality or whether he seeks the metaphoric speech of love's body: an honest nostalgia.

It is very likely, however, that this dichotomy does not apply; that this nostalgia is the sentimental underbelly of a brilliant but brittle aesthetic surface; that Gass sustains a modernist dream of form, a dream that his ambivalence operates within, disrupts, and begins to subvert. Gass wants to leap, unified, into the dance of art, “leaving nothing of himself behind”; but he also wants to stage himself as a master, as a performing self, in a stripper's dance. The two desires may be incompatible. Gass, as he says of Nabokov, does not so much disappear as withdraw behind multiple refractions.25 In this, he may participate in what Herbert Blau views, negatively, as a postmodern solipsism:

The solipsistic self is a tautology—all assertions curving back upon themselves in a kind of metaphysical redundancy. If the self is neither body nor soul but only self, not anything else in the world, it is only a metaphysical subject—it vanishes behind the mirror of thought. … It would seem as if in this mirror there is only one future, and that is the future of an illusion.26

I would say that in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, Gass is at the extreme verge of modernist authority as it enters a postmodern funhouse of mirrors—a funhouse from which it may yet emerge in another transformation.


  1. William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1958-71), 248.

  2. See, for example, “Theatrical Sartre,” New York Review of Books, 14 October 1976, 16-24; reprinted as “Sartre on Theater” in The World Within the Word (Boston: Nonpareil, 1979), 177-202. In “A Memory of a Master,” Gass writes, with reference to Wittgenstein: “How pale seems Sartre's engagement against the deep and fiery colors of that purely saintly involvement” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 250).

  3. “Pole-Vaulting in Top Hats: A Public Conversation with John Barth, William Gass, and Ishmael Reed,” introduced by James McKenzie, Modern Fiction Studies 22 (1976): 147. Hereafter cited in text as “P-V.”

  4. See Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), 6-26. The quotation is from p. 17.

  5. See Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” and “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, essays by Barthes selected and trans. by Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 155-64, 142-48. The quotation is from p. 142.

  6. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife was originally published as TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two (1968) and was reissued in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf in 1971. Although the reissue does not contain the same front and back cover photographs or the same variations in paginal colors and textures, the graphics and text are identical to those of the original. Both issues give design credit to Lawrence Levy and photography credit to Burton L. Rudman. Both are unpaginated.

    References to Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife are cited in the text. For the reader's convenience, I am supplying pagination.

  7. My remark needs some qualification. In an interview conducted by Thomas LeClair and published in the Paris Review, no. 70 (1977): 61-94, Gass says that he had once been a “formalist” but had eventually emerged from his “formal phase”: “So now I try to manage two horses: there is one called Valéry and another called Rilke. … Intellectually, Valéry is still the person I admire most among artists I admire most; but when it comes to the fashioning of my own work now, I am aiming at a Rilkean kind of celebrational object, thing, Dinge” (63). I, too, see the Gass of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife as a Valérian formalist aiming elsewhere, though not necessarily towards Rilke.

  8. Paul Valéry, The Art of Poetry, trans. Denise Folliot, vol. 7 of the Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Bollingen Series 45 (New York: Pantheon, 1958), 70. Subsequent references cited in text.

  9. See, for example, William H. Gass, “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses,” Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976): 725-39, followed by two replies to Gass, 739-43. See, also, Gass, “The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make a World of Words.” Both essays appear in The World Within the Word, 280-307, 308-338.

  10. William Gass, interviewed by Carole Spearin McCauley, in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, ed. Joe David Bellamy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1974), 34-35. Hereafter cited in text as GI.

  11. Gass is specifically repudiating Robbe-Grillet's pronouncement: “For, far from neglecting him, the author today proclaims his absolute need of the reader's cooperation, an active, conscious, creative assistance. What he asks of him is no longer to receive ready-made a world completed, full, closed upon itself, but on the contrary to participate in a creation, to invent in his turn the work—and the world—and thus to learn to invent his own life” (For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard [New York: Grove Press, 1965], 156).

  12. Echoing Joyce's beautiful closing of the Wake‘s ALP section, Gass's “wife” says: “You don't go hithering and thithering, do you?” (4). When she says, later, “Screw—they say, screw—what an ideal did any of them ever? It's the lady who wooves and woggles, Nail—bang!—sure—nail is nearer theirs” (10), she may have in mind Joyce's comment that “Penelope is the clou of [Ulysses],” and the well-known passage describing Penelope’s “four cardinal points” that follows (see James Joyce, Letters, vol. 1, ed. Stuart Gilbert [New York: Viking, 1957], 170). The photograph that opens Willie Masters' text—a woman about to eat an alphabet-block of the letter “S”—visually echoes the stately “S” that opens Ulysses and carries the same suggestion of textual circularity.

  13. Charles Rosen, “Romantic Documents,” New York Review of Books, 15 May 1975, 17.

  14. In the McCauley interview, Gass says: “The jokes are there—in Goethe, in Shakespeare, etc.” (38).

  15. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (New York: Atheneum, 1967), 98. That Gass as metafictionist seems to have focused on the Shakespeare of the Sonnets may be doubly allusive, given Oscar Wilde's superb metafiction, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

  16. Larry McCaffery, “The Art of Metafiction: William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife,Critique 18 (1976): 24-25. Hereafter cited in text as “AM.”

  17. Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), 10. Hereafter cited in text as PT.

  18. Cf. Gass's comment in “The Concept of Character in Fiction” that “the writer must not let the reader out; the sculptor must not let the eye fall from the end of his statue's finger; the musician must not let the listener dream. Of course, he will; but let the blame be on himself” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 54). Babs seems to have in mind Cole Porter's “I've Got You Under My Skin.”

  19. Roland Barthes, “Literature and Discontinuity,” in Critical Essays, trans. Richard Howard (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1972), 173.

  20. Norman O. Brown, Love's Body (New York: Random House/Vintage, 1966), 266.

  21. Gass's theory of metaphor is obviously more complex than this remark suggests. For a recent and fully developed statement of that theory, see his “Representation and The War For Reality,” Salmagundi, no. 55 (1982): 61-102, followed by two responses to Gass, pp. 103-18.

  22. Babs is pondering various names given parts of the body, especially those—Lawrence's “John Thomas,” for example—men give their penises. “They ought to name their noses like they named their pricks” (3), she says earlier, introducing the Gogol allusion on which the second part of the novella is centered. Here, clitoral “Phyllis” replaces phallic “Phil.”

  23. My thanks to Professor Iwao Iwamoto for pointing this out to me.

  24. John Rechy, City of Night (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 73.

  25. Gass speaks of Nabokov as a “godlike contriver” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 116), and writes elsewhere that “if the aesthetic aim of any fiction is the creation of a world, then the writer is creator—he is god—and the relation of the writer to his work represents in ideal form the relation of the fabled Creator to His creation” (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 18). To the extent that this god is, for Gass, a disappearing god (see Fiction and the Figures of Life, 18-23), Gass shifts toward the position—expressed by John Barth in “Life-Story,” another metafictional tale of wives and lovers—that “the old analogy between Author and God, novel and world, can no longer be employed unless deliberately as a false analogy” (Lost in the Funhouse [Garden City: Doubleday, 1968], 128).

  26. Herbert Blau, Take Up the Bodies: Theater at the Vanishing Point (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982), 265.

Principal Works

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Omensetter's Luck (novel) 1966

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (short stories) 1968

Fiction and the Figures of Life (essays) 1970

*Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (novella) 1971

On Being Blue (essay) 1975

The World Within the Word (essays) 1978

The First Winter of My Married Life (short story) 1979

The Habitations of the Word: Essays (essays) 1984

Words about the Nature of Things (nonfiction) 1985

A Temple of Texts (nonfiction) 1990

The Tunnel (novel) 1994

Finding a Form (essays) 1996

Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (novellas) 1998

Reading Rilke: Reflections on the Problems of Translation (criticism) 1999

*First published in TriQuarterly magazine, 1968.

Charlotte Byrd Hadella (essay date Fall 1988)

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SOURCE: “The Winter Wasteland of William Gass's ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,’” in Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XXX, No. 1, Fall, 1988, pp. 49-58.

[In the following essay, Hadella examines Gass's theoretical perspective, literary allusion, and narrative authority in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” According to Hadella, the narrator's “attempt to control his world through language fails because he lacks love, the vital ingredient needed to transform language into art.”]

“Models interfere with the imagination,” William Gass insists in response to a question about how or where he gets the material for his fiction.1 In this same interview, however, Gass confesses: “The only time I ever used a ‘model’ in writing was when, as a formal device, and to amuse myself, I chose to get the facts about ‘B’ in ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country’ exactly right.”2 An important connection exists, I believe, between Gass's theory about the stifling effect of models on the imagination and the fact that he uses a model to create “B” in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.” The narrator in that story, a “teacher, poet, folded lover,” constantly seeks models for his work and his life, and these models certainly interfere with his imagination.3 He shuns human connections and seeks literary ones; he hides behind an image of himself that he has fabricated from literary models: he is W. B. Yeats's aging artist and the etherized patient from T. S. Eliot's “Prufrock”; at various times throughout the narrative, he is Whitman's oratorical singer or Rilke's “poet of the spiritual” (202). Yet this narrator/poet is miserable, lonely, and lost in a fragmented world, much like the world of Eliot's The Waste Land, because he fails to participate fully in either art or life.

The reference to Yeats's Byzantium in the opening lines of the story signals that the narrator has left one world and entered another—the world of his own imagination.4 This first segment of “In the Heart” is titled “A Place,” and it characterizes the world of the story, “B,” as a place that is stagnant and decaying behind a veneer of progress and pleasantness. “B” is “fastened to a field in Indiana,” and it “always puts its best side to the highway”; for instance, on one lawn stands a “wood or plastic iron deer,” a mock representative of the artifice of Yeats's Byzantium—a substitute for the natural, sensual world that is subject to decay (172). Also in “B”, according to the narrator, the lawns are green in spring; but a careful reader will realize that spring never arrives in the story. As Gass leads us into his story, we move away from the best side of town and into an unmistakable wasteland where “gravel dust rises like breath behind the wagons” (173). “A Place” concludes with the narrator's announcement that he is “in retirement from love,” an indication that we are, indeed, in an emotional wasteland “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (173).

With the fragmented structure of his story, Gass conveys a subliminal message of the isolation, loneliness, and departmentalized perception of his narrator. The thirty-six segments offer descriptions of, and/or observations about such varied topics as weather, church, politics, education, business, people, and wires, indicating that the narrator is somehow trying to “measure the whole” in his book of critical essays, The World Within the Word. After defining words as “deposits of meaning made almost glacially over ages … names for thoughts and things acts and other energies which only passion has command of,” Gass refers to T. S. Eliot's coffee spoon metaphor in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to illustrate his definition:

Prufrock did not measure out his life One/Two, One/Two, but carefully, in coffee spoons, from which the sugar slid, no doubt, like snow, and the beverage circled to their stir as soundlessly as a rolled eye. Morning, noon, evenings, afternoons. There was the polite chink as they came to rest in the saucers—chink chink chink … a complete world unfolds from the phrase like an auto map reveals its roads. In metaphor, meanings model one another, wear their clothes. What the poet tries to measure is the whole.5

However, Gass's narrator, more like Prufrock the character than Eliot the poet, slips into pools of words that drown his “measurements” in solipsistic emotional paralysis. Because Gass's poet has retired from love, he lacks the passion to command language and his stifling self-consciousness renders him unable to maintain a metaphorical vision.

In the first “Weather” section, Gass introduces the information that the narrator is a writer and that he blames the weather for his mood. Thus, the narrator reports that “it is a rare day, a day to remark on, when the sky lifts and allows the heart up. I am keeping count, and as I write this page, it is eleven days since I have seen the sun” (173). Bruce Bassoff aptly observes in “The Sacrificial World of William Gass,” “that the climate of “In the Heart” is an objective correlative for the inner state of the narrator.”6 That this inner state is winter, the season of stasis, of withdrawal from life, is in keeping with the wasteland imagery that opens the story of a place whose inhabitants are “lonely and empty” and “barren and loveless” (180). The next “Weather” section (segment 15) emphasizes the ubiquitous grayness of winter—even “speech is gray” (180). This segment also includes a hellish description of summer:

The heat is pure distraction. Steeped in our fluids, miserable in the folds of our bodies, we can scarcely think of anything but our sticky parts. Hot cyclonic winds and storms of dust criscross the country. … (180-81)

Through the narrator's obsessive attention to weather, Gass emphasizes a controlling irony in the story: though the narrator complains about the weather, he is the one who is responsible for the world in which he lives. His complaints suggest that he does not accept this responsibility.

Frederick Busch argues that in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” the narrator's world is “the refuge or prison he creates for himself. So we have a man who has fled the world of nature, who has somehow fallen, and who is now trapped (or hiding, or both) in his imagination. This little story is a saga of the mind.”7 Therefore, the present-tense season for “B” is always winter because the narrator's mood is a perpetual winter. The poet/narrator avoids thinking of spring as the season of rebirth and renewal. Thus, even when he does mention spring rain, the rain mentioned is only a memory, and it is not associated with desire or awakening to life; instead, he insists that “in the spring it rains as well, and trees fill with ice” (181).

By the time he narrates the final “Weather” section of the story, Gass's poet has begun to realize the fallacy of blaming the weather for his barren, loveless predicament. He claims: “I would rather it were the weather that was to blame for what I am and what my friends and neighbors are—we who live here in the heart of the country”; but he equivocates in the next sentence with “better the weather, the wind, the pale dying snow … the snow—why not the snow?” (191). In the following paragraph, however, the poet again attempts to accept responsibility for his world by stating, “a cold fall rain is blackening the trees or the air is like lilac and full of parachuting seeds. Who cares to live in any season but his own?” (192). But he backs away immediately from the frightful prospect that he has created his own sickness and answers himself; “Still I suspect the secret's in this snow, the secret of our sickness, if we could only diagnose it, for we are all dying like the elms in Urbana” (192). Thus, we are back to winter again in the heart of the country of this story.

Gass's poet, finding himself in a dormant winter state, attempts to gain a new perspective in the section titled “My House” (segment 3) by climbing the high stumps of the headless maple trees behind his house “like a boy to watch the country sail away …” (173). Here he has the revelation that “I think then I know why I've come here: to see, and so to go out against new things” (173). But his resolution lasts only as long as he is perched upon his tree stump. By the next “house” section (segment 7), the poet has retreated from his perch; he has moved inside where he faces his inability to create; he seems to have abandoned his resolution to “go out against new things.” Here we find that “leaves move in the windows,” and the narrator cannot tell us “how beautiful it is, what it means” (175). The next “house” section, “My House, This Place and Body” (segment 13), illustrates the narrator's final retreat from his previous resolution. Here, he explains: “I've fallen as fast as the poet, to the sixth sort of body, this house in B, in Indiana, with its blue gray bewitching windows, holy magical insides. Great thick evergreens protect its entry. And I live in” (179). Following this announcement of total withdrawal, Gass reasserts his narrator's connection to the land with “this country takes me over in the way I occupy myself when I am well” (179). But the poet is not well; he has not been able to re-create the “ecstasy on a tree stump,” which originally inspired him to “go out against new things” (173).

In fact, he has achieved the reverse of meaningful interaction with humanity or movement toward new knowledge: he now “lives in” and his thoughts are dominated by his past, and particularly his failed love affair. But in spite of his self pity and narrow perception, the poet continues to make metaphors. He calls his love a fiction, “a figure out of Twain” (179); and later, as Busch notes, “the beloved is on a raft with the poet and is simultaneously the river on which they drift. She becomes a metaphor for the Finn-like journey from the real and noxious world.”8 Gass's achievement in this metaphor is twofold: he demonstrates that his narrator still has creative powers, the recuperative powers necessary to deliver himself from his living hell; however, the narrator's creative production is clearly limited by his solipsism, and thus incapable of becoming something new, something separate from its maker: a work of art.9

The section that follows “My House, This Place and Body” consists of one paragraph titled “The Same Person” (segment 14) that intensifies the theme that the narrator's ability to make metaphors cannot save him as long as he lacks love and flees from commitment to his community. In this passage, the narrator encounters Billy Holsclaw at the post office. The details of the segment contribute to Gass's portrait of his narrator as a person who deliberately cuts himself off from humanity. The setting is ironic since the post office itself represents connections with the world outside of the character's immediate sphere—communications, messages sent forth, messages received. And here Billy Holsclaw talks “greedily” to his neighbor “about the weather” (179). The narrator observes: “His [Billy's] head bobs on a wild flood of words, and I take the violence to be a measure of his eagerness for speech” (179-80). But instead of responding to Billy's need for fellowship, the narrator retreats: “I leave him … and our encounter drives me sadly home to poetry—where there's no answer” (180).

The two remaining sections that deal specifically with Billy, “That Same Person” (segment 23) and “The First Person” (segment 33) support the interpretation that Gass employs “fluid identifications” for his narrator, and that Billy is one of these identifications.10 The narrator, therefore, expresses his own desire for stasis when he says about Billy, “Quite selfishly I want him to remain the way he is—counting his sticks and logs, sitting on his sill in the soft early sun—though I'm not sure what his presence means to me … or to anyone” (190). Immediately following this passage, the poet reasserts that “Byzantium” desire to become a work of art and thus remove himself from the world of senses and decay. He speculates, “whether, given time, I might someday find a figure in our language which would serve him [Billy] faithfully, and furnish his poverty and loneliness richly out” (190). Here he projects onto Billy that which he desires for himself—immortality through art.

That Gass's narrator shuns Billy because he shuns the natural forces of life is expressed most clearly in “The First Person.” The poet confesses that by severing himself from humanity, “I did not restore my house to its youth, but to its age” (202). Though Billy is old, tattered, and almost blind, the narrator says, “I'm inclined to say you [Billy] aren't half the cripple I am, for there is nothing left of me but mouth” (202). But he retracts this metaphor as just “another lie of poetry” before finally declaring: “My organs are all there, though it's there where I fail—at the roots of my experience” (202). Here the poet recognizes that he has the equipment to be human (bodily organs), but that he has cut himself off from the community of human experience, the roots of humanity. Thus Gass articulates in “In the Heart” perhaps the most important theme from Eliot, the central question in The Waste Land: “What are the roots that clutch?”11 Eliot suggests that the roots, which keep modern man alive, are the roots of myth, of death, and of rebirth. Christ's sacrifice is part of this continuum, and Christ's message merges in The Waste Land with the Vedic order: “Give. Sympathize. Control.” When Gass's narrator says that he has failed at the roots of his experience, he is recognizing that his experience has not been human: his love has been a fiction (179), his childhood a lie of poetry (205), and his present existence is a retirement from love (173).

Admittedly unsuccessful at both art and life, the poet/narrator of “In the Heart” cannot see that his failure results from his unwillingness to give to either of these processes the central ingredient of both—love. He tries, instead, to substitute order. Beginning the first of three “Politics” sections (segment 8) with the half sentence “for all those not in love,” the poet signals that he is actually addressing himself. He proceeds, then, with a brief paragraph about two political figures, Batista and Castro, who have been engaged in a power struggle for control of Cuba. Perhaps because he identifies with Batista, a man who has lost his power, the poet's commentary in “Politics” degenerates into egocentric metaphor with “A squad of Pershing Rifles at the moment, I make myself Right Face: Legislation packs the screw of my intestines. Well, king of the classroom's king of the hill. You used to waddle when you walked because my sperm between your legs was draining to a towel” (175).

Finally, this section turns into a Whitman parody with “I chant, I beg, I command, I sing—” (175). Alluding to the conclusions of the first and second sections of The Waste Land, Gass's poet sings:

Good-bye … Good-bye … Oh, I shall always wait
                                        You, Larry, traveler—
                                                                                —my friend—
my little girl, my poem, my heart, my self, my childhood. (175-76)

This conflation of the conclusions to “The Burial of the Dead” and “A Game of Chess” suggests that the poet of “In the Heart” is trying desperately to unify his own experiences through another writer's consciousness.

But none of his literary models can contain the material that Gass's narrator would like to pour into them, and the attempt at narrative control in “Politics” fails by breaking into a lamentation of personal bewilderment and ineffectiveness. Interrupting the political discussion, and introducing the Whitman parody and the Eliot allusion, the poet whimpers: “I cannot write the poetry of such proposals, the poetry of politics, though sometimes—often—always now—I am in an uneasy place of equal powers which makes a state” (175). The “uneasy place” for the narrator is a zone of his own invention. Caught between the equal powers of life and death, he finds himself in a state of living death. Escape requires change, and change is what this character fears the most. Therefore, instead of venturing forth into the unknown, making new relationships, Gass's narrator tries to enter the world of literature and thus escapes death.

In “Politics” and similar sections containing spliced allusions and frustrated rantings, Gass demonstrates the futility of his character's attempt to find a formula for his feelings or a system of values through literature. As Charles Newman explains Gass's theory of fiction, “it [fiction] is a process of signification which does not unify experiences but is its own experience.”12 According to Gass, truths exist within the world of a piece of fiction that apply to that fiction. When we sever these truths from their fictional universe, we inevitably distort what we have extracted by trying to fit that fragment of fiction into our lives in any meaningful way. The work itself is truth, complete and whole, and the process of reading it is the process of discovering the world of truths within the words. Gass will allow that good works of literature deal with ambiguities that “can be made into an orderly revelation of meaning”; but readers are to measure their lives against that meaning, not extract that meaning to live by.13 Thus, the poet/narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” fails to find meaning in his life because he refuses to participate in the process of living.

At times, however, the poet of this story appears to be committed to his quest for physical, spiritual, and emotional restoration. In the fourth “house” section, “My House, My Cat, My Company” (segment 18), he declares resolutely, “I must organize myself,” (182) which reveals that he is attempting to exert some kind of control over his life. This control is manifest through language as the poet divides his existence into titled sections that vary in content, structure, and point of view. But his search is characterized generally by directionless commentary that invariably slips away from objective observations or rational discourse into narcissistic whining. As he casts about for topics of discussion, the “folded lover” admits his lack of control:

My will is like the rosy dustlike light in this room: soft, diffuse, and generally comforting. It lets me do … anything … nothing. My ears hear what they happen to; I eat what's put before me, my eyes see what blunders into them; my thoughts are not thoughts, they are dreams. I'm empty or I'm full … depending; and I cannot choose. (182)

Here, the narrative voice of control discloses itself as a mere pose, the echo of modern consciousness.14

When Gass's narrator announces in “My House, My Cat, My Company” (segment 18) that “I am learning to restore myself, my house, my body, by paying court to gardens, cats and running water, and with neighbors keeping company,” he seems to have reached beyond himself to make a meaningful human connection (183). He refers to his eighty-five year old neighbor, Mrs. Desmond, as his “right-hand friend” and describes her obsession with loss and death (183). In the next paragraph of this segment, however, the poet reveals that he and Mrs. Desmond do not really communicate, that there is no real relationship between them: “We do not converse. She visits me to talk. My task to murmur. … Her talk's a fence—a shade drawn, window fastened, door that's locked. …” (184). Thus, in his “listening posture,” the narrator retreats to his past, remembers listening to his grandfather talk, compares himself to “badly stacked cards,” and recalls his lost love affair in terms of a card game (184). This scene underscores the fact that the only character with whom the narrator even pretends to keep company is a character who, like himself, uses language as a protective fence to bar any real contact with others.15

Gass describes his poet as “one person who's having a lot of problems looking at certain things in the town in a certain way”; he adds that his poet, in fact, “is suffering from a lack of perception of the world.”16 Everywhere the narrator looks in “B,” he sees himself, his own inadequacies, metaphors for blindness and failure. One of three “Business” sections (segment 22), for instance, focuses on failed enterprises. A particularly vivid image in the section is a torn campaign poster that blocks the windows of a watch repair shop and urges viewers “to vote for half an orange beblazoned man who as a whole one failed two years ago to win at his election” (189). Significantly, this poster blocks the narrator's view of a watch repair shop, a place where broken timing mechanisms can be restored. This image draws attention to the fact that the poet is stuck in time, suffering from a perpetual winter, fearing both life and death.17

The very next passage articulates explicitly the narrator's fear of the unknown:

What do the sightless windows see, I wonder, when the sun throws a passerby against them? Here a stair unfolds toward the street—dark, rickety, and treacherous—and I always feel, as I pass it, that if I just went carefully up and turned the corner at the landing, I would find myself out of the world. But I've never had the courage. (189-90),

The poet himself is the half man on the poster who “failed two years ago to win at his election” (189). Instead of going on with his life, “going out against new things,” he clings to his past failures and shuns pathways that lead to unknown experience. In this passage, Gass's poet echoes Prufrock's question: “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”

By beginning the story with words lifted from Yeats, then relying upon images, patterns, and themes from Eliot, Rilke, Whitman, and others, Gass underlines an important impulse of his narrator's character: he approaches art, as well as life, selfishly, with a limited consciousness that attempts to appropriate words, experiences, and emotions from other sources because his own creative and procreative faculties are paralyzed. In The World Within the Word, Gass exhorts readers to “watch out for images which are merely telephonic sums, for explanations which aren't really meant but are, like plastic bosoms and paste gems, only designed to dazzle. We confine ourselves to too few models, and sometimes live in them as if they were, themselves, the world.”18 In the narrator of “In the Heart,” Gass creates a character who dramatically cripples himself with explanations only designed to dazzle, a character who confines himself to too few models and lives in those models as if they were the world. His attempt to find his own poetic voice is obstructed by the clutter of poetic images, phrases, and postures that he borrows from the world of literature and tries to piece together to make his own statement.

That the narrator's own words out of which he models his wasteland world are barriers to his renewal is most evident in the final “house” section, “House, My Breath and Window” (segment 28). In this segment, consisting of one long single paragraph, the narrator explains that his window “is a grave, and all that lies within it's dead” (195). What lies within this death frame is not only the view of the world outside, but also the narrator's reflection that merges with the outside setting by the end of the paragraph. The poet's breath becomes visible on the glass, he says, to “befog its country and bespill myself” (195). In this scene, Gass dramatizes how his narrator's words blur the outside world and drive him in upon himself. The poet speaks to his own reflection here; he becomes his own audience: “Ah, my friend, your face is pale, the weather cloudy: a street has been felled through your chin, bare trees do nothing, houses take root in their rectangles, a steeple stands up in your head. You speak of loving; then give me a kiss. The pane is cold” (196).

The narrator's narcissistic gesture epitomizes the personal limitations that trap him in his cold, static world. The poet cannot find his way out of this wasteland because his vision encompasses only himself. He grasps only a fragment of Eliot's climactic message at the end of The Waste Land. He gives to no one; he sympathizes only with himself; and his attempt to control his world through language fails because he lacks love, the vital ingredient needed to transform language into art. At the end of the story, Gass's poet/narrator remains, still, in the wasteland winter of his own imagination.


  1. Joe David Bellamy, The New Fiction: Interviews With Innovative American Writers (Chicago: U of P, 1974) 36.

  2. Bellamy 36. Surprisingly few critics have tried to explicate the story or to come to a satisfactory understanding of the narrator's character. The most comprehensive study of “In the Heart” is Frederick Busch's article, “But This Is What It Is Like To Live in Hell: William H. Gass's ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,’” Modern Fiction Studies, 19.1 (Spring 1973) 97-108. Also, Bruce Bassoff includes a brief discussion of the story as part of his article, “The Sacrificial World of William Gass: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, 18.1 (Fall 1976) 36-58.

  3. William H. Gass, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1968) 175. Subsequent references to the story are cited from this edition and noted by page number in the text of the essay. To distinguish between sections of the story that have identical titles, and to assist the reader in making sequential connections between story segments, I have numbered the segments of the story and make a note of the number whenever I refer to a section not previously mentioned.

  4. Both Busch and Bassoff discuss the implications of Gass's allusions to Yeats's poem.

  5. William H. Gass, The World Within the Word (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1978) 275.

  6. Bassoff 47.

  7. Busch 100.

  8. Busch 102.

  9. William Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) 284-85.

  10. Bassoff 38.

  11. All references to T. S Eliot's poem, The Waste Land, are cited from The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, ed. Richard Ellman and Robert O'Clair (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1973) 459-71.

  12. Charles Newman, The Post-Modern Aura: The Act of Fiction in an Age of Inflation (Evanston: Northwestern UP, 1985) 63-64.

  13. “A Colloquy with William H. Gass,” Modern Fiction Studies, 29.4 (Winter 1983) 608. See also Ned French, “Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H. Gass,” Iowa Review, 7.1 (Spring 1976) 102.

  14. Bassoff introduces his discussion of “In the Heart” by calling the story “a fiction about the relation between poetry and false consciousness.”

  15. Bassoff 49.

  16. “A Colloquy With William H. Gass,” 607.

  17. Busch 106.

  18. The World Within the Word, 274.

Further Reading

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Charyn, Jerome. “Three Critical Notes.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 12, No. 2 (Summer 1992): 120-3.

Charyn reflects on his initial reading of “The Pedersen Kid” and the story's significance in contemporary American literature.

Feld, Ross. “Timing and Spacing the As If: Poetic Prose and Prosaic Poetry.” Parnassus 20, Nos. 1 and 2 (January 1995): 11-31.

