In the Heart of the Heart of the Country by William H. Gass. $15.95, 272 pp. NYRB Classics.
Once, at a writers symposium, William Howard Gass remarked that to substitute the page for the world is a form of revenge for the recognition that “you are, in terms of the so-called world, an impotent nobody.” There is inarguably no contemporary writer of American stock in whose work one might locate a more ambitious war of attrition between innovation and impotence, between Representation and the Irreducible. In Gass’ first collection, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, we see the nigh-ripened fruits of what he “would later find was an iron law of composition . . . the exasperatingly slow search for the words I had already written for the words which were to come, and the necessity for continuous revision.” Sentences like “His moist mouth gaped” from “Icicles” or “I have met with some mischance, wings withering, as Plato says obscurely, and across the breadth of Ohio, like heaven on a table, I’ve fallen as far as the poet, to the sixth sort of body, this house in B, in Indiana, with its blue and gray bewitching windows, holy magical insides,” from the collection’s titular story, betray a hyper-sensitivity and delicacy, so much so that we could easily imagine the meticulous particularity with which he toiled over its language and rhythm, and the anguish over the mere thought of its subsequent effects on a reader’s consciousness.
In his essay “The Aesthetic Structure of a Sentence,” Gass outlines the function of the Sentence as the singular unit of literary text, championing Henry James as exemplar: “Henry James, who is fundamentally an epistemological novelist, is always concerned with who said what, why, and with what authority. . . . These spaces and the relations established within them are nothing like the physical relations of things and properties in the world of reference.” Instead, a writer articulates a relations-of-things rooted in his or her imagination. We must not forget that Gass, while foremost a novelist and literary critic, is also a trained philosopher, having undertaken a Ph.D. at Cornell while one Ludwig Wittgenstein taught there. In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction,” Gass again asserts that the sentence serves as the building block of fiction. He makes reference to the late Wittgenstein’s early philosophy: “Wittgenstein believed for a time that a proposition, in the disposition of its names, pictured a possibly equivalent arrangement of objects. This is a pleasant fancy, and plainly must be true . . . of fictions’ and that each sentence ought to “contrive (through order, meaning, sound, and rhythm) a moving unity of fact and feeling.” He locates such a unity in James’ epistemological certainty, or in the embrace of the inevitable entropy in Beckett’s auto-destructive fictions, whose characters are often “waiting for text to terminate.”
One side section of street is blocked off with sawhorses. Hard, thin, bitter men in blue jeans, cowboy boots and hats, untrack a dinky carnival. The merchants are promoting themselves. There will be free rides, raucous music, parades and coneys, pop, popcorn, candy, cones, awards and drawings, with all you can endure of pinch, push, bawl, shove, shout scream shriek, and bellow. . . . The whirlabouts whirl about . . .
. . . and so on and so on. The exhaustive scene from “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” employs a characteristically Gassian device: the list. And this list is just part and parcel of a greater ambition in the story, the physical and spiritual documentation of the town of B, Indiana, and, in the collection overall, the cold complacency of the Midwest in its suffering. The story is framed like documentation, segmented into sections: “PEOPLE,” “WEATHER,” “PLACE,” “MY HOUSE, THIS PLACE AND BODY,” etc. There is in fact an endeavor to completeness here, to a totalizing index of the spiritual maladies of this Midwestern town. After such diagnoses the most effective revenge against the so-called world might in fact be a linguistic coup, something with which to overturn and supplant it.
But are his efforts truly effective in this sense? Is this strategy of creating a nuanced, “real” alternative in the form of fictions really an apt revenge? What really can ravage the so-called world is not a of swapping out of the facts that comprise the material world for the “facts” of fictive happenings, but rather a breakdown of the logic of conventional communication at the hands of the singular literary experience, something that redefines itself with every reading. Blanchot understood that literature is a rejection of the banal speech of the everyday, the very foundation of naïve reality and the increasingly homogeneous experience of it, and each instance of reading or writing is but a link in the infinite chain of negation, literary language always redefining or outright annihilating its referents. Gass situates himself between the inevitability of the void created by this sort of writing and what just might fleetingly fill it. He is confronted with the auto-destructive capacity of the literary object at the ontological level, but is sustained by the “folly of a hope . . . that next time the skill will be there, and the miracle will ensue,” and that the fundamental melancholy of writing will vanish once a completeness of form at the epistemological level has been achieved.
