At 88, Gass is still a magician of the word, the writer of a prose so rich that it makes Vladimir Nabokov's seem impoverished. I exaggerate, but only to underscore how intense, how original, how witty Gass's use of language can be…Flaubert once dreamed of writing a novel about nothing, one where the style alone would create excitement and pleasure. Gass actually does this in
Middle C…[which] takes its place in that great line of modern novels about inauthenticity, from Andre Gide's The Counterfeiters and Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man to William Gaddis's The Recognitions and the works of Philip K. Dick. However, there is nothing sham to William Gass's art: It's not just dazzling, it's the real thing.
The Washington Post - Michael Dirda
Of all living literary figures, William Gass may count as the most daringly scathing and the 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 and middling title…Gass's sentences are…most exhilaratingly ingenious when they venture into unexpected and dizzying keys, diving from vernacular directness into an atonal Niagaran deluge: so many ironies, so many propositions, so many juxtapositions, so many interleaved passages of youth and maturity, so many ripe monologues and mazy musings, so many catalogs and refrains, so many instances of horrific calamity, so many digressions (they all finally stream into Gass's oceanic scheme).
The New York Times Book Review - Cynthia Ozick
The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” This sentence is the secret life’s work of the Austrian émigré Joseph Skizzen, hero of Gass’s first novel in nearly two decades. There are few minds as well-documented in letters as that of Gass, whose own life’s work consists of eight well-regarded books of criticism and the legendary 1995 novel The Tunnel. But the storyline that emerges, after we learn how Joseph’s absent scofflaw father Rudi disguised his family as Jews in Vienna and London during the Second World War (as though to buck the trend), is a comparatively innocuous brand of epic. Joseph grows up in Ohio, with his mother Miriam, and becomes a devoted music lover, amateur pianist, and eventual lecturer. His quiet life, “reasonably clear of complicity in human affairs,” consists of but the smallest intrigues at the local library, which becomes Joe’s refuge, and, later, the school where he fears denunciation by the faculty. Only in his imagination is he the great Professor Skizzen, master of the Inhumanity Museum, a catalogue of the sinful human condition. And yet the novel is crazily rich with thought: there are lovingly observed descriptions of books by Thomas Hardy, Bruno Schultz, and Ruskin, remarkably detailed discourse on Miriam’s gardening, and enough discussion of music for a course in classical composition. Excepting some choppiness in the novel’s second half—and the decision to employ close third-person for material that seems naturally suited for first—Gass beautifully coaxes the unheard music from a seemingly muted life. “Middle C” was the realm of ordinary thought that Arnold Schoenberg abhorred. But for Gass, it is the model of a living, introverted mind and fodder for a symphonic anti-adventure story that is the unprecedented work of a master. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Mar.)
Misanthropy, atrocity, the Midwest--Gass revisits some familiar themes in this novel, though this ride is smoother than its epic predecessor,
The Tunnel (1995). The hero of this engaging, melancholy novel is Joseph Skizzen, an Ohio music professor who consistently dissembles to get ahead in life, from the driver's license he faked to get his first job to the CV he invented to enter academia. But, Gass wants us to ask, aren't we all born into lives of fraudulence? Joseph's father, we learn early on, repeatedly changed identities to smuggle himself and his family out of Austria in advance of the Nazi horrors. In a struggle to reckon with that past, Joseph privately maintains an Inhumanity Museum, filled with newspaper clippings and photos of war, genocide and further proofs of mankind at its worst. Joseph's deep-seated frustration with man's inherent insincerity is exemplified by a sentence he obsessively revises: "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure." Gass positions Joseph as symbolic of civilization's pervasive mediocrity: The title refers to a piano note but also suggests middle-class anxieties, mid-20th-century social catastrophes, Midwestern simplicity and middle-of-the-pack intelligence. (Joseph was a C student.) In comparison to the black-heartedness of The Tunnel, this is practically a comedy, and its pleasures shouldn't be discounted. 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. And though Joseph feels more like a symbol than a character, his neuroses over God, power and survival make him a rare creature in contemporary American fiction: a man as concerned with the big picture as with himself. Gass, now 88, clearly has endings on his mind, which he addresses with fearsome brio and wit.
Middle C takes its place in that great line of modern novels about inauthenticity. . . . However, there is nothing sham to Gass’s art: It’s not just dazzling, it’s the real thing.” — The Washington Post
“A world-devouring novel. . . . 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. . . . This unquiet bildungsroman is designed to detonate its mild, middling title. . . . Exhilaratingly ingenious . . . unexpected and dizzying.” —Cynthia Ozick,
The New York Times Book Review
“Rhythmic and sonic. . . . A final statement of Gass’s belief in the sound of literary language.”
—The Times Literary Supplement (London)“Gass is a magician of the word, the writer of a prose so rich that it makes Vladimir Nabokov’s seem impoverished. . . . Metaphors leap through hoops, similes elicit oohs and ahs, and daredevil paragraphs bring down the house. There’s never any fat or slack to his sentences, though sometimes they unfold quietly, almost slyly, until blossoming into little stories all their own.” — The Washington Post “Middle C is driven by plot, by a largely comic chain of cause and consequence. . . . Skizzen proves as befuddled an academic wanderer as anyone this country has seen since Nabokov’s Timofey Pnin.” — The New York Review of Books “A mischievous variation on the moral dilemmas raised in Gass’s 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.” — Booklist (starred)
“Extraordinary. . . . A religious allegory and a philosophical meditation on language and consciousness as the source of evil.” —
The Boston Globe “Gass orchestrates his fiction with thematic elements as a composer might a symphony.” — Timeout New York “Exhilarating . . .dazzling.” — Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“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 “A masterly work of language and imagery from one of America’s most celebrated authors.” — Library Journal (starred)
“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.” —
Without a strong understanding of metafiction, metaphor, or philosophy, reading Gass can be a challenge. Two of his most famous novels, The Tunnel and Omensetter's Luck, conceal deeply intellectual questions about memory and knowledge underneath very simple plots. Here, too, Gass presents a simple story about Joey Skizzen, an Austrian immigrant raised in Ohio by his mother, Miriam. Early exposure to the piano influences young Joey to become a music professor at the local college. If one were reading for plot, this novel would disappoint. However, it is Joey's Inhumanity Museum, a collection of newspaper clippings of murders and genocides, that provides the fantastical entry point into the heart of the novel. By collecting these crimes against humanity, Joey creates an alternate identity for himself, one who absolves the world of sin. His own sins unfold as the reader begins to question the true identity of Professor Joseph Skizzen. VERDICT A masterly work of language and imagery from one of America's most celebrated authors. To those unfamiliar with Gass's work, the dense and fragmented narrative is a challenge, but one worth undertaking.—Joshua Finnell, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH