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Saturday
Aug162014

Book Review: Middle C by William Gass

The Sound of Music

Middle C by William Gass

Reviewed by Casey Dorman

 

I first cursed my misfortune to  have not discovered William Gass until I was in my seventies and he already in his nineties.  But then I realized that the real tragedy would have been for me to happen upon him when I was in my nineties and he in his seventies. He remains prolific into his nineties, although many of these latter-year publications were written when he was younger. Middle C, his  third  novel, was published in 2013, when he was eighty-nine years old, although it was reportedly begun in 1998 and bits and pieces of it published in various formats sprinkled across the intervening years.

Gass is a master of verbal pyrotechnics. In one instance in Middle C he goes on for more than a page on variations on the tune,  Polly Wolly Doodle. Another whole chapter is a poem. The entire book appears to revolve around variations on a single sentence. The only thing lacking in what Publisher’s Weekly called “The unprecedented work  of a master,” is a plot.

Joseph Skizzen,  born Yussel, then becoming Joey and later, Professor Skizzen, is the son of a Polish village fiddle player named Rudi Skizzen and Nita Rouse, a catholic country girl, who, in a turnabout of the traditional story,  adopted the identity of Jews in order to receive assistance fleeing their country as the Nazis approached. The family landed in England, passed themselves off as Jews until it became more advantageous for Rudi, who now went by the name of Yankel Fixel, with a wife named Miriam, to take on the identity of Raymond Scofield, a London lowlife, who eventually won big at the track and left his family for whereabouts unknown. Miriam took her two children, Yussel and Dvorah, to America and set up a household in the small town of Woodbine, Ohio where she readopted her original married name of Skizzen and renamed her two children Joseph and Deborah.

The flurry of names and identities is near-mind-boggling and for the first few chapters it is difficult to keep identities and time periods straight. This is complicated by periodic jumps to the present, where Professor Skizzen is either obsessing about a sentence he cannot stop modifying,  teaching his class on contemporary music at the local religious college, or cutting out clippings of horrific, mostly man-made, catastrophes to pin to the wall of the “Inhumanity Museum” he is constructing in his attic.

Although the pattern is for the story to shift between the present, in which Professor Joseph Skizzen teaches his class (or sometimes barely eludes discovery of his faked CV and academic record) and the past, in which the younger Joey grows up in Woodbine, attends college, obtains and then loses various jobs,  the plot is essentially a string of episodes. Every episode reveals the same truth, which is that neither Joey, Joseph, nor the people or institutions around them are what they seem.

Joey is the supreme faker, although, not quite supreme since he is probably second to his father, Rudi/Yankel/Raymond. But it’s not just Joey. Everyone and everything is a fake. The colleges don’t really teach, the music store where he works sells out-of-date records, the French teacher and the librarian are mostly interested in seducing Joey, and everyone is so immersed in his or her charade that none of them ever catches on to Joey’s shenanigans. Nothing is as it seems—which appears to be the chief message of Middle C. Or perhaps the entire novel is just an excuse for Gass  to dazzle us with his facility with language.

Gass’ verbal gymnastics are not to be underestimated. Take the sentence over which Joseph obsesses. We first hear it as “The fear that the human race  might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” It appears to be a summing up of Joseph’s estimation of the human race (and, based upon evidence from other writings and interviews, the author’s).  At an intermediate stage, the sentence becomes “Joseph Skizzen’s surmise that mankind might not survive its own profligate and murderous nature has been supplanted by the suspicion that nonetheless it will.” Its penultimate form reads, “The evidence initially pointed in the direction of human extinction, but biologists suggested that, although no one would admire what they had become, a few, the most adaptable to execrable conditions (with their claws, fangs, and double stomachs), would survive.” But music professor Skizzen is not satisfied until he can phrase the sentence in twelve words, to mirror  the twelve tone musical technique of the composer about which he is a supposed expert, Arnold Schoenberg. “First Skizzen felt mankind must perish, then he feared it might survive.”

The word games are mostly humorous and often cynical. When describing the religious  college Joey attended, the students’ “… brains were inactive yet otherwise unharmed beneath the mulch of superstition that lay thickly over them.” Madame Mieux “taught French in a loud raucous voice that went with that language as smoothly as wool with silk, though her gutturals were okay and her r’s rolled like dice.” The rector, Dr. Gunthar Luthardt had a white  face that “glowed like a malignant moon… His eyes were small and his lips were as thin as the edges of a letter slot.”

There are three poems within the novel, two rather long. The one titled, “The Faculty Meeting” is hilarious. Its first stanza reads:

 

This is the way we smirk and sigh, lurk

    and spy, favor buy

this is the way we smile and lie

to prepare for the faculty meeting.