Feld comments on the function of poetry and prose and offers unfavorable evaluation of The Tunnel.

Kaufmann, Michael. “The Textual Body: William Gass's Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction XXXV, No. 1 (Fall 1993): 27-42.

Examines the interrelationship between author, reader, text, and reality as reflected in the linguistic construction of Gass's fictional wife in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.

LaHood, Marvin J. Review of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, by William H. Gass. World Literature Today 73, No. 2 (Spring 1999): 333-4.

Offers a summary and equivocal judgement of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas.

McCourt, James. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 83, No. 3 (July 1995): 159-69.

Examines the psychological, literary, and mythological themes of The Tunnel, drawing parallels to the dilemmas of Hamlet and Daedelus.

Stewart, Susan. “An American Faust.” American Literature 69, No. 2 (June 1997): 399-416.

Provides an overview of the central themes, structure, and literary allusions of The Tunnel, drawing attention to the novel's associations with the Faust stories of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann.

Varsava, Jerry A. “Mimesis and the Reader: A Reading.” In Contingent Meanings: Postmodern Fiction, Mimesis, and the Reader, pp. 2-40. Tallahassee, FL: Florida State University Press, 1990.

Includes discussion of Gass's postmodern literary and theoretical principles.

Additional coverage of Gass's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 30, 71; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 2; Major 20th-Century Writers Vols. 1, 2; and Short Story Criticism, Vol. 12.

Kevin J. H. Dettmar (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “‘Yung and Easily Freudened’:1 William Gass's ‘The Pedersen Kid,’” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 88-101.

[In the following essay, Dettmar provides analysis of initiation themes, postmodern literary techniques, and psychoanalytic associations in Gass's story“The Pedersen Kid.” Dettmar concludes, “Jorge is not just another ‘little Oedipus’—rather he's a little Freud, both author and subject of his own case history.”]

Hans: “What I've told you isn't the least true.”

Father: “How much of it's true?”

“None of it's true; I only told you for fun. …”2

William Gass's first story, “The Pedersen Kid,” is a weird and unsettling piece; but in spite of the menacing atmosphere it evokes, its stylistic daring has to date not been sufficiently appreciated by critics. Larry McCaffery, for instance, contrasts “the early, somewhat realistic methods of ‘The Pedersen Kid’” to the “highly experimental, plotless arrangements of ‘In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.’”3 “The Pedersen Kid,” after all, manipulates a fairly common plot device—McCaffery calls it “an almost classically rendered initiation formula.”4

While clearly a story of initiation, it is an initiation with a particularly overt Freudian bent—a Bildungsroman, or better a Künstlerroman, written by a man who knows his Freud.5 “The Pedersen Kid” narrates the coming of age of a young boy—the overcoming of the obstacles to freedom, the creation of a free identity, free from parental determination. Freud famously dubbed this struggle the “family romance”; and the day narrated in “The Pedersen Kid” marks the culmination of the Segren/Esbyorn family romance, a day after which nothing will ever be the same for Jorge—and he knows it. “I was on the edge of something wonderful,” he writes; “I felt it trembling in me strangely. …”6

The story opens with a disguised birth scene. The corn crib has spawned a pretender, and the Kid, a changeling, is adopted, carried into Jorge's house, and nursed back to life. An intruder has insinuated himself into the Segren family romance, and Jorge's role has been usurped; as Arthur Saltzman remarks, “the appearance of the Pedersen kid emphasizes for Jorge his peripheral position.”7 The result of this disruption in family dynamics, Freud claims, is always resentment: “The elder child expresses unconcealed hostility towards his rival, which finds vent in unfriendly criticisms of it, in wishes that ‘the stork should take it away again,’ and occasionally even in small attacks upon the creature lying helpless in the cradle.”8

A timeless battle is being reenacted, a battle as old as Cain and Abel. When the Kid appears, diverting his Ma's attention, Jorge declares: “I decided I hated the Pedersen kid too, dying in our kitchen while I was away where I couldn't watch, dying just to pleasure Hans” (3). Saltzman comments that “Jorge's immediate reaction to the arrival of the helpless Pedersen kid is one of resentment, for the frozen child commands center stage in a way Jorge, who regularly dodges physical abuse, never has”;9 and the culmination of Jorge's jealousy is his declaration that the Kid is dead. At this critical moment, Jorge creates a fiction to make sense for himself of the scene in the kitchen:

He was cold all right, and wet. I had my arm behind his back. He sure felt dead. …

He felt cold and slimy. He sure was dead. We had a dead body in our kitchen. All the time he'd been dead. When Hans had brought him in, he'd been dead. I couldn't see him breathing. He was awful skinny, sunk between the ribs. We were getting him ready to bake. Hans was basting him. I had my arm around him, holding him up. He was dead and I had hold of him. (10)

Jorge creates a narrative by which to understand the presence of the cold and slimy body in his arms. His decision that the Kid is dead leads him to assert that “all the time he'd been dead”; not wanting the Kid to have died in his kitchen, or to be linked himself to the Kid's death, Jorge “rewrites” the Kid's demise, displacing the guilt safely outside the Segren house. “He sure felt dead. … He sure was dead”; spurred on by wish fulfillment, Jorge commits an imaginary, daydream homicide, nearly fratricide. Braced by his story, Jorge doggedly asserts the Kid's death to both Big Hans and his Ma, emphatically repeating “He is dead. He is” (10).

This is an important step for Jorge. To make sense for himself of the disturbing events in the kitchen is of course important, but Jorge will not assume his rightful position in the Segren household until he can articulate himself to those around him. Saltzman writes that in confronting the naked boy on the kitchen table, “Gass's characters are essentially faced with a malleable text, and they all take advantage of their opportunities to exercise subjective interests so as to develop a private understanding. Big Hans, Pa, and Jorge may be viewed at this point as fiction-makers, not just as an audience for the Pedersen kid.”10 A fierce struggle for power is going on through words, battles to recapture and rewrite the past and take control of the present through storytelling, reminiscent of the skirmishes between Spooner and Hirst in Pinter's No Man's Land.

A second narrative convention Gass employs in this coming-of-age tale is the story of youth recollected and written in the tranquility of later years. The artistry with which the narrative unfolds is finally Jorge's strongest claim to fame; R. E. Johnson observes that by the time we reach the end of “The Pedersen Kid,” we realize that “the ‘story’ has been Jorge's generation of himself by fits and starts, by cutting himself off from everything else in the world at the same time he gave meaning to it in the telling. … In Part I it is Pa's action that is determinative of where the story will go in Part II; in Part II it is Hans' action; in Part III it is Jorge's action which is determinative of where the story will go in Parts I and II and III.”11 Jorge is the smallest, weakest male in a contentious household; it comes as no surprise, then, that he chooses the familiar Joycean weapons—silence, exile, and cunning. Masculine strife is not new to this house; compared to Big Hans and his Pa, the Kid is a relatively impotent adversary for Jorge, and as the Kid lies unconscious on the kitchen table, Jorge vanquishes him with a glance: “By now the kid was naked. I was satisfied mine was bigger” (2). As the story progresses, however, we are increasingly aware that Jorge's real battle is not with the Kid; in these early pages, Jorge uses the Kid as a proxy for getting at a more menacing opponent—Big Hans—who himself is but a surrogate for Jorge's Pa.

At the story's abrupt opening, Big Han(d)s stand(s) strong—big hands of the obstetrician attending at the Kid's birth. We watch the power struggle between Hans and Jorge take shape immediately, Hans giving the directions (“Get some snow and call your pa”) and Jorge doing his best to look like he's not following them (“I tried not to hurry”). Big Hans controls discourse as a part of his overall command of the situation; it is after all Big Hans's voice that initiates the story. In this battle of rivals, Big Hans is both obstetrician (Latin obstare, “to stand near”) and obstacle (obstare, “to stand in the way”). Like the Father, he helps bring new life into the world; but, also like the Father, he must at some point be got past if the son himself is to establish for himself a separate and unique identity.

Big Hans—Hans Esbyorn, not Segren: not brother Hans, but hired Hans, a pair of hired hands, an unwelcome intruder in the family setting. In his early notes toward “The Pedersen Kid,” Gass declared to himself that “the problem is to present evil as a visitation—sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable” (xxvi); the finished story presents us with at least three sudden visitations. The first, in the story's first paragraph, is the appearance of the Kid. The resurrected Kid, in turn, brings news of the story's principal evil visitant, Yellow Gloves, and the remainder of the story moves toward Jorge's encounter with him. But near the close of the story, Jorge thinks back to a third visitation—the one which had brought Big Hans to the Segren place years before:

Pa had taken the wagon to town. The sun was shining. Pa had gone to meet Big Hans at the station. There was snow around but mud was flowing and the fields had green in them again. Mud rode up on the wagon wheels. There was sweet air sometimes and the creek had water with the winter going. Through a crack in the privy door I saw him take the wagon to the train. … Big Hans was stronger than Simon, I thought. He let me help him with his chores, and we talked, and later he showed me some of the pictures in his magazines. See anything like that around here? he'd say, shaking his head. Only teats like that round here is on a cow. And he would tease, laughing while he spun the pages, giving me only a glimpse. Or he would come up and spank me on the rump. (69-70)

Jorge has come to view Big Hans as an adopted sibling and a rival; but when he first arrived on the scene, Jorge saw in him a virile surrogate for the Father Jorge had begun to hate. Big Hans, for instance, is “stronger than Simon,” Jorge thinks—and throughout the story Horse Simon is linked to Jorge's Pa. Big Hans, in his vulgar way, initiates Jorge into the mysteries of sex, allowing Jorge an occasional peek at his pornographic magazines; but that gift turns out to be a mixed blessing, Hans toying with Jorge's burgeoning sexual feelings, feelings Jorge does not yet fully understand.

Rather than a hostile gesture toward his father, however, Jorge's adoption of Big Hans as a foster father can be understood as a desperate attempt to restore the lost Father of his youth. Freud analyzes the motive behind this wish to replace one's father as “only an expression of the child's longing for the happy, vanished days when his father seemed to him the noblest and strongest of men and his mother the dearest and loveliest of women. He is turning away from the father whom he knows to-day to the father in whom he believed in the earlier years of his childhood; and his phantasy is no more than the expression of a regret that those happy days have gone.”12 The Father whom Jorge knows today, as we deduce quite quickly, is a monster on the order of Huck Finn's Pap;13 yet like Huck, Jorge cannot separate his horror at what his Pa has become from his deep attachment to what he used to be. The usurping rival against whom Saint Jorge battles14 is finally neither the Pedersen Kid nor Big Hans, but behind them both, above them both, casting his long shadow over them both, Jorge's Pa. “I looked past Hans and Pa was watching from the doorway” (24).

Under the cover of dream symbolism and condensation, what Gass in the preface calls “a frost of epistemological doubt” (xxvii), an ageless scene is reenacted—perhaps one of the oldest scenes, the originary narratives of Western tradition. Certainly Freud thought so; in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, he speaks of “the universal human application of the Oedipus myth,”15 one of the fundamental meaning-making structures of the human mind—those structures that Jung would later call “archetypal.” Gass himself speaks of the social function of such stories: “After those stories which we once employed to hold the ears of children came those calculated to suspend—not just you or me, but everyone—our souls like white rags in a line of wash; and these were written to manipulate a kind of universal mechanism in our psyches” (xxii-xxiii). Were it simply structured by the myth of Oedipus, “The Pedersen Kid” would bear the same relation to Sophocles' Oedipus Rex that Eliot believed Joyce's Ulysses bore to the Odyssey. This would make “The Pedersen Kid” a quintessentially modernist fiction, manipulating, as Eliot says of Ulysses, “a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity.”16

But Gass's method is far more cunning. Jorge is not simply another in a long series of little Oedipuses; he is, more specifically, Freud‘s little Oedipus, from the famous case history of “little Hans,” itself a stylistically daring initiation story. The proper analogue for “The Pedersen Kid”’s “mythical method” is therefore not Joyce (at least as he was read by Eliot),17 but D. M. Thomas, whose The White Hotel is constructed around an imaginative reinhabitation of Freud's case histories of Anna O. and “Dora.” Gass's writing is often referred to as “metafiction,” and “The Pedersen Kid” employs what we might call the “metamythical method”—using not ancient myth, but modern reappropriation of ancient myth, as a vehicle for its fictional structure and play.

Section 3 of The White Hotel is a pastiche of the Freudian case history. In his note to the novel, Thomas explains the relationship between original and copy this way: “Freud becomes one of the dramatis personae, in fact, as discoverer of the great and beautiful modern myth of psychoanalysis. By myth, I mean a poetic, dramatic expression of a hidden truth; and in placing this emphasis, I do not intend to put into question the scientific validity of psychoanalysis.”18 Thomas has said in an interview that his interest in Freud grew out of “reading Freud for pleasure, more as a storyteller, as a myth maker, than as a scientist or an ideologist of the mind.”19 Gass's interest in Freud is quite similar; he was struck, he says in “The Anatomy of Mind,” with the way Freud “saw everything as if it were taking place in a book.”20

“The Pedersen Kid” contains its share of shadowy figures, characters who are named, spoken of by Jorge, Big Hans, Pa and Ma, but who never appear; among them is a “Little Hans,” mentioned three times on one page, then never spoken of again. The existence of a “Little” Hans (Pedersen) explains why the Segrens' Hans is “Big” Hans; but the introduction of this Little Hans is in all other respects gratuitous. Why is he mentioned at all? The name may be meant to tip us off that “The Pedersen Kid” can be read as a version of Freud's “Analysis of a Phobia in a Five-Year-Old Boy” (1909); that case history, the story of “Little Hans,” is Freud's most compelling illustration of the reenactment of the Oedipal situation in the life of a young boy. Freud calls Hans “a little Oedipus”;21 Gass's Jorge boasts that Hans's meanness toward him is nothing more than “a blister on my heel” (20), making Jorge too an Oedipus, “swollen-footed.” Other more significant similarities emerge as we gaze longer at Gass's complex weave; but merely to suggest Gass's familiarity with Freud's Little Hans, surely one of Freud's most celebrated case histories, would be of little value here. If “The Pedersen Kid” is a rewriting of Freud's “Little Hans,”22 well, little Hans's early childhood was itself a “rewriting” of Sophocles' drama, which is in turn but the oldest extant version of one of western civilization's oldest stories.

Discovering the Freudian pattern in “The Pedersen Kid” does not require an extraordinarily ingenious reader; the story is built up of some of the most self-conscious, even gratuitous, Freudian symbolism in all of contemporary fiction. Gass wears his Freud on his sleeve, and wears it proudly. Some years ago Bruce Bassoff noted in passing that the story is amenable to a Freudian reading; he briefly invokes Freud's name, but to no real analytical purpose.23 Bassoff's hesitancy is quite understandable; for how can one proceed with a Freudian reading of a text that flaunts its Freud—one that is so “easily freudened”? For every “decoding” we propose, every dream interpretation we wish to make, every unconscious motivation we wish to lay bare, we have the uncanny sense that Gass has beat us to it—and Freudian criticism cannot be effectively used to master an unruly text if that text anticipates all its “insights.”

Gass has often expressed his desire that his work be read on its own terms; in Fiction and the Figures of Life he puts it this way: “It seems like a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language; that stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words.”24 And what better way to head off an unwanted reading than for the writer to plant it himself? Gass told an interviewer that “What you want to do is to create a work that can be read non referentially. … Fiction, god damn it, is fiction.”25 An orthodox Freudian reading only works insofar as it uncovers signs that point to a hidden order, hidden even from the writer; but in “The Pedersen Kid” Gass has made that order and its concomitant signs—Freudian symbols—flagrant, loud, audacious. Such is the fate of the modernists' “mythical method” in the hands of the postmodernists.

Jorge, like his pre-Christian forebear Oedipus, must kill his father; this murder is at the very core of Freud's Oedipus complex. Jorge's Pa is Magnus, “mighty one”; as such he is emblematic of all fathers, and the young son's feelings toward his father, as Freud notes, cannot but be ambivalent: “Organic necessity introduces into a man's relation to his father an emotional ambivalence which we have found most strikingly expressed in the Greek myth of King Oedipus. … The hatred of his father that arises in a boy from rivalry for his mother is not able to achieve uninhibited sway over his mind; it has to contend against his old-established affection and admiration for the very same person.”26 Neither pure hatred nor pure love, but a bewildering, paralyzing mixture. Jorge's ambivalent feelings toward his father have strong parallels in the case history of Little Hans, whose patricidal impulses first came to light through his irrational fear of horses. “We have learned the immediate precipitating cause after which his phobia broke out,” Freud tells us: “This was when the boy saw a big heavy horse fall down; and one at least of the interpretations of this impression seems to be that emphasized by his father, namely, that Hans at that moment perceived a wish that his father might fall down in the same way—and be dead.”27 When Little Hans tells his father of his fear—his disguised desire—he distances himself from his wish for his father's death: his fear is not that he will kill his father, but simply that his father will die:

“The horses are so proud,” he said, “that I'm afraid they'll fall down”. …

Father: “So you want me to fall down?”

Hans: “Yes. You've got to be naked [meaning “barefoot”] … and knock up against a stone and bleed, and then I'll be able to be alone with Mummy for a little bit at all events. When you come up into our flat I'll be able to run away quick so that you don't see.”28

Little Hans's violent impulses are thus doubly displaced. It is horses, not his father, who are in danger; furthermore, he does not threaten the horses himself—he is merely afraid for them.

The most famous chapter of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying is quite short: “My mother is a fish.” The corresponding chapters of both “Little Hans” and “The Pedersen Kid” would read “My father is a horse.” When Pa makes his entrance in I.iii, his first reported words, appropriately enough, are “Ever think of a horse?” (24); one of Jorge's earliest descriptions of his father, after he has been struck while trying to wake him, is that “he was like a mean horse to come at from the rear” (4). Time and again throughout the story Pa is associated with horses, either the Segrens' horse Simon, the Pedersens' horse, or the horse that the three “magi” find dead in the snow. As Jorge has not failed to notice, Pa is far more intimate and gentle with horses than he is with any of the story's humans. After we've seen him cruelly strike his son, Jorge's Pa shows great concern for his horse; with the Pedersens' mare, Pa's manner is even more seductive: “Pedersen's horse was in the barn. Pa kept her quiet. He rubbed his hand along her flank. He laid his head upon her neck and whispered in her ear. She shook herself and nickered” (59). Since Pa is so closely associated with horses, since he is a horse in Jorge's imagination, it is perhaps not surprising that the dead horse Jorge finds in the snow anticipates the death of his father by just a few minutes: “the legs that lay in front of me weren't mine. I'd gone out in the blazing air. It was queer. Out of the snow I'd kicked away with my foot stuck a horse's hoof and I didn't feel the least terror or surprise” (48).

Even more frequently than he is associated with horses, Pa is associated with excrement—with shit. Jorge's first description of his Pa makes this connection explicit: Pa is described as lying in his bed “lumped under the covers at the end like dung covered with snow” (3). When Jorge persists in trying to wake Pa, he is threatened with an allusion to one of the most potent communal memories of the Segren clan:

Out. You want me to drop my pot?

He was about to get up so I got out, slamming the door. He was beginning to see he was too mad to sleep. Then he threw things. Once he went after Hans and dumped his pot over the banister. Pa'd been shit-sick in that pot. Hans got an ax. He didn't even bother to wipe himself off and he chopped part of Pa's door down before he stopped. (5)

To be splattered with the Father's “shit” is the very image of death. As crazy as it may seem, Jorge does love his Pa; at the same time, his Pa is fatally linked with excrement, decay—with shit. Filial love is erected on paternal decay; the young son, knowing nothing firsthand of decay and death, sees in the decline of his father the awful specter of his own mortality. Little Hans, like Jorge, was obsessed with excrement; interestingly enough, he often confused the German words schiessen and scheissen—“shooting” and “shitting.” Both boys associate “shitting” with killing; seen in this light the Oedipal murder comes to seem a misguided form of self-defense—the son kills the father in order not to be implicated in the cycle of life, decay, and death.

This murder is, of course, no ordinary homicide; it is the murder of the physically mature, sexually dominant father by the sexually immature son. It comes as no surprise, then, that this murder is carried out as a symbolic castration of the father. The archetypal, perhaps mythical, phallic murderer of “The Pedersen Kid” is the absent killer Yellow Gloves. In restaging the murder at the Pedersens' place, Big Hans's description of Yellow Gloves's gun sounds suspiciously like the killer's penis, or, more to the point, Hans's own penis: “He's got me and your ma and your pa lined up with our hands here back of our necks, and he's got a rifle in between them yellow gloves and he's waving the point of it up and down in front of your ma's face real slow and quiet” (19). Of course, rifles, pistols, and revolvers are but the best known of the symbols of male genitalia;29 for Yellow Gloves to wave the point of his “rifle” up and down in Mrs. Segren's face, or most especially for Big Hans to reenact that scene here in the Segrens' kitchen with the neck of a whiskey bottle, is a symbolic rape of Jorge's Ma. For all the indifference, even annoyance, that he shows toward her during the story, Jorge certainly will not allow an outsider, either Yellow Gloves or Big Hans, to possess his mother in this way.

Jorge is poignantly aware of his lesser genital gifts. In his imagination he figures himself in terms that connote sexual immaturity—“I'd just been given a pistol that shot BBs” (49). Jorge's pistol is a weapon of sorts, but nothing in comparison to Yellow Gloves's rifle, Pa's shotgun, or even Big Hans's forty-five. When the three set out to find Yellow Gloves, Big Hans subjects Jorge to ritual humiliation: “Hans had his shotgun and the forty-five he'd stolen from the Navy. He made me load it and when I'd stuck it in my belt he'd said it'd likely go off and keep me from ever getting out to stud” (34). When Jorge turned his pistol on Pa and Big Hans in the snow, “Pa took the gun away, putting it in his pocket. He had his shotgun hanging easy over his left arm but he slapped me and I bit my tongue” (52).

Although he is keenly aware of his inferior endowment, Jorge does his best to keep up his morale. Even when he stands to suffer by comparison, Jorge is constantly pitting his phallus against those of others. Freud's Little Hans shared Jorge's predilection; as Freud informs us, Little Hans “repeatedly expressed both to his father and his mother his regret that he had never yet seen their widdlers; and it was probably the need for making a comparison which impelled him to do this. The ego is always the standard by which one measures the external world; one learns to understand it by means of a constant comparison with oneself.”30 Little Hans and Jorge clearly share this penchant for genital comparison. When the Kid is naked on the kitchen table, Jorge takes a peek and is satisfied that “his” is bigger. And Hans's, we learn, is bigger than Jorge's: “Even if his cock was thicker … I was here and he was in the snow. I was satisfied” (72).

As the search party approaches the Pedersen place, Jorge can see “the chimney very black in the sun stick up from the steep bright pitch like a dead cigar rough-ashed with snow” (45). The empty Pedersen house, with its great phallus of a chimney standing up like a beacon, comes to represent a “Promised Land” to Jorge; and in order to gain the house, he believes, and take possession of it, he must overcome his companions. Jorge tells his dying Pa “I was cold in your house always” (74); and Jorge's victory over his Pa coincides with his taking possession of a new home. Jorge's account of his winning of the Pedersen house is figured as a sexual conquest: “I crawled to the south side of the house and broke a casement window with the gun I had forgot I had and climbed down into the basement ripping my jacket on the glass” (62). Again, the Freudian symbolism is not particularly subtle, but it does find confirmation in the story of Little Hans:

Hans: “I say, I thought something this morning again.”

Father: “What?”

Hans: “I went with you in the train, and we smashed a window and the policeman took us off with him.”31

In his daydream, Little Hans and his father smashed a window while in a train, an appropriately phallic penetration; in “The Pedersen Kid,” Jorge gains access by using the gun he had forgot he had. Freud analyzed Little Hans's fantasy this way: “He had a suspicion that to take possession of his mother was forbidden; he had come up against the barrier against incest. … His father, he thought, also did that enigmatic forbidden something with his mother which he replaced by an act of violence such as smashing a window-pane or forcing a way into an enclosed space. … We can only say that they were symbolic phantasies of intercourse.”32

The establishment of the son's own home is concomitant with the death of the Father. To mature is to leave the Father's house; and in this new place, Jorge will be his own master: “In the spring I'd shit with the door open, watching the blackbirds” (51). This self-imposed exile is a step in the resolution of the Oedipus complex. “Exile,” however, is the adult label for it; from the son's point of view this leave-taking is experienced as banishment. An author's life is often a story of banishment and/or exile; it is the story of a number of the authors Gass himself names in the preface: Franz Kafka, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad. … According to Kristeva, it is only on the death of the Father that the son can become aware of his vocation as author: “without banishment, there is no possible release from the grip of paternal Death. This act of loving and its incumbent writing spring from the Death of the Father—from the Death of the third person. … Assumption of self through the dead father turns the banished writer into a father in spite of himself.”33

The Pedersen house appears to the three “wise men” traveling through the snow to be a sanctuary in the midst of a vast waste. That waste of snow is especially troubling to Jorge; the immense expanse of snow seems to bear an almost metaphysical import for him:

The snow dazzle struck me and the pain of the space around us. … It was frightening—the endless white space. I'd have to keep my head down. … I stood as still as I could in the tubes of my clothes, the snow shifting strangely in my eyes, alone, frightened by the space that was bowling up inside me, a white blank glittering waste like the waste outside, coldly burning, roughed with waves, and I wanted to curl up, face to my thighs, but I knew my tears would freeze my lashes together. (35, 39, 45)

There's something peculiar about Jorge's fear of the snow, “the endless white space.” He associates it with his father: “I hated him. Jesus, how I did. But no more like a father. Like the burning space” (47). And for Jorge the budding author, the blank space is also the terrifying empty page, the page on which he is compelled to write the story of the Father. Jorge must overcome the blank page as he does the Father if he is to slough off the Oedipal burden and bring his own authority to his writing.

Once inside the Pedersen place, however, Jorge is no longer talking about the burning space; instead, his energy is directed toward what he calls his “new blank land”: “The Pedersen kid—maybe he'd been a message of some sort. No, I liked better the idea that we'd been prisoners exchanged. I was back in my own country. No, it was more like I'd been given a country. A new blank land. More and more, while we'd been coming, I'd been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe” (62-63). Jorge is finally in the house; the story opened with Big Hans “in the house with what he had” before Jorge “reached the steps” (1), but that usurpation has been righted here. Righted and written; for it is when Jorge takes possession of this new blank land, free of the burden of birth and filiation, that he truly begins to write. In the end, Jorge turns out to be the author of his own case history; Saltzman writes that Jorge “manages to create and interpret the plot that contains him; that is the nature of his heroism. He seizes destiny imaginatively, and that is the wellspring of power. … By preferring the realm of metaphor over physical environment, Jorge creates a surrogate world, in which his own aspirations can be attained and are the dominant, actual ones.”34 Consider, as an example, his description of his posture in the basement:

Distantly I felt the soft points of my shoulders in my jacket, the heavy line of my cap around my forehead, and on the hard floor my harder feet, and to my chest my hugged-tight knees. I felt them but I felt them differently … like the pressure of a bolt through steel or the cinch of leather harness or the squeeze of wood by wood in floors … like the twist and pinch, the painful yield of tender tight together wheels, and swollen bars, and in deep winter springs. (63-64)

This passage is remarkable in part for the awareness Jorge shows of his body; up to this point in the story Jorge has seemed rather a stranger in his own body, while here he is clearly very much at home. But even more remarkable, surely, is the limpid prose in which Jorge renders his sense perceptions; this is the self-conscious craftsmanship of a poet, and no longer the workmanlike reportage of the dutiful son who, in I.ii., had written: “I heard the dripping clearly, and I heard Hans swallow. I heard the water and the whiskey fall. I heard the frost on the window melt to the sill and drop into the sink” (23).

In his new home, Jorge evokes another moment of heightened perception as he reaches the main floor: “There was light in the kitchen. It came through the crack I'd left in the closet door to comfort me. But the light was fading. Through the crack I could see the sink, now milky. Flakes began to slide out of the sky and rub their corners off on the pane before they were caught by the wind again and blown away. In the gray I couldn't see them. Then they would come—suddenly—from it, like chaff from grain, and brush the window while the wind eddied” (68). Jorge's first important act, on taking possession of the house, is to write it, for it is only through writing that it becomes fully his. Through the power of writing, even the snow outside his window comes under his control: “The snow was coming. It was coming almost even with the ground, my snow” (68, emphasis added).

The absolute freedom that Jorge enjoys in the Pedersen house is at the same time a terrible freedom; without guidelines, Jorge has become a law unto himself. His is a new blank land, and this new land will be precisely what Jorge chooses to make of it. Not surprisingly, one of his first reactions to this complete freedom is to fall back on the model of the father: “I knew I was all muddled up and scared and crazy and I tried to think god damn over and over or what the hell or jesus christ, instead, but it didn't work. All that could happen was alone with me and I was alone with it” (75). “God damn,” “what the hell,” “jesus christ”: these are the words of the father. Upon gaining his own land, the son's first response is to reinstate the law of the father. It is an old pattern; as a young nation, we tried to make George Washington king.

The failure of his father, however, has given Jorge the courage to go it alone. Jorge's new house, and his virgin snow-covered territory, is distinguished by its lack of landmarks; the old roadmaps are no longer of any use. The blankness, the whiteness is terrifying; but for the young writer, it is also exhilarating: “The road was gone. Fences, bushes, old machinery: what there might be in any yard was all gone under snow. … The path I'd taken from the barn to the house was filled and the sun was burning brightly on it” (77-78). Saltzman remarks that “what had earlier been the white of bleakness and despair is transformed into the white of unbridled possibility—the artist's open canvas awaiting his unique imprint.”35 Alone in his own house, all his kin “dead,” Jorge is faced with the opportunity that other authors—including Gass himself—only dream of: the chance to create himself anew. In the preface Gass confesses that “Even as a grown man I was still desperately boasting that I'd choose another cunt to come from. Well, Balzac wanted his de, and I wanted my anonymity” (xvii). When he later returns to the same issue, Gass declares “if someone were to ask me once again of the circumstances of my birth, I think I should answer finally that I was born somewhere in the middle of my first book” (xliv). The ultimate irony, of course, is that the death of the father has freed Jorge to write; and yet Jorge's assumption of authorship, of authority, has surreptitiously made a father of Jorge himself, “a father in spite of himself, a father under protest, a false father who doesn't want to be a father, but nonetheless believes in being one.”36

Kristeva's remarks on Beckett's First Love are strangely appropriate to Gass's text; she writes of the writer-to-be's banishment as

above/beyond a life of love. A life always off to one side, at an impassable distance, mourning a love. A fragile, uncertain life, where, without spending the saved-up paternal capital in one's pockets, he discovers the price of warmth (of a hothouse, of a room, of a turd) and the boredom of those humans who provide it—but who waste it, too. It is a life apart from the paternal country where nonetheless lies the obsessed self's unshakable quiet, frozen forever, bored but solid.37

In spite of everything, Jorge has implicated himself once again in the cycle of filiation, of fathering, of authoring. Gass has written that “Freud had the hero's need to be self-made to such an extraordinary degree he replaced his father first with Fliess and finally with himself”;38 the same can of course be said for Jorge, who attempted to replace his aging father with the young and virile Big Hans, only to kill them both off and fill that role himself. Jorge has triumphed in his Oedipal drama, killing off his rivals through words, imaginatively spoken and poetically inscribed; but the battle is not over, for, as Gass says, “To be born unencumbered is not the complete advantage one might immediately imagine. Although the struggle to free one's youthful self of religion, relatives, and region is thereby greatly simplified, since there are no complicated cuffs to be unclasped, no subtle knots to be untied, the self in question is as vague and vaguely messy as a smudged line” (xv-xvi). As “The Pedersen Kid” ends, Jorge has been reborn theoretically unencumbered of kin, but he is as yet only “as vague and vaguely messy as a smudged line”; it remains to be seen whether he will have the strength of character to shake off completely the sins of the Father, lest they be visited on him and his even to the seventh generation. But Jorge has created for himself a new blank land of his own to work. The world, it would seem, is all before him; for as “The Pedersen Kid” closes, Jorge is not just another “little Oedipus”—rather he's a little Freud, both author and subject of his own case history. And that's certainly the best seat in the house.


  1. James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Viking, 1939), 115.

  2. Sigmund Freud, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, trans., ed. James Strachey and Anna Freud, 24 vols. (London: Hogarth, 1966-74), 10:80, 84.

  3. Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 183.

  4. McCaffery, 185.

  5. Gass's three-part review essay on Freud, “The Anatomy of Mind,” makes quite clear the depth of his knowledge of Freud; it is collected in Gass's World Within the Word (New York: Knopf, 1978), 208-52.

  6. William H. Gass, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (Boston: Godine, 1981), 65. Subsequent references to this work will be cited parenthetically in the text.

  7. Arthur M. Saltzman, The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1986), 62.

  8. Freud, 9:212.

  9. Saltzman, 61.

  10. Saltzman, 62.

  11. R. E. Johnson, “Structuralism and Contemporary Fiction,” Soundings 63.2 (Summer 1975): 290.

  12. Freud, 9:241.

  13. Patricia Kane points out the similarity between the two characters, remarking that Jorge's life “suggests what Huck Finn's might have been if Pap and his mother had settled down on a Dakota farm” (“The Sun Burned on the Snow: Gass's ‘The Pedersen Kid,’” Critique 14.2 [1972]: 89).

  14. The chivalric image is Jorge's: “It was like I was setting out to do something special and big—like a knight setting out—worth remembering” (32-33).

  15. Freud, 6:178.

  16. T. S. Eliot, The Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich/Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1975), 177.

  17. It has often been remarked that Eliot's description of Joyce's “mythical method” is far more accurate as a description of Eliot's own poetics than of Joyce's. In fact, I believe Joyce's appropriation of Homer to be much more complex than Eliot would allow—in fact, much more in line with the procedures of Gass and Thomas than space here allows me to develop.

  18. D. M. Thomas, The White Hotel (New York: Pocket Books, 1981), n.p.

  19. Contemporary Authors, ed. Linda Metzger and Deborah A. Straub, New Revision Series (Detroit: Gale, 1986), 17:446.

  20. Gass, The World Within the Word, 212.

  21. Freud, 10:111.

  22. Which Freud, early on, would not take credit for having written; on first publication “Little Hans” “was described not as ‘by’ Freud, but only as ‘communicated by’ him” (Freud, 10:4).

  23. Bruce Bassoff, “The Sacrificial World of William Gass: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,Critique 18.1 (1976): 36-58.

  24. William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Godine, 1979), 27.

  25. Thomas LeClair, “A Conversation with William Gass,” Chicago Review 30.2 (1978): 97.

  26. Freud, 13:243, 129.

  27. Freud, 10:51-52.

  28. Freud, 10:82.

  29. Freud, 15:154.

  30. Freud, 10:107.

  31. Freud, 10:41.

  32. Freud, 10:41, 123.

  33. Julia Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, ed. Leon S. Roudiez, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1980), 150-51.

  34. Saltzman, 70.

  35. Saltzman, 67-68.

  36. Kristeva, 151.

  37. Kristeva, 150.

  38. Gass, The World Within the Word, 211. Indeed, the history of the psychoanalytic movement could itself be written as a family romance, Freud replacing his own father with Breuer and Fliess, and later being betrayed by his own “son,” the “little Oedipus” Carl Jung.

Reginald Dyck (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “William Gass: A ‘Purified Modernist’ in a Postmodern World,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 124-30.

[In the following essay, Dyck examines underlying modernist aspects of Gass's postmodern literary and theoretical perspective, including comparative analysis of Gass's story “Icicles” and Wright Morris's novel Ceremony in Lone Tree. “Although modernist in its formal aesthetics,” Dyck writes, “Gass's world of words reflects a postmodern perspective on contemporary culture.”]

I don't regard myself as a postmodernist. … I prefer to think of myself as a purified modernist. In architecture that would mean modernism without social content: Corbusier not building for society.

—William Gass1

When William Gass claims, “I think that literature is not a form of communication,”2 he seems to preclude a social interpretation of his work. “Serious writing must nowadays be written for the sake of the art,”3 he asserts. Baudelaire made this claim in the context of his resistance to the commodification of art; Gass in his formalist rhetoric is resisting the traditional ways of reading fostered by the fiction of realism.4 Yet while his critical writing works to convince his readers to resist the old ways, it also acknowledges that his fiction has a significant relationship to the social world.

Most people, Gass states, read fiction as history without graphs or dates, an approach that falsifies by creating expectations fiction does not intend to fulfill.5 “I object to so-called extraliterary qualities because they get confused with the merit of the book” (“Colloquy” 589). The word because is important; Gass's point is not that extraliterary qualities do not exist, but that they are too easily misread. The danger is that literature “provides a sense of verification (a feeling) without the fact of verification (the validating process).”6 For example, although Gass did careful research for “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” the story should not be read simply as an exposé of rural Midwestern towns or American society as a whole. Gass explains that “the story is not an accurate picture: it's an accurate construction. Not even ‘accurate’: just a construction of one person's way of looking at things” (“Colloquy” 607). Rather than an objective report, the story presents the consciousness of a particular type of character in a particular type of place.

Another way that readers misread is by emphasizing plot as the central quality of fiction. The well-constructed plot as a moral equation has been for novelists a way of making sense of the chaos of life, and readers have accepted that construction as the import of the novel. Consequently, the novelist as artist is slighted in favor of the novelist as philosopher or sociologist. Gass has been challenged most vigorously by John Gardner, who argues for the inescapably moral nature of literature: “In literature, structure is the evolving sequence of dramatized events tending toward understanding and assertion; that is, toward some meticulously qualified belief.”7 It is not that Gass is unaware of the moral views fiction presents, but that his interest is in the dramatic tensions those views create rather than their correctness. Nabokov's Lolita is to be read in this way as well. Both authors want readers to look at their fiction as objects of art, not as moral treatises.

Therefore Gass calls himself a “purified modernist.” In an essay subtitled “Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism,” Fredric Jameson asks “what kind of society it can be in which works of art have become autonomous to this degree, in which the older social and cultic functions of literature have become so unfamiliar as to have made us forgetful … of the power and influence which a socially living art can exercise?”8 Sociologist Todd Gitlin, in describing the helplessness reflected in post-1960s culture, provides an answer: “Self-regarding irony and blankness are a way of staving off anxieties, rages, terrors and hungers that have been kicked up but cannot find resolution.”9 When Gass began to publish his short stories in the midfifties, the modernist belief in the autonomous power of imagination, part of the Romantic view of the artist, had turned to doubt. Yet even if the imagination is understood as inevitably shaped by its social milieu, how can an artist fulfill the traditional bardic function of making sense of the world in a seemingly meaningless, mass society that does not take artists seriously?

Postmodern art has responded to this loss of meaning in two ways: with a sense of liberation or with a sense of isolation and betrayal.10 Although Gass's criticism celebrates the first, his fictional characters experience the second. The celebration stems from his claim to have separated beauty from truth, or fiction from society. However, Gass's escape into the artistry of language is not complete, nor does he intend it to be.

To the extent that novels are forms of communication, Gass explains, they work not as direct descriptions but as constructed metaphors for our world (58). Metaphors are models of reality that posit conceptual connections among data. As much as novelists might strive for concreteness, they can only use words, which can never directly describe but must interpret. Thus, “The purpose of a literary work is the capture of consciousness, and the consequent creation, in you, of an imagined sensibility, so that while you read you are that patient pool or cataract of concepts which the author has constructed” (33).

The opening of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” emphasizes the idea of the story as a model of consciousness. Echoing Yeats's “Sailing to Byzantium,” the poet/narrator states, “So I have sailed the seas and come … to B …” (172). Gass plays on “to B” not only as an ironic reference to Yeats's Byzantium as an “artifice of reality,” but also as a verb of being which alerts the reader that what follows is not literal description of a particular rural town but the creation of a fictional character's consciousness. The reader is presented with a model of what it would be like to be a poet “in retirement from love” and living in “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.” However, this does not preclude a social reading of the story; B is in the state of Indiana, and we do recognize the poet as our contemporary. The models Gass creates are as embedded in culture as their creator's imagination inevitably is.

Metafiction, such as Gass writes, openly exposes itself as a constructed model by showing us characters in the process of creating “a system of meaning which will help to supply their lives with hope, order, possibly even some measure of beauty.”11 These metafictional models-within-models offer more than just aesthetic pleasures to the characters that create them. For example, at the end of “The Pedersen Kid,” we see Jorge creating a world of the imagination as an alternative to the mean, narrow one in which he lives with his parents and the hired man. In reading we are moved not only by Gass's display of craftsmanship but also by his presentation of the pain that drives his young character into this imaginary world. Through the story, we also understand something about the motivations and methods for the model-building process. In a sense Jorge confirms Gitlin's analysis of postmodern culture. Jorge's helplessness as a young boy in a violent, uncaring world motivates him to imagine a world of snow, the Pedersen kid, himself, and no adults. Patricia Waugh gives this explanation of metafictional model-building:

Metafiction, then, does not abandon “the real world” for the narcissistic pleasures of the imagination. What it does is to re-examine the conventions of realism in order to discover—through its own self-reflection—a fictional form that is culturally relevant and comprehensible to contemporary readers. In showing us how literary fiction creates its imaginary worlds, metafiction helps us to understand how the reality we live day by day is similarly constructed, similarly “written.”12

Gass explains that the point for the reader is not to assess the accuracy of the model that either a character or the story as a whole creates. “I think of the text you are reading as the metaphorical model that reassesses yours, rather than the other way around” (“Colloquy” 592). In claiming this privileged position for art, Gass shows his modernist affinities. He also guardedly claims fiction as an agent for change. The novel both displays and argues (63), and thus challenges our own conceptions of the world. But Gass gives a continual warning, “Still for us it is only ‘as if’” (71). The novel remains a world of words.

Although modernist in its formalist aesthetic, Gass's world of words reflects a postmodern perspective on contemporary culture. A comparison of Wright Morris's Ceremony in Lone Tree, a late-modern novel, with Gass's story “Icicles” makes this clear. Both writers wrote these works at about the same time, experimented with nontraditional forms and understand fiction as a model of consciousness. Yet the model Morris creates in Ceremony, published in 1960, and Gass's in “Icicles,” which first appeared in 1963, suggest significantly different worlds. The central characters, Boyd in Ceremony and Fender in “Icicles,” best exemplify this difference.

The modernist revolt against tradition deeply marks Boyd's outrageous actions; he wants to shock others out of the “hereditary sleeping sickness”13 of their middle-class lives. If the modernist faith in the artist's ability to change society has been depleted—Boyd's self-exile in Mexico suggests this—his return to Nebraska indicates his continuing stake in it. His bringing along a young friend whom he calls Daughter, a gesture he seems to have borrowed from Lolita, is one attempt to shock his friends' sense of propriety, and thus awaken them to the emptiness of their unreflected lives.

In “The Culture of Modernism,” Irving Howe describes modernist writers as “an avant-garde marked by aggressive defensiveness, extreme self-consciousness, prophetic inclination, and the stigmata of alienation.”14 Although true of Boyd, none of this characterizes Gass's Fender. Because he cannot believe that his actions matter, he is not one of those who “chose and oppose.” Instead, he is a “confused self,” “a diffuse, unfocused protean self which cannot define issues in any determinate way.” As a postmodern character, Fender is not oppressed by tradition as Boyd is, but by the “meaninglessness and triviality of freedom itself, which is unable to locate any bearings amid the incoherent and apparently aimless massiveness of society.”15

Because Fender's world seems to have experienced the effects of cultural entropy longer than Boyd's, Fender no longer has the energy for rebellious, audacious acts. Even if Boyd's idealism is largely exhausted, his rebellion keeps him in a dynamic relationship with society. Whereas Boyd brazenly attempts to walk on water and then creates a public account of his failure, Fender counts the contents of his pot pie but only thinks about writing a letter of complaint. Boyd has the energy of restlessness; Fender has the lethargy of listlessness.

Because Boyd's energy pushes him outward and Fender's lethargy focuses inward, they turn to aesthetics with different intentions. Boyd transforms his water-walking failure into a play and a novel; his inner struggle directs him toward an audience. Fender develops a private aesthetic of icicles which estranges him from others because it allows him to escape from the public world. Coming home from a humiliating real-estate job, Fender becomes fascinated by the icicles that block part of his picture window. At first he reacts professionally, considering them a nuisance and a sales problem. Then he creates images out of them: parsnips, the insides of caves, sets of teeth. Although he is surprised and embarrassed at his new interest, he soon becomes protective of it. Finally he does not care that his appreciation is not socially acceptable: “Only the icicles mattered.” He wants to bring their beauty inside himself. The icicles stand in opposition to the social world where, because “Everything is property,” Fender comes to see himself as a decrepit piece of real estate (159). Although the outside world still threatens to intrude, he retreats as much as he can into a private, aesthetic world of icicles. As he does, a sense of comfort displaces his listlessness.

This retreat is made easier by Fender's lack of personal history. He jokes at a party, truthfully he realizes afterward, that “he couldn't tell the story of his life because he couldn't in the least remember it” (139). Although this frees him from Boyd's struggle to extricate himself from the restraints of his past, Fender also lacks history's consolations. The present must carry the whole weight of his existence, and when it fails to support him, Fender can only escape into a world of imagination: “There's no one to help you, Fender, you have no history, remember?” (152).

Analogously, Fender is more disconnected from society than Boyd in spite of leading a more conventional life. Boyd may drop out of society, but his need to shock his childhood friends reveals his contradictory desire to belong while asserting his difference from their deadening middle-class lives. Fender has the trappings of that middle-class world, a job and a house, but neither provides him with social relationships. His dinner, here an ironic symbol of disconnectedness, illustrates his passive isolation. Rather than enjoying conversation and friendship, he eats in silence without even a television to bring in the outside world. The pot pie establishes only a pathetic commercial connection.

Because of his helplessness, Fender finally stops struggling with society, leaves his job, and retreats into a self-contained world of icicles and language. Boyd also retreats into language, but he uses it as a defensive weapon, not as a blanket in which to hide himself as Fender does. In not taking an antagonistic stance against society, Fender moves beyond alienation. Instead of the heroic alienation and anxiety of modernism, he lives with the fragmentation and decentering of postmodernism. Thus he goes gently into that good night of death-in-language while Boyd rages against the dying of the light by setting off fireworks with his wit in order to expose his society's emptiness.

Boyd chooses to stand outside of society; Fender finds himself invisible within it. The census did not miss Fender because he refused to be counted: he was bitter that he had to call attention to his own existence (147). His escape into imagination is by default and provides him little comfort because the social world continues to impinge. The values of real estate insinuate themselves so that he comes to think, “I do not even occupy myself.” Rather than having escaped, he discovers that “his inner exclamations were like advertising signs.” Therefore he wants to “drive himself into wordlessness” (157-58).

As a result, Fender, like Jacob Horner in Barth's End of the Road, becomes paralyzed. At the end of the story he protects himself by turning the children playing outside into a field of colors, yet his world of icicles is still vulnerable to their attack as “they [come] down the hill like a snowfall of rocks” (162). “Icicles” ends with Fender's aesthetic world threatened by the world that surrounds him. Caught between these worlds, Fender can do nothing to save himself. This conclusion contrasts with the ending of Ceremony: rather than paralysis there is a sudden awakening as Boyd's audacity has its effect. Following his example of doing “something crazy” as “the only way to leave an impression” (167), Lois shoots a pistol—symbol of violence and sexuality—and startles the others out of their habitual responses. Even if Morris does not imply that the changes are permanent, he does suggest that the paralysis of his characters' cliché-filled lives is not inevitable. A sense of powerlessness and inevitability does mark “Icicles,” thus placing it beyond the modernist energy of resistance.

Like his characters, Gass also stands between two worlds. While working within the modern aesthetic of a unique and personal style, his fiction engages a world that offers little opportunity for individualism. The “bourgeois ego,” if liberated from the anxiety that drives Boyd to audacity, is also “liberated from every other kind of feeling as well, since there is no longer a self present to do the feeling” but instead only “‘intensities’ … free-floating and impersonal.”16 That is Fender's dilemma.

Rather than as a purified modernist, “Corbusier not building for society,” Gass can better be understood as a modernist engaging a postmodern, mass society that does little to encourage artists, or any individuals, to think that they can affect their world. His fiction does celebrate the artistic possibilities of language, but just as Yeats's poet sails for Byzantium as a paltry old man who can no longer find a place in his native country, Gass's characters—Fender, Jorge, the poet in B, Rev. Furber—escape into an imaginary world as a retirement from love and a retreat from a world that is too much mere real estate.

Denis Donoghue claims that in Gass's fiction “the sentences make an arbitrary festival, a circus of pleasures, satisfactions corresponding to the smile with which desperate remedies, duly considered, are set aside.”17 I read that smile as a wince and find the festival less arbitrary, the pleasures more troubling, and the desperate remedies still being desperately held to.


  1. Brooke K. Horvath, et al., “A Colloquy with William H. Gass,” Modern Fiction Studies 29 (Winter 1983): 597; hereafter cited in the text as “Colloquy.”

  2. Jeffrey L. Duncan, “A Conversation with Stanley Elkin and William H. Gass,” Iowa Review 7 (Spring 1971): 49.

  3. William H. Gass, Preface, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (Boston: Godine, 1981), xviii.

  4. Ned French makes the connection between Gass and Baudelaire in “Against the Grain: Theory and Practice in the Work of William H. Gass,” Iowa Review 7 (Spring 1971): 100-101.

  5. William H. Gass, Fiction and the Figures of Life (Boston: Godine, 1979), 30; references to Gass's critical writing will be from this work and will be cited by page number in the text. References to his fiction will be from In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (n. 3 above).

  6. Carole Spearin McCauley, “William H. Gass,” in The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers, ed. Joe David Bellamy (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1974), 33.

  7. John Gardner, On Moral Fiction (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 65.

  8. Fredric R. Jameson, “Beyond the Cave: Demystifying the Ideology of Modernism,” Bulletin of the Midwest Modern Language Association (Spring 1975): 3.

  9. Todd Gitlin, “Hip-Deep in Postmodernism.” New York Times Book Review, 6 November 1988, 36.

  10. Gerald Graff, “The Myth of the Postmodern Breakthrough,” TriQuarterly 26 (Winter 1973): 391.

  11. Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse: The Works of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme, and William H. Gass (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 1982), 4.

  12. Patricia Waugh, Metafiction: The Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (London and New York: Methuen, 1984), 18.

  13. Eugene Zamiain, “On Literature, Revolution and Entropy,” quoted in Irving Howe, “The Culture of Modernism” in Decline of the New (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970), 11.

  14. Howe, “Culture of Modernism,” 5.

  15. Gerald Graff, “Babbitt at the Abyss: the Social Context of Postmodern American Fiction,” TriQuarterly 33 (1975): 61.

  16. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism: Or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 62. Jameson makes an insightful comparison of the modern and postmodern sense of self, in part through a comparison of Edvard Munch's The Scream and Andy Warhol's depictions of Marilyn Monroe, 61-64.

  17. Denis Donoghue, Ferocious Alphabets (Boston: Little, Brown, 1981), 89.

Arthur M. Saltzman (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “Where Words Dwell Adored: An Introduction to William Gass,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 7-14.

[In the following essay, Saltzman provides an overview of Gass's postmodern linguistic techniques and theoretical perspective.]

William Gass builds sentences, sentences that are their own best excuse for being, sentences that seduce, like a bold, new Annunciation, through the ear. They can be as delicately suspended as a bridge of web spun by the spider that serves as metaphor for the artist in Omensetter's Luck; or they can be arches of triumph, solid and lasting and right as pillars set in concrete; or they can lie quietly, feeding and fattening on our attention before we notice that we are noticing their tug at the imagination.

Marooned in their own minds, Gass's protagonists find in sentences their only reliable company, and the sentences they discover are sensitive to their environments: they stagger along with Jorge Seagren through the implacable winter landscape of “The Pedersen Kid”; or they endlessly worm through the internal sermons and seethings of the Reverend Jethro Furber in Omensetter's Luck; or they imitate the ubiquitous collapse, in stages, of the nameless narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” as seen in the bitter litany that opens the section entitled “Weather”:

The sides of the buildings, the roofs, the limbs of the trees are gray. Streets, sidewalks, faces, feelings—they are gray. Speech is gray, and the grass where it shows. Every flank and front, each top is gray. Everything is gray: hair, eyes, window glass, the hawkers' bills and touters' posters, lips, teeth, poles and metal signs—they're gray, quite gray, Cars are gray, Boots, shoes, suits, hats, gloves are gray. Horses, sheep, and cows, cats killed in the road, squirrels in the same way, sparrows, doves, and pigeons, all are gray, everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.1

Characters in their slow death throes find that their sentences are all that is beautiful about them anymore.

For most of us, every other thought is a casualty of distraction, lost in the reckless stammer of the day's other matters; circumstances forever direct us elsewhere, and our “noises … simply leak from us like a washerless tap.”2 For Gass, each sentence has its essence, its soul, which is the best exemplification of our own: “If we think it odd the gods should always choose a voice so full and gloriously throated, when they could presumably toot through any instrument,” he declares in “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” “we should remember that it is their choice of such a golden throat, each time, that makes them gods.”3 Language is more than personal expression, it is spiritual investment. If it is not, he admonishes, our utterances are forever flaccid and phatic—“the tongue is like a stale bun in the mouth.”4 The unarticulated life is not worth living: “So walk around unrewritten, if you like. Live on broken phrases and syllable gristle, telegraphese and film reviews. No one will suspect … until you speak, and your soul falls out of your mouth like a can of corn from the shelf.”5

In fact, Gass argues, we would do well to imitate the rigor of the finest rhetoric, for “Consciousness is all the holiness we have,”6 and its quality is wholly dependent upon its vehicle. Let the minimalists make all of their linguistic moves with pawns! Gass everywhere demonstrates that the habitations of the word are commodious, luxurious accommodations. Only when the page is exploited “as a field for the voice,”7 only when we work to muster or to accommodate sentences that deliver “a self which is so certain of its spirit and so insistent on its presence that it puts itself in its syllables like Mr. Gorgeous in his shimmering gown”8 do we come to understand what inveterate bottom-liners never will: the process is the payoff. So whereas John Gardner, Gass's most notorious opponent on the subject of moral fiction, accused him of perpetrating “mere language,” Gass maintains by argument and example that there is nothing “mere” about it. Words are the crux of our concepts, belief's bearings.

That many of Gass's protagonists are themselves verbal artists is a commonplace of Gass criticism, and Gass himself has acknowledged that his heroes are those to whom he has vouchsafed the greatest capacity for articulation. (A careful reading of the theoretical pieces makes it clear that Gass does not believe that the concept of character is obsolete; on the contrary, it must be expanded to admit any and all linguistic “nodes” in a text where language functions self-evidently and with symbolic impact.) Hence, it is the Reverend Jethro Furber, for all his perversion and duplicity, who takes center stage in Omensetter's Luck, whereas the prelapsarian, preconscious Brackett Omensetter is but a hollow, a seductive, impossible dream. So, too, are that same novel's decrepit custodian of the past, Israbestis Tott, the abused Jorge Seagren in “The Pedersen Kid,” Willie Masters' incorrigibly playful and demanding wife, the nameless narrator who “lives in” in “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and most recently, William Frederick Kohler, the obsessive historian of The Tunnel—all are extolled for their aesthetic achievements despite their various personal failings in other respects. It is important, however, not to minimize this contradiction; to be sure, what enables a Jethro Furber to reside exclusively behind his beautiful barriers of abstraction without regard to the human consequences of his actions is the kind of tyranny that claims eloquence to be not only his edge but his sole ethic. How to grapple with the contention that consciousness is all the holiness we have when such an ugly consciousness prevails is one of the central problems in Gass's fiction.

A second prominent issue that arises when we read Gass is the uneasy relationship between his antimimetic principles and the realistic (meaning both representational and practical) compromises that are everywhere apparent in his pages. Gass is perhaps most often associated with the position that the medium of fiction barges in on its components: characters are confessed as bodies of words, settings as limiting linguistic conveniences, plots as generic enchantments. Everywhere in Gass, whether in the form of outright disclaimers in essays like “The Concept of Character in Fiction,” “The Medium of Fiction,” “In Terms of the Toenail,” or “Carrots, Noses, Snow, Rose, Roses” (all from his inaugural volume of nonfiction, Fiction and the Figures of Life), or in the form of the preening sentences themselves, lie cautions against suspending disbelief. On the other hand, what better catalog of small-town Midwestern activities and attitudes will we find than “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”? (And how many readers have written Gass to congratulate him on getting their Iowas, their Indianas, right?) What rendition of the frozen Dakota landscape supersedes the descriptions in “The Pedersen Kid”? For a matchless study of stalled prospects, read “Icicles”; for displaced sensuality, there is no substitute for “Mrs. Mean”; for an understanding of parochial fears, the people of Gilean, Ohio, in Omensetter's Luck are a case study. And most solemn of all are the murderous echoes of Nazi crimes that haunt the lyrical “flights” of Kohler, whose tunnel is simultaneously an escape route into rhetoric and a self-interment in the intractable data of the death camps. Thus, for all his pronouncements to the contrary, Gass traffics in disciplines, dialects, and private demons like an insider.

