William H. GassThe William H. Gass Reader
William H. Gass is one of those writers who is often praised but rarely read, which is a shame because his body of work is one of the most significant contributions to American letters. His career spanned from the 1950s to about 2015, and in that time he created a body of work that includes short stories, novels, essays about literature and writers, as well as theoretical works of philosophy regarding fiction, language, and beauty. One of the most significant features throughout all of his work is his love and deep understanding of language. Whether being examined in his nonfiction or being applied in his stories, Gass toiled over diction, cadence of free modification, and the emergent properties of prose style. The William H. Gass Reader is a collection of crumbs that will draw you into a labyrinth of letters that will transform your understanding of language and leave you heading to a bookstore to find the rest of his work.
Gass’s fiction cuts against the grain of mainstream literature. It is maximalistic in style and vitriolic in nature. “The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber,” an excerpt from Omensetter’s Luck, recalls Mark Twain’s treatment of a certain type of rural American—one covered in a physical and spiritual filth. In The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain describes these people as finding joy in torturing a sow feeding her young and setting a dog on fire. Gass’s passage opens with a soiled Bracket Omensetter arriving at the house of Henry Pimber, who has a place for rent that is “very near the river and a yearly casualty of flood.” Henry’s wife confronts him about this. Did he intend to let Omensetter and his family drown? Would Pimber end up going down there to rescue them, risking his own life, possibly leaving her a widow? Gass has set up the tension between husband and wife, the moral heartbeat of the novel starting as a domestic spat with serious implications. Pimber is a nasty character who belongs to the clan Twain describes in Huck Finn.
Stylistically, Gass picks up where William Faulkner’s modernism left off. Their writing springs forth from their surrounding soil. Pimber’s plot of land resembles Sutpen’s Hundred—minus the mansion, slaves, and sense of lost glory. The setting shapes and defines the characters. Both authors use a subjective lens, cumulative syntax, and indirect discourse to build a maximalist prose style. Gass presents this excerpt from Omensetter’s Luck through exposition with speech being presented like a form of indirect discourse. While the dialogue is formatted with the typical paragraph breaks, Gass has stripped the quotation marks, creating an effect that both dialogue and narration exist on the same plane, creating a sense that the narrator controls and filters everything, pushing the characters back a bit.
In “The First Winter of My Married Life”, an excerpt from The Tunnel, the reader will find two of Gass’s signature stylistic features. First, there is his Rabelaisian sensibility. The story focuses on a young couple’s life in a cheap prefabricated house at a large Midwestern university. William and Martha Kohler are aware that their neighbor hears them as much as they hear him—every toilet flush, every quarrel, every lovemaking session. This lack of privacy starts to have an effect. The newlyweds, in their hyperconscious state, scarcely speak and become ashamed of their own sounds. “In this toilet-tissue house,” William “hiss[es] poisonously in her ear, we can’t afford to fart.” This takes a toll on their new marital status, “Martha no longer cried out when she came, and I grew uncertain of her love.” With each passing page, the narrator grows more and more angry—the second telling stylistic feature of Gass’s style. This feature is worth unpacking. Gass tends to avoid dramatic use of scene, primarily utilizing narration to move stories forward. As a result, he finds ways to agitate the narrator to get an emotional response, creating a charge between the narrators and their world. This is his approach to creating tension and revealing emotions. The Rabelaisian sensibility acts as a tonic to the rage, offering something deeply personal, self-deprecating, and humorous to counteract the frothing rage building around the mouth of the narrator.
Gass’s nonfiction and philosophy consist of writing that is absolutely sensitive to how literature works. He openly criticizes “The Handbooks” that teach mainstream creative writing, offering instead a nuanced perspective to how innovative literature and language can work; a philosopher by training, Gass applies his analytical gaze to a range of writers and philosophical concepts that underpin the literary arts, providing an absolute treasure of “writing about writing”—including pieces about Kafka, Rilke, Calvino, and Gertrude Stein. His brilliantly opinionated philosophical works address topics like the form of fiction, the concept of characters, musicality in prose, and the architecture of the sentence. This material is dense and challenging, but the overall effect is transformative. Words grow opaque before your eyes. You stop looking though words at the concepts they represent and instead see prose as a collection of words that have been meticulously organized. Once opaque, language becomes less abstract, more concrete, and more malleable. His philosophy is mandatory reading for anyone serious about how poetic language works in literature.
Without a doubt, Gass forces readers to swim upstream. In one of his essays, he jokes that his stories are anti-narrative and his essays are anti-expository. Reading Gass is challenging but rewarding work. Often his fiction has the same problem as Hawthorne—some of his narrators (and characters) sound a bit too much like the author. This jars some readers of realism who are use to different standards. There is a payoff, although it usually comes after rereading. The resilient readers of Gass will be transformed by the experience.
During a conference at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner and William Gass debated aesthetics and the relationship between authors and readers. Gass made a passing comment that being loved by everyone isn’t better than being loved by a few. Despite making extravagant claims regarding literature, he presented himself as a modest writer who didn’t chase mainstream success and popularity. He belonged to small club of writers that included John Barth, Robert Coover, John Hawkes, and Stanley Elkins, who found their home with publications like FC2, Dalkey Archive, and Conjunctions. There, with his friends, Gass toiled away, writing fiction and essays for a small group of readers. With his death in 2017 and the publication of The Reader, he may enter a new realm of literary celebrity—for Americans tend to laud their dead authors more so than the living.