Middle C by William H. Gass. Knopf. 416pp, $28.95.
In his essay “Finding a Form,” William H. Gass wrote of himself (and his characters): “I read to escape my condition. I wrote to remedy it—both perilous passivities—and there is scarcely a significant character in my work who is not a failure in the practice of ordinary existence, who does not lead a deflected life. Often, though not always, they live inside a language, and try to protect themselves from every danger with a phrase.” Bearing this in mind, if Gass’s latest novel, Middle C, is not his greatest fictional work—in my estimation, that prize goes either to Omensetter’s Luck or “The Pedersen Kid”—it may very well be the clearest enunciation of these works’ formative desire.
What distinguishes Middle C from his other fiction, then, is not the that Gass’ protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, spends nearly a lifetime deflecting the dangers and horrors of life itself, but the ways in which the novel’s narrative voice buffers him from the responsibilities of being a protagonist at all. In this, the tale of his life, stretching from the Blitz of London while he’s a baby to his present professional crisis at a small college in rural Ohio, Skizzen rarely acts decisively. Indeed, those few moments he does so are mired in as much duplicity as self-doubt that Skizzen himself rarely knows his motivation, and pursues their consequences with fear and dread.
Skizzen, rather, is a born deceiver, his father having faked the family’s way into being considered Jews, so that they might escape as refugees from a not-yet Nazi Austria. After successfully surviving the war in London as fake-Jews, his father senses they could in fact thrive in North America if they became fake-English. To do so requires false papers the family does not have, though, so when Joseph finally makes it to America with his mother and sister, his father having flown the coop without them, they manage to do so only by lying their way back to the truth: that they are Austrians (yes) looking for Joseph’s Jewish father (no).
Alighting on America, Joseph discovers his affection (if not overwhelming talent) for music. He espies the distinctiveness of notes that form the chords that make music, and as he moves through life, from high school to college, he comes as well to distinguish the Joey of home from the Joseph at school. They are, of course, of a piece, but they not only stand alone, Joey can exist without Joseph, they must be played differently. Born into duplicity, Joseph grows into it naturally, discovering a third role to play after college, that of Professor Skizzen
It is striking to me, though, that one of Gass’s most plotted of novels (nodding more to the short fictions of Cartesian Sonata than of In The Heart of the Heart of the Country) manages somehow to remain so steadfastly anti-narrative. This is reflective in the third-person narration to which several reviewers have already taken exception. The story of Joseph Skizzen’s life, as it were, is secondary to its telling. A crucial element of Gass’s philosophy of fiction, reiterated throughout his many essay collections, is the construction of consciousness, which we should distinguish from its simple, straightforward depiction. What I see happening in Gass’s use of third-person in Middle C is a kind of complex layering infected by the sort thematic repetitions that inform the novel as a whole.
Unlike William Kohler in Gass’s previous monster of a novel, The Tunnel, whose first-person screeds construct for his reader the consciousness of a depraved mind, the narrative voice of Middle C fashions that of one distanced from itself. In what is surely his final novel, the blue streak of consciousness that has over the years been the identifying feature of Gass’s protagonists switches to the narrative structure itself, and in doing so maintains a subtle priority over that of Skizzen (or, indeed, any of the characters that inhabit Middle C). One of my favorite sentences of the book illustrates the effects of this sort of distancing: “How is this possible, Miriam would frequently exclaim, she said, when trying to convey to her grown-up boy her husband’s preoccupations, because Ray would treat her exclamations as a question, and then misunderstand its obvious import.” A sentence like this revels in, while maximizing the potential for, its narrative voice and the bleeding-over between past and present, and highlights that if the novel is going to say anything true, it will be multi-vocal and not always too-well mannered.
