`Chewable Food' for Readers Gass Explores Form and Soul

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Essays by William H. Gass

354 pages, Knopf, $26 THE WRITER IN POLITICS Edited by William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco Introduction by William H. Gass 200 pages, Southern Illinois University Press, $24.95 THE ESSAYS in "Finding a Form" outline William H. Gass's thoughts about the relation between "the form," a crafted artifact, and "the soul," which the author defines as "the immediate source of any speech - the larynx of the logos." Just as a nautilus shell's spiral of sealed chambers attests to a mollusk's spatial growth over time, the essays circumnavigate space and time as measures of meaning. Unlike the uncritical feeder in its shell, Gass is concerned with the life of the mind, that is, language's ability to see and to say "the way life is" - from joyous to "convoluted, multiple, inverted, simultaneous, continuous, pointless, cracked." Gass has revised the 19 essays in the book from their past lives as book reviews, essays or speeches, and the cohesion gained has somewhat reduced their original freshness and diversity. The book, subdivided into sections that voyage through submerged, difficult terrain and states of mind, opens with two essays based, in part, on the author's familiarity with judging literary awards. The first, "Pulitzer: The People's Prize," is derogatory from its title to its last line. Comparing it to "lean cuisine," Gass asserts, "the Pulitzer Prize in fiction takes deadly aim at mediocrity and almost never misses; the prize is simply not given to work of the first rank. . ." Gass qualifies his negation by exempting Toni Morrison's "Beloved" (1988) from his consideration and by calling Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence," the 1921 selection, the "single outstanding choice." Gass follows this shot at a literary award with one aimed at writing programs and younger writers. "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense" protests, "The present tense is a parched and barren country. In the past, writers rarely went there." Ironically, Gass has employed "is" often himself in the essays in this collection. The title essay, "Finding a Form," poses the question central to the author's art: "The sentence - its shape, its sound, the space it makes, its importance to consciousness, its manifestation of the mind/ - body problem (meaning and thing fastened to the same inscription) - is it in my obsession with the ontology of the word that I find the ground for my own practice?" By applying concepts from ontology, the branch of metaphysics that studies the nature of existence, to sounds, words and sentences, Gass figuratively aims to make "chewable food" for the reader's "mouth." Mixing his metaphors freely, he also compares words to glass windows containing "the distortions of the medium, its breakage, its discoloration, its framing . . ." The title essay includes autobiographical fragments that echo characters in Gass's Baroque novel "The Tunnel": a racist father "who railed at the world," an alcoholic mother "drunk more than a dozen years before the blood vessels in her throat burst" and an invasive maiden aunt "moving from relative to relative." In a bigoted family, Gass found a metaphorical room of his own - "the world became a page." The title essay closes with a scathing indictment of low quality in writing and in thought: ". . . even one poor paragraph indelibly stains the soul. The unpleasant consequence of every such botch is that your life, as you register your writing, looks back at you as from a dirty mirror, and there you perceive a record of ineptitude, compromise, and failure." This uncompromising stand in the first three essays casts a large shadow across the contemporary literary landscape. The middle sections of book reviews and essays on Hispanic novelists, Robert Walser, Ford Madox Ford, Danilo Kis, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and Ezra Pound provide fresh insights into the relation Gass has to these thinkers. …