Gass's sentences are models of supremely elongated attention. They coil patiently around their subject, frequently nosing it with metaphor or assailing it with alliteration. Whether occasioned by the presence of a likeminded writer (Stein, Colette, Valéry, Emerson, Plato, and Faulkner among them, to give a sample of the range of his company) or by such intricate philosophical surgery as his rumination on the word and, Gass writes the way a jazz musician jams—to show us, and to show off. Consider this passage on the being of “blue”:

The word itself has another color. It's not a word with any resonance, although the e was once pronounced. There is only the bump now between b and l, the relief at the end, the whew. It hasn't the sly turn which crimson takes halfway through, yellow's deceptive jelly, or the rolled-down sound in brown. It hasn't violet's rapid sexual shudder, or like a rough road the irregularity of ultramarine, the low puddle in mauve like a pancake covered with cream, the disapproving purse to pink, the assertive brevity of red, the whine of green. What did Rimbaud know about the vowels we cannot also find outside the lines in which the poet takes an angry piss at heaven? The blue perhaps of the aster or the iris or the air a fist has bruised?9

At the risk of diminishing the visceral pleasures of this paragraph, excavation yields a good deal about Gass's method. For example, Gass is often quite deliberate about wedding sentence form with content. In detailing the way the word blue emerges from the mouth, he imitates both the “bump” at the beginning of the word (in the opening clause of the sentence, which similarly employs the soft stops in “bump,” “between,” and “b”) and “the relief at the end” with the “whew” that quietly exhausts our breath, which has been sapped by the three sentence sections and the long es of “between” and “relief”—like “blue,” the sentence relieves us and itself. Gass effects a similar sensation with a previous sentence in On Being Blue, in which he is incriminating the slovenliness of sexual detailing in some erotic literature: “Without plan or purpose we slide from substance to sensation, fact to feeling, all out becomes in, and we hear only exclamations of suspicious satisfaction: the ums, the ohs, the ahs.”10 Greasing the skids of the sentence with all of those ss, tumbling out the breath from comma to comma, he ends with the last gasps which, to be sure, have lost their sexual impact and instead are nothing more than the only sounds we can muster.

Then, of course, there are the other attendant colors that swell the cast of characters, whose brief entrances and exits belie the cleverness of their captions. (Surely, each teases us with the possibility that it might serve as effectively as blue as the “star” of the inquiry—as no less profitable a mantra.) The descriptive bits about each color clearly mimic the sound and effect of the color itself; or better, they subsequently determine the quality of each color as though they were character notes at the opening of a play. Hence, because we are alerted to the “turn” in the word crimson, we are apt to accept its slyness on the word of the author who has disarmed us with the revelation that, yes, here is another word that suddenly wears its strangeness like a sheen. (In writing of Gass, one is moved to try to write like him, and to founder in the fun of trying to.) Yellow is “deceptive” in part because deceptive smuggles the same subtle sound in its middle, and because jelly, which continues the bridge of soft es and thereby seems related to its precedents in the sentence, is itself a sort of uneasy solid. Meter also carries the argument along: the blunt accents of “the rolled-down sound in brown,” the curious approach-avoidance of trochees in “hasn't violet's rapid sexual shudder,” and the equation of rhythm and meaning in “irregularity” and “ultramarine” have all been tested for sound and sense alike. Each of the colors Gass includes here are comparably disclosed, and none earns the trust or carries the imaginative weight Gass desires—none but blue. He sets us up for leaps of faith like that, the way he does again at the end of the paragraph by gathering asters and irises in preparation for the bruising of the air, which has unaccountably grown flesh much as colors have assumed character traits.

In honoring one of Gass's protracted sentences from “The Ontology of the Sentence, or How to Make A World of Words,” Paul West notes that Gass “reaches a point of voluptuous crisis, at which there is nothing that doesn't belong in the next sentence.”11 Voluptuousness is precisely the point behind Gass's penchant for catalogs, which are as much celebrations of verbal abundance as they are accumulations of evidence to prop up a thesis. “Lists are finally for those who love language,” Gass declares, “the vowel-swollen cheek, the lilting, dancing tongue, because lists are fields full of words, and roving bands of ‘and.’”12 Consider the opening pages of On Being Blue: the incantatory excess, the generous sweep. Clearly we have been delivered into the hands of the perfect host—erudite, hospitable, a connoisseur of many concerns:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that's dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way; a swift pitch, Confederate money, the shaded slopes of clouds and mountains, and so the constantly increasing absentness of Heaven … 13

The remarkable democracy of this catalog, drawing as it does the mundane and the esoteric, the rude and the ethereal alike into its compass, seems to allow us to witness the writing in the act. As the nouns jostle one another in their unaccustomed context, as ideas marinate in associations taken from all manner of learning, unexpected energies are released. Words, concepts, images—these are the featured players in the story of the sentence in the making.

Notice how Gass plays out a sentence the way a surfer might squeeze out all the performance he can from his wave; or, just as an expert fisherman reels in and eases off on his catch, Gass patiently works his topic into his grasp. This particular offering is an homage to the word hillious in the course of Gass's exploration of “Representation and the War for Reality”:

Yet this being which began with a frail umbilical to its referent—a mother who will not remain to sustain it but comes into view on occasion the way a busy parent sees its children—this being that began so slimly soon has grown a core, a center, and although it is only a crossing of contexts, a corner, a relation between relations, it is a city of sorts, and has its own life in it, its own character, it has a nature—a ‘hilliousness’ like San Francisco's; so that now our word, a vacant universal when its meanings were not yet its own, but assigned it like busywork for the otherwise unemployed, is a complete, complex, and quite singular creature, conscious of its rights, its past, its rich roundabouts of reference and suggestion, definition, its variety and ambiguity of use, its layered ironies and opposing inclinations, its elegance, status, social tone, its fully formed though frazzled and untidy self; and it is in this refulgent condition that the word presents itself to the artist: as a silted-up symbol for his ardent declaiming, signs inside the sign of itself the way feelings mingle with other feelings when lips meet—when the history of earlier encounters, kisses, eye-closing contacts, modify one another amid all that moisture which has not yet turned to spit—and consequently is now a sign which is prepared to establish the most profound relations with others of its sort to shape—what?—a simple sentence like a single berry plucked from its bush to melt in a cautious music in the mouth.14

This is delicate engineering done with jeweler's tools. On the one hand, Gass draws out sentence segments and fastens their ligatures with surgical concentration upon the shape, heft, and specific density of their elements; on the other hand, Gass trusts the unpremeditated tumble of thoughts into other thoughts, the way images of birth beget kisses, spit, berries, and music in the shifting, looping itinerary of this exemplary sentence, whose “episodic” structure connotes hierarchies, way stations, and tributaries that highlight the process of thought. The resulting combination is a kind of measured rapture, at once fastidious and freewheeling. Like e. e. Cummings and Wallace Stevens (to invoke two otherwise vastly different poets), Gass is quite the exhibitionist when it comes to the pleasure he takes in words for their own splendid sake; like William Faulkner and Stanley Elkin (to select a precursor and a peer who share his passion for sentences), Gass makes it clear that wealth and wisdom are in the writing itself—in the negotiations and adhesions that occur among concepts, allusions, and details borne along by the rhythmic pulse of the line. We recall Faulkner's wish “to say it all … between one Cap and one period.”15 In defiance of silence, these authors show how sentences, for all their delicacy, can be superstructures on which to found all manner of possibility.

Style, then, is the issue that permeates assessments of William Gass, and it is prominently featured in the discussions to follow. At the root of each scrimmage between aesthetic and moral responsibilities, and between textual and extratextual realities, are the sentences that compel attention in the first place—“sentences, by the hundreds,” says Ihab Hassan, “that would tempt Torquemada to forgive for each word a heretic at the stake.”16 A kind of fundamentalist regard for his craft pervades the fiction and the essays alike. Time and again, Gass enjoins us to marshal the scrupulousness, patience, and luxurious appreciation necessary to unlock the sensuous potential of words—“love lavished on words” is the phrase he uses in On Being Blue, and in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife he demonstrates how the same qualities are shared by good lovers and good readers. But what we might emphasize by way of completing this introduction is the question of whether a commitment to art for art's sake is politically evasive or ethically indefensible, as some detractors have suggested. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, for instance, is troubled by the very satisfactions Gass's talents afford because they may represent a kind of subterfuge whereby virtuosity supplants or pretends to compensate for virtue. Responding to The Tunnel, the massive novel still in-progress after more than twenty years, Rosenfeld worries that “the Orphic way out of or around the holocaust” may be meretricious or, worse, a betrayal of conscience:

Pondering Hitler's murderous deed doubtless is one of the imperative tasks of our time, and one would not want to prevent fiction from taking part in it, but a fiction that would celebrate or seek pleasure in transmutations of the monstrous crime yields not so much aesthetic order as aesthetic alibis—beautifully textured, elaborate lies, but lies all the same.17

Is it irresponsible—is it hedonistic—to offer the rigor of sentences while millions suffer real death sentences? Is lyricism truly instructive or valorous under such conditions?

Gass responds by insisting that a revolution of consciousness inevitably includes political and ethical components; furthermore, as embodiments of our best selves, as it were, our most stalwart sentences serve as models of moral behavior. As he claims in “Culture, Self, and Style,” “The cultures I should like to count as highest, then, are those which enable the people … to become as individual, as conscious, as critical, as whole in themselves, as a good sentence.”18 Thus, Gass's defense goes beyond the contention that the writer's top priority and essential litmus test is that he write well. It argues that encouraging our ability to appreciate good writing is ultimately the best protection the author can provide us against bad writing, be it merely inept or downright manipulative. A reading diet rich in challenging metaphor and risky alliteration does not corrupt but engages the proper habits of critical thought, without which readers could be recipients of philosophical considerations but never their arbiters. Or, as Gass makes the case for commitment as an aesthetic principle,

To seek the truth (which requires method), to endeavor to be just (which depends on process), to create and serve beauty (which is the formal object of style), these old “ha-has,” like peace and freedom and respect for persons, are seldom aims or states of the world these days, but only words most likely found in Sunday schools, or adrift like booze on the breath of cheapjacks, preachers, politicians, teachers, popes; nevertheless, they can still be sweet on the right tongue, and name our ends and our most honorable dreams.19

This is what it means to argue that Gass's prose—soaring, supple, startling—asks us to live up to it. And if, as contemporary linguists assert, reality is as much constituted as evoked by language, we must be scrupulous indeed about how we word our world, for each phrase fates us.

The suggestion that the price of love well-made on the page is a compromise of sensitivity to life misses what makes prose vital and memorable, which is not, or at least, not first, the lesson but the language. It is this assumption that unites all of Gass's verbal enterprises, and that undergirds each of the essays presented here, whether its principal scrutiny be cast upon the fiction or the nonfiction. Words are not only the vehicle of thought and feeling, they are their source, and Gass makes it his business to return us from distraction. Tony Tanner explains, “You can find a person's politics, as you can find his ethics, in his sentences.”20 William Gass discovers “the soul inside the sentence” as well.


  1. William H. Gass, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and Other Stories (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 180.

  2. William H. Gass, “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” Habitations of the Word: Essays (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985), 122.

  3. “The Soul Inside the Sentence,” 117.

  4. William H. Gass, “On Talking to Oneself,” Habitations of the Word, 211.

  5. “On Talking to Oneself,” 213.

  6. William H. Gass, “Culture, Self, and Style,” Habitations of the Word, 202.

  7. William H. Gass, “The Habitations of the Word,” Habitations of the Word, 264.

  8. William H. Gass, “The Death of the Author,” Habitations of the Word, 287.

  9. William H. Gass, On Being Blue: A Philosophical Inquiry (Boston: David R. Godine, 1976), 34.

  10. On Being Blue, 17.

  11. Paul West, “The World within the Word” (review), Sheer Fiction (New Paltz, NY: McPherson, 1987), 206.

  12. William H. Gass, “And,” Habitations of the Word, 178.

  13. On Being Blue, 3.

  14. William H. Gass, “Representation and the War for Reality,” Habitations of the Word, 96.

  15. Quoted in Donald M. Kartiganer, “William Faulkner,” Columbia Literary History of the United States, ed. Emory Elliott et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1988), 887.

  16. Ihab Hassan, “Wars of Desire, Politics of the Word,” Salmagundi 55 (Winter 1982): 118.

  17. Alvin H. Rosenfeld, “The Virtuoso and the Gravity of History,” Salmagundi 55 (Winter 1982): 109, 108.

  18. “Culture, Self, and Style,” 203.

  19. “Culture, Self, and Style,” 203.

  20. Tony Tanner, “Frames and Sentences,” in Representation and Performance in Postmodern Fiction, ed. Maurice Couturier (Delta, 1982), 29.

Philip Stevick (essay date Fall 1991)

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SOURCE: “William Gass and the Real World,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 11, No. 3, Fall, 1991, pp. 71-7.

[In the following essay, Stevick examines the significance of Gass's comments on his own work in light of his problematic insistence on the nonreferentiality of his texts. Stevick draws attention to paradoxical distinctions between Gass's authorial persona and his actual existence as creator and critic of his own writing.]

Not very many writers refuse to talk about their work these days. A writer has to be resolutely reclusive to do so, or perhaps supremely rude. People do ask. It is probably attractive for most writers to respond, partly because the questions in most interviews are thoughtful, incisive, and not self-promotive, partly because it is surely good for the ego, creating a secondary level of discourse in which one comments on one's own work, Narcissus as Narcissus, in Tate's classic phrase. Once done, those commentaries can have every possible result and readers will use them as they wish, regarding them as essential keys to the work, like Hopkins talking about sprung rhythm, regarding them as one reader's opinion, no more privileged than any other merely because the reader happens to be the writer, or regarding them as harmless obbligatos, virtuoso exercises in which we are permitted to hear the writer's voice in what seems a more informal setting than the primary works themselves.

The interchanges involving writers as auto-commentators would make an attractive history, especially in the past thirty years. One thinks of that splendidly resonant sentence “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” spoken by the narrator of “See the Moon,” and Barthelme's attempts ever since to disavow the sentence as his personal credo. Or one thinks of Hawkes, protesting to bemused audiences over the years that his fictions have nothing to do with his inner life. Or one thinks of Barth explaining and explaining that neither his fiction nor his criticism is intended to express a situation in which the possibilities of narration are “exhausted.”

William Gass's statements on his own work carry more authority than any of the other members of that rich and fascinating group we have come to think of as the prominent postmodernists or postrealists or metafictionists. It is not primarily because he has spoken and written quite a lot and obviously has a fondness for critical commentary with a polemical edge, although that is true. It is not because everything he says is stylish and witty, although it is. It is that he has spent a lifetime perfecting his skills as a disputant, a professional philosopher, and even before his opponent has opened his mouth, Gass has reduced him to idiocy. It is hard to find people who cherish Gass's opinions. But it is harder to find people who argue them away.

In 1976, Shenandoah published a symposium with Gass, Walker Percy, Grace Paley, and Donald Barthelme as participants.1 It makes as good an example as any of Gass in action. The participants are very different from each other, strenuous, witty, passionate. But soon into the symposium, there is a choosing up of sides and it is Gass against the others. It is Grace Paley who is the most irritated: clearly, she believes that any given story of hers discovers modes of feeling, say, between parent and child, explores what things cost, how much things hurt. Gass's position is clearly universalizing: it is not simply his own fiction he describes but fiction qua fiction, all fiction. That global intent, plus more than a touch of a lecture style, puts him in the position not only of describing to Paley (and Percy and Barthelme) what they do; he condescends to them for imagining that they do otherwise. So caught up is he in the energy of the symposium that Gass creates moments of fiction. Imagining direct quotations, supplying a suggestive detail or two, he presents for our amused delectation the image of himself, after a public reading, listening, yet again, with scorn, to the person who wants to tell him how evocative his fiction is of small-town life in the Midwest. Or we see him opening his fan mail, painfully reading how some bumpkin reader thinks he has got the experience in question “right.”

What the position is that so engages the voice and self of Gass is, of course, the rigorous insistence on the artifice of fiction, its status as a verbal construct, a made thing, in which its excellence resides in the coherence, the intricacy, the style of its construction. It is a position that dismisses the truth claims of fiction, dismisses its referential value, its capacity to stand in some relation, however oblique, to “experience.” To ask of fiction that it convey the look and feel of the phenomenal world, the inner lives of human figures, an ordering of the raw materials that add up to the way we live now is not only, for Gass, to beg every relevant philosophical question; it is also to violate the nature of fiction, which has, as its only subject, the language of which it is made.

The best way of interrogating such a position is surely not to ask whether it is right or wrong but whether it is useful or illuminating, whether it bears some discernible relation to the art we recognize as fiction, as practiced in various times and places, and, for that matter, as practiced by Gass himself. And the way to test it is not to measure it against standards of philosophical rigor but to measure it against fiction in general and Gass's fiction in particular. I quote from a representative passage from Gass's best-known fiction, “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.”

Buses like great orange animals move through the early light to school. There the children will be taught to read and warned against Communism. By Miss Janet Jakes. That's not her name. Her name is Helen something—Scott or James. A teacher twenty years. She's now worn smooth, and has a face, Wilfred says, like a mail-order ax.2

It is a passage that has been read, by now, by thousands of people, in different ways. But it is surely not presumptuous to imagine certain common patterns of reading that would tend to unite that disparate audience and that would demonstrate, in some sense, what Gass makes when he writes fiction.

The buses move. The reader is reminded that large vehicles, traveling slowly, seem self-propelled, detached from human agency. Imagining the buses as animals suggests the vision of the child, the ease with which we may all, up to a certain age, see headlights as eyes, the grill as nose and mouth, the vehicle as body; but it may also suggest the haunting animism of the opening pages of Bleak House; it may, God help us, remind us of all those advertisers who have sought to persuade us that a car is like a shark or a tiger. They move through the early light. Nothing is said of roads and stop signs, waiting children, other vehicles. The buses move through light, as if Monet, taking a break from the water lilies, had decided to paint a schoolbus. And the bus moves in a village setting so small and so quiet that nothing else competes with it.

Surely no reader responds to that sentence as a small miracle of language. As language, there is nothing remarkable about it. The sentence surely seeks to evoke a recognition and to render the thing recalled in a slightly unusual way. “Defamiliarization,” the Russian formalists called it. Tolstoy and Chekhov would have understood what is being attempted. “Defamiliarization,” of course, is pointless unless a writer can assume a reader who is “familiar” in the first place with the thing described. There are such things as schoolbuses, as every reader of Gass knows and as Gass knows they know, and we all know what they look like.

“Taught to read and warned against Communism”: not a zeugma, not quite a syllepsis, that coordinate linkage is meant to jar, nonetheless, with two such disparate subjects yoked together with an “and,” as if equal. It is a hit, of course, at a mindless nativism, jingoism; and it is meant to register the state of mind of a particular historical moment, the post-McCarthy, Manichean, Cold War paranoia of the late fifties. To readers who were alive then and found that whole gestalt not to their taste, that single phrase, that mere half sentence, will act like a semiological cue, activating John Foster Dulles, Cardinal Spellman, editorials in the Chicago Tribune, John Wayne. Readers who were not alive then will need some help. Janet Jakes does not now rail against communism in the town of B—. That cultural moment is long past. But whether a reader approaches it out of his own vital memory or as a bit of document, evoking something out of recent history, there is no doubt that a reader, any reader, will understand that phrase to refer to aspects of American experience in, say, 1958.

“Janet Jakes,” the narrator calls her, playfully, maliciously. And some readers will understand that it is not simply a ludic alliteration that the narrator has bestowed on her but that giving her the surname Jakes suggests the excremental, the anal retentive, playing upon poor Helen Scott a primitive joke in which her last name is equated with shit. A teacher worn smooth. It is not a phrase that seems at all likely for someone of another profession, a lawyer, an accountant. There is a special hostility carried by the phrase, the hostility of the verbal and sensitive for the custodians of words in our youth who fulfilled their function with such a weary lack of wit. One assumes a kinship between Gass and the narrator; and both of them reach out to readers now. We all had a lot of bad teachers back then and they were all named Janet Jakes.

A face like a mail-order ax. The ax one understands well enough. It is a face hard and angular, so little animated as to suggest the metallic, like a tool for attacking trees, or, occasionally, people. But why a mail-order ax? It is a phrase as amusingly hostile as it is, surely in part because it defies explanation. It is Wilfred's phrase and is obviously meant to tap into the resources of folk invective. Containing Wilfred's phrase, the paragraph, and the fiction from which it comes, aims to render a voice, knowing, observant, too clever to be vulnerable yet vulnerable all the same, in touch with the nuances of high art and the directness of the folk, searching in all of the manifestations of small-town narrowness for images that can seem to stand for the personal hurt that the voice projects.

I do not mean primarily to offer guidance in the way in which that little paragraph should be read, although I seem to do so. I mean only to suggest certain essential moves which a reader must be prepared to make. A reader from a part of the world that lacks schoolbuses and is unaware of their conventional coloration will be puzzled by the description, assuming perhaps that orange (or yellow) buses are an inscrutable feature of the town of B—. Or a reader unaware of the simple-minded geometries of the Cold War will assume that reading and the evils of communism are subjects of equal import in American education and that the speaker of the fiction approves.

All fiction (excepting such wonderful exercises in the autotelic as Walter Abish's Alphabetical Africa) depends upon a community of information and value among readers. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” depends upon such a community rather more than most fiction. There is scarcely a sentence in the entire story that does not depend upon a bond or pact with the reader, the writer understanding that the reader will recall schoolbuses, the Cold War, and bad teachers in a particular way. It is surely one of the most rhetorical pieces of fiction written in the last thirty years, endlessly nudging, cajoling, manipulating. Anyone who has tried to teach the story to eighteen-year-olds will know how disappointingly flat the story seems to them: the reading of it depends upon a vital engagement with a culture they do not know and an enthusiastic assent to a large range of judgments of that culture which they could not possibly make. All of this seems so obvious that one may wonder why I have gone to such labor to make the point. The reason takes us to the place where I began. Gass has gone to considerable pains to undermine or deny the point I am seeking to make.

Let us assume that I have tilted things a bit: Gass's position is less unaccountable as a description of certain other works of his, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife for example, which is not about Willie Masters, or his wife, or about schoolbuses, or the United States in the fifties. It is, indisputably, “about” signs and symbols, language, point of view, printed marks on a page, coherence and congruence, fiction, art. Still, the paragraph I quote is there; I did not make it up; it really is by Gass; and it is, indisputably, about something besides itself.

How to reconcile the polemical position with the authorial is less difficult than it would seem. For a long time now we have known better than to confuse an author's voices, in print, with what we imagine as his authentic self. If, in Conrad's work, Marlow speaks to us, we attribute his opinions to Marlow, not Conrad. If, on the other hand, somebody speaks to us out of Conrad's fiction who is not Marlow but seemingly Conrad himself, it is not, we know, Conrad but “Conrad,” a specialized author-voice. If we read a letter by Conrad, the author may be Conrad, or “Conrad,” or ((Conrad)), or (Conrad). Perhaps if we had been in his presence, he would have spoken in a voice as authentic as anybody's ever is. But every utterance that survives his personal presence is a fiction and a tactic, one of several possible voices devised for the occasion.

We are comfortable, as readers and critics, with a writer's versions of his own voice and the multiple ironies that play across his presentation of self—if the writer in question is of an earlier period. When we confront our contemporaries, that ease seems to leave us and a numbing innocence sets in. The Gass whose words are recorded in the transcript of a panel discussion in the pages of Shenandoah is not Gass; it is “Gass,” an ingenious and fascinating variation of an authentic Gass whom we can never know, a character, as contrived and as fictive as Raskolnikov, a second self (or a third or a fourth self), a wizard, a rhetor, a humbug, an imposter pretending to be Gass. The odd success of that voice is that it has succeeded in persuading us that it speaks with authority on the fiction of Gass.

Three things need to be said about that voice and posture. The first is that it is not very good philosophy. In the last few years a number of books have appeared treating questions of truth, fictionality, artifice, and belief. I think, for example, of Thomas Pavel's Fictional Worlds (1986) and Michael Riffaterre's Fictional Truth (1990), each quite different from the other but both supple, complex, and sophisticated. Both books are more recent than the major statements of Gass on the question. But neither they nor other comparable works have sprung, in the last decade, from nothing, rather from a long debate on questions of the relation between fiction and world. Gass's statements really do not stand in any relation to that ongoing debate.

The second thing about those statements is that they are, in a sense, quite true. I mean not only that they are true in the sense in which some of Gass's fiction does try to cut loose from referentiality. Rather, I mean that insofar as the Gass who participates in panels and writes essays on fiction is, indeed, a fiction himself, then the images of his writing have no bearing on his experience because he, “Gass,” not Gass, has no experience. This is, I think, no idle paradox. No one knows the motives of Gass, but it is not difficult to imagine a kind of willed and happy split between the Gass who drinks his coffee and reads his paper in the city of St. Louis and the “Gass” who drinks nothing, reads nothing, and has never lived in “B—… a small town fastened to a field in Indiana.”

The third thing that needs to be said is that Gass has, by accident or design, created a literary experience that is new and altogether startling. Other contemporary writers ask to be read by the book, occasionally by the period or stage of a career. It is Gass, more than any other American writer now alive, who asks to be read by the oeuvre. There is a sense, a little like Sterne, a little like Whitman, that his work is all one work, still evolving. It is difficult to read middle Gass without wondering about, and seeking out, early Gass, impossible to read middle Gass without musing on the fate of The Tunnel. The body of work seems so whole and continuous partly because the nonfiction and the fiction overlap so easily that a distinction between them seems artificial.

Other bodies of work contain a canonical area of autocommentary: James's New York Edition with its prefaces comes to mind. With James, it is an expository mode commenting on a fictive mode. In the case of Gass, not only is the critical prose continuous with the lyrical, nonfictional prose; both of them are continuous with the fiction, and all of them are continuous with the interviews, the panel presentations, the off-the-cuff remarks. Far from the bimodal arrangement of the New York Edition, Gass's oeuvre is pan-modal and everything comments on everything else.

There is something definitive about James's bimodal method. There are the early works, in all of their splendid integrity, and there are the prefaces, in all of their late-James authority, and one measures the distance between, understands, mediates, works it out. Gass is more complicated, or more devious. Everything is an essai, the fiction, the “criticism,” the remarks, the panel pronouncements. All of these are equal to all of the others and they all work against each other, so that what one is left with is a bundle of tensions and contradictions, which may or may not be what Gass intended. For all of the energy and ingenuity of reader-response criticism in the last thirty years, no one has commented on what happens when a reader does not trust what a writer says about his own work.

What happens, at least in Gass, is a fabric in which every strand pulls against every other and the result, contemplating the whole of the oeuvre, is a tension and unease unprecedented in American writing and in no way allayed by the cool elegance of the prose. So it is that for Gass to be elegantly and ingeniously wrong about himself is to sustain a project in which the inner contractions are precisely the point.


  1. “A Symposium on Fiction,” Shenandoah 27 (Winter 1976): 3-31.

  2. William H. Gass, In the Heart of The Heart of The Country (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 187.

Robert Kelly (review date 26 February 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Repulsively Lonely Man,” in New York Times Book Review, February 26, 1995, pp. 1, 17-8.

[In the following review, Kelly provides summary analysis of The Tunnel, which he describes as “an infuriating and offensive masterpiece.”]

If you want to go down into the self, you'd better go armed to the teeth. Paul Valéry says that somewhere, and it was what came to mind as I began reading The Tunnel, this huge and long-awaited novel by William H. Gass, the masterpiece, one must presume, of this 70-year-old American master.

A middle-aged professor of history at a Midwestern university takes to going down into the cellar of his big middle-class house, away from his unloved, undesired, unloving wife. He starts tunneling down through the floor and out beyond the foundations, lying on his fat belly and squirming past trowelfuls of clay and dirt and dust on his way out. He is escaping from his life.

That is the operative metaphor of this 652-page book, yet in only a few of its many chapters is the actual tunneling presented in ordinary narrative space as ordinary narrated event. Mostly the book is remembrance, invective and expostulation, along with lewd instances and merry excuses, and the tunnel remains just a motif, a poetic image occasionally stumbled into in the midst of other things. All the things, in fact, that Mr. Gass has provided his professor with in the way of the arms and weapons he will need to dig out of his life. As we know, and not just from Freud and other psychoenterologists, the only way to dig out of your life is to dig through it. So the professor talks from the middle of his life, backward, forward, remembering a furtive love life that is mostly skin and spurt, the nasty trivial obsessions of academic life, his horrible home.

The Tunnel is maddening, enthralling, appalling, coarse, romantic, sprawling, bawling. It is driven by language and all the gloriously phony precisions the dictionary makes available. It is not a nice book. It will have enemies, and I am not sure after one reading (forgive me, it's a big book) that I am not one of them. Let me tell you what I can.

There was a little boy, an only child, raised in a bleak Midwestern town by an alcoholic mother and a verbally brutal father. It would not take a Dickens to borrow the reader's sympathy and show us the little boy's suffering, his slow escape from that abusive milieu, and to delicately sketch the paths of liberty the boy might find, or the hopeless mire into which he might, reader signing, fall back.

But that is not William Gass's way. Instead, he leaps ahead half a century and gives us the sex-besotted, verbally brutal professor the boy becomes, a gross character with fascist views and a taste for sly affairs with his students. He gives us the thick of the man, the dirt to tunnel through. To get, if we get, at last to the truth of him. In fact, it is not till more than 600 pages into the book that we learn anything like the full particulars of the boy's youth. And when we get there, it is only to doubt that history is any more meaningful when it reveals origins than when it displays the blood and ordure of results.