Gass is fully aware of his position when he says that “these stories emerged from my blank insides to die in another darkness.” His texts are punctuated by their exposition of “VITAL DATA,” rife with lists and obsessive categorization, the kind one sees in the very form of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” or the way Pearson and Fender relay numbers, addresses, encyclopedic knowledge of the daily news in “Icicles,” or how that story’s narrator picks apart a word and lays out its betrayal:
Prospects: a pickly word, a sour betrayer. It was supposed to fill your thoughts with gold, or with clear air and great and lovely distances. Well, the metal came quickly enough to mind, but beards followed shortly, dirt and the deceptions of the desert, biscuits like powdered pumice, tin spoons, stinking mules, clattering cups, stinking water, deceiving air.
Even the most aesthetically pleasing words or phrases are a betrayal: after filling one’s mind with gold they are malleable enough to fill the same imagination with the reek of humanity. With his ambition to triumph aesthetically pleasing speech over the stagnation of the everyday, Gass just might overcome the cruel and overbearing world that churned out such a romantically embittered writer, but he manages to do so only in the utter failure of his language to stabilize.
Gass does treat his highly stylized prose and the language, logics, and lands he constructs with it as if they were data, information. He readily admits that as he “started to distribute data gingerly across my manuscript, a steady dissolution of the real began . . . all that can . . . enter consciousness . . . enters like the member of an orchestra, armed with an instrument.” The form of his fictions are indicative of a kind of raw data, a stacking of evidence that might lead to some kind of “natural” disinterested conclusion about the world in which we find ourselves. But the language we experience is more like music than a vessel for data, something non-denotative. Unlike how we might feel about his peers Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon, we admire Gass’ work not because he has a phenomenal hold of the incredible economies of information at play within his work (though such economies are not entirely absent). Gass’ success is in his lyricism, which only emerges through tenacious precision in the face of its own futility. Like James, he is one of the finest stylists of his day, but he will never be the Henry James he’s constructed in his criticism, the master of certainty.
“What is it that offends me? I am on my stump, I’ve built a platform there and the wires prevent my going out. The cut trees, the black wires, all the beyond birds therefore anger me. When I’ve wormed through a fence to reach a meadow, do I ever feel the same about the field?”
Language is conceived of as a means of understanding, of defining and re-defining the experience of things. But that originary experience can never be captured by the musicality of his prose. This is the crux of Gass’ writing: the melancholy of communicative impotence, and the Sisyphian efforts to overcome it. There could only be an exquisite passion to the prose Gass so painstakingly grinds out over years, and his prose is no doubt meticulously crafted, an achievement of thoughtfulness. But despite the heat of the friction of thought violently turned against itself, there is always “a frost of epistemological doubt” inherent to its aesthetic disposition, which is fundamentally non-denotative, non-communicative, and will always betray the presupposed logic of the story-world.
This persistence of language in spite of its logic, in spite of itself, is not unique to Gass by any measure. In his essay on E. M. Cioran, “The Evil Demiurge,” Gass takes the aphorist to task for espousing a philosophy he considers nothing more than crude pessimism. For Gass, Cioran’s writings are “extraordinarily careless pieces of reasoning, travel[ing] from fallacy to fallacy with sovereign unconcern, deal[ing] almost wholly with borrowings.” But in his own fiction, Gass too falls prey to the same kind of indulgence in callousness and misanthropy: “You are a skull already—memento mori—the foreskin retracts from your teeth. Will your plastic gums last longer than your bones, and color their grinning? And is your twot still hazel-hairy, or are you bald as a ditch? . . . bitch . . . . . . bitch . . . . . . . . . bitch. I wanted to be famous, but you bring me age—my emptiness.” Gass’ rage against the world is made painfully obvious in his attempts to degrade it and its inhabitants. Like Cioran, his most venomous moments seem uncharacteristic and almost certainly gauche when measured against the care with which he’s chosen their language and pieced together its form. One can’t help but wonder to what degree they are self-conscious or even tongue-in-cheek, or if they’re simply unsophisticated spasms of dissonance, lapses into brute rage, stewing behind the veneer of otherwise masterful prose.
Gass does note that in spite of Cioran’s philosophical shortcomings, his poeticism manages to rise above, and this is why Cioran endures: “as Susan Sontag points out . . . there is nothing fresh about Cioran’s thought . . . except its formal fury. His book has all the beauty of pressed leaves, petals shut from their odors; yet what is retained has its own emotion, and here it is powerful and sustained.” It’s his style, the immediacy of his aphorisms and his language, not necessarily the logic behind them, that’s immortalized his work. Similarly Gass’ aesthetic trumps the adolescent angst that too often permeates his work and threatens to compromise its integrity. The capital-A in his Anger is like a phallic monument reaching upward, threatening to pierce the membrane between heaven and earth and waggle around in the Ether. Fortunately what affords Gass an audience with the Void is not such Anger. No, Gass’ success is in a much quieter, more implicit rage, in the very aesthetic function of his work.
In her essay on Cioran, Sontag notes that philosophy and literature, insofar as they ply the vacuities of thought, “become tortured thinking. Thinking that devours itself—and continues intact and even flourishes, in spite of these repeated acts of self-cannibalism.” Gass’ quieter rage lies within his text’s capacity to devour and undermine itself in a “passion-play of thought.” The narrator in “Mrs. Mean” is stuck filling in “the gaps between facts with more facts, whereas only fancies are there.” The unknown Mrs. Mean is an fixation for the story’s narrator, and he’s constructed a figure out of her with the “raw data” he’s accumulated as a voyeur:
“The Means are Calvinists, I’m certain. They may be unsure of heaven but hell is real. They must feel its warmth at their feet and the land tremble. Their meanness must proceed from that great sense of guilt which so readily becomes a sense for the sin of others, and poisons everything. There is no pleasure. There is only the biological property of the penis.”
There is an interpretive burlesque here, both in the experience of this book and in the narrator’s obsession with his neighbors, of whom he actually knows very little (not even their names; the surname “Mean” is essentially a placeholder). In each story of the collection we are given explicit and incredibly thoughtful detail, yet in spite of this exquisite facet and wonderfully crafted experience of it, the truths it might suggest are ultimately concealed: Who is Mrs. Mean? Why is a child dead in the snow? What is the simple principle of a common house beetle? The narrator in “Mrs. Mean” eventually sneaks into the Mean residence, yet something so unexceptional as a home feels radically other:
Not since I was very young have I felt the foreignness of places used by others. I had forgotten that sensation and its power—electric to the nerve ends. The oiled ash, the cool air, the violet light, the wracked and splintered wood, the letters of the prophecy—they all urge me strangely.
Knowledge and unfamiliarity converge here in what’s otherwise a monument to bland familiarity, the American home; the spell of burlesque, of arousal and imagination, is broken once the threshold from known into unknown is finally crossed and the latter is made familiar. This is not unlike the otherness of assigning language to an experience or that very experience itself (writing, reading). Again, this is the point at which Gass situates himself, between the endeavor to know and define and the implicit irony of a linguistic art being fundamentally non-denotative, non-communicative. This is how Gass can turn something as clichéd and oversaturated in postwar American fiction as the Home in the Small Town into something new and almost unsettling.
The certainties he toils to establish, through lists, through overwrought descriptive passages, through meticulous patterns of information packed into flowing, rhythmic sentences, fall flat almost immediately. One dares to wonder if the James Gass figured in his essays might just be that: a figuring, wishful thinking, the real James a writer victim to the ambiguities of his language like any other. While Gass’ writing is steeped in its own sense of failure, especially its own epistemological failure, this is indeed what makes his text so rich. Where the writing succeeds is in the failure of the writer, the reluctant and latent philosopher, who bleeds himself for a unity of fact and proposition, fact and feeling. Gass’ Anger is in fact misplaced in that its place at the fore at times seems like a callous interruption of the work of a much quieter revenge, one against conventional language and its logic. Certainly this vengeance is more powerful. In In the Heart of the Heart of the Country one sees the emergence of a writer on the American scene in his nascent state, and in the same way as Omensetter’s Luck (though the play of these concerns is much more amplified, sophisticated) and Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, one finds a relative modesty of form and formulation in the early work of a writer otherwise known for their grandiosity and aesthetics of pure contempt.
Tyler Curtis is a writer and U.S. Editor for The White Review. He lives and works in New York.
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