Meaning’s Music: A Review of William H. Gass’s Middle C

Middle C by William H. GassIf writers such as Gary Lutz, Diane Williams, and Christine Schutt have brought increased attention to the sentence as the fundamental, perhaps even self-sufficient, source of aesthetic interest in fiction, the most important precursor to their particular kind of inspired sentence-making must be William H. Gass. While these writers cite Gordon Lish and his notion of “consecution” as the most immediate influence on their own practice of allowing form to evolve from the serial progression of meticulously constructed sentences rather than regarding form as the pre-existing container to be filled with the writer’s words, Gass was exploring the potential of the sentence as the focus of the writer’s art before Lish began exhorting his cadre of students to embrace this approach. All of the adventurous, “postmodern” writers of the 1960s and 1970s, among whom is Gass is usually placed, wanted to redirect readers’ attention to the “play” of language, but arguably William Gass was always the writer who most consistently demonstrated that such play is in fact the very essence of all serious literature.

The care Gass devotes to his sentences can be seen in his earliest work of fiction, “The Pedersen Kid,” as well as more generally in the stories collected in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968). “Mrs. Mean” in particular reveals Gass’s way of converting specific details of observation into verbally sensuous language:

Now the blood lies slack in her but the pressure mounts, mounts slowly. The shears snip and smack. She straightens like a wire. She strides on the house, tossing her lank hair high from her face. She will fetch a rake; perhaps a glass of water. Strange. She feels a dryness. She sniffs the air and eyes a sailing cloud. In the first shadow of the door she’s stunned and staggered. There’s a blaze like the blaze of God in her eye, and the world is round. Scald air catches in her throat and her belly convulses to throw it out...

Although it will become even more pronounced in his later fiction, here we already see Gass’s characteristic use of alliteration, assonance, and consonance, as well as the cadenced rhythm and startling figures of speech that can make Gass’s prose seem to dance on the page.

But it is in Gass’s first novel, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), that we can really see he is no ordinary stylist content with merely “lyrical” ornamentation. Especially in the longest section of this novel, devoted to the internal monologue of the Reverend Jethro Furber, Gass uses language not to depict scenes that in effect pre-exist the words that describe them but to bring the scenes and characters into their distinctive mode of being in the first place. Reverend Furber exists for us mostly, if not solely, through the verbal expressions that evoke his hyperactive consciousness. By contrast, his foil, Brackett Omensetter, has only the most rudimentary relationship with language at all, and as a character he thus is largely an absence in the novel that bears his name, as he and his “luck” are conveyed through the obsessions of Furber and the novel’s other important character, Henry Pimber. Both Omensetter’s absence and these characters’ obsessions work to make Omensetter a rather elusive and mysterious figure, but paradoxically he remains a character entirely enveloped in language—just not his own.

The strategy Gass uses in Omensetter’s Luck could be described as the “free indirect” method of narration (called by Henry James “3rd-person central consciousness”), and indeed the internal perspective giving rise to the narrative makes Omensetter’s Luck the Gass novel most reminiscent of Faulkner. Still, the ambition of the novel is not to give us access to the minds of the characters so that we might better glimpse their mental processes, understand their “thinking” separate from its necessary embodiment in language, but precisely to make a certain kind of language visible as a style. Gass’s prose doesn’t so much “reflect” his characters’ pre-verbal consciousness as itself create an artifice of consciousness that exists only as a phenomenon of language. In Gass’s next works, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife (1968) and (after an interval of over twenty-five years) The Tunnel, language is treated even more obviously as the primary object of interest, although in these books language isn’t merely “style” in the conventional sense, the usual sequence of sentences and paragraphs; instead, Gass allows form to emerge as an extension of the disposition of language in an especially literal way, as the words on the page migrate here and there, arrange themselves into unorthodox shapes and patterns, and call attention to themselves through the use of variable fonts and shades, including colored ink.

These books gained William Gass the reputation of a “postmodern” writer indulging in verbal “tricks” and “games.” Gass’s new novel, Middle C, is likely to strike most readers as less dependent on language games, but such an impression would ultimately be only superficial, based on the novel’s fewer explicit graphical flourishes and a return to the central consciousness strategy. At the core of this narrative is the protagonist’s own obsessive language game, as throughout the novel he recasts and revises a single sentence, turning it around, expanding and contracting it, not so much to get its meaning “right” (the point it makes is entirely clear from the first version and never really changes) but to explore its variability, to treat the words and their place in the sentence in a way analogous to the treatment of notes in the twelve-tone method in music pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg. Indeed, the novel comes to its real conclusion when protagonist Joseph Skizzen judges that the initial sentence—“The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure”—has reached its final form in a sentence of “twelve tones, twelve words.”

Joseph Skizzen is himself a music professor, a self-proclaimed Schoenberg scholar, although eventually we learn that his credentials to be the former are fraudulent and his interest in being the latter mostly feigned. The novel essentially tells us the story of Skizzen’s life, from his birth in London during the Blitz to his emigration to Ohio with his Austrian-born mother to his ultimate crisis when he fears the college that employs him has found him out. But the narrative is related in a discontinuous if still orderly and ultimately coherent way that could be said to mimic the serialism of Schoenberg or Anton Webern. The story of Skizzen’s life gets told, just as all the notes in the twelve-tone scale are played and heard, even if it is accomplished while avoiding the kind of “development” expected of both conventional narrative and music, and while preserving the possibility of surprise and evocative juxtaposition. The musical parallel is certainly not exact, and the novel can be read simply as an episodic if fragmented sort of immigrant narrative, or even a coming-of-age story, but clearly enough Middle C wants us to be aware that such a parallel is possible, whereby the role of language goes beyond the “meaning” we can derive from it and does become a more self-sufficient medium, an arrangement of words analogous to music as the arrangement of sounds.

