Something Unsafe about Books
Seth Colter Walls
If it’s hard to tell what’s going on in William Gass’s fiction that’s because Gass himself doesn’t always know exactly what he’s set in motion. ‘As a fiction writer,’ he said in a 1978 debate with the novelist John Gardner, ‘you hope that the amount of meaning that you can pack into the book will always be more than you are capable of consciously understanding. Otherwise, the book is likely to be as thin as you are. You have to trick your medium into doing far better than you, as a conscious and clearheaded person, might manage.’ From the start, Gass has been tricking his novels into telling him things he didn’t know when he began them. In the 1997 afterword to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck (1966), he says that he rewrote it from scratch after the initial draft was stolen by a jealous colleague. In the process he realised that the book, set in Ohio in the 1890s, shouldn’t have been about the charming and easygoing Brackett Omensetter at all but rather the ignoble Reverend Jethro Furber. It was a transformation the aspiring novelist didn’t see coming, even as he was resurrecting the text.
Gass is now 88 years old, a retired professor of philosophy who has published nine volumes of criticism and essays. But his most ambitious efforts have been works of fiction, with heroic multi-decade interludes between them. There have been shorter works too. In the preface to his 1968 short-story collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, he says he’s ‘been told’ its contents are ‘tales without plot or people’, and adds that he was ‘struck by how easily they might not have been at all; how really unreasonably provisional their entire existence is’. Gass doesn’t speak of his characters, as other novelists do, as people he ‘lives with’ for a period of time and comes to know well. He gave Gardner what he called a simplified explanation of his approach: ‘A character for me is any linguistic location in a book towards which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier.’ Among those uncomfortable with Gass’s position is James Wood, who responded that ‘to deny character with such extremity is essentially to deny the novel.’
There’s something fiendish about Gass’s approach to form, and this makes things difficult for anyone trying to figure out what’s going on in one of his novels. When he published his last novel, The Tunnel – 651 pages and the product of 26 years’ effort, a novel about a historian of the Nazis who is also a Nazi sympathiser – in 1995, Robert Kelly, in a somewhat grudging review in the New York Times, spoke honestly about the prompt reviewer’s quandary: ‘It is not much comfort to lay aside this infuriating and offensive masterpiece and call it a satire, as if a genre could heal the wounds it so delights to display. It will be years before we know what to make of it.’ Now, a relatively brisk 18 years later, Gass has returned with another novel (quite possibly his last): Middle C. And though there’s no shortage of plot – more, certainly, than there was in The Tunnel – there’s also plenty in the novel to shoot that plot full of holes. So far, the novel’s most thoughtful reviewers – Cynthia Ozick in the New York Times and Michael Gorra in the New York Review of Books – have taken care to talk about both the story-strands and the anxieties about story in Middle C. But they have shied away from trying to answer their own big questions about the novel. Gorra summarises the plot before asking: ‘But with Gass isn’t all this plot summary just a bit beside the point?’ And while Ozick makes reference to the ‘hovering nimbus of things awry’ in Middle C, she doesn’t offer much of an answer to her own question: ‘What are we to make of this world-devouring novel, and of the title that is its warning sentry?’ The question about Gass is always phrased differently, but it always seems to run like this: can any sense be made of a novel built in such a fashion, and how long should we expect to work at the task?
One way to cut down the time required is to cultivate a healthy disregard for the jacket-flap version of the plot. In the case of Middle C, such a summary would tell how Joseph Skizzen’s father (an elusive figure who only appears in various family reminiscences) forces his family to leave Austria before Hitler’s rise, thus sparing them any association with the Nazis. For a brief time they live in London, where they attempt to pass as Jews, until this too comes into question – presaging further westward movement, and further biographical revision. After surviving the Blitz, the father abruptly disappears. Joseph, his mother and his sister land in Ohio, where the junior Skizzen has some amusing adventures as a young man before fooling a middling college into hiring him as a professor of music and working there for several decades. Despite his fears of being uncovered as a fraud (he dropped out of college) by the pointedly named Whittlebauer College – the institution is staffed by lightweights who might as well be whittling on their porches – Skizzen escapes any formal reckoning, and skips home happily. End of novel.
Perhaps in delight at being offered something like a three-act structure in a Gass novel, most reviewers have taken this plot at face value. But there are a great many problems with the story told here, chief among them the hints, towards the end of the novel, that the relationships between the family members might be a fiction, and that Joseph Skizzen himself might be a Nazi war criminal.
Skizzen has been lying about his age for most of his life, and near the book’s end we are told that he has the option ‘to forget the order he had been given by the High Command’. The line can be understood as making a mocking reference to an upcoming faculty meeting at Whittlebauer College. But nowhere else in the text is a gathering of academics even sarcastically called something as grand as the High Command. (And Skizzen’s presence hasn’t been ‘ordered’ at the meeting, merely requested.) These slight distinctions aren’t trivial. In Middle C, a book haunted throughout by references to the Nazis, the invocation of the High Command is the final (and loudest) point at which Gass sounds this clangorous, disquieting note.
Up until this point the novel has encouraged us to see Skizzen in a sympathetic (if complicated and tragic) light. It’s easy to get caught up in his story – a bright professor of music with fake qualifications worried about being discovered as a cheat by his dim superiors – and to let the strange passages in the book’s last pages glide by without notice. And though Gass plants hints throughout about what’s coming, they appear as shards in a modernist storm of tricked-out prose and baroquely adorned lists. Gass overwhelms us on purpose, daring us to pick out the most important details – even if doing so calls his entire novel into question at the very end.
Early on, Gass informs us that Skizzen is capable of all kinds of fraudulence – not just faking academic degrees. Skizzen reinvents his back-story several times before he seeks refuge in academia. We’re repeatedly alerted to the fact that young Joey – then Joseph, then Professor Skizzen – sometimes confuses the multiple versions of his identity. ‘His own history,’ we’re told, ‘was learning to be hazy.’ Sometimes his fabrications are stated more directly: ‘Skizzen had to admit that his case would continue to worsen as the number and complexity of his fictions became known, and the machine would make record keeping simpler: he was not quite his alleged age … his history was a forgery … In short, everything about Skizzen was askew.’ The ‘machine’ in question is one among a battery of newfangled personal computers acquired by Whittlebauer’s bursar. Skizzen begins typing on it with some reluctance. Gass reports that he makes a keystroke error while typing the word ‘spelll’; the misspelling is reproduced later in the novel, a hint – the first – that Skizzen is the person typing out the text. Two chapters later, the pages of the novel are beset by formatting errors: several bulleted hard returns occur, as can happen with word-processing programs that try to help you ‘make a list’ even when you don’t want to. These signals point to the fact that Professor Skizzen has been writing some of the account of his own life in the third-person. And also that he might not have proofread the whole document.
There are in addition obvious errors of chronology and subversions of the historical record. When forging the government documents that will enable his rise from lowly service employee to senior academic, Joseph adds five years to the age he has been publicly giving, to allow space for more childhood years in Vienna before his family’s supposed escape ahead of the Anschluss. Even before this plain-language revelation that Joey is eager (and able) to put over fictions about his age, a careful reader will have noticed that we have been told several conflicting stories about Joey’s education: that he was held back for at least a year in elementary school (on account of his chaotic, war-disrupted youth); that he had already completed at least three semesters at a local college by the age of 19. In another section recounting these foggy early years, Skizzen works in a record shop during ‘early ’Nam time’. This doesn’t add up either: he’s portrayed as a teenager, but if he was born in the Blitz he would already be well into his twenties. In the shop Skizzen proudly cultivates his burgeoning classical music expertise and snobbishly sends customers wanting to buy pop music to a colleague: ‘Could you come over here a moment please and assist this young man who wants something in grunge?’ The trouble is that it’s about a quarter of a century too early for that reference to make sense. ‘Hip-hop’, too, is mentioned about a decade too soon. Does Gass not know when grunge or rap happened? Or is Professor Skizzen, in typing his own history, making mistakes?
