Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1991

The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Fall 1991, Volume 11, Number 3, Ed. John O’Brien.

What you are asking me to do is not just to change a work of fiction. You are asking me to make it over from a work of art into a story. My work may be ugly but it’s not cheap. I take it hard and I’m damned if I’ll do it. / Bill (The letter above, 16 November 1958, in which the fledgling author sternly justifies his demanding prose style to Shattuck) (67)

[Regarding ITHOTHOTC] Anyone who has tried to teach the story to eighteen-year-olds will know how disappointingly flat the story seems to them: the reading of it depends upon a vital engagement with a culture they do not know and an enthusiastic assent to a large range of judgments of that culture which they could not possibly make. (Philip Stevick, William Gass and the Real World, 74)

How to reconcile the polemical position with the authorial is less difficult than it would seem. … Three things need to be said about that voice and posture. The first is that it is not very good philosophy. In the last few years number of books have appeared treating questions of truth, fictionality, artifice, and belief. I think, for example, of Thomas Pavel’s Fictional Worlds (1986) and Michael Riffaterre’s Fictional Truth (1990), each quite different from the other but both supple, complex, and sophisticated. Both books are more recent than the major statements of Gass on the question. But neither they nor other comparable works have sprung, in the last decade, from nothing, rather from a long debate on questions of the relation between fiction and world. Gass’s statements really do not stand in any relation to that ongoing debate. (75)

It may be a “country-headed thing” to insist that William Gass is a distinctly American writer. However, his interest in European theories of language and of fiction such as those of Wittgenstein, Robbe-Grillet, Sarraute, and Bathes perhaps necessitates such insistence. Among the few critics who focus on Gass’s distinctly American themes, Frederick Karl observers that once the reader cuts through Gass’s theories of fiction and his verbal arrangements he or she will “discover familiar American cultural patterns: lost Edens, fallen men, dispossessed Gardens, bitter contrasts between what God has made and man has wrought.” In this essay I will apply Karl’s Thesis by examining Gass’s interest in the typically American attempt to regain a lost Eden and in the ultimate failure of that attempt. / In his most recent collection of essays, Habitations of the Word, Gass himself explores his American roots in an essay on “Emerson and the Essay.” This inquiry leads him to several topics with which both he and Emerson wrestle frequently in their writing: the possibility of regaining Eden by transcending ordinary human experience, the reality of words in human experience, and the essay as a form of exploration. (Rejecting the Stone: William Gass and Emersonian Transcendence, Richard J. Schneider, 115)

Gass’s kinship with Emerson becomes even clearer when one looks at Gass’s writing and notices that the temptation to seek transcendence in nature and the inevitable fall into reliance on the reality of words are central concerns in both “Order of Insects” and Omensetter’s Luck and that the form of these two fictions is that of an essay. They are stream-of-consciousness monologues in which each character is “essaying to be,” attempting to define and order his or her own consciousness. / “Order of Insects,” Gass’s personal favorite among his fictions, is narrated by a housewife seeking to transcend the limitations of her drab, trivial life. …She considers herself merely a house-wife, unworthy to receive the kind of knowledge that comes to her in her study of the dead bugs that mysteriously appear in her carpet each morning. / As she contemplates the bugs, she comes to suspect that the language with which she thinks of them as dishonest, a tool for deceiving herself. Her admission of her supposed womanly limitations may actually be attempts to hide behind language the failure of her own life. She claims that when she discovered the first bug, “I bent innocent and improperly armed, over the bug that had come undone” (168-169). As she eventually begins to realize, innocent, healthy, and motherly are all words that mask the horror of her own spiritual paralysis. (116-7)

Just as the bugs’ skeletons indicate the ultimate order of their lives, so a human’s skeleton is the hidden model of human order. Unfortunately, the order of life in both bug and human can be perceived only in death. (117)

Her acquiring of this gift follows a process similar to the religious mystic’s process of acquiring transcendent vision. First she must admit her own evil, purge herself of her own selfhood, and leave herself vulnerable to perception. … This mystical illumination is followed by an equally mystical identification with the bugs. (118)


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