Lookin' with Gass
Caponegro, Mary, The Review of Contemporary Fiction
I have had mentors to die for, the privilege of learning fiction face to face with several of its masters, but one master I knew only on the page, and those pages tutored me exquisitely. That man's name was William Gass, and I made his textual acquaintance in college, when I studied with that other William G (alas the late)--in name to Gass a fraternal twin of sorts (trading double s for double d)--a writer with whom he is often conflated, and about whom Gass eloquently spoke at the memorial service only a few years ago. I showed William Gaddis a treasure I had found in a used bookstore in Rhinebeck, New York, in the late seventies, and I recall that he invoked the third grand William: Shakespeare. The title of my treasure was another--but a fictive--Willie, and a Master too, but the story was in fact his Lonesome Wife's. I experienced an epiphany when I entered the process of this book, a series of sensations akin to those felt entering the virtual solar system of the Hayden Planetarium: a textured sensory experience. The adjective eye-opening is inadequate to describe the manner in which text is fleshed, the manner in which typographical forces render the verbal sculptural. The plasticity of his polysemy seized me by the eye. It was my initiation into the world within the words of William Gass.
Even decades later this text astounds by its brilliant inventiveness, exploiting every conceivable vehicle, be it thickness or thinness or Gothic inflection of letter, spacing, curve of lines (which swerve right off the page sometimes), italicization, etc. A concrete poem emerges on occasion and every page brims with activity, or more precisely, choreography. The leaves of this book seduce through numerous means, including the "naughty" photo-images of breasts and calves and face and buttock, such that one comes to understand these images do not intend to titillate but rather to point the way toward the voluptuousness of language: the eros that is indeed Gass's lifelong theme. A protean metamorphosis is achieved, not through mechanical permutation, but a more organic process of evolution and distortion and becoming, as if language were presented in process, in the shape it takes when squeezed from cerebral orifices. The body's deterioration is the book's "thematic" beginning: flesh en route to decay, but hey, it suggests, why not celebrate along the way with the lyrical and the ribald, letting flesh inform text to yield the visceral aspect of a body of work. It isn't any accident that Gass in his criticism brilliantly illuminates Gertrude Stein, who rendered words objects, made them through sonic properties tough as--well, not nails but buttons, to have and to hold: a toughness obviously not precluding tenderness, opaque enough to make sure somebody couldn't barrel through to meaning stripped of polysemous associations. ("Gertrude Stein and the Geography of the Sentence" was the first critical essay that made me see literary criticism could aspire to poetry: Gass on Stein was icing on the cake, or rather cake-on-cake, double-fudged devil's food, to have the king and queen of such exalted linguistic mischief paired in succulent symbiosis!) Meanwhile, in Willie M, Gass accomplishes visually what Gertie did acoustically: he constructs not a concrete poem but an extrapolated concrete fiction, the texture of which can mutate from cashmere to cement in a single paragraph, from silk to steel and back, ever-changing under our irrepressible caress. "I am that lady language chose to make her playhouse of," Gass tells us through his narrator-lonesome wife, and play was never so exalted, nor the Barthean pleasure of the text so tangible. "Imagination is its medium realized," she declares. How concretely the entirety of Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife bears this out.
Many years later, in that hefty, hardy, and hardly light-hearted novel The Tunnel, William Gass will find the way to the darker side of the logos through an analogous imagining. …