In this paean to the pleasures of language, Gass equates his text with the body of Babs Masters, the lonesome wife of the title, to advance the conceit that a parallel should exist between a woman and her lover and a book and its reader. Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice an illicit new lover: a man named Gelvin in one sense, but more importantly, the reader of this "essay-novella" which, in the years since its first appearance in 1968 as a supplement to TriQuarterly, has attained the status of a postmodernist classic.
Like Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll before him, Gass uses a variety of visual devices: photographs, comic-strip balloons, different typefaces, parallel story lines (sometimes three or four to the page), even coffee stains. As Larry McCaffery has pointed out, "the lonesome lady of the book's title, who is gradually revealed to be lady language herself, creates an elaborate series of devices which she hopes will draw attention to her slighted charms [and] force the reader to confront what she literally is: a physically exciting literary text."
"What we have, after finishing the book, is a retrospective sense of having witnessedassisted ata ventriloquial showpiece of literary style in which Gass, by juxtaposing the humdrum with the histrionic, has worked compassion into a just rhetoric that runs the gamut of human commotion from spit to spirit. . . . For Gass here raises that power to its highest and, in so doing sets an alternative standard for American narrative prose." (Paul West, Washington Post Book World)
"Mr. Gass's experiment in prose fiction offers innovations in form, imagination in concept, and complete originality in execution. . . . Plain fun aside, the book is lyrical and above all poignant, ending in impeccable symbolic fashion with the picture of an umbilicus stained by the ring of a coffee cup." (Virginia Quarterly Review Winter 72)
"As the women's movement began to shape itself, Gass responded, and helped to shape its literature, with plaints from a lonesome wife. Willie Masters' wife has no name and is 'owned,' but she does not fit readily into any of Betty Friedan's categories. Nevertheless, she is part of that 'feminine mystique,' a woman whose passivity and desire to please veil a multileveled sensitivity. . . . This conception of the wifea voice, unnamed, unpaged, unidentifieDis Gass's triumph in the novella." (Frederick R. Karl, American Fictions 1940-1980)
"Shattering conventional expectations about how we read or how a work of fiction should be organized, Willie Masters is an especially clear and ambitious representation of a metafictional workand a virtual casebook of literary experimentalism as well." (Larry McCaffery, The Metafictional Muse 1982)
"William Gass has found new ways of expressing his sense of the human condition. . . . [Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife] make[s] its contribution by displaying new resources of language. . . . [Gass] is forging a new style to serve a new purpose." (Granville Hicks, Saturday Review 9-21-68)