Here's a long awaited novel by one of the godfathers of contemporary American modernism (or "post-modernism," as some critics and scholars call the continuation of the American modernist tradition). William H. Gass, a new-fangled genius, along with John Gardner, Robert Coover, John Barth and a few others in the 1960s and '70s, flew the flag sewn in Paris in the '20s by Gertrude Stein.
These folks waved their banner and charged ahead to make a fabulously interesting and valuable batch of fiction, comprised of — among other books — Gardner's "The Wreckage of Agathon," Coover's "Pricksongs and Descants," Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse" and Gass's "Omensetter's Luck" and "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country."
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Most of these writers are still working at their inventions. Or, we should certainly say in Gass's case, their obsessions. After spending nearly 30 years on a massive, sprawling (and, for this reader), rather frustrating novel called "The Tunnel" about the secret life of a fascist-leaning Midwestern university professor, Gass spent almost another 20 years on the book we have before us now, "Middle C." It's about the secret life of a troubled Midwestern university professor.
This man, an Austrian named Joseph Skizzen, fled Europe for the United States with his mother — both of them posing as Jewish refugees — at the end of the Second World War. He teaches music at a small Midwestern college, doling out lessons in the spirit of what he thinks of as "the middle-C mind," his notion of mediocrity, while all the while imagining himself as the wild-minded repository for a catalog of the ills of massacres and holocausts through history.
The book takes us from the first pages describing Skizzen's life in London (where his father inexplicably disappears) on through passages about Joseph's early years as a voracious reader in a small-town Ohio public library and then further into his adulthood as a college music teacher. He moves through his life as if in a dream, all the while allowing his imagination to go wild, even as the college keeps him wondering about his faculty status, an oddly banal problem for a serious modern(ist) hero. Nevertheless, the story, such as it is, stands out as blatantly modernist, unfolding slowly, almost completely devoid of plot, and proceeding, alas, without really much development, toward a tepid pay-off.
To jazz things up, Gass employs along the way enough songs and poems and faux-essays and word-play to make the book qualify as a direct descendant of master modernist James Joyce. Consider:
(W)hilst … Jolly Polly Wolly sweets his tongue begged him to swallow Jolly Polly Wolly Doodle calories his mind told him to avoid Polly-Jolly Jolly-Wolly Wolly-Doodle he was a Joey and a Joseph, too, Polly Wolly Doodle all the day for Joey had begun to expect Jolly-Polly Polly-Wolly Wolly-Doodle all the day ...
I don't mind word-play or exploded syntax in the service of character building, but in what appears to be an attempt to emulate his character's composer hero Arnold Schoenberg's high modernism, Gass slips constantly from linguistic dance to that mediocre state of mind his character calls middle C. He merely noodles and doodles (not even Polly-Jolly noodling or Jolly-Wolly Doodling), so that many of his pages read like straight automatic writing, lofted in from on high rather than growing naturally out of the psychological depths of the character.
I'm sorry to say it, but for all the potential for complexity, the entire enterprise seems merely accidentally complicated and at the same time quite inert. I'm afraid the now venerable, new-fangled narrative genius of the '60s has undone himself here.
Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio's longtime "voice of books," is the author of five novels, four collections of short fiction and the memoir "Fall Out of Heaven."
By William H. Gass, Knopf, 395 pages, $28.95Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun