Friday, December 8, 2017

William H. Gass: the Significance of Form and The Beauty of Language

I was sorry to hear of the death of William H. Gass this week. He has been America's most important philosophical novelist, not in the discursive sense by which we identify other novelists with a freight of ideology to illustrate, but rather as a philosopher of language who is also a powerful fiction-maker with the courage of his convictions.
In his fourth collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996), Gass remains one of the last unashamed advocates for the great Greek ideal of form, exploring with the precision usually reserved for poetry, the relationship between language and mind and the tension between nature and culture.  His every sentence carefully carved, Gass is the best example of his own belief that there is music in prose and that language must be carefully crafted so that it can be heard.  Throughout the book, Gass returns untiringly to his central conviction--that the artist's fundamental loyalty is to form, not ideology or content.  "Every other diddly desire can find expression; every crackpot idea or local obsession, every bias and graciousness and mark of malice, may have an hour," says Gass, "but it must never be allowed to carry the day." 
Gass has been singing this song since his first collection of essays, Fiction and the Figures of Life (1970), in which he established his primary premise about fiction: "that stories and the places and people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth and metal tubes."  His formalist conviction that a novel or short story is ideally a self-contained meaning system is his most controversial principle, one that he explores with equal fervor in his other two collections of essays, The World Within the Word (1978) and Habitations of the Word (1985).
Gass's first novel, Omensetter's Luck (1966), was met with almost overwhelming critical success.  Reviewers praised its lyrical beauty and its intellectual depth, calling it an important contribution to the literature of its time, even the most important work of fiction by an American writer of its generation.  The plot of the novel is simple, for Gass has never been interested in mere plot.  It deals with an old man who tries to tell about Omensetter, a craftsman who settled in a Ohio town in the late nineteenth century.  However, this voice is less important than the voice of the Reverend Jethro Furber, Omensetter's antagonist.  A parody of folk legend, the novel is about how to represent the world in words, the theme of all of Gass's fiction.  A verbal duel between the two main characters, it explores basic philosophic conflicts between mind and body, human and object, reason and feeling. 
Two years later, Gass published his second work of fiction, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, containing a novella, The Pedersen Kid, a hallucinatory detective story and quest romance about coming of age in the midst of madness and death, and four short stories.  Gass has said that the best of these pieces is "Order of Insects," a story about a woman who limits her vision so obsessively that she transforms insects into metaphoric, mythic, creatures.  Her fascination with the insects centers on their order and wholeness in death, for, unlike humans, their skeletons are on the outside; thus they retain their form.  Never seeming to decay, they are perfect geometric shapes of pure order.
The best-known story in the collection is the title story, a lyrical meditation of thirty-two sections, that, in between its Yeatsean beginning--"I have sailed the seas and B...a fastened to a field in Indiana"--and its transcendent conclusion of "Joy to the World" explores the narrator's efforts to pull himself together poetically after a failed affair that makes him feel he has "love left over" that he would like to lose.  The story has become a classic anthology piece, a representative of experimental short fiction of the 1960s, often placed alongside the stories of Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Robert Coover to illustrate the self-reflexivity of post-modernism.
Gass's most thoroughly experimental, self-reflexive fiction, however, is his novella Willie Master's Lonesome Wife (1968), a work that seeks to create the illusion that the book the reader holds in his hands is indeed the lonesome wife herself and that the reading process is a sexual encounter--a metaphor Gass calls our attention to by using different paper textures, photographs, and a variety of typographical devices to suggest that words are sensuous objects that must be encountered concretely and not merely transparent lens through which we perceive "reality."
The Tunnel, Gass's master work, on which he labored for twenty-five years, creates the voice of William Frederick Kohler, a history professor, who while trying to write a simple, self-congratulatory preface to his own magnum opus, Guilt and Innocence in Hitler's Germany, becomes blocked and writes about his own life instead.  Filled with bitterness, hatred, lies, self-pity, and self-indulgence, Kohler resents his hard-fisted father and his self-pitying mother, loathes his fat, slothful wife, and has nothing but contempt for his nondescript adolescent sons, his pedantic colleagues, and his superficial lovers.  However, in spite of such an abhorrent personality, because the voice of Kohler is expressed in Gass's highly polished prose, wonderfully sustained for over six hundred pages, the novel is not a self-indulgent diatribe, but a complex philosophic exploration of the relationship between historical fascism and domestic solipsism.
William H. Gass has been the most articulate and forceful contemporary proponent of the importance of aesthetic beauty and artistic structure, even as critics and writers around him have caved in to reading literature as a carrier of social message.