Monday, February 20, 2006


A new book of essays by William Gass has just been published, and it's reviewed here by Michael Dirda in the 2/19/06 Washington Post Book World. Here's Gass on another WG, William Gaddis:
"(he) never toured, read in circles, rode the circuit. He rarely gave interviews or published opinions. He didn't cultivate the cultivated, nose around the newsworthy, network or glad-hand, sign books or blurb. He didn't teach, prognosticate, distribute awards. He was suspicious of wannabes, wary of flatterers; he guarded his gates. He didn't write the way he did to prove how smart he was, to create a clique that would clack at his every move. Or to get reviewed. Or to receive the plaudits of some crowd. Or to be well paid and bathe in a tub of butter. Or to be feared or sneered at or put down by pip-squeaks. He wrote as well as he could and as he felt the art required, and he knew he would not be thanked for it."
And on art, literature:
"A book can be a significant event in the history of your reading, and your reading (provided you are significant) should be an essential segment of your character and your life. . . . In this country, we are losing, if we have not lost, any appreciation for what we might call 'an intellectual environment.' . . . Libraries have succumbed to the same pressures that have overwhelmed the basic cultural functions of museums and universities . . . so that now they devote far too much of their restricted space, and their limited budget, to public amusement, and to futile competition with the Internet. It is a fact of philistine life that amusement is where the money is. . . . Of course libraries contain books, and books contain information, but information has always been of minor importance, except to minor minds. The information highway has no destination, and the sense of travel it provides is pure illusion. What matters is how the information is arranged, how it is understood, and to what uses it is going to be put. In short, what matters is the book the data's in."
I discovered Gass through his connection to Stanley Elkin, the great late American novelist: they were friends and colleagues at Washington University in St Louis. I've read Omensetter's Luck and In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and, to my mind, his masterwork, The Tunnel, one of the strangest and terrifying and maddening and repugnant novels I've ever read.

The implications of the novel are frightening: no one I've read has more fully explored the relationship between individual instincts towards authoritarianism and the willingness to proxy those instincts lazily to acting authoritarians. It's gross and magnificent. To be fair, it is also deeply hated, both on moral and artistic grounds - James Wolcott, who I admire greatly, ripped it smartly. It is excessive and horrifying. It accuses each of us of an intellectual entropy that feeds a moral lassitude that others exploit, with our tacit permission, through sloppy yet effective appeals to both our basest instincts and our grandest self-delusions. (Do try, if you wish to read the book, to get the hardcopy edition - the book is full of cryptic diagrams and comics and doodles and flags, in color in the hardcopy, black and white only in the paperback.)

The essays are worth reading for their content - Gass is never less than provocative - but they should be read for his use of the English language alone. Open up any collection, choose randomly two paragraphs, and read them aloud just for the sounds. That the beautiful language has smart things to say just increases the pleasure exponentially.


Anonymous FBB said...

What's your favorite Elkin? I'm partial to Dick Gibson Show and The Franchiser, myself...

4:06 PM  
Anonymous BDR said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:56 PM  
Anonymous bdr said...

*The Magic Kingdom* is my favorite novel, though I love most and like the rest. I thought his last, *Mrs Ted Bliss,* beautiful. And I think he is a master of the novella, especially *Bailbondsman* and *Making of Ashenden.*

9:10 PM  

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