Our professor of history is William Kohler (the name reminds us of plumbing fixtures), who occupies a wooden chair once held by his teacher, a German scholar named Tabor, who introduced him to the dangerous paths of history-by-paradox, to the historian as the creator of history. A loud know-it-all, Kohler began his academic career with a treatise that seemed to deny the probity and necessity of the Nuremberg Trials. Kohler has now crowned his work with a massive study called “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany,” among the typescript pages of which he interleaves the pages he is writing, the ones we seem to be reading. The novel is then to be understood as the hidden, personal expression of that mind that publicly announces itself in a strange study of the range of German innocence.

Once I tried to write a novel in the voice of someone I detested, while still engaging the reader's fellow feeling. Alas, it was all too easy. And the reader found it all too easy to accept my monster as a hero. There is a trohison des clercs not confined to historians and political analysts. Novelists and poets too can commit the treason of the intellectuals. Kohler's whole existence, his operatic self-pity, the very articulateness of his self-justifications, affront our sense of right and of intellectual responsibility. Yet this is where the satiric novelist works best, exploring this plausible monster, our shadow man.

In creating such a character, Mr. Gass avails himself of classic arms of modernism: allusion, puzzle, style as flesh, language as fable. In those particulars he will not at all disappoint the readers who were so excited by his stories (“In the Heart of the Heart of the Country”) a quarter-century ago, his novel Omensetter's Luck, the enthralling essays of On Being Blue, and, closest in many ways to the book at hand, that nonpareil shimmer of text and image in the novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, a foretaste of what we find in The Tunnel.

But here the typographical games seem (unlike those in the novella) playful rather than evocative. And while Mr. Gass uses some devices Georges Perec or Harry Mathews might wield as strategies of composition, or grids of meaning, here the devices seem decorative, not so much claims on the reader's puzzle-solving faculties as rewards to the writer for going on, allowing himself some smutty doggerel after a night's hard noveling.

The real structure of the novel seems episodic, spasmodic, and thus apt enough for tunneling and boweling along. The first 50 pages or so are hard going, a Wagnerian wash of false starts, motifs, recollections, anticipations. Music helps; the rhythmic pressure of his language is seductive and bears along ever-interesting images and ideas. So much stuff in this novel! Old High Overdo is spoken here, burgessing and rabelaising; a favorite trick for a Gassian paragraph is to be a list of items rhythmically, sometimes even rhymingly, thrown together.

We first strike steady narrative with a splendid bravura chapter on the childhood town. We follow page after page of nostalgic detail through beautifully circumstanced streets, until slowly we realize that in all this Joycean summoning there is no one present except a plump little lonely boy, all alone in an unpeopled town. And that sets the measure of the book. This is a book about a monstrously lonely man, and how he makes himself so.

For the first few hundred pages not one of the few characters says anything at all except about the narrator. They have no selves except what they say about Willie young or old. The narrator has engulfed their reality, made their words his own.

Martha, his wife; Tabor, his teacher; his oddly-named colleagues in the Nabokovian history department; the imaginal (and maybe imaginary) Susu, with whom he has erotic escapades: lost Lou; fresh little Ru—all the u-girls of his life. We learn about these people, but few of them ever take on any kind of dimensionality, they are voices prodding, blaming, pleasing, leaving Willie.

All except Tabor. He's real enough. (He's usually called Mad Meg, after Bruegel's painting of the madwoman.) Kohler's mother is Margaret too, also a Meg, so the novel has two Mad Megs. Kohler winds up his youth by putting her into a madhouse. It's Tabor who sets Kohler off on his path of study—the darkest business of this novel—Hitler and the Holocaust.

In one of the strongest chapters in the book, Kohler goes through his own memories of researching Kristallnacht, the terrible first act in the war against the Jews, purportedly unleashed in response to the assassination in Paris of a German diplomat by an enraged Jew. Mr. Gass interweaves Kohler's studies of himself and his own reactions (of course) and his debunking guesses about the unethical motives of the assassin, with paragraphs ostensibly recording the memories of someone who actually took part in attacking the Jews.

The horror here and throughout The Tunnel is the way history is personalized, the plight of any individual equated with the plight of nations. The theory of Kohler's treatise seems to be something like this: Hitler was a wimp and couldn't have done a thing by himself; it was the massive resentment of the German people that did his work. So the German people are guilty, and the Nazis curiously innocent—dreamers who chanced to dream out loud and cause a 12-year riot of destruction.

What Kohler makes of this is a Party of Disappointed People, a PdP to match Hitler's NSDAP (the Nazi Party). All through The Tunnel we find cartoons, jokes, party platform planks, regalia, for this party of the resentful, the envious, the spiteful, the bigoted. (There is even a long chapter in defense of bigotry.) But like the central metaphor of the tunnel itself, the PdP never gets anywhere. It is never narrated, just thought about, played with. Its flags are funny, its party fez is a treat. But its implications are horrendous. Hitler was just a joke; it's the people who did it.

I can't imagine William Gass believing this, any more than I can believe that the Vorticist novelist and painter Wyndham Lewis (whom Mr. Gass often interestingly resembles in daring and despondency) really doubted that the Jews were human. The risk is the representation. One offers a character, and the character is taken as a man, then as a hero. When Kohler, speaking of his own resentment, remarks about Hitler, “I would have followed him just to get even,” one senses maybe a comic exaggeration and tries to keep going. But when in the course of his endless bitter reflections on his failed marriage, Kohler exclaims “I've been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen,” we recognize only iniquitous nonsense. There is no bedroom as bad as Belsen, and to say so is to signal that you do not know what Belsen is.

In whose hands are we as we read? Much of the time, we revel in the sheer glory of Mr. Gass's phenomenal prose style, his unflagging energy, in a prose that seems to embrace and swallow everything and make all things alive with interest. He can touch the secret waters of childhood, and spell out (in a beautiful chapter called “Do Rivers”) the delicate silence of the body after love. But in the same invented character we keep coming up against raw bitterness, bigotries no fresher than Archie Bunker, intolerably lighthearted deployment of Nazi vileness.

While it is impressive that a novelist can pull off the tricks of creating such a sexist, bigoted, hate-filled character and of making the reader accept his vision of the real, there is a risk, one that every satirist takes. The risk is being believed, taken literally. To this day, we tend to think Jonathan Swift loathed humankind on the strength of Gulliver's aversion. William Gass takes the risk, and it is no small achievement to make us take our bearings from Swift and Wyndham Lewis and those magniloquent sourpusses Louis-Ferdinand Celine and Samuel Beckett, ghosts who seem to hover, as James Joyce does too, over this novel. But it is not much comfort to lay aside this infuriating and offensive masterpiece and call it a satire, as if a genre could heal the wounds it so delights to display. It will be years before we know what to make of it.

Merle Rubin (review date 6 March 1995)

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SOURCE: “Notes From a Postmodern ‘Underground Man,’” in The Christian Science Monitor, March 6, 1995, p. 13.

[In the following review, Rubin offers unfavorable assessment of The Tunnel.]

William H. Gass's first novel, Omensetter's Luck, was published in 1966. The Tunnel, his second full-length novel, has been more than 30 years in the works, we are told, which would place its beginnings at least three years before the publication of his first book.

In the interim, Gass has produced a modest yet considerable body of short fiction and essays that have established him as one of the more innovative and intellectually challenging writers of this era. His essays approach a variety of subjects—the art of fiction to the emotions evoked by the color blue—from expected angles, while his fiction—always experimental—bears the stamp of a serious mind at play.

The narrator and hero of The Tunnel is William Frederick Kohler, a fifty-ish professor of history at a Midwestern university. He is not only distinctly unheroic, but he also is not really a narrator. Instead of telling a story, he ruminates and fulminates in circles, like a caged animal. Kohler, it might be said, is a caged mind, a prisoner of a painful self-knowledge that has turned into self-disgust.

As the novel opens, Kohler has just completed his magnum opus: a vast, carefully argued tome entitled “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany.” Although the book does not, apparently, absolve the Nazis of guilt, it does challenge some generally accepted interpretations of German war crimes. (What it would seem to resemble—not so much in content as in the kind of controversy aroused—is not the recent spate of fraudulent pseudo-histories that deny the existence of the death camps, but rather, something more akin to Hannah Arendt's 1963 “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”)

As Kohler starts to write the introduction to his otherwise completed work, he finds himself writing something else entirely: a wildly subjective, disorganized, undignified screed of self-revelation that is in every way the opposite of his serenely objective historical study. Turning his own life inside out, Kohler discloses a crazy quilt of memories from an ordinary yet unhappy childhood, lamentations for a lost love affair, complaints against his hapless wife and children, snide comments on his colleagues, and bitter outbursts of resentment and misanthropy, punctuated by a steady stream of obscene limericks.

At the same time he is writing this private “history,” Kohler is also secretly digging a tunnel out from the basement of his house. His motive, it would seem, is not escape—unless escape means getting away from other people by burrowing relentlessly into oneself. (His motive, more likely, is providing his author with a metaphor!)

Kohler has led a very ordinary life. An American of German extraction, he grew up on a Midwestern farm, served in World War II, married a woman of similar background, fathered two sons, and rose up the academic ladder. Kohler's one taste of true love was an adulterous affair with a sweet-natured younger woman who eventually left him because of what she termed his “loathsome mind.”

His formative intellectual experience was falling under the spell of a crazy, charismatic German historian, Magus Tabor, a Nazi sympathizer who preached that historians must shape history rather than just record it.

Tunneling pointlessly beneath his house, wallowing in self-pity, and ruthlessly exposing his bottomless sense of disappointment, Kohler is a latter-day version of Dostoyevsky's “underground man.” But Gass's postmodern nihilist is more interested in revenge than freedom. With bitter irony, he dreams of a Party of the Disappointed People, untold hordes who are filled with envy, resentment, and other “passive emotions,” smoldering inwardly, waiting only for another Führer to give them the chance to vent their grievances on another set of victims.

Why should Kohler—who has a home, a family, a job with tenure—feel such disappointment? Because, this novel suggests, disappointment is a phenomenon more pervasive than hunger, poverty, or homelessness, affecting all levels of society. The potential fascist, Gass (and Kohler) warn, can be found anywhere people feel they have been cheated of what was rightfully theirs to expect.

Unfortunately, Gass's exhaustive exploration of the fascist state of soul is far more meandering and repetitive than Dostoyevsky's “Notes from the Underground.” Although parts of The Tunnel are strongly conceived and powerfully written, Gass has not quite solved the artistic problem of how to write an energizing book about a dispiriting subject.

Michael Dirda (review date 12 March 1995)

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SOURCE: “In the Dark Chambers of the Soul,” in Washington Post Book World, March 12, 1995, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following review, Dirda offers positive assessment of The Tunnel.]

Long awaited. Eagerly anticipated. Thirty years in the making. Such siren calls have sounded before—most recently luring us to Harold Brodkey's Runaway Soul and Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost. Each time we wonder, could this be it? Our age's Ulysses? Our Magic Mountain? So we plunk down our cash, lug our shiny purchase home, swiftly read up to page 47 or 99—and then sigh. The great book, the masterpiece is, well, okay. No great shakes. Not bad really. But hardly the work of a god.

Doubtless we'd be less disillusioned if we didn't keep getting our hopes up so high. Because William H. Gass has been working on The Tunnel nearly half his life, I wanted the novel to be a transfiguring experience, the kind of book that blows readers away, creates acolytes and strolls into the canon like a boulevardier into a cafe.

Sometimes, it would seem, hopes are fulfilled instead of dashed.

The Tunnel strikes me as an extraordinary achievement, a literary treat with more than a few shocking tricks inside it. For 650 pages one of the consummate magicians of English prose pulls rabbits out of sentences and creates shimmering metaphors before your very eyes. He dazzles and amazes. But be warned: He does so on his own terms and some readers may be confused, bored or repulsed.

First some background.

William H. Gass began work on The Tunnel back in 1966. He once told an interviewer: “Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope.” Over the years a dozen sections of the novel appeared in little, arty or even glossy magazines. During the same time, Gass established himself as a major essayist (the racy On Being Blue, 1976), a playful experimentalist (the even racier Willie Master's Lonesome Wife, 1968), and a leading philosopher of fiction (three collections, most recently Habitations of the Word, 1985). All these built upon the reputation of a legendary debut novel, Omensetter's Luck (1966), and a collection of short stories with a catchy title that has passed into the language: In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968). In his spare time Gass taught, mainly at Washington University in St. Louis, and read as intently as a Cistercian: He carefully parsed the prose of Gertrude Stein, aspired to the easy philosophical address of Paul Valéry, worshipped before the achievement and example of Rilke.

And took his sweet time with The Tunnel: “I hope that it will be really original in form and effect, although mere originality is not what I'm after.” No speedy Updike he. “I write slowly.” he once confessed, “because I write badly. I have to rewrite everything many many times just to achieve mediocrity.” Yet in his essays and fiction, Gass's patient effort never shows, only a stylish perfection of tone and rhythm, along with a steady rain of unexpected simile. A meek professor's voice is “soft, soothing yet sugarless, deferential, low without sounding sexy, clear through, crisp enough, unaccented, unaffected, proper without being prim—in short, ideal if it were a telephone operator's, or if you wished to speak to the dying.” Gass's prose doesn't need to aspire to the condition of music, it is music, meant to be sung, performed, listened to. The text itself becomes a score, the means to elicit hitherto unheard yet heavenly verbal melodies.

Not everyone, of course, cares for such bel canto splendor. A few pages into some of Gass's essay-arias readers have been known to scream, “What's the point? Get on with it already.” The late John “Moral Fiction” Gardner (who as an editor published Gass's first story) frequently debated his old friend, insisting that writing was more than rococo decoration. But Gass never wavered: Words alone are certain good. Or even beyond good and evil. The description of a girl being viciously beaten (from John Hawkes's The Lime Twig) is “impossible to overpraise … An example of total control.” In Under the Volcano, Gass insisted, Malcolm Lowry is “constructing a place, not describing one; he is making a Mexico for the mind, where, strictly speaking, there are no menacing volcanoes, only menacing phrases.” The folks who go to books for lifelike characters or plots “are really not interested in literature. They are interested in folks.”

Given all this—the novel's abnormally long gestation, its author's Pateresque ideals, a high butter-fat prose—given all this, one might expect to find The Tunnel nothing less than a mining disaster. The sort of thing to inspire a folksong. Big Bad Bill. Instead the genial and ingenious Gass has created a cave of wonders. Barring a few deliberately dense, semi-philosophical sections, The Tunnel is by turns funny, lyrically beautiful, disturbing, pathetic and perplexing enough to keep scholars busy for decades. Several of its characters—Uncle Balt, for instance, and Culp, who is writing a limerickal history of the world—are pretty clearly imaginary, projections of the narrator-hero's unhinged psyche. Throughout, Gass carefully smudges the line where the narrator's rhetorical exaggeration leaves off and a kind of real madness sets in. No doubt future graduate students will clarify these and other matters. For today's readers it is enough to pause, again and again, at such quietly perfect sentences as “I do the dishes in this house and so I care about the cleanliness of tines” or “A shoe is a poor swatter; it has no holes and advertises its coming.”

Gass's prose invites admiration. Not so his hero, the historian William Frederick Kohler. A bigot and a Nazi sympathizer, this fat professor sexually exploits his students, mocks his colleagues, scorns his wife and ignores his children. Kohler (miner in German) is the kind of guy who casually sets fire to insects and somehow manages to strangle a pet cat. As a boy he swipes pennies and bicycles, as a student in 1930s Germany he lobs a brick through a Jewish storewindow on Kristallnacht. He also serves up four-letter words with five-star mastery; few of his opinions even gesture toward the politically correct. Now middle-aged at the end of the '60s, he feels washed up, despondent, self-pitying and bitter. His sole interests have devolved to digging a tunnel in his basement and composing a preface to “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany,” his “courageous revamp of the Third Reich and what it was.” Unable to focus on his preface, he writes instead about himself and his unhappy, frustrating past.

What are we to make of Kohler? There lies the nub, the mystery of Gass's novel. At times Kohler enchants with his memories of boyhood reading, then repels us with what his lost mistress, Lou—her name a tribute, I suspect, to Rilke's beloved Lou Andreas Salome—once called his “loathesome” mind: He may casually refer to “jewspapers” or defend his father's hatred for Asiatic neighbors whose main crime lies in their not being the right kind of people. Then again Kohler can be heartbreaking as he depicts his sorrowful childhood—alcoholic mother, crippled Dad, obsessive aunt. He can make us see and smell those old corner candy stores, ride along on a Sunday drive in the country, feel the anguish of a birthday party to which no one comes, taste the breakfast he makes for himself. For all his sheer awfulness it's hard to determine whether he is finally a man more sinned against than sinning. “My face simply serves as a place to put my palms.”

Kohler, I think, represents that insulted and injured party that resides deep, sometimes not so deep, inside all of us. As he himself writes “if we spoke emotion's language openly … then the child whose doll is broken would demand destruction for the world.” He dubs this sentiment the “fascism of the heart.” A bigot, Kohler says elsewhere, “is a person who has suffered an unmerited injustice, one which hasn't been put right, and woe to others if he ever has a chance to get his own back.” Even in his work on the Third Reich, the historian wants, as he notes with sickly humor, to put himself “in the villain's place, to imagine the unimaginable.” Which, of course, is just what William Gass is triumphantly doing. In several senses, Kohler almost certainly descends from Dostoevsky's bitter, self-contradictory Underground Man.

Kohler's character will provoke debate. Gass's trickiness—is our “hero” actually constructing a tunnel or is he only digging into his past and self through his writing?—will keep one balanced between uncertainties. In what ways does it matter that Kohler's parents seem to mirror Gass's own? How many different kinds of tunnel—womb, tomb, excretory tract, closet, trunk, even the name Gass (alley in German)—can one spot in these 650 often close and claustrophobic pages? There seem to be various chronological disparities—for instance, on one page Kohler's kids appear to be driving off to college, at others they seem to be youngsters still living at home. What about those curious repetitions, e.g., we are told twice about how Kohler's mother apparently lost her rings, and he himself presents slightly differing accounts of what he was doing on the day his bed-ridden father was taken to the hospital. Is there artistry here? Or editorial oversight, the result of cobbling together a novel from many short sections? Do we really need the book's occasional typographical tricks and illustrations? All interesting questions—for another day.

For now, let us rejoice in Gass's plenty—his language on the page. Here, duly labeled, are some characteristic examples, though Gass's most delicious effects arise in paragraphs and longer passages. As in a proper epic, Kohler opens by asking for divine help: “Flounce from your stew, you sluttish Muse, and bring me a pleasant subject.” There are sly self-references: “Martha hates it when I shape my sentences. She says it doesn't sound sincere.” Wit: One of Kohler's colleagues “is invariably prepared to grant you your point … after he has blunted it.” Capsule descriptions: “a smug moral look to him as if he'd eaten oatmeal for breakfast.” Sick humor: “my Brown Shirt rig (what an unhappy Halloween that was).” Neat paradoxes: “You only hate what's going on in the world because it interferes with your indifference.” Memorable comparisons: “as useful as a jackknife in the hands of an Eagle Scout.” Rhetorical tricks: “Our party”—Kohler's imagined Party of Disappointed People—“shall have planks, by god, planks we shall walk our enemies out on.” Definitions: Causes, we learn, are “lies that advertise, lies that have fan clubs.” Occasional buried allusions: “it drizzles in my heart as it drizzles on the town.” Short stories in a sentence: “Culp … claimed he went to work solely to summon the strength, simply to find the courage (he said), only to gain time (he would insist) to close the clasp on his briefcase and go home.”

At one point, Kohler remarks that “the secret of life is paying absolute attention to what is going on.” This is certainly how The Tunnel deserves to be read. It contains great beauty, as well as perversity and ugliness, much rage and a terrible sadness. “Never look beneath the surface of life,” writes Kohler, “beneath the surface of life is the pit, the abyss, the awful truth.” Perhaps Gass has managed, after all, to join his aestheticism to a moral fiction. By the end Kohler comes to seem a kind of fractured Everyman, broken by his past, his prejudices, his unfulfilled dreams. “I cannot complain,” he says for all of us. “Yet I do. I do.”

Michael Silverblatt (review date 19 March 1995)

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SOURCE: “A Small Apartment in Hell,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 19, 1995, pp. 1, 12-3.

[In the following review, Silverblatt offers high praise for The Tunnel.]

The Tunnel is the most beautiful, most complex, most disturbing novel to be published in my lifetime. It took nearly 30 years to write, including long periods of silence and the author's repeated decisions to abandon the work; but some of us have been peeping over William Gass' shoulder, reading sections as they appeared in literary magazines beginning in 1969 when a chapter called “We Have Not Lived the Right Life” appeared in the New American Review.

That piece took my breath away. The narrator, William Kohler, a professor of modern German history and specialist in the Third Reich, told us about the Midwestern town where he was born, called Grand (“simply Grand”). The beleaguered town is visited by dust storms and swarms of grasshoppers, tornadoes and blizzards, no plague more devastating than the invasion of relatives come to celebrate a cousin's wedding:

Ponderous aunts and uncles, uncles lean as withered beans, aunts pale as piecrust, grandmapas with rheum and gout, cousins shrill as sirens, sounding themselves through the house like warnings of death from the air (later in London, I heard them often), cousins who scratched you under the table, all agloat cousins who told on other cousins, cousins who scooped up fistfuls of mashed potato and let it slime over their wrists; aunts who wore hats in the house, aunts who starched and ironed linens, aunts who stirred pots, flagellated rugs, opened doors for dogs, swatted flies, and reminisced fondly of death and diseases as if they were high school dances, former flames; uncles and great-uncles who, like the hoppers, spat long brown jets of chewing tobacco across the railings while they rocked; nieces and nephews, a few of those too, who peed in their pants, threw up, bawled, and beat you on the shins and ankles with alphabet blocks; relatives at every conceivable remove, but not removed, each noisily present. …

The sentence swelled and flooded over three pages, a vast paragraph wave of nausea written so beautifully, so lovingly that it reads like a celebration, sweeping to such a crescendo that I couldn't stop to savor its phrase-by-phrase marvels of sound, of metaphor, of placement, of compact description. I read it aloud to friends, to teachers, to whoever would listen. Its rhythms entered my conversational speech. As the years passed and The Tunnel continued to appear in the literary magazines, I came to recognize that the material was dark and difficult and that the prose was designed to render the intractability of the themes at their different levels of difficulty.

Now at last we have The Tunnel. For months I have been digging through it. A bleak, black book, it engenders awe and despair. I have read it in its entirely 4 1/2; times, each time finding its resonance and beauty so great as to demand another reading. As I read, I found myself devastated by the thoroughness of the book's annihilating sensibility and revived by the beauty of its language, the complexity of its design, the melancholy, horror and stoic sympathy in its rendering of what we used to call the human condition.

For here you will see the seasons change, and when winter thaws, you will see and hear prose melt. You will sit in weeds by the banks of the Wabash and you will draw rivers in loving strokes down the body of a lost love and witness a prose that can caress as it touches the page. You will be abraded by the harshness of the narrator's rejection of humanity and you will be drawn, miserably, into the contemplation of a consciousness that has seen the nightmares and aberrations of history not as exceptions to the human but as the ultimate expression of the human.

What is The Tunnel about? Where are we when we start? For convenience, I will quote from William Gass' own description of his book. William Frederick Kohler “teaches history at a major mid-western university. He has studied in Germany during the thirties, returned with the 1st Army during the invasion as a debriefer, then as a consultant during the Nuremberg Trials. Writes a book called Nuremburg Notes. Its softness earns him some suspicion. He has been working for many years on his magnum opus: ‘Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany.’ As the novel begins, he has just concluded this book and has begun a self-congratulatory preface when he finds himself blocked and unable to continue. He finds himself writing these pages instead. Since they are exceedingly personal, and he doesn't want his wife to see them, he hides them between the pages of ‘Guilt and Innocence,’ since he knows she will never read them.”

For 30 years, Gass has been living inside Kohler; it must have been like inhabiting a small apartment in hell. At one point Gass wanted the book jacket designed without any author's name. What you were to be holding in your hands was, presumably, the tunnel itself, a burrowing into blackness. Physically, Kohler is fat, as big as Hermann Goering, big as his book, big as the tunnel he is digging under his house to escape his life. The tunnel is Kohler-shaped, an emptiness stretched to re-womb and/or bury him. Kohler presents himself as spiteful and abusive, vicious and bigoted (he's being euphemistic: I'd say genocidal).

Why should we want to spend time in such a frightening, awful presence?

Come on, you're kidding. Does this question need to be answered? At this hour of the world? Have you read Dostoevsky? Shakespeare? Actually, though, the question is interesting, because unlike the great monsters of literature—Garcia Marquez's dictators. Rabelais' giants—Kohler is powerless, pathetic and pitiable. Our terror in reading is at finding how many places he seems to be like us. Toward the end of the novel, when you read Kohler's lecture, “Being a Bigot,” you'll feel, at first, an easy superiority. You snicker with condescension. Then you hear Kohler saying things that people around you say every day—when their cars are broken into, when a proselytizer rings the doorbell with some pamphlets. The problem with the character is not that he is a monster; the problem is that the monster has taken recognizable human form. Ordinary people feel their disappointments with burning resentment everyday. Ordinary people think of hitting their children; some ordinary people do. The monstrous is all around us. We feel comfortable blaming a Hitler, but in this book Hitler is just a spark that sets resentment ablaze.

The ancestor authors for this book are Flaubert, Rilke and Joyce. Flaubert because he describes with loving, careful relish the bourgeois life which, as we know from his letters, he ardently deplored. Rilke because of the ambience of pure loss in his poetry and prose, and because of his decision to find a way to praise poverty and desolation, a level of praise that turns his writing into a spiritual project. Joyce because of his systems and his archeology of minutiae—newspapers and garbage floating in the Liffey, making complete itineraries that Joyce chooses to keep track of—and, most crucially, his aesthetic decision to leave the author out of the novel, lounging indifferently above, paring his fingernails. These three are the most passionately human writers of modern literature, but they have come to suspect that something is encroaching on, is infecting, what was previously considered human. In The Tunnel that infection has become an epidemic.

So, instead of writing his preface, Kohler begins to dream and doodle. He writes about his childhood, his years as a student in Germany, his time in the army, his marriage, his most memorable infidelity, his greatest love, his uncircumcised and small penis, his love of sweets. He writes about his alcoholic mother: his demanding, unsatisfiable, bigoted father; his passionate, word-drunk teacher-mentor in Germany: his pack-rat maiden aunt under whose bed he remembers finding dozens of empty boxes nesting inside one another, box upon box.

Itemizations, listings of all kinds are clearly essential to the book. Because Kohler studies genocide, he knows that anything not individualized becomes a part of the mass—and masses are murdered or forgotten. History is, to certain eyes, the story of mass uprisings; to other eyes it is the story of the doings of the great. His obsession to list innumerable details is linked with a desire to rescue the individual from the giant mouth of the great death pit, symbolized by the mass burials in the camps over the Polish border.

When Kohler left Grand, he fled from family, “nervous; bent; randy and dissatisfied; vexed; so much so I removed my person from my cousin's wedding celebration (for which I'd bought a new blue suit), and amid hostile uncomprehending faces, angry arguments and explanations, coupled myself to one of those trains like a car crammed with refugees, and had myself drawn away toward history and other desperations.” He flees to Germany, where he studies history.

Upon his return, he settles, with a degree, a teaching appointment and a wife, into his “life in a chair” (we are made to remember that the French word chair means flesh). He has two children, one of whom he can't bring himself to call by name (the careful reader will intuit that this child bears the name Adolf), a no longer desirable wife, unbearable colleagues and affairs real, imagined and remembered with girls whose names all rhyme: Lou, Rue and Susu. (The still more careful reader will come to be aware that when he hears that “ooh” sound, there is some unsatisfying sexual spending going on in the vicinity, as in that “new blue suit” above.)

Kohler writes about his colleagues in the history department, four ludicrous professors, none more or less ludicrous and pathetic than Kohler is himself. We hear their insane quarrels about the nature of history, and as their views of history begin to coincide with their family situations we discover the next link in the long chain of substitution that binds this book: Kohler sees in his family and its quarrels and secrecies the needs of a secretly rising party—the Party of the disappointed People.

For it is “the fascism of the heart” that is the subject of this book. The Third Reich is seen as the active uprising of the passive attitudes and emotions. What are they? Envy, Spite, Secretiveness, Resentment, Bigotry, Long-suffering, Frigidity, Niggardliness, Malice, Sullenness, Churlishness, Hypocrisy, Self-pity, Vindictiveness, Pettiness, Procrastination, Sloth and Jealousy. They are immortalized right in the front of the book, on multicolored pennants (penance?), seen as soon as the title page is flipped. These are the repressed and emerging emotions of the Party of the disappointed People (PdP), Gass' vision of a new Nazi Party in the process of coalescing, until, one day, led by a Führer, the disappointed people will rise. (We are told that America will not have a Führer. The first dictator of America will be called Coach.)

Resentment brings the party into being: “Bad luck alone does not embitter us that badly … nor does the feeling that our affairs might have been better managed move us out of range of ordinary disappointment; it is when we recognize that the loss has been caused in great part by others; that it needn't have happened; that there is an enemy out there who has stolen our leaf, soured our wine, infected our book of splendid verse with filthy rhymes; then we are filled with resentment and would hang the villains from that bough we would have lounged in liquorous love beneath had the tree not been cut down by greedy and dim-witted loggers in the pay of the lumber interests. Watch out, then, watch out for us, be on your guard, look sharp, both ways, when we learn—we, in any numbers—when we find who is forcing us—wife, children, Commies, fat cats, Jews—to give up life in order to survive. It is this condition in men that makes them ideal candidates for the Party of the disappointed People.”

