Saturday, June 08, 2013

What We're Reading: New Fiction

Middle C, by William Gass

At age 88, William Gass is one of the most celebrated figures of American letters, the author of an impressive body of criticism, essays, and several major works of fiction. The last novel he published previous to this one was the acclaimed Tunnel, in 1995.

The protagonist of Middle C is Joseph Skizzen, a music professor at an obscure college in a small town in Ohio in the latter half of the 20th Century. Joey was born in Ganz, Austria, just before World War II. His father, Rudi Skizzen, during those years just prior to the Anschluss, is fearful of what he senses to be the gathering clouds of an impending evil, and attempts  to disassociate himself from the country of his birth. He pretends to be Jewish, creating an identity for himself as Yankel Fixel, so that he will be able to emigrate to London with his young family.

In London, Joey and his family experience the horrors of the Blitz. Once there, Yankel constructs yet another new identity, becoming Raymond Scofield. One day, Ray wins a large amount of money from gambling, and suddenly disappears in what appears to be an abandonment of his young family. He is never heard from again. His wife Miriam and her two young children emigrate again, from England to America, and wind up in a small town in Ohio. This is the relatively brief set-up of the story, and the remainder of the story takes place in that town and a nearby backwater, where we are presented with a kind of bildungsroman; one critic has called the novel a “symphonic anti-adventure,” which may be a better desrcription. The novel alternates between scenes of the younger Joey’s schooling and early work life and the present day, in which he is a music professor living and working in the small town where he grew up. The sense of historical time in the novel is somewhat inexact, and the connections between the younger and older Joey are sometimes a little difficult to trace. He lives with his aging mother, who maintains a fabulous garden surrounding their venerable old Victorian house.  In the attic of the rambling house, Skizzen maintains his secret creation, the Inhumanity Museum, a collection of clippings from newspapers and magazines he has obsessively assembled over the years--stories that demonstrate the reprehensible character of mankind. We learn in the course of the story that Joseph has forged his academic credentials and is in fact a fake, having created a public identity for himself that fronts for a secret and inchoate self. 
This is not a novel for everyone, and yet it is hard to say whether everyone shouldn’t give it a try.  Whatever your reading tastes, you should have the experience of reading Gass’s extraordinary prose. You will not have read anything quite like this in English prose. It is not that the allusions are arcane, or that we might miss some of them, but rather that the writing has a feeling of condensation, that words have been boiled down to a weight and density and aphoristic resonance we might not have imagined possible. The way language is employed is masterful and surprising; the imagery is fresh and memorable, and sometimes just plain astonishing. It is something to be savored here in its own right, but if a novel is in part at least about the business of getting on with the story, it may seem at times like a bog, or at least a digression, however pleasant. If you are a conscientious reader (and aren’t most of us?) giving such finely wrought prose its due slows things down.
The detail Gass employs when describing classical music and gardening is a joy rather than an extravagance. These extended expositions of recondite knowledge and lore are fashioned into remarkable variations on the novel’s major themes. The humor is also wonderful. The young Joey Skizzen’s encounters with the crazed spinster librarians of a small-town library are hilarious, and the absurd encounters of “Professor” Skizzen with the faculty of his college, especially the scene depicting his initial job interview, are just perfect. Gass creates some wonderful characters in this book: the librarians, a rusting and  cantankerous Rambler, and in particular Skizzen’s Austrian mother. The dialogues between mother and son are a joy to read.

The development of Middle C may be problematic for readers of the conventional novel. When a novelist starts with the proposition that man is irredeemably vile or that the world is presided over by a malevolent God, everything that follows is inevitably a variation on a theme, tautological, a series of illustrative and picaresque restatements. There can be none of the arc of story development that we seem to expect as characteristic. We get something more akin to Gulliver’s Travels or Candide. And yet Gass seems to walk a fine line between the scathing mode of satire and the more forgiving  one of humor. The question that Middle C explores is how a person is to live in the world, what should be the relationship of a person with the world as it is found. That’s a question more for a philosopher than a novelist. But it would be wrong to conclude that Middle C does not have movement and development, that we are simply exploring variations. The unfolding exposition here is not that of a story line but of Joseph Skizzen's particular answer to that question, the accommodations and limitations of the choices he has made about how to live his life. For all the vileness of man and the horrors he can perpetrate, crimes the older Skizzen documents, Joseph Skizzen’s adult life is one relatively isolated from them. His (what seem to him necessary) small frauds are not on a par with the drear chronicles he clips, and he himself has not been in his average and carefully circumscribed life a victim of outrages of this caliber. He has created for himself a middle-grade life sheltered from participation in committing great evil or suffering from it. Attempting to live a life in a prelapsarian state, however, seems to come at the price of authenticity and identity, a sense of self. Is this the best we can hope for, to first do no harm, and at last do no better than no harm? Middle C leaves us with this melancholy question.

Gass betrays a sense of the tragic that is absent from satire. It makes Joseph Skizzen not a figure of mere absurdity and dismissal, but rather one through whom we come to understand, in this modern age with our fixation on fame and the experiential life, the plausible choice of a life narrow and measured, one of obscurity and remove. Heads or tails there is, inescapably, a dark calculus of moral and existential costs we pay. 

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