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“A fat, ripe read… A final statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language… rhythmic and sonic…”
—Brian Dillon, The Times Literary Supplement
“A realistic story… a religious allegory and a philosophical meditation… extraordinary.”
—David Thoreen, The Boston Globe
—Mike Fischer, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“[Middle C] offers tactile pleasure… generous… comic…”
—Michael Gorra, The New York Review
“Of all living literary figures, William Gass may count as the most daringly scathing and most assertively fecund: in language, in ideas, in intricacy of form; above all in relentless fury… From its opening notes until its coda, this unquiet bildungsroman is designed to detonate its mild, middling title… Exhilaratingly ingenious… unexpected and dizzying…”
—Cynthia Ozick, The New York Times Book Review (cover)
“Middle C takes its place in that great line of modern novels about inauthenticity… However, there is nothing sham to William Gass’s art: It’s not just dazzling, it’s the real thing.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
“Gass orchestrates his fiction with thematic elements as a composer might a symphony.”
—Dan Lopez, Timeout New York
“Entertaining and enlightening… emotionally gouging as well as amusing… I rank the novel first among Gass’s six books of fiction.”
—Tom LeClair, The Barnes and Noble Review
“A masterly work of language and imagery from one of America’s most celebrated authors.”
—Joshua Finnell, Library Journal (starred)
“A mischievous variation on the moral dilemmas raised in Gass’ The Tunnel . . . In this exuberantly learned bildungsroman—this torrent of curious facts and arch commentary, puns and allusions—internationally lauded virtuoso Gass reflects on humanity’s crimes and marvels, creating his funniest and most life-embracing book yet.”
“Epic . . . crazily rich with thought . . . remarkably detailed . . . Gass beautifully coaxes the unheard music from a seemingly muted life . . . the unprecedented work of a master.”
—Publishers Weekly (boxed)
“Engaging, melancholy . . . Gass remains a master of apt metaphors, graceful sentences and a flinty, unforgiving brand of humor; it may be the most entertaining novel you’ll read that half wishes humanity was wiped off the map. . . . Gass, now 88, clearly has endings on his mind, which he addresses with fearsome brio and wit.”
After seven books of philosophical and literary essays that have established William Gass as America's most acute and stylish critic, he has published at age eighty-eight a "first" novel. Not literally his first novel. That is Omensetter's Luck, released in 1966. But the kind of novel with which young writers often begin: an exuberant shape-shifting Bildungsroman and a near Künstlerroman, as its protagonist becomes a music teacher rather than an artist. For those unacquainted with Gass's challenging fictions, Middle C should be the first one to try. Given the high-modernist enthusiasms of his essays, it's unexpectedly almost middlebrow in its attention to callow youth and ordinary folks, its leisurely third-person narration, and sentences readers can see through, not just look at with envy.
Gass has said he doesn't think much about readers, but his opening gambits in Omensetter's Luck? and The Tunnel were prickly dares. Middle C is welcoming from the slightly absurdist start, when an Austrian Christian identifies himself as Jewish to escape the coming Nazis. It has narrative blandishments and concealments, virtuoso performances, and verisimilitude to spare in Gass's descriptions of midcentury Ohio towns and the places protagonist Joseph Skizzen works — a record store, a village library, and, for more than forty years, a small college. In an interview published in the Paris Review more than three decades ago, Gass stated his "work proceeds almost always from a sense of aggression. There's plenty of disgust with human stupidity in Middle C, but it doesn't give voice to a monster as his other two novels do.
Well, maybe a middling, muddling comic monster, like one of Nabokov's ill-fitting immigrant academics. In the late 1930s, Joseph's father decides his family should take on Jewish names so they can emigrate to England, where they arrive just in time for Joseph to be born during the Blitz. After the father deserts the family, mother, daughter, and Joseph move to the United States and end up in a semi-rural Ohio. The father's motive for leaving Austria was to remain guiltless of collaborating with the Nazi takeover he sensed in the future. Young Joey mythologizes his father and vows to imitate his moral purity — a key word in the novel — even if his scrupulosity may require some "innocent" fabrications like his father's change of religious identity.
In Ohio, Joey receives "C" grades in school, intentionally keeping a low profile, unlike his sister Debbie, who becomes a cheerleader and, later, a satisfied member of the middle class. As a teenager Joey enjoys his job in a record shop and becomes interested in serious and, he feels, pure music, but he is framed by a jealous employee and leaves the store. He has no friends, no interest in girls. He attends a community college and afterwards finds a job at a library in a nearby town. Needing a car, Joey forges a driver's license because he lacks the necessary identification documents.
Joey meets two women working in the library: one improves his forgery and helps him fake up his résumé; the other scandalizes pure Joey with a sexual advance. He scrambles home to his mother and applies for a position teaching music at the local religious college. Although Joey taught himself the piano, plays badly, and knows little about modern music, he bluffs and lies his way into the position, where Joey becomes serious Joseph and eventually Professor Skizzen, who affects a Viennese background while growing old teaching at Whittlebauer where he lives in a rented house with his mother.
With the Rabbit-raising Updike gone, only Gass, of American novelists working now, has the technical dexterity and, I suppose, aplomb to make so mundane a life absorbing —both entertaining and enlightening—for almost 400 pages. He employs the good old- fashioned suspense he has sometimes mocked in reviews of plot- driven fiction. Which of Joseph's deceptions will be revealed and when? Will he be able to maintain his ascetic purity? Gass whets readers? curiosity with flash-forwards, juxtapositions that make us wonder how a boy like Joey was ever able to become Professor Skizzen. And early on Gass plants a boldface sentence by Joseph — "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure" — that he compulsively revises, expands, and explains. What has Joseph experienced that has elicited this nihilism and caused him to collect thousands of clippings about atrocities for the "Inhumanity Museum" he curates in his attic?