Middle C perhaps best can be regarded as the reverse-side of the sort of first-person novelty that Gass deployed in The Tunnel in such a masterful, if deeply unsettling, way. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that in that novel (as well as with Jethro Furber in Omensetter’s Luck) Gass is showcasing how inherently insidious virtuosic command over consciousness can be. We, for example, are invited to marvel at Kohler’s bombastic prose. At the beginning we are like his colleagues and students, confronted by, but envious of, and even sympathetic with, his way with words. By the end, however, we become like his wife, horrified not only by Kohler himself but by who Kohler has made us become, flag-holders of the Party of the Disappointed People. The Tunnel is a performance, Gass seems to be indicating, but it is one with no movement. (By his own description, Kohler’s is after all but a “Life in a Chair.”)
Movement, however, is what Middle C does best, and is most evident in the music that (perhaps heavy-handedly) structures and guides the novel. Noteworthy, I think, is what music gets the last, decisive word. It’s not, for example, Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” despite the fact Gass would seem to flag it for us as the structuring composition for the back-and-forth temporal swaying of the beginning sections of the novel:
He rocked the chair a bit forward to the right, a bit backward to the left, and a bit forward to the right again, in a rhythm that imitated the opening of the missing sonata, although at first he was unaware of the connection, rocking only as the grieving do, back and forth, as if their grief were a crying baby: dum doh dee dum doh dee dum doh dee dum. First, the heartbeat of the quiet world, steady, indifferent, calm, and then the higher incry of consciousness—Joey’s—fluttering, hovering, over it. He sat up then, stood up then, and went to the piano where he played the three-note base just as slowly as it was given—again and again—just as it was given. The initial dum became the final note not the first note of the triplet, while in the treble another triple was performing as though without a net. . . . The first dum was in a sense never the first dum again. Rather it was an end, so the music repeated, not its departure, but its return, again and again. . . .
Young Skizzen is overwhelmed by the beauty of the piece, but he finds it ultimately too precarious for his mediocre playing: “he couldn’t continue to make it is his.” Significantly, the piece itself is stolen from the music shop in which he discovered it, taken from his (and our) experience of the world. It seemed to me that at this point the narrative swaying becomes less rhythmic and more—caustic jerks forward in time, to Skizzen alone and manically consumed by the proper wording of a sentence he feels sums up his best hope and fear for humanity (namely, its prospect of survival), and suddenly back again to Skizzen clumsily negotiating his way between the social demands of Joey—Joseph—Professor Skizzen. The thematic repetitions become gradually more formalized, the narration increasingly fractured, everything prescribed to its atonal T like the masterworks of Skizzen’s professional expertise, Schoenberg. But then quite suddenly, as Skizzen’s deceptions appear to be headed for their endgame, he has lied about his teaching credentials and senses the truth has come out, we encounter a music whose claim is neither to beauty nor novelty: Béla Barók’s “Concerto for Orchestra.” Here,
various instruments enjoy their moment in the sun; turn and turn about, they are allowed to lead; and an ideal community is, in this way, imagined; one in which the individual is free, has its own unique voice, yet chooses to act in the best interests of all others.
As Skizzen says in his climactic lecture, every note making claims to purity, whether it be thought natural or new, is in a sense man-made—shall we say, narrated?—a construction of compositional oppositions: “These little wails of music, or bits of ragged scrape, are seeking a companion, a connection, even if only momentary, but always so they may give more sense to their sounds and make more of meaning’s music.” The key to finding meaning or authenticity in a world whose only misanthropic hope is to be damned to remaining doomed is not “in the little things” of life: one’s family, one’s friends, acts of compassion, etc. Rather, and this is what I find so gratifying about Gass in general, and what I appreciate in Middle C, it’s found in the cacophony of all these and their opposite—of discovering, as Skizzen does, that he is, in fact, a part of the world he wants nothing to do with. By the end, the divide has shrunk a little. The narrated Skizzen has momentarily caught up to the narration, and he (and the reader) senses that it will continue without him.
Brad Johnson is an independent scholar and writer living in Oakland, California. He blogs at Departure Delayed and An und für sich, and is currently writing his first novel.
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