 

The concluding two stanzas are true to the rest of the poem’s message.

 

This is how our tenure concludes, in

               pissy moods and platitudes,

            a career of complaint and attitudes

            in the course of the faculty meetings.

 

           

This is the way retirement starts, with a

chorus of jeers and a volley of farts.

They’re the true heart of academy

          sorts,

            who depart the faculty meeting.

 

So where is Gass going with all of this?

 

He’s not really going anywhere, which is what makes Middle C as much a demonstration of what can be done with sentence construction and metaphor (Gass’ two main obsessions) and sometimes even pun, as it is a fictional narrative.

I first heard of William Gass in the context of a reference to him as a proponent of post-modernism, a label he himself eschews. Given such an orientation, it was easy for me to read a postmodern theme into Rudi’s and Joey’s identity changes, their fakery, and Gass’ unearthing of the superficiality and temporariness of each of his characters’ understanding of reality. In fact  one clear interpretation of the book  is that it is simply saying that reality is what we  make it through our words (not too simply said, it must be admitted).  But this too easy interpretation of the written text  fails to see the statement that is being made about language as a highly  skilled game, which can either dazzle and befuddle, or reveal truths that no other avenue to reality is able.

Is Middle C  then a novel about language? The characters, including the protagonist, Joey/Joseph are not fleshed out in any interior sense. Many are stereotypes, especially those who teach or administer college. The librarian tries to defy being stereotyped, but fails. Both Rudi and Joey, father and son, are guilty of assuming stereotypical identities in order to “pass” in society without drawing attention to themselves. Joey’s personality, limited as it is, does not grow, except in his acquisition of evidence of man’s inhumanity. Twice he rejects advances by women for no apparent reason except his reluctance to become seriously involved in anyone else’s emotional life, or possibly even his own. Whatever his motivations,  other than to remain obscure, they are never examined.

What emerges in the narrative is variation, possibly as an experiment, possibly for its own sake. Rudi and Joey accomplish this variation by changing their personalities, Rudi with some reason behind his changes, Joey with less reason and sometimes simply because he can get away with it. The question then that Gass seems determined to answer, is, in how many ways can the same thing be described? Can the sentences used in such descriptions range from confident to hesitant, from triumphant to dejected, from serious to absurd, yet all apply to the same character and often the same situation?

Not only does Gass answer the above question through his descriptions of the musings of his protagonist, he makes the dilemma explicit through Joseph’s obsession about the correct phrasing of the sentence, the aim of which is to describe his change of heart about the fate of humanity. Can the sentence end with a preposition? Should it be phrased in the first person? The third person? As a universal concern? As a thought with no thinker? Should the author of the sentence “fear” that humanity survive or should he harbor the “suspicion” that it will? The variations could be endless and Joseph tries out a fair share of them. His final choice opts for form above substance (although Gass would probably not concur with this conclusion) and symbolism (Schoenberg’s twelve tones) to suggest perhaps deeper meanings and the inevitable similarity between music and words. It is the perfect choice for a literatus.

We should not be surprised. Gass has been accused of being in love with the sentence, a “vice” to which he readily admits. His essays “The aesthetic structure of a sentence,” and “Narrative sentences,” both reprinted in the 2011 volume, Life Sentences, dwell upon exactly this point.  Sentences,  he says, have the capacity for infinite additions, each of which changes both the meaning and the sound. In fact, in the former essay, Gass takes the sentence, “The man at the door was an encyclopedia salesman,” and subjects it to the same permutations and examination as Joseph’s problematical sentence in Middle C.

Middle C examines less than did Gass’ acknowledged masterpiece, The Tunnel, which explored the identity of a character in more depth and raised questions about the role of the historian in shaping history and underneath that, the role that composing language can play in providing understanding of oneself. Middle C does not reach these heights or depths. William Kohler, the character in The Tunnel was detestable but self-aware. Joseph Skizzen is pathetic, but to himself, unexamined. This is mostly because there is no there, there, so far as his character is concerned. Kohler hated humanity while Skizzen is repulsed by it, although from whence the repulsion stems in terms of Joseph’s own standards, is difficult to discern.

Elsewhere, Gass has said that there is a difference between a story and a work of fiction. “Fiction revels in its antagonism to story. It needs story, but often only to abuse it,” he says in his essay, “The nature of narrative and its philosophical implications,”  in his 2002 collection, Tests of Time. Only fiction, not story, is dependent upon form. Good stories, he says, make good movies. Good fiction not necessarily. Novels require stories, literature does not. Middle C  is literature, but I am not sure that it is a novel. I would give it more than a middle C, but not quite an A.

 

 

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