William Gass is one of the most accomplished and provocative American writers of the last half century. He is a masterful stylist, cunning creator of unique characters, and major theorist of what makes fiction fiction--in other words, in addition to writing beautiful sentences and stories, he's a philosopher/critic of the first order.
The four "novellas" that make up Cartesian Sonata are "Cartesian Sonata" itself, "Bed and Breakfast," "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," and "Master of Secret Revenges." I confess I'm losing track of what makes the difference between a long story and a novella. In Gass's case, I think there really isn't much difference, especially since one of his strengths is not "plot." These fictions flow along, striking sentences bejeweled with stunning images and metaphors, contingent upon immediate satisfactions and revelations. Forget about suspense. What Gass does is study in minute detail the features of reality, sometimes physical, sometimes metaphysical, that require literary artistry if they are to become visible to the reader's mind and imagination.
He specializes in oddballs, cranks, besieged souls, and loners adrift somewhere in the Midwest. I take most of his work to center on Iowa, but that's more guess than fact. And according to Gass's theory of fiction, it doesn't really matter. He homes in on that which is confined within his verbal subject; everything else is immaterial. He also writes, I think, in a phenomenological mode that tracks its own aesthetic purposes, not history, not larger context, not what just happened in the story or what will happen next but what is happening right now. I know this sounds pretty abstract, but if you read to the end of this book, plowing through the sordid bordering on rancid "Master of Secret Revenges," you'll find an almost religious outcome in Gass's brooding on the random magic of people, places, and emotions getting mixed up in the mind. That's phenomenology as I understand it: an affirmation that although we all are locked within our own subjectivities, something luminous and possibly numinous spins around us like motes of dust in sunlight...issuing no special "meaning" other than intense particularity, microscopic truths, and imaginative possibilities...not certainties.
So Gass is a very, very literary writer. How could he be otherwise if he proposes a story about a mistreated young woman finding relief by entering into one of Elizabeth Bishop's sentences?
Now, I want to add a few biographical details to flesh this comment out: I had never heard of William Gass until I was a sophomore in college and my creative writing instructor, Geoffrey Wolff, announced to me and my fellow students that Gass was one of the most important literary theorists since Aristotle. None of my fellow students had heard of Gass either. We went to the bookstore, however, and bought a book of exceptional essays Gass had written called Fiction and the Forms of Life. That book partially convinced me Wolff was right about Gass. The deal was closed when I then read a collection of Gass's stories called In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, the title story being one of the most compelling, beautiful short stories I've read to this day (many years later.)
After graduating, I moved to Virginia and heard that Gass was participating in a literary festival in Lexington at Washington and Lee. He, Donald Barthelme, and Walker Percy were the headliners. So I hopped in the car and snuck into the auditorium just as Walker Percy was beginning to give a talk. Behind him sat Barthelme, a somewhat devilish looking fellow, and an elderly woman with a large smooth face and long gray hair. Percy talked a bit about science and literature, as I recall. I didn't know his work at the time but later came to admire it a great deal. Then Barthelme got up and was as witty and irreverent as his wicked short stories. Next came the elderly woman who turned out to be a man...William Gass, in fact. What did he say? I don't recall. I just sat there looking at him, listening to his man's voice, thinking about his writing -- which I knew pretty well-- and wondering if everyone else, or anyone else, mistook him for a woman.
There was a reception afterward and I approached all three writers. There's never anything worth saying on such occasions, so I didn't say anything worth repeating, and they didn't either. But each of the three has remained on my bookshelves, and each of the three continued to fashion a more or less iconic status for himself in American letters. If you're prepared to read slowly, not be sure where a tale is heading, and yet be bowled over by a poetic/philosophical literary talent, go try Gass. The Cartesian Sonata is a good place to start.
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