In his 2002 New Yorker essay, “Mr. Difficult,” Jonathan Franzen identified William Gass as a prominent member of a group including the likes of William Gaddis, Robert Coover, and John Barth that Franzen had once, but no longer, aspired to join. This “canon of intellectual, socially edgy, white-male American fiction writers ... shared the postmodern suspicion of realism” and embraced aesthetic difficulty and reader alienation as ends in themselves. Franzen’s essay, an apparent apologia for having expressed mixed feelings about Oprah Winfrey anointing his breakthrough novel, The Corrections (2001), as a middlebrow best seller, throws Gass and most of the rest of the Postmodern Difficulty gang under the bus in his embrace of what he calls the “Contract” model of fiction that agrees to please the reader.
So you would not be alone if you had mentally filed away William Gass—along with that other William, Gaddis, possibly confusing the two—under a rubric of something like “Forbidding Postmodern Fiction, heyday circa 1970.” Gass is the William who taught philosophy for years at Washington University and published Omensetter’s Luck (1966), the short-story collection In The Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968), and The Tunnel (1995)—as well as many distinguished collections of essays and criticism. When a writer best known for his experimental 1960s fiction publishes his third (!) novel in 2012 at age 88, one might expect it to be an honorable footnote to his previous work, at best, and an indigestible mush of dated anti-realism, at worst. In fact, more than a few readers greeted Gass’s mid-1990s second novel in something like such terms; although some hailed The Tunnel as a masterpiece, others viewed it as, in James Wolcott’s words, a “systematically repellent” and “beyond bitter” “effort to disgorge The Last Modernist Masterpiece—to create a super-chunky word-mass in which the sum total of one man’s loquacious consciousness expands like the cosmos (and sums up the century).”
One man’s loquacious consciousness does in fact, caveat lector, expand like the cosmos in Middle C. And very much like Gass’s previous novel, Middle C features a misanthropic Midwestern professor who is creepily obsessed with the 20th century’s legacies of atrocity. The Tunnel burrowed excruciatingly into the ugly consciousness of William Frederick Kohler, a historian trying to complete a manuscript entitled Guilt and Innocence in Hitler’s Germany, who reveals himself to be a Nazi sympathizer who also loathes his own wife and children. If that premise does not appeal, you may not rejoice to find at the center of the new Middle C one Professor Joseph Skizzen, a fraudulent musicologist at a mediocre Ohio college whose hobby is amassing a secret collection of scrapbook clippings he has dubbed “the Inhumanity Museum,” a collage of “atrocity pictures” of “the weeping baby of Nanking,” “countless corpses from African famines,” and so on, that demonstrate the brutality, “stupidity,” and sadism of the human race.
I did tire of Skizzen’s tediously horrific scrapbooks. But Middle C is, despite them, not only a novel of amazing invention and brilliance at the level of the sentence, but also one that leavens its horrors with wit and humor. It conjures the beauties of language, gardens, and especially music, and even offers a welcome (if judicious) helping of some of the fictional achievements one might have thought ruled out by Gass’s erstwhile strictly anti-realist methods: character development and the driving suspense of plot.
Gass used to define characters by an austerely postmodern rule of thumb, as simply “locales of linguistic energy … which the words in a book flow toward and come out of.” Joseph Skizzen emerges in these pages, however, as much more than a locale: he is a sad, funny, pathetic, and very human protagonist. One reviewer, Michael Gorra, has asserted that Skizzen “proves as befuddled an academic wanderer as anyone this country has seen since Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin.” As I admiringly read Gass’s novel, another, perhaps more unlikely, comparison occurred to me. Gass’s awkward, chaste, physically bulky, middle-age autodidact intellectual, who spends most of his adult life living with his mother, and whose story is entwined with that of an eccentric woman met on a Greyhound bus, reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly, the hero of John Kennedy Toole’s sole novel, A Confederacy of Dunces (1980). Middle C did not make me laugh as often as Toole’s hilarious novel did (maybe it was all the atrocity pictures), but Skizzen is a worthy comrade for Toole’s modern Quixote. Both are out of place in a crass contemporary United States showing little patience for cranky, sententious would-be prophets who shack up with their moms.
The threat of being “denounced” hovers over the narrative: it
can mean being exposed as not the person one claims to be, and/or discovering that
one is the very person one had repudiated.
It is true that Gass will never allow his reader to forget that a fictional character is an effect of printed or written ones. He crucially defines his protagonist as at once creator and creation of language: metaphors, sentences, lectures, letters. Joseph’s deadbeat father, Rudi Skizzen, earned a living in Austria “in the printer’s trade” and “a lot of the time he smelled of ink”; malicious gossip is described as “spreading like a puddle of printer’s ink”; and Joseph grows up to be a man for whom the daily labor of fine-tuning a particular verbal sentence, one which repeats in its many iterations throughout the novel, “was an exercise he did routinely the way others jogged.” If in the world’s eyes “Joseph would remain undefined—a vague reference,” this is partly an effect of the ambiguities, fictions, and flat-out lies associated with his birth and upbringing. Joseph’s father, who was “born for the stage” and “filled roles like a baker,” responds improbably to the Nazi takeover of Austria by “pinning a yarmulke to his hair with a bent wire” and transforming the Austrian Skizzens into the Jewish “Fixels”; after emigrating to London, Rudi re-Aryanizes and becomes a janitor at an offtrack betting parlor named Ray Scofield before disappearing from his family’s life. Joseph is made aware from birth that identity is an invention: his first official name is the fraudulently Jewish one “Yussel Fixel,” and he continually fears the exposure of the “slightly squinked” documents he has fabricated, aided by a witchy librarian with a flair for counterfeiting. The threat of being “denounced” hovers over the narrative: it can mean being exposed as not the person one claims to be, and/or discovering that one is the very person one had repudiated.