Consciousness, skewed by circumstance, stewed in obsession, has always been Gass's chief concern, so he filters most of the novel through his protagonist's mind, which is a fascinating blend of three overlapping identities: Joey, Joseph, and Professor Skizzen. There are conflicts between what they can't know and what they would like to avoid; between self-imposed purity and natural needs; between perceptions of other people all the Skizzens resent and the external personas they compose to please those others. Unlike the word-crazed and learned narrators who take over Omensetter's Luck and The Tunnel, the protagonist in Middle C is no genius, and his limitations make the novel affecting.
Gass believes that Henry James is the greatest American novelist because he was the master of consciousness. Middle C is like a male companion to The Portrait of a Lady, another novel in which not much happens. With little or no formal instruction, Joseph and Isabel Archer, living in countries not their own, educate themselves through error, protect their "innocence" with repression, and take refuge in their own perceptive but stunted consciousness. As the autodidact Joseph struggles to keep his knowledge a step ahead of his colleagues and students, readers get the benefit of his self-instruction about twentieth-century composers and their music.
Although Gass's early aesthetic theorizing resisted any socially instructive value for fiction, Middle C should receive at least a B-plus from even the most militant Franzenites, for Gass uses the anxieties of Skizzen and the hypocrisies of minor characters to authoritatively represent the self-fashioning, other- directed culture of the 1950s described by David Riesman and Erving Goffman, an era that Gass can recall with the precision of an advanced recording device. And with only a nudge, the novel's small-town social dynamic of self-presentation becomes a metaphor for the contemporary fraudulence of big-time social media — and even for the falsity of political correctness.
Joseph believes that "Changelings required impromptus, variations, bagatelles, divertimenti, to do justice to their nature", and Middle C is the kind of inventive pastiche that first novelists throw together to show off their formal chops and to keep readers interested in pages not made for movies. Several chapters are double-barreled classroom lectures on music-the professor alternating between his delivery to witless students and his witty remarks to himself. Joseph is in turn instructed in great detail about the care of books by an old-maid librarian and about the care of flowers by his even older mother, whose ever-expanding garden becomes a symbol of the growth that Joseph refuses. Gass includes Joseph's notes on students, supplies compact bios of victimized artists Anton von Webern and Bruno Schulz, inserts a poem about catacombs, quotes old popular songs, incorporates news items on index cards, varies typography, and writes a commentary on faculty meetings to the tune of "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."
Within all the formal variations, word-man Gass is a constant micromanager. Note to note, paragraph to paragraph, his sentences offer pleasures for readers who may enter the book desiring other excitements. In what could be his last novel, Gass has found the subject — music — perfectly appropriate to the sound devices and metaphors both manifested in and analyzed by works such as On Being Blue and the metafictional novella Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife. Here is Gass throwing the voice of Professor Skizzen, sometimes called "Doctor Digress," in his lecture on John Cage:
With our new instruments of bedevilment might we not record all sorts of sounds out there in the world that calls itself — that call themselves — real; where squeaks and squeals and screams are on the menu, where dins assail us by the dozens'the crinkle of cellophane, whishiss of small talk, the fanning of five hundred programs — where we fill our ears with one noise in order not to hear another-yes, record, preserve not only the roil of the sea but the oink of pigs and moos of cattle, the wind rattling the cornstalks like the hand of an enemy on the knob, and put them in-in the realm of majesty, of beauty, of purity, in-in music.Because the context is rhetorical — the uncharacteristically passionate professor trying to wake up dullard students-this passage is more intense and richer (onomatopoeia, alliteration, elaborate parentheticals, simile, an iambic beat) than much of the novel, yet Gass maintains throughout Middle C the kind of stylistic energy and linguistic ebullience that we find busting out in debut novelists, qualities that make mundane material musical.
On the walls of his attic area were everywhere pinned atrocity pictures, some of them classics: the weeping baby of Nanking or the wailing Vietnamese girl running naked amid other running wailing children on that fatal Route I near Trang Bang (even the name a mockery); numerous sepias of dead outlaws with their names on crude signs propped beneath their boots; clips from films that showed what struck the eyes of those who first entered the extermination camps'careless heaps of skins and bones, entirely tangled, exhibiting more knees and elbows than two-pair-to-a-death ought allow?.Voltaire employed a similar strategy of compact excess in his Candide, which overloaded a short adventure narrative to indict false innocence and every variety of cruelty. Former philosophy professor Gass tips his hat to the old philosophe with the last words of Middle C: Joseph's mother, he thinks, "couldn't cultivate her garden forever," a reference to Candide's much-discussed concluding image.
Reviewer: Tom LeClair
Posted March 19, 2013
Posted July 31, 2013
I thought the story was imaginative, but the style was bothersome. The main character would dwell on a topic, saying the same thing different ways, long strings of words that in my opinion got tiresome. I didn't appreciate this aspect of the book.
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Posted March 23, 2013
Exceptional prose with a nonlinear narrative. This book won't have a wide audience, but when it is all said and done will be one of the best of the year. Gass is considered a "difficult" author, but is more than worth the effort.
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Posted March 31, 2013