After seven books of philosophical and literary essays that have established William Gass as America’s most acute and stylish critic, he has published at age eighty-eight a "first" novel. Not literally his first novel. That is Omensetter’s Luck, released in 1966. But the kind of novel with which young writers often begin: an exuberant shape-shifting Bildungsroman and a near Künstlerroman, as its protagonist becomes a music teacher rather than an artist. For those unacquainted with Gass’s challenging fictions, Middle C should be the first one to try. Given the high-modernist enthusiasms of his essays, it’s unexpectedly almost middlebrow in its attention to callow youth and ordinary folks, its leisurely third-person narration, and sentences readers can see through, not just look at with envy.
Gass has said he doesn’t think much about readers, but his opening gambits in Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel were prickly dares. Middle C is welcoming from the slightly absurdist start, when an Austrian Christian identifies himself as Jewish to escape the coming Nazis. It has narrative blandishments and concealments, virtuoso performances, and verisimilitude to spare in Gass’s descriptions of mid-century Ohio towns and the places protagonist Joseph Skizzen works -- a record store, a village library, and, for more than forty years, a small college. In an interview published in the Paris Review more than three decades ago, Gass stated his "work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression." There’s plenty of disgust with human stupidity in Middle C, but it doesn’t give voice to a monster as his other two novels do.
Well, maybe a middling, muddling comic monster, like one of Nabokov’s ill-fitting immigrant academics. In the late 1930s, Joseph’s father decides his family should take on Jewish names so they can emigrate to England, where they arrive just in time for Joseph to be born during the blitz. After the father deserts the family, mother, daughter, and Joseph move to the United States and end up in a semi-rural Ohio. The father’s motive for leaving Austria was to remain guiltless of collaborating with the Nazi takeover he sensed in the future. Young Joey mythologizes his father and vows to imitate his moral purity -- a key word in the novel--even if his scrupulosity may require some "innocent" fabrications like his father’s change of religious identity.
In Ohio, Joey receives "C" grades in school, intentionally keeping a low profile, unlike his sister Debbie, who becomes a cheerleader and, later, a satisfied member of the middle class. As a teenager Joey enjoys his job in a record shop and becomes interested in serious and, he feels, pure music, but he is framed by a jealous employee and leaves the store. He has no friends, no interest in girls. He attends a community college and afterwards finds a job at a library in a nearby town. Needing a car, Joey forges a driver’s license because he lacks the necessary identification documents.
Joey meets two women working in the library: one improves his forgery and helps him fake up his resume; the other scandalizes pure Joey with a sexual advance. He scrambles home to his mother and applies for a position teaching music at the local religious college. Although Joey taught himself the piano, plays badly, and knows little about modern music, he bluffs and lies his way into the position, where Joey becomes serious Joseph and eventually Professor Skizzen, who affects a Viennese background while growing old teaching at Whittlebauer where he lives in a rented house with his mother.
With the Rabbit-raising Updike gone, only Gass, of American novelists working now, has the technical dexterity and, I suppose, aplomb to make so mundane a life absorbing -- both entertaining and enlightening -- for almost 400 pages. He employs the good old-fashioned suspense he has sometimes mocked in reviews of plot-driven fiction. Which of Joseph’s deceptions will be revealed and when? Will he be able to maintain his ascetic purity? Gass whets readers’ curiosity with flash-forwards, juxtapositions that make us wonder how a boy like Joey was ever able to become Professor Skizzen. And early on Gass plants a boldface sentence by Joseph -- "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure" -- that he compulsively revises, expands, and explains. What has Joseph experienced that has elicited this nihilism and caused him to collect thousands of clippings about atrocities for the "Inhumanity Museum" he curates in his attic?
Consciousness, skewed by circumstance, stewed in obsession, has always been Gass’s chief concern, so he filters most of the novel through his protagonist’s mind, which is a fascinating blend of three overlapping identities: Joey, Joseph, and Professor Skizzen. There are conflicts between what they can’t know and what they would like to avoid; between self-imposed purity and natural needs; between perceptions of other people all the Skizzens resent and the external personas they compose to please those others. Unlike the word-crazed and learned narrators who take over Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, the protagonist in Middle C is no genius, and his limitations make the novel affecting.
Gass believes that Henry James is the greatest American novelist because he was the master of consciousness. Middle C is like a male companion to The Portrait of a Lady, another novel in which not much happens. With little or no formal instruction, Joseph and Isabel Archer, living in countries not their own, educate themselves through error, protect their "innocence" with repression, and take refuge in their own perceptive but stunted consciousness. As the autodidact Joseph struggles to keep his knowledge a step ahead of his colleagues and students, readers get the benefit of his self-instruction about twentieth-century composers and their music.