There are other authorial jokes. When Skizzen gets a job in a library after dropping out of college, his boss gives him some advice: ‘Always assume the author is smarter than you are – have you written a book on his subject?’ Elsewhere it’s signalled that the story Skizzen tells about his family history is deliberately fractured. Of his father, ‘it was difficult to account for the abandonment of his family, his departure for America, and his subsequent disappearance, in some sort of sonata form. Changelings required impromptus, variations, bagatelles, divertimenti, to do justice to their nature. He, Joseph Skizzen, was a weathercock too.’
Like The Tunnel, Middle C displays Gass’s fascination with Nazi Germany. After Skizzen settles into his comfortable academic life he takes up a project he calls the Inhumanity Museum. Newspaper clippings and photographic evidence of atrocities – rapes, murders and purges – are displayed in the attic of the large house Skizzen is given when he becomes a senior member of Whittlebauer’s faculty. The collection focuses on incidents that took place after a ‘blatant scoundrel was voted into office by a smug, lazy, or indifferent electorate’. Skizzen is particularly interested by the frauds who get away with it. The museum includes a ‘many-volumed International Military Trials in an ugly library binding … where on one page he could feed on names like Major Dr Huhnemoerder, Oberst von Reurmont, Gruppenfuhrer Nebe, OKW Chef Kgf and General Grosch.’ It’s hinted that Skizzen may be a little touchy about the fact that Hitler’s reputation is worse than Stalin’s. We’re told that Skizzen sometimes reads aloud ‘with relish’ the accounts of these and other ‘crimes’ (Nuremberg is implied but never explicitly mentioned), and even adds to them: ‘testimony that Joseph Skizzen augmented, on the few ritual occasions he allowed himself to observe, by his reciting aloud’. Later we’re told that ‘Joseph Skizzen put his whole heart into his voice,’ that he was ‘happy no one would hear him’. How does Skizzen augment the testimony recorded in the exhaustive transcripts of the International Military Trials? We aren’t told.
What we do learn is that Skizzen, when relaxing in his attic museum, ceaselessly toys with a single sentence that sums up his own dark theory of civilisation. In the first version, it reads: ‘The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.’ Some of the most darkly humorous moments of Middle C involve pessimistic variants on the sentence, and this constantly changing formulation has been described in many reviews as a focal point of the novel’s appeal. But it may also be setting up the reader for other, less funny revisions yet to come. By this point, Joseph is living with his mother, Miriam, formerly called Nita (according to the legend of the family’s escape from Austria). She and Joseph share several moments of not quite veiled anti-semitism. Joseph’s running inner monologue has racist episodes, and on one occasion he uses the word ‘niggers’ for no apparent reason: it reads like a slip that has evaded Skizzen’s revision. Miriam ruthlessly culls her garden of sick plants, and instructs Joseph to spare her his ‘racial-cleansing speech’. ‘I was admiring your cruelty,’ he replies.
Once Skizzen becomes more comfortable in his disguise at Whittlebauer, he becomes ‘overly fond of the cute, riddling, or trick question’. He often challenges his students’ knowledge by making references to the Second World War, and then asking, with a flourish: ‘Hands?’ He asks if they know what ‘SS’ stands for, before saying that he of course means the ‘Schoenberg/Stravinsky polarity’ in modern music. During another lecture, he flaunts his decision not to ‘embarrass’ members of the class ‘by demanding a definition of “Axis”’. He is flirting with our suspicions, daring us to make connections, even as he suspects that most people are too stupid to do anything with the hints. That it proves difficult to abandon all sympathy for poor, stateless Joey Skizzen – at least the version of him presented in the opening chapters – is a credit to Gass’s storytelling.