So Gass’s hero is born floating in a soup of fiction, verbal artifice, and fraud. Much of Joseph’s education derives from his time employed in a shabby small-town public library in Ohio, in the musty basement stacks of which he encounters and learns about Ruskin, Thomas Hardy, Schoenberg, Webern, Dorothy Richardson. Despite having dropped out of college well short of a BA, Joseph fakes his way into a position as a professor of music, choosing Schoenberg as an area of scholarly expertise because it seems likely to intimidate potential snoops. The composer also has biographical resonance for Joseph, “inasmuch as Schoenberg was a chameleon who had been born a Jew yet brought up a Catholic” in Vienna. Gass has commented in an interview that the germ for the novel came from his first experience teaching, at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
[T]here arrived on the campus one day an Englishman who taught history. The officials had hired him. He was charming, and had huge audiences for his classes. He’d been there about two or three months when the authorities came around and said, “This guy is a fake, a bigamist, and his name is Peters, and he’s wanted by the English and Canadian police.” And everybody was shocked, because everybody had made him over as such a brilliant man and so forth. That was all that actually happened, but I thought, Well, I want to talk about—or deal with—somebody who’s a counterfeit of that sort … As a fraud, he’s better than most genuine people.
Middle C draws from the well of some of the most long-standing preoccupations and questions of the genre of the novel: is “character” simply a particularly convincing fiction, and is fiction more or less a well-elaborated lie? If fiction is “feigning, counterfeiting; deceit, dissimulation, pretence” (as the OED has it), do any norms or limits govern its artful dissimulations? Joseph’s parents embody opposing philosophies of identity. His father, Rudi/Yankel/Ray, lives out the belief that anyone with sufficient invention, guile, and wit should be free to forge a self: to his skeptical family members, he “would try to explain that people could choose to be otherwise than the selves that neighbors and the nation had shaped for them.” Joseph’s mother, born Nita Rouse and then in turn Nita Skizzen, Miriam Fixel, and Miriam Skizzen, instead sadly wishes she was “the Nita that I was,” and experiences her transformations as a betrayal of herself and of her marriage: “I have been a girl born Rouse, a wife who was Skizzen, then a widow called Fixel … I never married Herr Fixel, who was he? Had I said vows to him? … no, I had a stranger in my arms, shaming me in front of my husband.”
Their son, Joseph, for his part, thrives well enough as “Herr Fraudulent Prof” in the small pond of Whittlebauer College, where none of his colleagues, let alone students, know enough to pry deeply into his credentials. (And his lectures on the Second Vienna School, as represented by Gass, are, in any case, dazzlingly erudite: he picked up quite a bit in that public library basement.) His determination that “the best security for [a] secret self was the creation of a faux one, a substitute, a peephole pay-for-view person” means, however, that he must always live in anxiety about a slipup. Much of the suspense of the novel derives from wondering what will be revealed at a college disciplinary hearing to which he has been summoned by the Dean; we learn about the pending meeting early in the novel, but do not discover Joseph’s fate until the final pages. Throughout Middle C, language, documents, and letters prove endlessly malleable and prone to counterfeiting; every written “character” can be forged, rubbed out, revised to become a “character of concealment”; “the deceiver deceives the deceiver before he deceives the deceived.”
Gass’s latest leaves no doubt that human history is a pretty vile scrapbook of selfishness and cruelty. But in the novel’s music and song, we can make out a different strain.
For all its mutability, however, language does produce identity effects that can “fix” legal or state subjects: in order to drive a car, Joseph requires a license, for which he must produce a birth certificate, which will blow his cover. And although Joseph turns to musicology as the prop for his fraudulent career, music in Middle C offers an alternative to the slippery effects of language. (Gass has long commented on his ambition to create a prose with the nonrepresentational effects and affects of music.) In old LPs at a classical music store, in a TV broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera, in books on modern classical music donated to the library, in a dog-eared collection of “silly” folk songs such as “Polly-Wolly-Doodle” entitled Songs That Never Grow Old, the young Joseph discovers a pure joy and release. Listening to opera, Joseph finds a realm of transcendent beauty and an escape from self: “Joey heard everything happen as it had been foretold. The tenor’s voice soared despite its despair, and Joey felt his own throat ache. It was a moment in which sorrow became sublime and his own misfortunes were, momentarily, on someone else’s mind.”
Browsing through the folk songbook, Joseph discovers that “even the most ordinary tunes could enliven exhausted sentiments and make acceptable some of the cruelest and coarsest of human attitudes. Things too silly to say can always be safely sung, he said.” Middle C leaves no doubt that human history is a pretty vile scrapbook of selfishness and cruelty. But in the novel’s music and song, we can make out a different strain: “Caruso’s sound—sounds—hollow, odd, remote—that created a past from which ghosts could not only speak to admonish and astound, they could sing again almost as they once sang, sang as singing would never be heard sung again, songs and a singing from somewhere outside the earth.”