The tunnel begins to form itself inside Kohler. His past—down to the nonexistence of Santy Claus, down to a disappointing birthday party, an unhappy fumble with a cousin in a car—his past is an assemblage of rejections, betrayals and unpleasant surprises that reflect an inability to accept the nature of life itself. Life is an aggregate of unkept promises, but in his obsession with everyday disappointments, Kohler hollows out the core of life, tunneling deeper and evacuating the content. The book likens his process to a difficult bowel movement.

Kohler imagines himself the possible leader of the potential PdP, and his manuscript is strewn with sample slogans, proclamations and doodles, designs for banners and uniforms, terrifying swastika-like symbols. As he empties himself of his life, he digs (in fact? in metaphor?) a tunnel through the cellar floor, an escape route, whose entrance he hides beneath an abandoned furnace. He hides the dirt from his dig in the drawers of his wife's cumbersome Victorian dressers and armoires. (“I don't want your dirt in my drawers, any more than I want your ideas in my head,” says his wife with apparent calm.)

If you sit down to read The Tunnel, really read it, you can not help but come away altered. Not because the world it describes is imaginary, but rather because in The Tunnel states of reality are multiple and simultaneous. How literature does this is a question of style. Imagine meeting yourself as a fatso in a Dickens novel, now you are abject in a Raymond Carver story, now obsessed and lurid in a case study by Freud, and now, barely there, you're abstracted by Plato. Do you still know who you are? William Gass can give us a Raymond Carver character as analyzed by Freud blown up into a balloon by Dickens' caricaturing style—and give us a Platonic theory of identity as an encore. Can Gass still be himself? I would recognize a page of William Gass anywhere.

There is another, related, paradox: What is outside us as reality and what is inside us as perception do not match. In Gass' novel, the world is observed, internalized as thought and then externalized as language. This amounts to three worlds simultaneously rendered: the world as it would exist if it could exist without us, the world as taken into the mind's convoluted darkness, and then the world blended with our thoughts about it and alchemized in language. The book consists of worded thoughts, the silent mind given language and exteriorized on the page—exteriorized interiority.

Gass describes reality as being like a fly that is caught in three different webs at the same time. Kohler has evacuated himself in word, thought and deed. He has performed the most rigorously fearless moral inventory in all of literature. This is the ennobling or elevating aspect of this tunnel to hell. At the end of the book, Kohler's manuscript lies on his desk, covered with earth and dirt, and he is ready to die, or abide, or mourn: “Meanwhile carry on without complaining. No arm with armband raised on high. No more booming bands, no searchilt skies. Or shall I, like the rivers, rise? Ah. Well. Is rising wise? Revolver like the Führer near an ear. Or lay my mind down by sorrow's side.”

This masterpiece, which begins with the information that “the descent to hell is the same from every place,” ends elsewhere. Kohler, brutally honest, cannot say where he is now, but I am reminded of the great final paragraph of Italo Calvino's “Invisible Cities”:

The Inferno of the living is not something that will be, if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many, accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension, seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of hell, are not hell, then make them endure, give them space.

John Leonard (review date 20 March 1995)

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SOURCE: “Splendor in the Gass,?” in The Nation, March 20, 1995, pp. 388, 390.

[In the following review, Leonard offers favorable evaluation of The Tunnel, concluding that is “a splendid, daunting, loathsome novel.”]

Your wife is fat. Your penis is tiny. Your children are sallow-faced louts. Your mistress dumped you because you have “a loathsome mind.” Your colleagues in the history department at a Midwestern university are charlatans and poltroons. Your “post-Bomb pre-Boom” students on the banks of the Wabash are either boring pests or sexual prey. The preface you are writing to your magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany—“This is to introduce a work on death by one who's spent his life in a chair”—has turned into a night-shriek. And you are also digging a tunnel in your cellar. To escape from what? From marriage, mind and matter, as if they were concentration camps: “There is no final safety from oneself. It is something we often say, but only the mad believe it, the consequences are so awesome, and so infinite. In that sense Hitler's been the only God. But must I always live in Germany?”

In the noisome 1960s, contemplating “first love, first nights, last stands,” at age 50 and the end of his rope, William Frederick Kohler bares his teeth to tear at everything that tethers him: childhood, ego, landscape, language, narratology, Western Civ. It goes without saying that he is also trapped in this panopticon of a postmodern novel that William Gass has been torturing for three decades, as Giacometti tortured metals. Alice down a rabbit hole, Dostoyevsky underground, Orpheus descending: “I am distance itself,” says K. “I stand alone on an empty page like a period put down in a snowfall.” As his introduction turns into a howl (Henry Adams does Mein Kampf), a dozen fonts change points and riot in bolds and italics, outlines and shadows, sub- and super-scripts. Type shifts shape to form cellar steps, male genitalia, a Star of David. The book tunnels itself, “as long as a chimney,” carting up dirt, wading through bile, digging out from under cave-ins, excavating emptiness: Holes, Wombs. Archeologies. For such a transgressive text, there are also a surprising number of limericks, many about nuns, most obscene. Not that we can trust a word of it, but this is what we're told. …

About K's childhood: Silence, exile, punning. He was born in Iowa and raised in Ohio. His arthritic father, a failed architect (Albert Speer? Ayn Rand?), hated him. His alcoholic mother, who forgot to invite any of his friends to his birthday party, went mad in a cyclone and died in an asylum, smelling of juniper like a shrub, combing glass out of her hair. Besides cyclones and a plague of locusts, there was also “The Sunday Drive” into the Heart of the Heart of the Country, achingly evoked in a brilliant chapter as long as a novella, only then to be despoiled, as if, with “a little Führer” at the steering wheel, internal combustion can only produce more poison Gass. “My father taught me how to be a failure. He taught me bigotry and bitterness. I never acquired his courage, because I caught a case of cowardice from my mother—soft as cotton—and I was born with her desperate orality, her slow insistent cruelty—like quicksand—her engulfing love.” No wonder he will beat up on his own infant son.

About K's marriage: It's hateful. “Once upon a time, Martha and I slept naked, and we were all the flannel one another needed. Now she goes about layered in ghost garb like a contemporary text.” She also collects heavy antique furniture with a view to opening a shop. Into these bureau drawers K will empty his dug-up dirt. “I think what bothers me most about you,” she tells him, “is that you're not ashamed of what you are.” Worse than her calumnies on his character are her criticisms of his prose: “Martha hates it when I shape my sentences. She says it doesn't sound sincere. … She says it falsifies feeling.” What sincerity? What feeling? “What does my work do but simply remove some of the armor, the glamour, of Evil. It small-e's it. It shakes a little sugar on the shit. It dares to see a bit of the okay in our great bugaboche. Inexcusable. Slander our saints if you will, but please leave our Satan undefiled by any virtue, his successes inexplicable by any standard.” No wonder he will pounce on corn-fed coeds.

About K's education: He grew up mapping emotional climates, and longed to be a poet. Rilke is all over these pages; Homer and Virgil; Dante, Shakespeare, Goethe and Blake; Baudelaire and Hölderlin; adumbrations of Yeats (“old clothes hangered in a closet”), T. S. Eliot (a party of Prufrocks) and Ezra Pound (whom he most resembles). But he abandons poetry, to get at the uglier truths. As a graduate student in prewar Germany, where on Kristallnacht he may have hurled a stone himself, K trifles with the Gypsy Susu, who will pay with her head for violating the Nazi dietary laws by eating the roasted thumbs of Jews; and finds his mentor in Magus Tabor, “Mad Meg”—author of The Eternal Significance of the Caesar, The Death of Destiny and The Failure of the Future, an amalgam of all that's monstrous in Nietzsche, Spengler and Heidegger, who deplores the Greeks because “the German mind has been so sodomized by these splendid pederasts, we don't know which of our holes is for what”; who preaches that history is half provocation and half revenge, and either American or Mongol, liking “both size and winning”; who believes that “anything of which you could form a passionate conception automatically was, because the pure purpose of things lay in their most powerful description.” K laps it up, including the swastika: “Has ever a company contrived a better logo? Perhaps Mercedes-Benz.” No wonder that Indiana will seem so disappointing upon his return to the States: “I suspect that the first dictator of this country will be called Coach.”

About K's career: He got tenure early on, when it was easy, on the basis of his first book, Nuremberg Notes, which ridiculed war-crimes trials. Said a reviewer: “Professor Kohler has given to the German mind a public place in nature.” Yes, he thinks: “Men may walk about it now like someone waiting for a bus, and feed the birds.” What he has done since is “inhale hate like hemp.” It's O.K. to be anti-Semitic, if you despise everybody else too. He encourages his own doctoral candidates to cobble up theses on fascist symps like D'Annunzio. On a pane of window, a white of page, a black of board, he spies “the utter absence of significance; it is the world as unread and unreadable.” Under the sun porch he has stored his trunk of Nazi memorabilia: armband, swagger stick, schnapps flask, silver braid, black boots. He dreams of, and designs, similar insignia for an imaginary Party of the Disappointed People (PdP), every resentful manjackboot of them a Prufrock: “My god, to be a man as I am—smothered with women and children like a duck with onions.” But: “History startled me. Melting one small Jew to keep the ovens cool. And then another … Schopenhauer, you old fool, this world was never my Idea.” K will never be a Coach.

There is no light at the end of this Tunnel, not even a whimper, merely a pun, like a shaggy God story, except that God is dead and so are Author Gods. As if he were Isaiah Berlin's evil twin, Gass kills off everybody who was anybody in the Western intellectual tradition—from Plato to Wittgenstein, Pythagoras to Spinoza, Democritus to Durkheim, Aquinas to Unamuno, Tacitus to Gibbon, Parmenides to Hume. Off with their chockablock heads: “Hegel, Bergson, Toynbee, Marx, Buber, Sartre, Niebuhr, and other dead-again Christians.” Poets like Pindar and Milton and Wordsworth and Cavafy. And novelists too: Cervantes, de Sade, Pavese, Céline (of course!) and Nabokov. In the service of what? In the service of Kohler's disillusionment. In this most savage of academic novels (by comparison, Mary McCarthy is Mary Poppins), K's a Nabokovian himself, more like a Kinbote than a Pnin, but witless from his blind misreading of the black and white squares. He has come to the conclusion that all history—kings, princes, classes, clans, causes, gods, heroes, coincidences, conspiracies, cabals; Chinese stages and Russian periods and Soviet steps and forward leaps and new world orders; the study of language, the science of men in time or the process by which consciousness seeks to contain its sievelike self—is a cover-up for what any one man, tribe, culture or nation-state will do to any other if it ever gets the power and the chance. “Who of us has not destroyed our enemies in our heads. Suppose but a whisper of our wishes leaked out and half a continent was ready to rise and do our bidding?” We've been at it since Carthage: “Nature punishes gluttony, not avarice or hate. To Nature it's most important that you get a good night's sleep.” Who, knowing that we are born stupid and die dumb and leave behind our little lumps of language like a turd, wouldn't become a “friend of Fascist thought”?

No wonder Primo Levi threw himself down a Turin stairwell.

To empty this Kohler out on us, gravedigger Gass has composed a kind of anticanticle, an aria of obloquy. Each paragraph, each sentence, every clause, every phrase, has been burnished breathless, willfully wrought, stippled stark, with an obsessiveness bordering on Brodkey baroque. Not a lyric, but it's laced with acid. Not a whale tooth, but it's scrimshawed. The eye can't rest, nor the mind mist. But isn't this the whole idea? “Syllables catch fire, General. Towns do. Concepts are pulled apart like the joints of a chicken. Substance. Listen to the mind munch. Consonants, General, explode like grenades. Vowels rot in some soft southern mouth, and meaning escapes from those oooos as from an ass.” So much for high culture. Consciousness is noise: Bach and Buchenwald. One thinks of Ezra Pound, that “broken bundle of mirrors” by the waters of Rapallo, wandering Lear-like into his Waste Land madness, a flotsam of Homer and Confucius, of Li Po and Eliot, troubadours and Rosicrucians, Mussolini and Social Credit; that godfather of Modernism, who was ignorant of Marx and uncomprehending of Freud; that critic of literature who'd never read the Russians; that critic of art who'd missed Picasso's point; a tone-deaf composer of tuneless operas with his Brain Sperm and Funny Money theories, and a hatred of “the democratic virus.” “Pull down thy vanity!” the old goat cried, and his vanity pulled him so far down that he was vile. Now meet K, for whom history is “horse drop, cow plop, nose snot, rope knot, flesh rot, ink blot, blood clot, street shout,” whacking away on his little weenie, a one-man marching band of the banality of evil. Gass has written a splendid, daunting, loathsome novel.

Steven Moore (review date Spring 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 15, No. 1, Spring, 1995, pp. 159-60.

[In the following review, Moore offers high praise for The Tunnel.]

I'm grateful that I lived long enough to see this. For nearly thirty years Gass has been publishing sections of The Tunnel in literary journals (including this one) and as fine press books, and as I devoured these I wondered, as many did, when and if the finished book would appear and whether the whole would be greater than its parts. That question has now been answered beyond my wildest expectations; The Tunnel is a stupendous achievement and obviously one of the greatest novels of the century, a novel to set beside the masterpieces of Proust, Joyce, and Musil as well as those of Gass's illustrious contemporaries. Although he has been grouped over the years with such novelists as Pynchon, Gaddis, Coover, Barth, and Elkin, he didn't have a novel in the same league as Gravity's Rainbow, J R, The Public Burning. LETTERS, or George Mills. His first two books of fiction, Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, are exquisite achievements, but more along the lines of V. and Pricksongs and Descants, respectively. Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife is a brilliant tour de force, but at 64 pages hardly qualifies as a novel. But now with The Tunnel Gass has a novel that rivals, perhaps even surpasses those meganovels of his colleagues; it was never a competition, but Gass is now unquestionably in the heavyweight division.

At this early date, and within this limited space, only a bird's-eye view can be given of such a complex novel. So: it's 1967 and a Midwestern history professor has finally finished writing his magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany. All that remains is to write the introduction, but instead he begins to write about his own life, which becomes the first-person novel we're reading. Fat and fifty-something, William Frederick Kohler is a bitter man, but a literate one, and as he pours out his litany of complaint and disappointment he erects a great cathedral of rhetoric, “un livre intérieur, as Proust puts it,” as Kohler puts it. A professional lifetime spent studying Nazism—in a rash moment while studying in Germany in the 1930s, Kohler even participated in Kristallnacht—has led him to brood on “the fascism of the heart,” both his own and his family's. Such brooding hovers over his childhood in Iowa, his student years in Germany, and his married and professional life in Indiana. It's a novel about history, about hatred, about unhappiness.

But above all it's a novel about language, about a life in language. At an early age Kohler gave up poetry for history, but poetry marked him for her own and dictates every word he utters. Kohler's powerful, polyphonic prose interrogates and illuminates every aspect of his miserable life, and in this regard The Tunnel resembles other huge, word-mad novels (Under the Volcano, Visions of Cody, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, Mulligan Stew, Darconville's Cat) where rhetorical energy and excess redeem personal failure and emptiness. The sheer beauty and bravura of Gass's sentences are overwhelming, breathtaking; the novel is a pharaoh's tomb of linguistic treasures. At one point Kohler's wife Martha demands: “tell it straight—the way it is, not what it's like.” Kohler wants to tell what it has been like to live his life, hence his impassioned use of metaphors, symbols, tropes, allusions. As a result, language is not merely foregrounded here but given a life of its own: “My father is dressed in a thick green woodman's plaid wool shirt, so heavy with adjectives he can hardly lift his arms.” Like Willie Masters, the pages are adorned with typographical devices, illustrations, different fonts, and special effects. Readers who, like the wife, prefer their prose straight are advised to look elsewhere.

It will takes years of study to excavate fully the artistry of The Tunnel, and I can't think of another novel of recent years more deserving of such attention. This is truly one of the great books of our time.

Gary Percesepe (review date Summer 1995)

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SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Antioch Review, Vol. 53, No. 3, Summer, 1995, pp. 380-1.

[In the following review, Percesepe provides a summary of The Tunnel and comments on its critical controversy.]

Having completed his magnum opus, Guilt & Innocence in Hitler's Germany, William Frederick Kohler, distinguished professor of history at a distinguished Indiana University, sits in his chair, intending to write an introduction. Blocked, he writes instead a history of history, or better a history of the historian-as-liar, lout, and loser. Fearing his wife will discover it, he hides the new manuscript by slipping it into the pages of his book. Meanwhile, he begins digging a tunnel out from the basement of his house.

He is not a nice man, this Kohler. He speaks with the volume turned up. He lies like a rug and his sins are not small. He gives new meaning to the phrase “unreliable narrator.” Kohler's excavations replace the objective with the subjective, the public with the private, the innocent with the guilty, the carefully reasoned causes of history with the shape-shifting meanderings of his burrowing into self, into women, with the Holocaust as host and every man a meanie, Fascists of the heart.

Gass's book [The Tunnel] will be hated, which is a lot to say for a book these days. There will be the usual grumbling about morality in fiction. John Gardner started this line with Gass, and his surrogates will surely queue up in reviewing stands and dissertation lines to castigate Gass for the crimes of this novel—already the New York Times reviewer cannot forgive him for writing of “bedrooms as bad as Belsen”—but Gass hasn't changed his mind for over thirty years. He's mad in the mouth and he can write. He's been digging this tunnel in all possible ways since his first published story, “The Pedersen Kid” (published by Gardner, ironically). His credo is that there is freedom and safety in sentences, and language replaces the life. He's playing the one note he knows. If you don't like it, I suppose he'd say, fine. Go dig your own tunnel.

Louis Menand (review date 13 July 1995)

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SOURCE: “Journey into the Dark,” in New York Review of Books, July 13, 1995, pp. 8-10.

[In the following review, Menand provides a summary of The Tunnel and discusses the novel's problematic espousal of bigotry, hate, and amorality. According to Menand, the many biographic parallels between author and protagonist, as well as Gass's resistance to conventional forms of fictional distancing, make it difficult to separate Gass's own ideas from those of his reprehensible character, Kohler.]

The Tunnel is about a man who undertakes to establish an identity between the frustrations and disappointments of ordinary domestic life and the Holocaust. The man is a professor of history at a university in the American Midwest. The frustrations and disappointments are his own—The Tunnel is, in effect, his memoir—and they are of a fairly mundane sort: an alcoholic mother, a sexually stagnant marriage, a failed love affair, uninteresting children, dim students, bickering colleagues, and a general sense of lost entitlement. He has just completed a scholarly study, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, intended to subvert conventional notions about the morality of the Holocaust. He now writes The Tunnel as a kind of companion volume—so that his wife will not know what he's up to, he interleaves the sheets of the two manuscripts on his desk—in which he gives vent to his many resentments, bigotries, and fantasies of revenge, and in which he identifies himself regularly and admiringly with the Nazis.

William Gass is said to have spent thirty years writing this book. It is his second novel. His first, Omensetter's Luck, appeared in 1966; he is also, of course, the author of a number of volumes of essays and short fiction. In trying to make sense of a project to which so much time has been dedicated, readers will naturally look for a way to distinguish Gass himself from the petty, self-absorbed, and deeply unpleasant narrator he has created. They will not want to imagine that the narrator's sour nihilism is also Gass's, or that these indecent and seemingly interminable confessions are only displaced autobiography; and they will therefore make every interpretative effort to peel Gass away, so to speak, from the text he has produced. They will find this extremely difficult to do.

The narrator's name is also William, and he has been given a last name, Kohler, that, like Gass, is an easy occasion for schoolyard humor. (Kohler is the brand name of a toilet maker.) Kohler tells us he was born in Iowa; Gass was born in North Dakota. Kohler's father becomes crippled by arthritis, and his mother is an alcoholic who finally has to be institutionalized; these seem to be copies of Gass's own parents, as he has described them in his nonfictional writing. Kohler eventually attends Harvard (Gass went to Cornell); after duty in the Second World War (in which Gass also served), he marries a woman named Martha, with whom he has two children (as does Gass), and he returns to the Midwest to a career (like Gass's) as a professor. Kohler makes frequent reference to his rotundity, which photographs and personal observation confirm to be a feature of the Gass physique, and to his unusually small penis, for which the evidence needed to establish a correspondence is happily lacking. Kohler is a few years older than Gass (who was born in 1924); but this is to make it possible for him to visit Nazi Germany in the late Thirties, and to be middle-aged, the time of reflection and regret, in the late Sixties, which is the period in which the book is set.

Kohler is also (again, like his creator) something of a philosopher. His interpretation of the Holocaust is based on a theory about the nature of history, which he explains as follows: “Neither guilt nor innocence are ontological elements in history; they are merely ideological factors to which a skillful propaganda can seem to lend a causal force, and in that fashion furnish others. … If there is a truly diabolical ingredient to events … it lies in the nature of History itself, for it is the chronicle of the cause which causes, not the cause.” The syntax of the last sentence might be a little clearer: what is meant is that people are incited to act not by past events, but by representations of past events (“it is the chronicle … which causes”), and those representations reflect the selfish interests of the people who do the representing. There is no past; there are only texts.

Kohler's initiation into this line of thinking comes, as he tells us, during a student visit to Germany in 1938. There he sits at the feet of a professor named Magus Tabor (or “Mad Meg,” as Kohler affectionately calls him), whose histrionic lectures on the uses of history take up many pages of The Tunnel. These are mostly Nietzschean deconstructions with a Nazi twist—such as, “There is no Nature which we are compelled to obey, only a Culture which various interests conspire to place on its empty throne,” and “It's a war of lie against lie in this world where we are,” and “Myths are history, and myths are made, preserved, and propagated in some language. Now then, my pure, young, decent countrymen: whose tongue shall be the one to wag?”

Kohler discovers in these exhortations an appealing philosophy of life, for they justify his sense that the will makes its own truth, and they permit him to understand Nazism as a splendid casting off of self-deception, a bold acknowledgment that morality is simply the mask that disguises the real motive for human action, which is the desire to be the dog on top. He declares to Tabor his admiration for the “New Germany”; he participates in the rioting on Kristallnacht; he returns to America. The details of his subsequent military service are sketchy, but he is evidently present at the Nuremberg trials, which he pronounces a “charade,” on grounds that if there is guilt in merely wishing the extermination of the Jews, no one is innocent. “Who of us has not destroyed our enemies in our heads,” as he puts it. “Suppose but a whisper of our wishes leaked out and half a continent was ready to rise and do your bidding?” He publishes these observations in a book called Nuremberg Notes, which is roundly attacked, but which launches his academic career.

About half of The Tunnel is taken up with reflections, in this vein, on the nature of history and our knowledge of the past, presented in the form of Tabor's monologues, office debates among Kohler's history-department colleagues, and the musings of Kohler himself. The remainder consists of Kohler's recollections of various aspects of his private life—his parents and relations, his childhood terrors and ecstasies, the early years of his marriage, his love affair with a local salesgirl, his daily routine, and his tunnel. The latter is a harebrained attempt to construct an escape tunnel in the basement of his own house, an undertaking involving complicated schemes of concealment which are minutely described and which include breaking the neck of his wife's cat and disposing of the corpse.

The personal stories are interwoven with the reflections on history, and the strands are matched in two ways. There is, first, a continual figuring of domestic events in the language of the Third Reich. “A little Führer's been my father,” Kohler says; or, “I've been in bedrooms as bad as Belsen”; or (about his tunnel), “I am running away from home … I am escaping the camp.” An abusive tirade by his father is compared with a Nazi murdering Jews. A marital quarrel in which dishes are broken is made to recall Kristallnacht. Kohler's banishment from his wife's bed evokes Germany's disgrace following the Treaty of Versailles. He catches the spirit of his married life at middle age in the phrase “as we auschwitz along on our merry way.”

Kohler's ambition for this “domestic epic,” as he terms it, is to achieve for personal life what he imagines Hitler has achieved for political life: to unmask its brutality, to expose “the fascism of the heart.” Underwriting this enterprise is a theory of personal relations which is isomorphic, as he tells us, with Tabor's theory of history. “I can tell myself the truth, too,” he says, “as Magus Tabor taught me, because ordinary life is supported by lies, made endurable through self-deception.” Underneath the smiling fakery, underneath the cosmetic surface of daily existence, there is only “the pit, the abyss, the awful truth, a truth that cannot be lived with, that cannot be abided: human worthlessness, our worthlessness, yours and mine.” Domestic life and Nazism are thus related thematically as well as metaphorically, and Kohler is given an extended fantasy about organizing a political party for the scorned and the embittered, those who feel defeated by life, shut out of the banquet. He proposes to name this “the Party of the Disappointed People.” Various banners and insignia, the latter looking somehow like biologized swastikas, are designed and are illustrated in the text, and a manifesto is drafted. Bigots, it is explained, will form “the backbone of the Party,” along with “all who are downwardly destined.” There are dreams of future triumph:

The Nazi movement was a pinnacle, but it peaked only for a moment. Its remnants may hope for more lasting luck next time, but I am confident that my group, the PdP, already huge, although a sleeping giant, will wake, will rise, will thrive.

The tunnel itself, at one point, is represented as a kind of monument to the movement. “Trajan's column is a solid tunnel turning through the sky,” Kohler explains, “while my pillar will be made of air and go the other way; it will celebrate defeat, not victory.”

But the tunnel as a symbol is clearly intended to ramify in other directions as well. It is, for one thing, a substitute vagina: “I have my own hole now,” says Kohler, with his wife in mind, “your cunt is not the only cave.” But it also links up with a series of images, arising repeatedly in a variety of contexts, of circular shapes—not only “cunts” (a favorite subject of reflection throughout), but wedding bands, cyclones, coffee-cup rings, mouths, the letter O, and so on. A tunnel is a nothing enclosed by something not itself, and we are expected to see that this might be a fair description of Being, of life in the body: “a tall dark column of damp air,” as Kohler describes one character, “hole going nowhere—yes—wind across the mouth of a bottle.” Existence is a noise produced out of a hollowness. There is nothing within; there is only the form and the sounds it makes. The essence is empty.

This is, as it happens, exactly the theme of Gass's most famous work of fiction, the short story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” (1968). And the dismissal of content as anything other than an effect of the manipulation of form, as something “deeper” than the aesthetic surface, has been the constant argument of his criticism.1 It is alarming to discover these thoughts among the musings of a bigot, and this is therefore the place where most readers will wish that the point of distinction between the two Williams were a little more obvious.

But Kohler turns out to share not only Gass's conception of Being but most of Gass's literary tastes as well. He describes himself (in much the same terms that Gass has) as an addictive reader in his childhood; literature was his escape tunnel from his loveless life. In The Tunnel Kohler imitates Sterne and Joyce: he alludes to Flaubert (“I carry on the spirit of Flaubert,” he says), to Proust, and to Plato. He reveals himself to be (again like Gass) a particular devotee of Rilke. The final pages of the text are given over in part to translations and variations on a number of Rilke's poems, and Kohler refers several times, with particular insistence, to Rilke's great poem “The Panther,” a work from which many of the The Tunnel's motifs—the prisonhouse of signs, the nothingness of the world, the compulsive circling, the paralyzed will, the abysmal heart—might be said to have been directly culled. What possessed Gass to force, from the most intimate material of his own life, the perverse growth of William Kohler? Why this particular fleur du mal?

Writers double themselves all the time in their fictions, of course. That's one of the reasons for writing them: to clone yourself and set yourself out on a different path, or to reconfigure yourself as a marginal observer of your own childhood, as Lawrence does with Rupert Birkin in Women in Love, and as Woolf does with Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse; or to split yourself in two and reimagine one side of yourself through the eyes of the other, as Joyce does in Ulysses, and as Nabokov does in Pale Fire. The remarkable thing about fictional narratives is that readers have so little trouble dissociating the author from the double. Even three-year-olds know that Dr. Seuss is not the Cat in the Hat; and I suspect that if they could articulate the sense they have of the text, they could also explain precisely the way in which Dr. Seuss is not not the Cat in the Hat, as well. The reason for this is that making copies of ourselves and setting them in motion in imaginary space is built in to the way minds work. We do it all the time—when we plan for a future event, when we relive the past, when we daydream.

The Tunnel is extremely resistant to this ordinary readerly operation of dissociation. The resistance gives the book a certain power and even fascination; but it is hard, in the end, to feel that the resulting indeterminacy is intentional. Part of the problem is structural. There is, to begin with, trouble in deciding the book's genre, and where the genre is undecidable, one of the techniques of reading, which is to make sense of texts against their conventions, is blocked. The Tunnel is not a novel. Apart from the narrator, it has no characters (though it has some extended descriptions of characters) and it has no plot. Everything is recollected; nothing is dramatized. It makes some claims, in the early going, to be a kind of inverted epic, and Kohler composes an appropriate invocation of the muses (“Sing of disappointments more repeated than the batter of the sea, of lives embittered by resentments so ubiquitous the ocean's salt seems thinly shaken,” and so forth). But apart from its scale, there is nothing generically epic about the book. It begins and ends in essentially the same place. As a piece of writing it is, like its protagonist, singularly inert. It performs very large circles around a stasis.

There are also, simply on the level of storytelling, a number of puzzling inconsistencies. Kohler tells us, for example, that he was married in 1940, and makes an elaborate point about the significance of the date; some 200 pages later, he informs us that he married after the war. A long episode in which Kohler's mother misplaces her wedding ring is given, with (apparently) only minor differences, twice in the book. Kohler seems to claim, in the process of making a difficult metaphysical point, that the brick he threw on Kristallnacht sailed through an open window and never broke glass; in the actual Kristallnacht episode, he throws two bricks, and both are described as breaking glass. If the discrepancies are deliberate, no means are provided for grasping the significance they are intended to have.

And there is, finally, the problem of tone. In his most experimental work of fiction, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (1968), Gass argued that the times demand “a diction which contains the quaint, the rare, the technical, the obsolete, the old, the lent, the nonce, the local slang and argot of the street, in neighborly confinement,” and The Tunnel enacts this democracy of diction, this radical mingling of discourses, to an ostentatious degree. There is a lot of Rilke, and there are many limericks. Passages of refined lyricism give way to excited excurses on farting. There are long, memoiristic set pieces, delicately turned and philosophically shaded; and there is this:

In my trunk I have a cartoon—the newspaper brittle and yellow now—of the scurrilous anti-Semitic sort I so love to collect. The upper legs and lower belly of a prone and naked male are shown. There, a thick and circumcised cock rises out of an ugly crosshatch of hair. Around the cock, however, is wrapped a fist, thrust—one feels forcefully—from the sleeve of a uniformed arm coming toward one like a blow in the shadowy background. Although the fat fingers of the fist cover most of the cock, its Semitic circumcision and glistening head are clearly shown, if rather crudely drawn. Adorning a middle finger of the fist is a large ring with a round face on which a swastika has been boldly incised in heavy ink. The original was in simple black and white, of course. I colored the cock's head red with a crayon later, and made the ring yellow as a winter squash. It is an arresting image.

And this:

They discovered in one of the camps
how to make Jews into lamps;
but whenever they skinned them,
the dirty kikes bit them
so, their jaws held by wires,
with a fine pair of pliers,
they extracted their teeth in advance.

And this:

I want you to see a Jew's cock—hatless, raw-headed, red as an alcoholic's nose—rise. Any Jew's will do. They are famously the same. Call one up. You get the joke? Well, laugh then, so I'll know. Consider the wrinkled daddy-dinkums that you've made. Feeling qualmish? I want you to watch it while it slowly swells, twitches throughout its formerly flaccid length as though a little link of sausage were alive. I want you to watch closely while it shivers from a hairy thigh and lifts, enlarging as it goes, straightening, becoming stiff as a pole for the German flag, but bearing another banner, oh yes … and so …

sickening the swollen veins, the kosher crown, the sticky bead like sweat that rises to its top like bullet grease to lubricate the dome …

ah, is it not—this image—hideous and tummy turning?

… oh yes, but why?

because it means more Jews.

The obvious prima facie difference between Gass and Kohler is that Gass is a professor of English and Kohler is professor of history. “I gave up poetry for history in my youth.” Kohler tells us, more than once, and this suggests the place where the character is meant to be split off from the author. Kohler is a Gass who took another path, a Gass who has abandoned the consolations of aesthetic form. More encouragingly: literature is what saved Gass from becoming Kohler. But there are two ways to take this. One is to understand Gass to be suggesting that literature survives the abyss as history cannot, because literature has not (as Kohler says history has) been “buggered by ideology.” And Kohler is given a little speech, near the close of his text, in praise of poetry, which he makes in pretty much those terms:

I was slow to realize how poetry created a permanent and universal present like a frieze of stone, and was therefore what any one of us might see and feel who followed its lines and felt its forms: it was the oil of all ills, didn't the poets claim? the salt of sadness in every tear, artful fence for the stolen kiss. Poetry was not merely what stood in front of your eye like a palace guard (for poetry believes in nothing but the reenactment of its rituals), it was those eyes, their pupil'd core, the scene itself.

(The last sentence is essentially a redaction of “The Panther.”)

But it is also possible to read The Tunnel as a work of self-criticism. Because he emerged on the literary scene in the Sixties, at the same moment as Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and Donald Barthelme, Gass is commonly classified as a postmodernist, with the implication that he regards “the aesthetic” as just one more ideology of the modern age, another discourse to be parodied, pilloried, and debunked. Hence the mix of high and low diction, the generic indeterminacy, the typographical avant-gardism, the self-conscious punning and wordplay are commonly interpreted as assaults on the purity of form. But the implication is entirely mistaken. Gass is a literary formalist, an aesthete straight out of the nineteenth-century tradition; and his nihilism is entirely consistent with the nihilism of Flaubert, Pater, Joyce, and Stevens.

“My eyes are tired,” wrote Joyce near the end of his life. “For over half a century they have gazed into nullity, where they have found a lovely nothing.” The eyes that have gazed into the life represented in The Tunnel, though, have found an unlovely nothing, and it may be that the purpose of the book is to demonstrate the exhaustion of the modern faith in aesthetic form. Gass may have asked himself not “What would have happened to me if I had had to give up poetry?” but “What would someone like me, whose belief in poetry is founded on a conviction about the nothingness of the world against the power of the word, say if he were asked to make moral sense of an event like the Holocaust?” It may be that The Tunnel is an excavation of Gass's own assumptions, and that the book announces not the triumph of formalism, but its defeat. It is impossible to know.

Genre, linear narrative, and diction are props, of course; they are conventions, mere artifices of sense-making. But they are part of the language, too, just as much as words are. One sometimes feels with Gass that he has respect for no unit of language greater than the word, and that he believes that words will carry him through, will create their own pattern of association, their own form, so long as he doesn't submit them to the coercions of conventional structure and selection. If you collapse conventional structure, though, you need some other, unconventional, structure to take its place. Otherwise, all you can make is a pile of words.


  1. Much of it is collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), The World Within the Word (1978), and On Being Blue (1976), all published by Godine.

Jim Lewis (review date February 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Finding a Form, in Artforum, February, 1997, Vol. 35, No. 6, pp. 19-20.

[In the following review, Lewis comments on Gass's literary aesthetic and offers positive evaluation of Finding a Form.]

I happened to be passing through St. Louis one summer weekend in 1989, and, having a day to kill, I took a chance and telephoned William Gass in his offices at the philosophy department at Washington University. Ordinarily I would have hesitated before trying to contact a writer whom I admired; but Gass, as a philosopher, essayist, and novelist, was more important to me than most, and as luck would have it, he was in and invited me over. I remember that the campus was lovely; I remember that Gass was gray-haired and gracious. I remember very little of the conversation itself, except for our closing exchange. At the time I was in my mid '20s, and Angry; Gass was in his mid '60s, and Even Angrier; he'd once invented a character who said, “I want to rise so high … that when I shit I won't miss anybody.” It was a line I found hard to imagine coming from the generous, seemingly benign man before me; nevertheless, I asked him how he managed his own well-documented rage, expecting, I suppose, some sagacious words on self-possession, a la Montaigne or Emerson. “Oh,” he said cheerfully, “I go into the kitchen and break dishes.”

If Finding a Form is any evidence, there's less intact crockery than ever in Gass' home, but his cupboard's loss is our gain. This is his fourth collection of essays on literature and philosophy, and it comes, surprisingly quickly, on the heels of the publication of The Tunnel, an enormous novel that occupied its author for several decades. The newer book gathers together nineteen pieces, on Robert Walser, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Ford; on Nietzsche and Wittgenstein; on avant-gardism and formalism; on the mediocrity of the Pulitzer Prize and the pitfalls of writing fiction in the present tense. It is a beautiful book, a dignified and deeply ambitious book, a dazzling book, and in many regards a troubling book.

Gass is an aesthete: the sort of writer, uncommon these days, who believes that art occupies a realm of its own, that its central qualities have no counterpart in the world outside—no counterpart, and indeed no equal. He loves literature, philosophy, and the essay, and his erudition is spectacular, as is his capacity to be moved; he does not like contemporary culture—movies and television, music, advertising—not because of prudery or puritanism (he is, in fact, an epicurean of sorts; certainly few authors in English write more strikingly about sex), but because he finds their pleasures faint, degraded, and corrupt. In an age when the banalities of cultural studies have become an inescapable presence in every academic journal and college curriculum, it's exhilarating to experience the withering blasts of Gass' ire, and listen to him as he enlarges upon them by citing passages of poetry or prose that he particularly admires, wrapping the whole in an ornate latticework of example, exhortation, supposition, cross-reference, and caustic aside. One can, of course, disagree with his tastes and beliefs, in whole or in part, but it's difficult not to admire the force and frankness with which he writes. Thus:

I do happen to feel, with Theodor Adorno, that writing a book is a very important ethical act, consuming so much of one's life; and that, in these disgusting times, a writer who does not pursue an alienating formalism (but rather tries to buck us up and tell us not to spit in the face of the present, instead of continuing to serve this corrupt and debauched society although it shits on every walk and befouls every free breath), is, if not a pawn of the system (a lackey, we used to say), then probably a liar and a hypocrite.

There is not a word wasted in that passage, not a punch pulled, but reading Gass hasn't always been such an unmixed pleasure. I've always suspected that he was an inherently mediocre writer who, by dint of enormous intelligence and unceasing effort, was slowly making himself into a master. In the past, even in the midst of such marvels as “On Being Blue,” an extended essay on the erotic arts, one could occasionally see him straining for effect. He is now seventy-two, and at the top of his form: gone are the forced-sounding metaphors that sometimes marred his earlier prose, gone the sporadic, ill-managed, and sarcastic lapses into vernacular, the typographical games, the mere misanthropy and bursts of petulance. Where once one might have found oneself lost in a swamp of prose, within which the author himself seemed to have abandoned his theme, now the paragraphs are modulated with utter confidence, and if the argument sometimes wanders, we know nonetheless that Gass is leading us someplace. Finding a Form is a grand peroration, from a man who has thought and studied and written with extraordinary diligence and love of his chosen art.

For those readers not specifically concerned with literature, the essays on themes derived from the book's title will probably be the most generative. And I believe that every art-school student in the country should be presented with “The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde,” an essay that begins with the poet Pierre de Ronsard, to whom the term was first applied, and traces the subsequent structure and fate of the phenomenon with a brutally honest hand; he compares Le Corbusier's program of civic self-betterment to that of a Rotarian, for example; and he points out the existence of a “conservative avant-garde” (among whose members he includes Pound and Eliot, Lawrence, and Celine) with an unhappy tendency to fall into racism and fascism.

Still, a potential problem begins to appear with Gass' argument here. Writing against Pound et al., he says, “Art, the honest article, lives (with other realities) only in an active present.” So it does: but he condemns the present, too, in the passage I copied out above, and others like it throughout the book. So an obsession with the past is culpable, and a capitulation to the present is worse—and for the record, Gass dismisses Futurism, too. What then remains? An art, he argues, that is permanently original, permanently present, and he provides a list of those works that he believes belong in such a category (Bach is on it, and so is Schoenberg, Henry James and Gertrude Stein, Duchamp and Rothko).

I suspect that Gass is indulging in a certain degree of hand waving here; his point depends more on rhetoric than on argument. But it would be a mistake to accuse him, therefore, of succumbing to conservative canon mongering. In fact, one of the most agreeable of Gass' traits is the deftness with which he sidesteps the common political categories of contemporary thought— radical, liberal, reactionary. I sometimes think he would say almost anything, if he felt he could say it well. Caveat lector: No real criticism occurs in Finding a Form, and no real theory emerges from it. It is more the record of one man's reading, with all its crankiness and inconsistency left intact and uncorrected, and worth attending to as such—not because Gass is entirely original, still less because he's obviously right, but because the evidence he marshals for his archaic cause is so lovingly assembled, and exquisitely expressed, that the whole book bids to illustrate the thesis it expresses: for it is itself so well made as to be inherently valuable, and I am glad it exists.

As I've said, it is a furious piece of work. But it ends with a spectacular, art-affirming passage, a single paragraph, composed of a single sentence several hundred words long. I can't quote it all here, but it ends with “joy,” and the word is fully justified. It serves, moreover, as a kind of kaleidoscope lens through which one can look back on the book, indeed the career, that precedes it. Of course, it is joy he's been after all along, and joy that he provides. As a promoter of difficult pleasures, more precious for being hard won, Gass has no contemporary equal.

Maureen Howard (review date 9 March 1997)

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SOURCE: “In the Heart of the Heart of the Text,” in New York Times Book Review, March 9, 1997, p. 6.

[In the following review, Howard offers positive evaluation of Finding a Form.]

William H. Gass is embattled. It's awful out there where the stale sweets of commerce are served up as art, laced with dope for the dopes, violence injected for the numb. As a gentleman trained in philosophy, a writer of distinguished fiction, an honored academic, Mr. Gass has his rights, if not every right, to remain sore. And in Finding a Form he confronts the conundrum of the writer that he has faced in previous essays: the word is sacred, though there are no longer sacred texts; “writing puts the writer in illusory command of the world, empowers someone otherwise powerless, but with a power no more pointed than a pencil.”

Yes, the old genetics: in the beginning was the word, but once made flesh the word was heir to ills as well as miracles. Words, sentences, the form that the writer must find for them in a work that may be called art, are real; possessed of their own reality, they need not reflect any social or moral reality the work is responsible only to its own perfection. These are the tenets of Gassian belief that underscore this collection of occasional pieces, reviews and contemplations. I have no argument with the Grecian urn on its pedestal, no aim to so contextualize a Shakespeare sonnet that I no longer hear the pure beauty of a rhyme. However, I will take Mr. Gass at his word about the will to belief on the part of the artist: “Disbelief is healthier, is a better exercise for the mind, and I admire it even when I see someone's disbelief busy disbelieving me.” My position as a reader of these essays is much like my standing as a lapsed Roman Catholic. I am not sufficiently fallen away. So we are both hedging our bets, writer and reader, though Mr. Gass, for one aphoristic moment, lets me off the hook: “The reader's freedom is a holy thing.”

Yet how dominant his voice. There is no American writer who so wants to hold me in his sway. He is an illusionist in command of his performance when he celebrates, less so when he scolds. His reviews of Robert Walser, the Swiss fabulator of the ordinary, and of the dream fiction of Danilo Kis, in which, “sentence by sentence, the song is built and immeasurable meanings meant,” are mighty appreciations. With generosity he gives way to a like, yet other, sensibility and to another's informing mind. He is equally giving in “A Fiesta for the Form,” his praise song to the exotic birds of metafiction—Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar—who invented forms beyond the 19th-century novel's mimetic trappings. They are his sort of folk, while Ford Madox Ford is not, for Ford's impressionism, like Impressionism itself, is seen as “the last bow” to “the old order.” Ford fails as a modern, and therefore fails.

But are we not all trapped in our time, though many artists strain against it? The American metafictionists of the 1960's—John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, William Gass—made the radical break from high modern as well as from the paraphernalia of character and plot in the bourgeois novel in their particular time, an era of post-postwar fiction's first romance with the academy. I suppose there is no line drawn in the sands of time between defending one's artistic beliefs and becoming somewhat cranky and defensive about them.

But then, Mr. Gass likes a good scramble. In reviewing biographies of Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, he gets in the ring with these sadly human supermen. Sentence by sparring sentence he's up for it: Nietzsche, he says, “habitually confuses psychology and logic; he has a smeary mind.” Wittgenstein “rarely troubled to hide the fact that what was most important to him was the course and quality of his own mind. It was, after all, his art.” That might be said of Mr. Gass; in fact, he says it of himself by his display of mind on the page, especially in the essay “The Book as a Container of Consciousness.” Here he writes, “How bodylike the book is, how mindlike the text.” The Cartesian split is mended by a transcendence in which he, as reader of true art, becomes one with the words, the page. For him, it is a communion of self with text devoutly to be wished.

I beg to ask a question or two, but the man at the podium has long been entitled to his captive audience. What's more, my questions are crude, tired classroom jargon: What of “the other”? Is it such a descent from grace just to listen to others? What the grown man sitting next to me on the subway, slowly drawing a finger under the simple words in his adult-literacy text, might say to me (his words will not be written)—must it be of no interest, his esthetic of no worth? How philistine my questions, shameful the tatty petticoat of my liberal “constructs,” and I leave the class in disgrace to ask myself: Why rail at popular culture, as Mr. Gass often does, when it's been with us so long? Mummery, bearbaiting, Vauxhall, the lady-book telling the language of flowers. Yes, the wonders of technology have proliferated trash at an unimagined rate, but if the outrage of a brilliant man sounds curmudgeonly, his grumbling will come off as merely personal and pre-empt any serious discussion of culture.

It may not be fair to say that as a philosopher William Gass is a writer of fiction; yet I do think it can be said that he is no longer doing philosophy in Finding a Form, no longer engaging in its discourse. In cavalier fashion, he works the room solo: “My stories are malevolently anti-narrative, and my essays are maliciously anti-expository, but the ideology of my opposition arrived long after my antagonism had become a trait of character.” If I take “expository” to be an elucidation of argument or intent, I am freed to follow the play of the writer's mind, to bend to his will to take me where he wills. Reading these essays is like watching a glass blower at work over the flame, seeing his forms emerge—at times amusing trinkets, at times vessels of beauty and purpose. To me the trinkets are those occasional pieces in which attitude interferes with reason: scoring off the irritating inequities of literary prizes, expressing dismay at the glut of ill-conceived autobiographies—sensational or dull—and slamming yet another nail in the coffin of the avant-garde. The vases of Mr. Gass's making (something like extruded golden bowls with nearly undetectable flaws) would be in such a thoughtful essay as “The Story of the State of Nature,” in which he mounts, in clear expository fashion, an entire history of narrative, from our simple linear game of reading for the end to the complexities and accumulations of reading the lifelike whole.

A striking theme in Finding a Form is that of exile, the garden lost to our first parents, lost to us: “To be a preacher is to bring your sense of sin to the front of the church, but to be an artist is to give to every mean and ardent, petty and profound, feature of the soul a glorious, godlike shape.” I feel that Mr. Gass is the preacher, and that his belief in the artist is a flamboyant transgression, yet a belief as solid as the chair he sat in for 26 years writing his massive novel The Tunnel. I do not confuse Mr. Gass with his professorial antihero, Kohler, a dislikable chap excavating the past, though the novelist speaks of listening to his own words as if in Kohler-like confinement.

To search out the right word and claim it, to spin or etch or agonize over the trajectory of each sentence, demands an enormous investment of mind and body. No one in the world can possibly care as much as the inmate, the self-enchanter. It has always been so, but seems more so now that words themselves are marginalized, devalued as subtitles for the picture show. I admire Mr. Gass's play of mind and serious meditations, even his will, though often I disbelieve him. Stanley Cavell, the philosopher who gave us our Thoreau, tells us in “The Senses of Walden”: “Writing—heroic writing, the writing of a nation's scripture—must assume the conditions of language as such; re-experience, as it, were, the fact that there is such a thing as language at all and assume responsibility for it—find a way to acknowledge it—until the nation is capable of serious speech again.” Against the odds, William Gass, a tortured man in the attic, has empowered himself to write scripture in an unredemptive time.

John O'Brien (review date Spring 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of Finding a Form, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 170-1.

[In the following review, O'Brien offers praise for Finding a Form.]

Gass is a writer who has always believed in public discourse, that the act of the critic and scholar is to engage as wide an audience as possible in matters of serious intent (that is, that these things matter or at least have consequences for the body politic) and that, therefore, the form of the discourse must itself be engaging, resonate, enlivening, and at times, vituperative. The present collection hits the mark in every way, though one may mourn that there are not more critics who see their function as this, as opposed to the academic specialist who, if he speaks to anyone more than himself, speaks only to other, specialists in deadening prose. One might especially wish that other novelists might so speak more often, though of course one knows that many of them have little critical ability and can speak, quite poorly and unintelligently, only about themselves. Gass is this rare figure whose critical abilities go hand-in-hand with his fictional ones.

Appropriately enough, this volume opens with a biting attack on award giving, starting with the Pulitzer for fiction, which has a remarkable history of recognizing the bad and the forgettable, and moving on to many others that champion the mediocre and fashionable in the name of literary quality. This essay is followed by one given to the subject of the use of the present tense in fiction, a practice Gass generally abhors but one which is perfectly suited to readers raised on television and those writers who have their fingers on the pulse of their generation (the minimalists, of course, come in for the most severe tongue lashings here).

In another essay, one that begins with rather painful descriptions of his childhood and therefore partial explanation for his having become a writer rather than a car salesman or a contented businessman, Gass lays down his aesthetic, which has always been his aesthetic, old-fashioned (Aristotle, Aquinas, Gilson) and therefore radical for our times: “I believe that the artist's fundamental loyalty must be to form, and his energy employed in the activity of making. … The poet, every artist, is a maker whose aim is to make something supremely worthwhile, to make something inherently valuable in itself.” All of this is opposed to such perennially acclaimed aims as understanding the world, understanding ourselves or those near and dear to us, reflecting or mirroring one thing or another, making the world a better place, societal improvement, the betterment of one group or another (women, blacks, gays, the aristocracy, whatever), or the ever-favorite replication of reality in a kind of condensed version that makes reality even more real.

Other chapters are given to Wittgenstein, Nietzsche, Robert Walser, Gass's beloved Spanish (well, at least one, Juan Goytisolo) and Latin Americans (Fuentes, Lezama Lema, Cabrera Infante, Cortazar, Vargas Llosa, though one glaring omission here is Fernando del Paso, an omission I am sure Mr. Gass will rectify in any future edition), Danilo Kis, Ford Madox Ford, and of course Gertrude Stein roams the pages freely. And there is, towards the end, a particularly interesting chapter entitled “The Music of Prose.” The temptation here, which I will resist, is to quote endlessly from Gass. Better just to go read the book, but rather than reading it cover to cover, one should more profitably read a chapter a day—there is too much in each of them to move swiftly on. Or one may be better advised to stop and reread the works he has reference to (I do not remember my Walser the way that Gass remembers his).

The book is an utter pleasure and is itself a working demonstration of the author's recurring theme: the celebration of language and the power of prose to create and re-create the world. I will not bother to say that it should be the winner of one of those prizes that Gass scorns, nor do I think he need worry about this happening; his politics, aesthetics, and intelligence are wrong for the committees.

Marcus Klein (essay date Summer 1997)

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SOURCE: “Postmodernizing the Holocaust: William Gass in The Tunnel,” in New England Review, Vol. 18, No. 3, Summer, 1997, pp. 79-87.

[In the following essay, Klein examines Gass's postmodern conflation of personal and national history, morality, and guilt associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany as presented through the protagonist, Kohler, in The Tunnel. “Given the perspective to which we are invited,” Klein concludes, “Kohler's evil amounts to an irrelevant tawdriness.”]

The subject is the Shoah, the Catastrophe, and how to account for it—a subject in history, to say the least, to which Gass as novelist and as theorist of fiction brings a presumption of the uncertainty of narrative and of the autonomy of language. This of course is nothing like Holocaust-denial. To the contrary, it is engagement of any sort that is thrown into doubt, in the postmodern way. “Postmodernism” no doubt is showing its age and has become distended and shapeless, applied to anything seeming a little bit impertinent, but the epistemological skepticism (sometimes despairing when rendered, often joking) remains basic. And in the case of this very long, perplexed, extravagant, antic novel, some twenty-six years in the making (so it is said) because the stakes are high while the gestures of demonstration are virtually unbounded … for such reasons this has the look of a serious inquiry. Not that something of the same has not been tried before: among prime instances, Thomas Pynchon variously; Robert Coover's The Public Burning (Nixon and the Rosenbergs); John Barth's Giles Goat-Boy (the Cold War). But here now is postmodern idea and practice brought to bear on the worst that modern history has known, offering occasion for contemplation as to just how serious such an enterprise as this actually is or is not or might be. What consequences are here for the learning, so one might ask, and to what end, and with what implication for what, for some approximately twenty-six years, has been a dominating if not quite a prevailing mode of perception.

The story goes this way: William Kohler, a professor of history at a Midwestern university, having finished the main text of his study entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, is now ready to write the introduction to it, and that preparation constitutes the occasion of The Tunnel. Contemplation of his introduction leads him to consideration of the past and present of his own life along with questions of guilt and innocence of the personal sort (and, for reasons which remain obscure, also leads him to the digging of a tunnel in the basement of his home). In the 1930s, as a young man, Kohler had studied history and philosophy at a German university with a famous professor who had become a Nazi apologist—Heidegger, of course, here named “Magus Tabor”—and Kohler had been present in Germany at the beginnings of the Nazi era. He now thinks about his German experience, about his childhood, about his wife and his children, his love affairs, and his colleagues and his relations with them. He is a lonely man, and disappointed. He thinks that he might form a new political party, the “Party of Disappointed People.” At the beginning of his 652 oversized pages of monologue he says, “Endings possess me.” At the end, page 652, he invokes sorrow. Shall I, he says, “lay my mind down by sorrow's side.” While in between the pages wander and lurch, interrupted by splotches in various colors here and there, shifts in typefaces, smudges, numerologies, and numerous other challenges to syntax.


Kohler wishes to write such an introduction to his book on the Germans, so he says, as might raise an “arch of triumph” for himself, or might constitute the placing of a wreath upon his own brow. At the end, however, his monologue modulates into retreat. He contemplates burial of his work, will settle for decency, dignity, and fore-thoughtfulness: “Make my wrong right,” he says. “Take one day like a pill to prevent the illness of another.” And that this constitutes dramatic and necessary realization rather than, perhaps, weary wisdom, is to be understood by negative reference on the one hand to a Leni Riefenstahl idea of German joy (“No arm with armband raised on high. No more booming bands, no searchlit skies”) and on the other hand to Kohler's own history of passions often perverse, always promising a vitality, but, in the end, either lost or unachieved. That tunnel, which in fact serves as only an occasional trope in The Tunnel, at this ending would seem to figure for the birth which is a fall: “Or shall I, like the rivers, rise? Ah. Well. Is rising wise? Revolver like the Führer near an ear. Or lay my mind down by sorrow's side.”

Nor is this movement only, opportunistically, voluptuous. (As in: “Come then, Sorrow! / Sweetest Sorrow! / Like an own babe I nurse thee on my breast. … I thought to leave thee / And deceive thee, / But now of all the world I love thee best.”) Nor is it admonitory. (One thinks of Dr. Tamkin's advice to another Wilhelm, in Bellow's Seize the Day: “I want to tell you, don't marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it's adultery.”)

On the other hand, and to look back, there is something surprising about this result following upon all of that presumption of a tortured mind which for many years has been at the work of personal confrontation of great evil. After the Holocaust … only “sorrow”? And not even quite that, but rather a resolve of dedication as to a lady.

But then again that surprise is there only after the looking back, for something has happened in the meantime, inevitably no doubt as the novel has more and more converted history to a matter of personal perception, so that Kohler's own resolution, in its pitch and its modulation, is after all apt termination of what the novel has come to be.

It is a different novel in approximately its second half. For one thing, there is occasional evidence of some simple authorial forgetfulness, no doubt consequent upon that twenty-six years of labor which went into it. Louis Menand in the review in New York Review of Books points to discrepancies in the account of Kohler's participation in the events of November 9, 1938, Kristallnacht—did Kohler break glass or not? Gass has him saying both that he did not and that he did, and there is no indication that we are to understand that Kohler is a man who has imperfect recollection of factually discrete events. Again: On page one there are a William (seeming to be other than the narrator), an Olive, a Reynolds, a Rosie, and an Alice who commits her Tampax to the trash. And that is the last of William, Olive, Reynolds, Rosie, and this Alice. On page two we learn that Kohler had served as some kind of consultant (on “‘dirty Fascist things’”) at the Nuremberg Trials—an important datum, one would think, which is briefly recalled on page 368, and then again forgotten. Kohler is a boy in North Dakota circa page 100, and is growing up in Ohio pages 475ff.

More largely, many of what are Gass's various extravagances of the first half, of syntax and pictoriograph composition and other, have tended to dwindle away in the second, giving way to fairly straightforward accounts of present adventure and, especially, recollections of family history. And that latter content indeed virtually displaces what initially had been proposed as the rationale for the whole, namely Kohler's attempt to account for “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany” with emphasis in all perversity on the innocence.

Perhaps all of this above had led to a cul-de-sac somewhere around year thirteen, a cul-de-sac arrived at through both the disruptions of narrative and the attempt to confront the Holocaust in terms other than moral and with response other than horror. There would seem to be an unmarked crisis circa page 417, when Kohler asserts the “relative resilience to tampering, to falsification” of historical fact, thereby importantly appearing to reject the teachings of Magus Tabor—but for no reason that this text in itself has provided. Kohler will go on to speculate on the nature of “fact,” but the significant thing is that the tale in itself has not demanded such speculation, except insofar as that the idea that historical fact is malleable in the hands of the historian has finally in itself not led anywhere in novelistic terms.