Appropriately enough, this conception of literary language is perhaps best exemplified in the pages devoted to Professor Skizzen’s lectures on modern music:

The materials of a work of art, my dears, appear first as simple differences but then begin to migrate into oppositions and into pairs. For instance, the cleeks and buzzes of insects in the night, each with their own scratch on the face of darkness, sidle alongside the clarinet’s happy candy like ants to a melt of chocolate—apparently an enemy of our pleasure. No matter how pure a note is, when singly sounded, we realize its man-made character and its preordained place in the confectional box, the musical scale: whereas we trace nightime’s clatter back to the cricket, who is broadcasting its lust, first in one direction, then in another, with sharp chirps like the crepitations the locust makes by bowing its legs vigorously back and forth upon steadied wings to signal its presence and advertise its need...These little wails of music, or bits of ragged scrape, are seeking a companion, a connection, even if only momentary, but always so they may give more sense to their sounds and make more of meaning’s music.

Such a passage, of course, conveys an important sense, “meaning” about the nature of musical art that Gass no doubt wishes to communicate, but it is a sense that is inseparable from its sense-centered images and the sensuous unfolding of Gass’s sentences, their distinctive wordplay (made even more pronounced when read aloud). Among his contemporaries, only Gass’s friend Stanley Elkin can rival him as a stylist who offers an alternative version of “style” in which the aesthetics of prose does not consist of adding the occasional felicitous phrase or figure to the otherwise utilitarian stream of sentences that set scenes and advance plots, but instead extends to the way plot, setting, and even character are conjured from the verbal wizardry devoted to almost every sentence. Both writers make it very difficult to ignore style as the central, irreducible element of fiction, the pleasures of which in the work of Gass and Elkin precede and determine the other pleasures of plot or character.

In some ways the pleasures of this particular passage are largely separate from a consideration of character, since Skizzen’s lecture seems at least as much like an essay interpolated into the text as it does a recitation in his own voice—indeed, an essay very much of the kind we might expect from William Gass in his work as an essayist. That Skizzen possesses at best a self-education in music and has dubious enthusiasm for modern music in the first place only makes his disquisition all the more artificial, less a window onto Skizzen’s character than an opportunity for Gass implicitly to align his own art, the art of the novel we are reading, with that of a modernist such as Bela Bartok, although in doing so he is also thus engaging in the kind of self-reflexive gesture that would associate the novel with the postmodern in fiction. While Middle C is certainly less explicitly metafictional than Willie Master’s Lonesome Wife, and contains fewer textual embellishments than The Tunnel (although Gass has suggested in interviews that in his original conception Middle C would have included more of these), by focusing so intently on music it nevertheless clearly invites the parallel between musical art and the art of fiction, at least as practiced by William H. Gass.

Still, this is probably Gass’s most accessible work of fiction in the way it provides a conventional emphasis of sorts on character and events, even if finally the reader must be wary of extending complete sympathy to Joseph Skizzen, or even of entirely trusting that we have gotten a strictly accurate account of Skizzen’s life. The novel’s final episodes involve Skizzen’s potential exposure as a fraud, the story he has created about himself and his life a fiction. Although we already know his academic credentials are fake, we are still tempted to take Skizzen’s side, to hope he will not be exposed by the powers that be at Whittlebauer College. And when indeed it turns out that the college is after someone else, this seems to be a happy ending, one that will allow Skizzen to continue to live out his fiction. If, instead, we think that Skizzen is morally culpable for perpetrating this fiction and should have to reveal his “true self,” which of the three selves he himself identifies as both marking the stages in his life’s progress and continuing to co-exist in the present construct “Skizzen” should we recognize? Joey, the immigrant boy? Joseph, the young man trying to understand his place in the world to which he has been brought? Professor Skizzen, who has decided that this persona is the most effective buffer against that world?

It could be said that “Skizzen” is born into fakery and fiction. His father—originally Rudi Skizzen—changed his own and his family’s identity more than once in migrating from Austria to England. If the elder Skizzen soon afterward disappeared, leaving his wife and children to remake themselves yet again in America, Joseph Skizzen ultimately embraces his patrimony in forging a usable identity, although where the father took on his assumed identities in order to more fully assimilate himself to human reality (at which he failed), the son assumes his in order to keep his distance from that reality. Joseph Skizzen in fact is so alienated from the world made by human beings that he curates his own “Inhumanity Museum,” cataloguing the atrocities people have inflicted on each other. Skizzen wants nothing more than to hide his “true self” from this abhorred reality. The question finally is whether such a self even exists, so thoroughly has he hidden it from possible contamination by the virus of intimate human contact.

It is the triumph of Gass’s novel, however, that, through the energy and prodigious invention of his singular prose, he is able to transform his protagonist’s evasions and attempted disguises into a fully revealed, intricately composed work of literary art.

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