Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

At-Swim among the Noble Gasses

Academic journal article The Review of Contemporary Fiction

At-Swim among the Noble Gasses

Article excerpt

Amid the charivari of huzzahs and cagey praise that greets Bill Gass's prose, there is always the slur that he remains unapologetically highbrow (a word that has no equivalent in French). You have to wonder at a culture, if such, which thus chides the natural activity of someone born with a mind, like Gass, whose abstract reasoning collides with his rompy phenomenology. If, while trying to write, I get a smear of Roma coffee substitute into my eye, there is just about no one I would sooner have brood upon the event than Bill. Gass delights in finding things in the wrong places; this is the basis of his contrapuntal style, just about as far from Heinrich Himmler's lean raw greyhounds (his anthropomorphic version of his SS youths) as any anti-Nazi can get. We inhabit a time of drab, immigrant prose, generously published by money-grubbing publishers, but Bill comes from a planet of his own devising, tootling a wunderhorn like no one else's.

Gass and I have a good many things in common, including the almost ever-ready answers "formalism" and "style" to anyone asking silly John Gardner types of questions about literature. Bill told Arthur M. Saltzman so in an interview, omitting the fact that we both have swimming pools, which give us distraction and delight in about equal measure. I recall seeing Bill's pool empty, for the painters, and marveling at his apparent equanimity; down into that bare white dental cavity we looked, and I felt the space there oppressive whereas it seemed to free him and gave him a new view of the bathing hole. Our own pool has a turf fringe lined with ordinary bricks, which form a fairly graceful curve along the patio, except that one brick is missing and grass has long ago replaced it. So when you prepare to step up to the ladder, you can actually step onto this berm of turf, prizing its softness, the element of bounce within it. Now, someone with a pattern complex would have taken trowel and ruler to this gap and made exact room again for the brick. Indeed, long-forgotten voices have urged me to do just that, but I somehow have demurred. Who, then, would appreciate the near-illicit soupcon of springboard I find in that sprout of turf, the grass that intercepts your foot before you actually step on the grass that flanks the coping?

Why, Bill of course, not merely a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles, but also a quantum surveyor of what belongs where it should not. Behind this pool foolery lies a lifelong interest in metaphor, in the opposition of discordant elements, in literature's counterpoint--a recognition without which neither Apollinaire nor Nerval would work, nor Cowley, Donne, and Shakespeare. There is a counterpoint in literature that only simplists ignore, and there is also a counterpoint in the preparation of literature. You have to have the right quarrel in the brain before you make with the blocks. Perhaps the most cogent version of this need is what people say about writers' having to write because they cannot face the world the way it is. Thus we get a barbarism embellished. Thus too we get Bill Gass, passionate photographer, going out to snap the ugliest sights he can find in St. Louis, firm in his conviction that the act somehow provides a supplementary hidden tune, making the hideous or the barren more interesting, exciting, than we would ever have believed.

So, in this sense, he is a serendipitous beautifier, in his prose as in his photographs, the point being that the right kind of attention can convert a sow's ear into a silk purse, or, failing that, into something implying porcelain.

Bill has never, so far as I remember, been in our somewhat rundown pool, it never having been the right season, though he has slept in our caboose, selecting for his midnight reading Last Tango in Paris, in whose buttery longueurs he perhaps takes more pleasure than I do, exercising devout phenomenology on every word. I have suggested elsewhere, in a book on words, the chance of becoming an etymological reader, sealed in by words, ravished by the fierce mirror they impose on us. …

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