I once wrote a review of Edward Yang's superlatively good film Yi Yi which suggested sometimes works of art are so excellent as to resist even a compliment. The same can almost be said of Gass's collection of 4 novellas. Gass is a name I've been familiar with for years (the Penguin edition of The Recognitions begins with a loquacious and energetic effusion by Gass) but I had never felt the burning desire to read his work. Part of my hesitation was due to his reputation; some of these great postmodern writers have a bibliography the length of the phonebook—where does one even begin? Though it turns out, Gass wasn't terribly prolific. I was also under the impression his work was metafictional tomfoolery and I've rarely been in the mood for that in recent years. I was finally given the push I needed, after his death in 2017 at the impressive age of 93—certainly a morbid and almost cliche reason to start reading a writer's work. 1998's Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas is probably not the best place to start with Gass but I still muddled through the first two stories with conviction and determination. Because, yes, Gass is difficult. He's a writer of a lot of words, to put it in an unsophisticated manner. Seth Colter Walls, writing for the Guardian (here), observes in Gass's fiction that:
Characters tend to develop strangely (or not at all); settings are sometimes created from a fusillade of petty-seeming details that can collectively avoid a straightforward accounting of the basic proscenium stage of action...Gass was a lover of lists (going so far as to compose an ode in essay form to the list, in "I've Got a Little List") and his fiction reflects this. One sequence in "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," the third of four novellas, categorizes the folksy names of flowers and plants, taking a page and a half, sans paragraph breaks, to catalogue all the fun names. Here is sampling of this inventory:
...or were simply borrowed from their fruiting season like the Mayapple, or taken from root or stem or stalk or fruit or bloom or leaf, like Arrowhead, Spiderwort, Seven-angled Pipewort, Foamflower, Liverleaf, Shrubby Fivefinger, Bloodroot; while sometimes they gained their name principally through their growth habit such as the Staggerbush did, the Sidesaddle Flower, Prostrate Tick Trefoil, Loosestrife, Spatter-dock, Steeplebush, Jacob's Ladder; alother often the names served as warning about a plant's hostility or shyness the way Poison Ivy or Touch-me-not did, Wild Sensitive Pea, Lambkill, Adder's Tongue, Poison Flagroot, Tearthumb, King Devil, Needlegrass, Skunk Cabbage, Chokeberry, Scorpion Grass, Viper's Buglos, Bitter Nightshade and Lance-leaved Tickseed...Never do these lists feel exhausting or a waste of paper, such as, for example, Douglas Coupland using 41 pages to list digits of pi in JPod. Rather, like Colter Walls says above, the accumulation of details, the petty-seeming details, produces the texture of the story, if story can be called what Gass is creating. Instead, the story is the details, the wealth of material and emotional things that build up around a person, almost, as it were, producing the person. The aforementioned Emma lives and breathes nature but through the details gleaned from poetry, her escape from banal torturous life in rural Iowa. Her blankness as a character isn't so much a deficiency in Gass's skills but instead a reflection of her absence from her own life. She is a blank space, a void, a white emptiness sharply human-shaped, surrounded by the incessant noise of nature, flora, fauna, sky, sun, father, mother, farm, shed.
Even if the story and characters were inconsequential or forgettable, Gass's prose is like no other's that I've read recently. There's a careful precision to every sentence, but without ever feeling exhausted of beauty or magic; Gass's novellas have the energy of a first draft and the meticulous exactness of a tenth draft, a musicality and liveliness. Here is Gass, in the second novella, on books:
But inside that misplaced secretary there were all those books, each compressing hundreds of pages into something simple as a brick, while upon those pages lines of words were layered the way beneath a quilt there was a blanket, an embroidered sheet; and the words were several sounds as leaves and blooms and maybe a boat upon a pond were threaded together, making better environments for one another; thus with the cabinet shut, book covers closed, you couldn't hear any talking going on, the shouting and the singing, yes, quiet as a reading room, though in each reading head there'd be a booming world: that was why his empire was so wide and full, both few and many, near and far.The bounce, the rhythm of the prose, the endless similes, they all call attention to themselves without ever seeming drawn out or overworked. Gass's use of polysyndeton, the replacement of commas with "and" spaces items in a list out, gives them their ultimate equivalency, because, after all, that's what a simile is, the serendipitous comparison between unlike objects to produce a satisfying and estranging novel view of the two objects. In "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," Emma observes that while film can produce beautiful imagery like a fog, that fog on the screen is missing its simile companion, its lambswool, the secondary object Elizabeth Bishop used to create her miraculous comparison. Gass finally puts into words what it is about prose and narrative which draws me like no other, why it is I'm always coming back to words even if imagery is more efficient. The assembly of words into astonishing patterns, hitherto never heard, has always been my favourite magic trick.