In any event, the novel's large, specifically stated thesis, that “Fascism” is in “the heart”—to quote the flap copy, which no doubt Gass approved and which perhaps he wrote—would seem not only to have provided the basis for the historian William Kohler's ruminations on his own history but also, it would seem, to have provided the route by which William Gass was able to amble back into quite familiar territory: that of his first novel, Omensetter's Luck, and the tales collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, and then Willie Master's Lonesome Wife. The home place in all of these is the place of middling grotesque lives, sometimes comically grotesque and sometimes only radiant, which are unexpected because hidden within the ordinary. The great revelation of Omensetter's Luck, it is to be recalled, is that the central character, Brackett Omensetter, is a perfectly ordinary man. And as for geography, appropriately the home place is the Middle West, which is Gass country certainly much more emphatically than ever is Germany, whether Hitler's or Herder's. (“There is nothing genuinely German about me,” says Kohler several times, and he is right—discounting only the German origins of somber postmodernist jesting.) Sherwood Anderson comes to mind—unto the faith, indeed, in the awful mystery of the words, the cunning little words, although here bolstered by language theory, and with the sometimes consequent feeling that nothing will stop the flow of them. Or perhaps Ed Howe or Edward Eggleston, those earlier exploiters of the drear country of passions imprisoned and lives ending in, exactly, disappointment.

When Kohler invents his “Party of Disappointed People,” that after all is something quite considerably less dire than National Socialism. The invention is witty and plaintive, and is mordant-comical to the degree that it at once appeals to universality and announces inadequacy. Everyone is “disappointed”—excepting of course those persons for whom catastrophe has changed everything. A low-grade chronic resentment is plausibly The Human Condition, virtually in a medical sense. Your wife is fat. Your children are no great shakes—are irritating, to tell the truth. Your mother was an embarrassment. You can't stand the furniture. Your desk is a mess. Your colleagues are getting ahead of you. Lovers have left you. You make filth in mind and body. The message is: Sound familiar? The lurking, infusing irony of the “Party of Disappointed People” is in the fact that “Disappointment” is the common condition which pretty much ends in itself, and to make the joke that there might be a “Party” of the disappointed is to see at once that the universal condition is not a public condition. The Disenfranchised might make a clamor. The Discriminated-Against, surely. Perhaps the Disenchanted. But Disappointment, like Sorrow, is a material for an ode or a roundelay, not for an assault on public history.

Much of The Tunnel, especially in the second half, is in fact William Kohler's song of sorrows and of disappointments suffered, or not even that necessarily, but his recollection of losses, and much of that, presented in relatively discrete straightforward segments, and taken for itself, is sad and lovely—indicating probably that Gass is so good a novelist that after all he will not be thesis-driven.

There is a tale about Kohler's “Uncle Balt,” which in fact occurs rather early on. It begins: “Yet why should I remember Uncle Balt,” and in truth there is little of a thematic necessity despite the presuming title of the section: “Uncle Balt and the Nature of Being.” Uncle Balt is a loner out there (and back there) in the loneliness of an American Midwestern farm. “Tall, thin, slightly cadaverous,” it is said: “Uncle Balt's voice issued from his body as from a length of pipe.” When he does speak, as recollection would have it, his speech is the gnomic, ironic, ritualized language of a folkish American Midwest. Uncle Balt is a joshing misogynist. He talks—or, better, utters—in an idiom which by convention announces stubbornness and self-doubt both at once. He says of women: “NO KNITTIN, JUST NATTERIN. … CHITCHAT IN A HAT. … THEY'LL HOPPER A MAN IN HALF, GRAZE YOU TO THE GROUND,” as a man might say who has known grasshoppers. Of work and the young boy William Kohler's not doing it: “WHAT HAPPENED TODAY? NO HOEIN, NO ROWIN, NO PLANTIN, NO WEEDIN OR PINCHIN BACK, I BET.” Uncle Balt works from dawn to dark and dies alone in his fields—in order to affirm a region.

And quite despite that attributed “fascism of the heart” and despite the sometime grotesqueness of the materials, there is much yearning in Kohler's recollections, especially in his recollections of family, approaching but then easing away from larger implication.

Father was a bigot, so Kohler says. “He taught me bigotry and bitterness.” And that certainly might look forward to the fascism of the heart, but it is said also that Father held two jobs during the Depression, working long heartless hours, took the family on memorable Sunday drives ending at the ice cream store, hung around the garage (explicitly not the saloon nor the pool hall), and suffered an alcoholic wife, not to speak of the son, Kohler himself, who was a bookish lad, and inept, and a masturbator. As for the bigotry, the total evidence is Father's outrage directed against the next-door neighbors, Asians of some kind seemingly, who in fact, as reported, are difficult neighbors. They do strange things with chickens. They dry their underclothes on bushes. They parade around their lot, tootling, as it is said, like crazy.

And there was a maiden aunt who moved in and was a compulsive gift-giver. No fascist she, of course. Her name is “Auntie,” signifying something at once generic and somewhat comic. For years she had been nursing a vengeance directed against a former employer for whom she had been a stenographer and accountant and whom she had served loyally, and who had fired her. To what narrative end does any of this lead, one may ask, and the answer is that she is there either because she was there (Did the boy William Gass back in North Dakota have an Auntie? Not unlikely), or because the maiden aunt is another confirmation of the region of the disappointments. Indeed, she is a better emblem of the place than some others, with the frustration of her loyalties and her inapt, self-defeating attempts to compel love and family.

Much of this novel about the Holocaust is given to memories of Kohler's boozy, vague, sloppy, mortifying mother. She bleeds on the carpet during her menstrual periods. She bestows her unlikely sexual favors on the bakery delivery man, who brings her gin. There is one strikingly wrought episode in which Mother prepares a birthday party for the twelve-year-old boy. Generally she is too drunk even to attend parties, but she bakes a cake, a three-layer chocolate cake, the middle layer surrounded with a kind of chocolate pudding, the top covered with Hershey's kisses, frosting dripping along the sides, which sinks and resolves into glop … and the half-blown balloons are allowed to drift around the yard, but no matter because Mother in her vagueness had forgotten to mail the invitations—to the boyhood chums who in any event were not such because the kid didn't have any friends. At age fifteen the boy takes Mother off to be institutionalized, and she will die.

Given the specificity it is difficult to think that all of this is simply wild invention on the part of the author (Gass, not Kohler), but then it happens in any event that Gass retrieves Mother from simple grotesqueness while providing Kohler with an understanding the only appropriate synonym for which is love:

Why [he wonders], when my mother found the envelopes in the utensil drawer, and knew, then, that she had forgotten to mail the invitations, let alone collect regrets, did she go ahead and bake such an ambitious cake, the recipe for which would make even an accomplished cook a little nervous, even if her anxieties might have been relieved by knowing no one was coming; although she would have to expect her husband's exasperation, and believe in my disappointment at not being surprised? Go figure. Maybe she felt from the first she had to do the right thing by me, and throw a party for my birthday, and make me a cake as it was customary for mothers to do, and carry on, in spite of every obstacle, perhaps with the help of a swallow or two of gin [and so on].

In one of the loveliest paragraphs of this long novel Kohler imagines a reverie for Mother:

… afraid to sleep because when you slept you were no longer alone; and knowing loneliness like a spouse, as if it were simply the only condition of life, however unfriendly, however ugly and hard; hating loneliness, yet fearful of anything else but loneliness; having been disappointed—the word is too weak—at every social turn: no longer going out, attending church, having dinner parties, playing bridge with friends; … well, you have a little nip now and then, what harm? it's small expense, you've saved a bit on duds since you don't have any need or interest in pretty clothes, no one looks at you with desire, or touches you with pleasure, or talks to you as if you might be amusing, or finds it fun to be in your presence, or delights in your appearance, or compliments you on your looks, or wit, or skill with food or figures, facts or fucking, so you have a pick-me-up now and then, just to jolt the spirits, merely to erase a little melancholy when it comes on in the middle of a morning … there's no friend to phone, so why bother to watch your weight or wash or read books or plan the future, the future is your enemy, only the past can be stood, because the past is thank god dead, perhaps a little toast to that, all those increasingly gloriously golden days, when your breasts were young, and you thought, I can do that. …

That there is considerable investment of self in this reverie on the part at least of the narrator, maybe of the author, is obvious, and on the part of the narrator, in any event, that investment is made explicit. This middling, personal, abiding, heartbreaking, humdrum of disappointment … Too weak a term? Not really. That's what the mass of human beings really lead lives of. This commonplace of disappointment, come to the point of crisis, is Kohler's quite genuine eloquence.

But on the other hand …


There is good reason to pluck these sentences from both the sheer inordinateness of The Tunnel and Gass's deliberate strategies for undermining narrative. Already in the stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country Gass had pretty much abandoned linear plot. Already in Willie Master's Lonesome Wife he had begun to play with graphics and colors upon the page, in place of narrative. In The Tunnel there are places where the first-person narration (and there is no other) goes on and on so endlessly circumstantially in a process of associative increments as in effect not merely to interrogate but to cancel narration, and these places are not few. It takes Kohler twelve oversized pages (437-449) to get up in the morning—to turn off the alarm, go to the toilet, brush his teeth, gargle, put on his pants, and so on, in a way calculated, so it must be, to make the reader doze—and that Gass is constantly aware of a reader reading is beyond doubt. The tricksterism with graphics is here in The Tunnel carried to the point where pages of prose are made to be entirely illegible—pages are smeared, as with dirty carbon paper or printer cartridge; words are placed in non-linear order; sentences from here and there are interleaved, not with any perceptible intent to create fugues of meaning. Page numbers are dropped. Pagination from author's proofs is inserted. There are drawings which look like—take your pick—illustrations by Jean Arp for the poems of Tristan Tzara, or amoebae.

The purpose of all of this is clear enough, deriving as it does from a postmodernist orthodoxy already waning by the time of the 1995 publication of The Tunnel. Narration, once again, is suspect. Language itself is always (already) arbitrary. Does the Word encompass the world outside of the word? Gass clearly began there, although, once again, his novel clearly pulled elsewhere.

No doubt that these ideas promised relevance to a reflection on the Holocaust. Kohler's intellectual father, Magus Tabor, is the principal elaborator of the idea that language creates historical fact, and, as the novel makes him to be, Magus Tabor is at once intellectually powerful, hence seductive, and repulsive, and he is a Nazi, all, again, with clear reference to Heidegger. And the novel itself, in its strategies of composition, would seem to want to exploit the same ambiguities. It springs from ideas which once and not long ago seduced a great many people (people with advanced degrees in philosophy and literature), ideas which are at the same time repellant, virtually in a physical sense. The Tunnel is a novel which you are invited to read and which often enough shuts the door in your face, declaring itself to be unreadable.

Nonetheless, and despite deliberated equivocations and contrarinesses, the novel does begin with and takes its basic subject matter from that one enormous, imperious historical fact, which it does moralize. How to explain the Holocaust? The novel is pinned to that subject and to that question, which indeed it answers. Kohler has written his book on “Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany.” We don't know much about that book, but Gass does give us the first sentence: “Time cannot do to ordinary things what we timelessly do to one another.” And that might be just Kohler's idea except that, for all of the somewhat tangle of the syntax, it amounts to the same thing as to speak of “the fascism of the heart”—the phrase which is used to advertise The Tunnel, and which occurs at least a couple of times within the text itself. Fascism, that is to say, and quite simply, is not an event but is regarded as the same thing as “evil”—lower-case e, as Kohler elsewhere insists—and it is the human thing.

And to say that is to say that we are all fascists albeit in our littler ways, and then to say that is to say in turn that we are all guilty, Jews quite specifically included (“now you wish to hang Herr Goering. … well, I tell you, give a Jew a hammer and he'll break your head, the teeth of every tiger are alike, it's in the species, it's deep in our dirty genes”).

That we are all guilty is everywhere a perversely generous (Christian) platitude requiring some detail of demonstration, and in this case Kohler's 652-page confessional memoir is all that we can have because narrative and language dogmatically back off from matter outside the skull. This acutely lonely man reflects on his life and is spiteful. He might be Dostoyevsky's Underground Man—surely that is one of the allusions suggested by his tunneling in the basement—except indeed that the scene of the life is not nineteenth-century Russia but is close to hand, perhaps in his hand. In truth he is much closer to being a figure drawn from that other Midwesterner James Thurber. He is victimized by domestic life, his own particular one but entirely recognizable. He is beset and imprisoned—by a fat and flaccid wife, by children whom he doesn't like (he seems to know the name of only one of his two sons) and who don't like him, and by a house and furniture and the problems of career, and so forth. And therefore we are to know that Kohler understands how a people might let loose … and kill Jews.

Gass's Kohler is emphatically not Gass himself. It is necessary to say that because some of the reviewers of the novel have wanted to note the parallels between the two—both are in fact Midwesterners, both are professors, both are Americans with German antecedents, they have the same first name, and other things. The interviewer for The New York Times Book Review thought it right to ask Gass how deeply he identified with his protagonist—an odd question, one would think, given this Kohler. (Gass said that he has experienced loneliness, like everyone else, but that was the extent of the identification.)

On the other hand it is humanly difficult to think that this 652-page monologue is entirely made up, that there is no author within the prose, or that Kohler is entirely an “unreliable narrator” kept devilishly just beyond the reader's reach.

And more to the point, Gass certainly is deeply implicated in the moralizing which the novel itself does accomplish, to the extent that it is he after all who has invented this adventure in the imagination of evil.

One would ask finally, of just what and to what degree is Kohler guilty? The limitations of a prescriptively Midwestern sort perhaps prevent extravagances, but in any event Kohler's individual acts of trespass are not many and altogether are small potatoes, as we Midwesterners say, and besides that, are pretty much forgiven by act of the novel. Kohler has a lousy attitude toward his wife, but she has her own peculiarities. There is a section called “Child Abuse” which might be promising, but in fact is recollection merely of a time when Kohler as a young father was briefly left alone with an infant son who wouldn't stop crying and Kohler had yelled at him to SHUT UP! That's all. No real harm done, despite the insertion into this recollection of reminders of the voice of the Führer. Kohler has pawed at some of his female students, but his marriage is depicted as a sexless one. He has had one extended affair with a girl named Lou, but he had really been in love with her. And, besides, she had left him, and so the adultery, if it amounted to so much as that, is embalmed in melancholy. The man is to be pitied.

None of this is necessarily negligible, except that this novel of reflection on the Holocaust (which did happen, quite outside of this novel) wants to make it all seem to be tremendously more.

The novel brings to bear all kinds of exorbitances. There is the sheer length of it. There is the well-advertised fact that it took so long to write. There is the usualness of a prose which advances on a principle of discontinuousness, so that there is almost constant implication that there is more meaning there than the prose can encompass. Hence, again, the drawings and the colors and the typographical antics. The implication is of overload. Beyond these stratagems, moreover, there is much talk of cocks and cunts, being a repeated effort toward rhetorical shock. And many another thing. Lou, when discovered, had worked in the jewelry store of a five-and-dime (like Hart Crane's Woolworth madonna), which is probably to suggest something like a folk motif. The fact that there are points of identity between Kohler and his author might well suggest an additional burden of authority—after all, it could well be that it is not a fictional character talking, but the author. Again, Kohler as writer invokes the Muses, all of them and several of his own invention, and the spirits, as well, of Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Milton, and given the gigantism of Gass's novel, it might well be Gass who is doing the invoking. This middling man Kohler, like middling, domestic Leopold Bloom before him, is to be epical, if not on the basis of his own plain story then by other means.

Joyce's invoked history was after all mostly a literary one. Maybe that is the difference. To be invited by this novel to contemplate the Holocaust and then to be introduced to the sins of William Kohler is to discover some considerable pretension at work, if not indeed a prescription for moral blindness. Given the perspective to which we are invited, Kohler's evil amounts to an irrelevant tawdriness. Or should amount to such; there is some discrepancy of magnitude here. While to say that deep in his heart this tawdry Kohler is a Fascist, maybe even just potentially—like all of us—and is a vessel for the kind of guilt that made the Holocaust, is to put another construction upon “banality of evil” (and there are numerous indications in the novel that Gass has taken license from Hannah Arendt). It is to reduce the horror itself to a banality, and thereby to dismiss it. Concerned as he is with his penis and his fat wife and lost Lou, and the rest, William Kohler cannot have the faintest idea of the event of the slaughter of the six million.

Some such smallness might well result when, in the postmodern way, history becomes no more than the record of the historian's altogether commonplace anxieties. He has met the enemy. …

Kenneth Haynes (review date Fall 1997)

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SOURCE: A review of The Tunnel, in Sewanee Review, Vol. CV, No. 4, Fall, 1997, pp. cxx-cxxii.

[In the following review, Haynes offers positive assessment of The Tunnel.]

To The Tunnel William H. Gass has brought Flaubert's ambition to write a book with no subject, a book that would be held together by the strength of its style alone, to creating a book on the Holocaust. Or rather a book on a book on the Holocaust: the protagonist William Kohler, a middle-aged professor of history in a midwestern university, has just finished a large work on Hitler's Germany. Surreptitiously he now writes these pages, a mixture of embittered personal history and of angry and ironic philosophic reflection. We learn about his childhood humiliations under a bullying father and self-destructive mother, his infatuation with an aesthetic philosophy of history while a student in Weimar Germany, the erosions and degradations of his marriage, various petty and sterile quarrels with colleagues, and other disappointments. His spirits rise when he decides to dig a tunnel under the house. While writing these private pages, he shrinks the Holocaust in a series of limericks, freely appeals to it in metaphors and similes of his own trivial disappointments, and indulges in anti-Semitism when it serves his embittered stance.

For instance he brings a pseudological rigor to his misanthropy when he remarks that the murdered Jews include “thousands of thieves, murderers, shylocks, con men, homos, hoboes, wastrels, peevish clerks, shysters, drunkards, hopheads, Don Juans, pipsqueaks, debtors, premature ejaculators, epileptics, fibbers, frigid females, faddists, nags, nailbiters and bedwetters, frumps, fanatics, friggers, bullies, cripples, fancy ladies.” The monologue of this hateful man is coercive and all-encompassing: there is never an opportunity to stand back from it, and we may even lose the obvious perspective that the Nazi terror was infinitely worse than the “mean and silly carking” of any part of humanity. Gass's ability to create a totality in which Kohler's easy cynicism seems to be a hard-won realism, where his petty and insignificant frustrations seem to be genuine indications that the world is evil, and where his self-pity feels attractive and justified, is a technical accomplishment, at least, of enormous difficulty.

Almost every page of the book is intolerable. Limericks, self-conscious and self-regarding phrases, fantastic similes, graphic and typographic tricks, and unrelenting alliteration fill the pages, all of which insist continually on the arbitrary nature of the language, the emptiness of its conceits, its forged pretensions. Kohler issues more fiats to symbols than W. B. Yeats ever did; a blackboard and a window become donnish excursus into philosophy. The discussions of philosophy are as empty as the symbols, and they make clear the egotistical, self-deluding, and destructive impulses behind argument and belief.

“How hollow heart and full of filth thou art,” as Samuel Beckett turned La Rochefoucauld's phrase, compacts the two themes of the book, hollowness and filth. The tunnel Kohler digs, his cesspool heart, his conceited language, and his brutish history are empty; the excavated filth is hidden away. We listen with horrified and temporary sympathy to a base mind believing its excuses, palliating its faults, and discharging its venom.

But why should we listen? Besides the fact that such a monologue can be done, and done excruciatingly well, why do it? In one sense it is an improper question: an artist can choose his or her subject. The subject is not simply indifferent, however, because the Holocaust is not simply a subject. One way to begin to see the relation of ethics and aesthetics in the book is to note that Kristallnacht is at the center. Kohler, a student in Germany, throws a rock through both a Jewish and a non-Jewish shop window, and with that action the terrible convergence of the petty with the tragic becomes evident. The descent from thoughtlessness and passive self-absorption to public atrocity takes an instant. Gass's aesthetic makes a self-sustained world out of such self-absorption. The book is meant to collide constantly with the reader's knowledge of the murderous consequences.

Though a monologue, the novel nonetheless must let the other characters enter somehow. The recollections from childhood of his mother and father and of his Uncle Balt are among the most vivid. The section “Fugue,” for instance, is a tour de force but not only that; the device of counterpoint permits the tracing of the child's mind in its humiliation and disappointment as it is forced to go over and over the same ground (“My dad wouldn't let me have a dog. A dog? A dog we don't need”).

The absence of direct dialogue also means that there is no point of reference outside his ravings, his unreliable memory, and his dissembled honesty. We have only these pages offered as his transcribed consciousness, and so some questions for the work are psychological. What motivates him to dig the tunnel, or what does the digging express about him? Is the tunnel more than a conceit? Can we recognize Kohler as human?

A lovingly rendered assault on the ear, on goodness, and on reason, The Tunnel has not yet found its readers. The outlines of its structure, the dilations and contractions of its chronology, and its aesthetic remain to be elucidated. But its picture of the subterranean fury of disappointed people has no equal. It is horrible to admit that it may be prophetic. Books have their fates.

Arthur Saltzman (review date Fall 1998)

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SOURCE: A review of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 18, No. 3, Fall, 1998, p. 232.

[In the following review, Saltzman offers positive assessment of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas.]

William Gass regularly demonstrates how the artist's devotion is best measured by his concern for the language he cultivates; his scruple and injunction is that beauty, vision, and morality require the precision and ingenuity of sentences lovingly constructed. Indeed, the dry prairie solitudes that dominate these four novellas prove to be rich soil for linguistic enterprises. Disappointments and hatreds still sparkle with imagery and inspire alliterative runs that belie the conditions of the characters, whose funks and futilities recall those of Gass's previous Midwestern populations in Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

The title novella features a poisonous marriage reminiscent of the Kohlers in The Tunnel. It pits airy, clairvoyant Ella Bend Hess against her abusive Caliban of a husband, Edgar—mind and matter, recoiling from one another, yet inevitably knotted together in mutual complaint. Gass again makes exquisite rhetorical capital out of such unsentimental motives as blame, anger, misogyny, guilt, and disaffection. Thus, even as “Cartesian Sonata” steeps the human spirit in a muddle of primal urges, it strives to redeem our creatureliness through style.

While Cartesian Sonata reworks writings going back over thirty years, the other three novellas are of recent vintage. Gass's consistency of theme and method over that period suggests that his fictions elaborate the artistic philosophy of his renowned essays. Walt Riff, an itinerant accountant and cooker of books, finds religion in the abundant, meticulously cared-for kitsch at a rural “Bed and Breakfast.” Pinched, despairing, and Emma Bishop beats a retreat into an obsession with poetry in “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's.” And Luther Penner, “The Master of Secret Revenges,” refines an aesthetic of retribution in the fevered tradition of Jethro Furber, to name another of Gass's prominent fascists of the heart.

A lavish imagination is all that is lovely about any of Gass's isolated minds. In each novella, meanness or poverty sets us up for ambushes by lines too marvelous to miss.

James Wood (review date 1 November 1998)

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SOURCE: “Wrestling with God,” in New York Times Book Review, November 1, 1998, p. 9.

[In the following review, Wood offers positive evaluation of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, though notes contradictions and shortcomings in the work.]

William Gass is the philosopher-novelist who wants to scramble our p's and q's. For many years, in both essays and novels, he has fought what he sees as the unthinking realism of American fiction. Instead of the blank essences of traditional fiction, he wants the subtle absences of the nouveau roman: instead of characters, he organizes his fictions around “symbolic centers”; instead of the architecture of plot, he attends to the fabric of form; instead of the management of reality, he prefers to liberate the sentence. The writer's task is not to make the reader believe in a world: Gass has argued that “one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other.” The writer's task, as he sees it, is to stimulate disbelief, to tickle the reader's alienation.

Yet the contradictions and difficulties of being an avant-garde novelist—and, in particular, a novelist who is philosophically skeptical—are everywhere apparent in Gass's two most recent works, a collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996), and now Cartesian Sonata, a gathering of four novellas. The awkward truth is that fiction, because it is the most illusionistic of arts, is the least amenable to the kind of skepticism Gass professes. Fiction, though it may play with disbelief, labors on behalf of belief. As soon as fiction creates a human being, it signs a contract with reality, however unfair or fraudulent that contract may be; and fiction, unlike poetry, has a primary involvement with the human.

Gass is rather squeezed by this challenge. He caricatures realism as a Victorian invention, and makes it seem much less flexible than it actually is; he has sarcastically dismissed the “clear-cut characters,” the “unambiguous values” and “sweet sentimentality” of the 19th-century novel, as if George Eliot, Gogol and Flaubert had never existed. Yet at the same time he appears to want the effects, if not the burdens, of the fictive illusion. For instance, his fiction wants, and needs, human beings, and therefore characters. Indeed, he has written that “if I alter my reader's consciousness, it will be because I have constructed a consciousness of which others may wish to become aware, or even, for a short time, share,” which might as well be a minimal description of Thackeray as of Gass.

His disdain for contemporary American realism is invigorating and extremely intelligent, but his own solution does not seem to be a genuinely new fiction. It is rather the enactment, in fiction, of precisely an invigorating and intelligent disdain for realism. Thus each of the novellas in Cartesian Sonata is about a character with a name and a history and an inner life. In “Bed and Breakfast,” a traveling salesman named Walter Riff becomes so enamored of one of the inns he stays at that he decides never to leave it; in “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's,” a touching story, an unhappy spinster named Emma Bishop sits in an Iowa farmhouse and ponders the similarities between herself and two poets, Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop; and in the title novella, Gass tells the tale of Ella Bend Hess, whose wild clairvoyance and offbeat mysticism—she hears inaudible sounds and feels impalpable textures—causes a rift with her lumberingly conventional husband.

But because Gass feels that he, and we, must not be allowed to “believe” in characters, he fiddles with their unreality. Posing as God, Gass tells us that he originally made Ella Hess rather differently: “I'd given her a long nose, I remember—no good reason why. Now her nose is middling.” Likewise, Emma Bishop thinks to herself, most unconvincingly, that she is really a fictional character, not an actual human, rather like Emma Woodhouse and Emma Bovary: “Like those Emmas before me. I read of love in the light of a half-life.” Yet a writer's deconstructions of reality need to be as convincing as his constructions, and Gass's apologies for his own realism seem a little halfhearted. Beckett often informs us of the arbitrariness of his people, placements and furniture, but his scrupulousness is in the service of a larger, and tormented, metaphysical uncertainty. Gass's reminders may be skeptical, but they are in the service of a philosophical complacency.

Gass's more systematic approach to the awkward reality of his own characters is to write over them, to soap them so nicely in words that they are washed away. He has a formidable lyrical power—dainty, rich, elastic—and he uses it to create streams of consciousness that move between third-person narration and interior soliloquy. All the novellas but the last one allow their characters to speak directly to the reader, by way of broken monologues. This technique, developed by Jane Austen and refined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, exists for the revelation of character; it is the soul's stutter. (“Ulysses,” so often recently derided as an impossibly radical text, is actually the very summation of the traditional novelistic devotion to human beings.) Novelists who use stream of consciousness must calibrate their language so that it seems the plausible emanation of the character's consciousness.

Gass, typically torn, uses this mode, yet powerfully scrawls his signature all over it. Thus Emma Bishop likens herself to Emma Bovary simply because Gass thinks she should. This same woman, supposedly an unfulfilled spinster, speaks a writer's toughened vernacular: “I learned to read on the sly. I failed my grades, though in this dinky town you were advanced so your puberty would not contaminate the kiddies. … I read on the sly the way some kids smoked or stroked one another through their clothes.” Absurdly, Ella Hess's doltish husband thinks to himself that his wife “hasn't enough blood in the narrow channels of her flesh to pink a tear, while mine is like sand in a sand clock, almost wholly in my head—thick, moist, flushed, hot.” Too often, Gass's stream of consciousness seems only a vessel for his own wordy authority.

In fact, to write over one's characters, to give them thoughts and verbal powers only a writer could have, is to turn those people into writers. So Ella Hess's clairvoyance is not really affecting or convincing and seems only a way for Gass to create a character who apprehends the world with sensuous attention, as a Gass-like writer would. Walter Riff, the traveling salesman, falls in love with the objects in the bedroom of his chosen inn, and this allows Gass to use him as a writer, as a seeing eye: “His appetite,” Gass writes, “was in his eyes.” But Walter Riff rather disappears as a result. And Emma Bishop is every writer's dream, someone literate enough to read modern poetry. Only in the book's last novella does Gass create a life with a moving otherness. In “The Master of Secret Revenges,” he tells the story of Luther Penner, a brilliant but unstable child who, for no reason, decides that the principle by which he will live is revenge. Some mysterious fire burns in Luther's heart, and so in the heart of this beautiful story, Luther is a character who flies out of Gass's over-anxious grasp.

In a strange way, Gass is as involved with character as are the realists he so thoughtfully deposes. If they rather idly clothe their fictional creations, Gass rather neurotically unclothes his. But he cannot avoid the human, and he cannot avoid illusion, and his fiction describes a strange crescent around the unavoidable. His recoil is more respectable than most writer's embraces; but it is still a recoil, for all that.


Gass, William H(oward) (Vol. 8)