Because of this residual sympathy, for much of the time that Skizzen fears exposure as a fraud we also hope that he will escape judgment, especially since his colleagues are so well skewered as intellectual shams. So when he’s invited to attend a meeting of the Ethics Committee, we feel nervous for him. He fears being made homeless again – and losing his Inhumanity Museum as well as Miriam’s garden. On his long walk to the meeting, a spectral figure – a local businessman previously referred to in the text but as yet unseen – offers a hearty hello, as well as admiration for Miriam’s garden: ‘I imagine it’s your wife’s work.’ It’s a suggestion that evidently troubles Skizzen more than it amuses him: ‘My mother’s, yes, Skizzen said as matter-of-factly as he dared. Be damned to you, he thought.’ Four pages later, with Skizzen still trudging to the meeting – and at a point where we may be upwardly revising our estimate of how much of his story might have been counterfeit – this startling sentence comes out of nowhere: ‘Skizzen could still pretend to forget the order he had been given by the High Command.’ The line is repeated later in the same paragraph: ‘He could still pretend to forget the order he had been given. Joey was all for forgetting.’
When practising the piano as a student, Joey is shown by a teacher that in a certain chord you can ‘hear clearly C and D and E. They penetrate but do not disappear into one another. They are a trinity – a single sound in which I hear three. C is the Son. D is God the father, the sacred root, and E is the Holy Ghost.’ The trinity stands for Skizzen’s own trinity of personages – Joey, Joseph and Professor Skizzen – who never fully disappear into one another the way traditional characters do. If there are three Skizzens, seen in multiple, contradictory glimpses, why should we believe in a single one: why should we believe, for instance, that Joey Skizzen was definitely born in London during the Blitz? Put another way: why should we expect anything but the composition of an atonal protagonist – one without a consistent key signature – in a book by William Gass called Middle C?
Skizzen says in a lecture on Schoenberg that the composer was ‘incapable of the middle-C mind’. The same might be said of Gass, and the reference to Skizzen’s desire to forget an order ‘given by the High Command’ signals Middle C’s final, surprising modulation. Anyone who noticed Skizzen’s unseemly taste for Nazi references, but forgave him because of his sympathetic life story, may now wonder if they’ve been part of his long con. Could Skizzen be the sort of criminal who belongs in his Inhumanity Museum? Is he going to get away with his deception? Could he have lied about his age all along not by adding years to it but by subtracting them? Might he have been a bit older than five when he left what had already become Hitler’s Austria?
In the book’s last pages it turns out that the Ethics Committee meeting is being convened because another professor has been accused of concocting false credentials. Skizzen remains unaccused, as he is in the minds of those who haven’t been picking up on Gass’s hints. But, to adapt the sentence Professor Skizzen has been fashioning in the attic, we’re no longer worried he’ll get caught; we’re worried he’ll escape judgment. A flip back to the beginning of the book shows that the game has been going on since the novel’s first line: ‘Miriam, whom Joey Skizzen thought of as his mother, Nita, began to speak about the family’s past, but only after she decided that her husband was safely in his grave.’ The phrase ‘thought of’ sets up the book’s ambiguities, and tricks us into ignoring them. As a student, Joey Skizzen learned about modernism and ‘novels that undermined the story’; he ‘discovered that there was something unsafe’ about books. ‘You began one; you were suitably entranced,’ until a moment of shock: ‘a gesture that stooped, a boast that offended, an idea that was as grotesque as a two-headed calf, a sentiment that steamed like rotting flesh, like a childhood ramble in the ruins that suddenly betrayed you with a sight not meant for living eyes’.
Middle C has that sort of grandly grotesque finale: a rotting-flesh climax of Nazi criminality, not fit for human eyes. Gardner, who admired Gass, said at the end of their debate that ‘our definitions of beauty are different,’ and that Gass’s novels of language turned ‘against itself’ were like jumbo jets ‘too encrusted with gold to get off the ground’. Gass replied: ‘There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.’