Although Gass’s early aesthetic theorizing resisted any socially instructive value for fiction, Middle C should receive at least a B-plus from even the most militant Franzenites, for Gass uses the anxieties of Skizzen and the hypocrisies of minor characters to authoritatively represent the self-fashioning, other-directed culture of the 1950s described by David Riesman and Erving Goffman, an era that Gass can recall with the precision of an advanced recording device. And with only a nudge, the novel’s small-town social dynamic of self-presentation becomes a metaphor for the contemporary fraudulence of big-time social media -- and even for the falsity of political correctness.
Joseph believes that "Changelings required impromptus, variations, bagatelles, divertimenti, to do justice to their nature", and Middle C is the kind of inventive pastiche that first novelists throw together to show off their formal chops and to keep readers interested in pages not made for movies. Several chapters are double-barreled classroom lectures on music —the professor alternating between his delivery to witless students and his witty remarks to himself. Joseph is in turn instructed in great detail about the care of books by an old-maid librarian and about the care of flowers by his even older mother, whose ever-expanding garden becomes a symbol of the growth that Joseph refuses. Gass includes Joseph’s notes on students, supplies compact bios of victimized artists Anton von Webern and Bruno Schulz, inserts a poem about catacombs, quotes old popular songs, incorporates news items on index cards, varies typography, and writes a commentary on faculty meetings to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
Within all the formal variations, word-man Gass is a constant micromanager. Note to note, paragraph to paragraph, his sentences offer pleasures for readers who may enter the book desiring other excitements. In what could be his last novel, Gass has found the subject -- music -- perfectly appropriate to the sound devices and metaphors both manifested in and analyzed by works such as On Being Blue and the metafictional novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. Here is Gass throwing the voice of Professor Skizzen, sometimes called "Doctor Digress," in his lecture on John Cage:
With our new instruments of bedevilment might we not record all sorts of sounds out there in the world that calls itself—that call themselves -- real; where squeaks and squeals and screams are on the menu, where dins assail us by the dozens—the crinkle of cellophane, whishiss of small talk, the fanning of five hundred programs -- where we fill our ears with one noise in order not to hear another…yes, record, preserve not only the roil of the sea but the oink of pigs and moos of cattle, the wind rattling the cornstalks like the hand of an enemy on the knob, and put them in…in the realm of majesty, of beauty, of purity, in…in music.
Because the context is rhetorical -- the uncharacteristically passionate professor trying to wake up dullard students—this passage is more intense and richer (onomatopoeia, alliteration, elaborate parentheticals, simile, an iambic beat) than much of the novel, yet Gass maintains throughout Middle C the kind of stylistic energy and linguistic ebullience that we find busting out in debut novelists, qualities that make mundane material musical.
Music moves in time; fiction -- according to Gass -- occupies space as painting does. The name Skizzen recalls the word for "sketch" in the German that Joseph’s mother speaks. The paragraphs above trace a first reading of Middle C, its surfaces. Because sketches are sometimes found beneath the outer layer of a painting, a second reading may be necessary to uncover and appreciate this novel’s formal wholeness. Very near the end, the usual third-person narration bleeds into the first-person narration of the much-revised boldface sentence. On second reading, I noticed that near the beginning the opposite briefly occurs: the boldface first-person sentence leaks into the third-person prose. And what is my point, you may ask? That Professor Skizzen, experienced artificer of false documents, may have composed the whole book. And so what? If so, Skizzen, and not only his creator, has recognized the foolish figure that he has cut all those years. If true, Middle C is a happy-ending Künstlerroman, recording the slow processes by which Skizzen becomes an artist, not a musical artist but a literary one like Henry Adams, who wrote his memoir of education in the third person.
Is Gass merely playing a game, like Nabokov’s puzzle about who really wrote the two parts of Pale Fire, Shade the poet or Kinbote the professor? I think not, for the shifty point of view in Middle C extends and nicely complicates the central theme of fictive self-presentation. If Skizzen is the "author" between Gass and readers, they must consider how much of Skizzen’s autobiography is true; how much J. S. -- like his earlier avatars Joey, Joseph, Professor -- has faked to please; and, most disturbing, how much complicity readers may share in his duplicity.
And William Gass, professor emeritus known to his friends as Bill, where is he in the layers and liars of Middle C? Barely visible in a modest signature. When Professor Skizzen addresses in his own head a college committee he thinks will fire him, he says, "To you, a counterfeit is more acceptable than a real bill, the shade of a shade more important than the tree." As here, the "real bill" occasionally instructs readers behind Joseph’s back. Gass moves Joseph’s mouth to defend the novel he’s in when discussing Arnold Schoenberg: he "was incapable of the Middle-C mind" and "probably never understood the bland, the ordinary, the neutral, because it is as difficult to strike as oil." Gass is no seat-of-the-pants wildcatter. He went back to drill in the small town of his undergraduate years at Kenyon College and the village Omensetter passed through in his horse-drawn wagon. Do I give Gass too much credit if I point out that gas is refined oil and that oil is primarily carbon (the element whose chemical name is "C") from the middle of the earth?
The "real bill" is more significantly present when Joseph discusses a musical memoir he has read: "You began one; you were suitably entranced; the style, the subject, the arrangement -- the noble sentiments, the brilliant thoughts, the charming creatures therein portrayed" but then you found "an idea that was as grotesque as a two-headed calf, a sentiment that steamed like rotting flesh, like a childhood ramble in the ruins that suddenly betrayed you with a sight not meant for living eyes" This passage describes the controlling bait and switch strategy of Middle C, the exceptionally risky maneuver that makes the novel emotionally gouging as well as amusing, for Gass lures readers into an unthreatening human comedy that he periodically punctuates with long catalogues of historical and contemporary inhumanity. Here is a short sample from a list that goes on for three pages:
On the walls of his attic area were everywhere pinned atrocity pictures, some of them classics: the weeping baby of Nanking or the wailing Vietnamese girl running naked amid other running wailing children on that fatal Route I near Trang Bang (even the name a mockery); numerous sepias of dead outlaws with their names on crude signs propped beneath their boots; clips from films that showed what struck the eyes of those who first entered the extermination camps—careless heaps of skins and bones, entirely tangled, exhibiting more knees and elbows than two-pair-to-a-death ought allow….
Voltaire employed a similar strategy of compact excess in his Candide, which overloaded a short adventure narrative to indict false innocence and every variety of cruelty. Former philosophy professor Gass tips his hat to the old philosophe with the last words of Middle C: Joseph’s mother, he thinks, "couldn’t cultivate her garden forever," a reference to Candide's much-discussed concluding image.
Thirty years ago, John Gardner, puffed up with the successful provocation of his On Moral Fiction, berated Gass in a public debate for being an amoral aesthete, for cultivating his own garden of earthly delights. Gardner even said he hoped he would outlive Gass and change all his endings. Gardner died in 1982, and Gass has written his most moral of fictions even if, like Skizzen the fraud, he has been duplicitous in doing so. Ironically, some readers may find Middle C too moral, too didactic, perhaps gratuitously so. The objection will be that the modest disappointments of Skizzen’s life do not obviously lead to his fascination with his sentence and Boschian Museum.
But there is a plausible psychological connection, one that unifies the novel’s comic and horrific strands. As a barely legal alien occupying in small-town America the acceptable roles of earnest striver, dutiful son, and slightly eccentric professor, Skizzen has no one, not even his mother, to whom he dares express his large-world pessimism. So in the hothouse of his attic and mind his sentence and Museum bloom like the poisonous garden in Hawthorne’s "Rappaccini’s Daughter," another work about false innocence.
Joseph may be the madman in the attic, but his private obsession is with undeniable facts, truths the 1950s, as well as later decades, wished to repress. Joseph’s father in prewar Austria forecast the Nazis; Joseph in post-war Ohio forecasts their successors. Readers can choose to skip these poison-pill passages. If they do, though, will they recognize the cost to their own humanity? Will they feel shame at preserving their ignorance, their "purity"? Maybe Middle C displays more aggression than I originally thought.
Lest Gass’s duplicity as a novelist seem to bleed out into this review, I want to disclose that I was the person who interviewed him for the Paris Review and who tried to moderate the discussion where Gardner attacked Gass. As far as I know, Gass has done me no favors. In fact I resent the man, for his exemplary work as a critic has made writing reviews more difficult for me, and his cadences infiltrate my own if I read too much of him. I admired Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, the novellas in Cartesian Sonata, and the stories in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. I enjoyed Gass’s experiment with visuals in Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. But Middle C I love for the pleasures it gives and the horrors it inflicts, its flying-fingers alternation of the high notes to the right of Middle C and the low notes to the left on the piano keyboard. I rank the novel first among Gass’s six books of fiction.
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