Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Long, Long, Long Sentence: An Interlinear Elegy for William H. Gass

We best remember a writer by reading him. And by thinking about what we've read. And arguing with it in our heads.


Gass was a sentence man, so I'll remember him by reading one of his early epics, an astoundingly accomplished, lung-emptyingly long sentence that constitutes almost an entire paragraph in his early essay "Even If, By All the Oxen in the World" (in Fiction and the Figures of Life). The words in plain text below are Gass's original paragraph, anything but plain; the italicized impertinences are my graffiti-like interlinear commentary. Consider it a what-do-I-know? elegy.


"Must we be drunk or doped or mad, must we be dunced and numb to feed our animal halves? (Listen to the music of this not-at-all rhetorical question: those three thumping adjectives like bass drumbeats in the opening phrase, the way the vowel of 'Must' is picked up by 'drunk,' repeated after the caesura, then tub-thumped by 'dunced and numb.' Notice that 'feed' reprises the repeated 'we be' vowel just before the whole sentence mellows into the short a's of 'animal halves,' a phrase that seems soporific until we notice that it picks up the vowel of 'mad' and seems to leave us at interrogative's end in a kind of catatonic trance, the suspense of an unanswered question.) So it appears. (Three little words, nothing like the old showtune (although its dominant vowels do harmonize with the 'doped' and 'feed' of the preceding sentence). But this simple sentence only appears to be an answer. Nay, an appropriately Baroque reader might ejaculate, this Shaker-spare plank of a sentence might reply, but it does not conclude. It's but a diving board from which Gass springs into the long, long, long, long sentence that comprises the rest of the paragraph.) The average man does not want to know how he looks when he eats; (A simple contention which one need not read the 'Lestrygonians' section of Ulysses to confirm. Have you ever eaten a big, sloppy hamburger while facing a mirror? It's enough to convince you that the characters in Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty were right when they decided to shit communally around a table and retire to a small room at the end of the hall to grotesquely consume their food.) he defecates in darkness, reading the Reader's Digest; (A darkly musical lower GI movement that only Beckett might have bettered. Listen to the Latinate excrements alliteratively emerge into medieval darkness; hear reading, that most intellectual of activities, rhymed with the commodified shitpaper of 1960s America's favorite toilet mag.) his love has an awkward automatic metal brevity, like something sprayed from a can, (The first phrase is a mini master class in when not to use commas; by cramming those three adjectives together without a pause, the sentence imitates in its own form the awkwardness that is its topic. Awkward fucking makes awkward rhythms. The simile likewise does double duty, both comparing the average America's ejaculate to a manufactured, environment-destroying aerosol and slangily comparing the man's unlovemaking to the scatology on the other side of the last semicolon: diarrhea is also 'something sprayed from a can.') and any day his present sex might be replaced with plastic; (Yikes! That very 60s intellectual horror of plastic, satirized in The Graduate, issues in a Ballardian vision of castration and mechanization, every man an Eveready dildo attached to a mindless body.) his work is futile, his thought is shallow, his joys ephemeral, his howls helpless and agony incompetent; (There's a mini master class in prose rhythm for you. Watch Maestro Bill elegantly conduct this syntactic gangbang, beginning with complete clauses and ending with the multisyllabic adjective agonizingly jammed up the ass of the appropriately Greek-derived noun. Gass's average man is buggered by life.) his hopes are purchased, his voice prerecorded, his play is mechanical, the roles typed, their lines trite, all strengths are sapped, exertion anyhow is useless, to vote or not is futile, futile... (It's not too outlandish to compare this passage immediately before the sentence stutters into its only ellipsis--a kind of syntactic breakdown--to the vision of Modernist life in Eliot's Waste Land, especially the "At the violet hour" section (lines 215-256). But just when the repeated futility of it all throws his voice toward suicidal silence, Gass remembers his Beckett and, unable to go on, goes on:)  so in almost every way he is separated from the centers of all power and feeling: (Yes, just as this passage stands apart, alienated from the power and feeling that infuses the rest of the superlong sentence. Here Gass's voice is in recovery: bland, depressive, sedated. But he won't linger long.) futilely he feeds, (In a moment of genuinely Beckettian irony, Gass finds in yet another repetition of futility the energy he needs. Now he rocks and rolls:) he voids, he screws, he smokes, he motorboats, he squats before the tube, (Need I remark that squatting before a tube--more precisely, atop one--is exactly what we do when we defecate to the accompaniment of "Humor in Uniform"? Television, to Gass, is nothing more than visual Reader's Digest--a title, I only now notice (!), that conceals a wildly scatological double entendre: the mag is full of shit that other readers have already digested.) he spends at least a week each year in touring and a month in memorizing lies--lies moral, religious, and political--he beats the drum or shouts hurray on cue, (A little indictment of midcentury American middle-class conformity that should be classed-down for today's America to include the Trumpified portion of the working class. Today's conformists waste no time touring, so they have that many more months to memorize lies--lies fed to them by the fucks at Fox.) he wears a neon nightie, swallows pills, and chews his woman's nipples now because a book he's read has told him that he ought to; (He's a tad kinky, our average man, but even his sexuality is safely commercialized, commodified, conformist--sanitized for his protection. Note also that Gass's voice is losing energy again, as though the stupidity of the life he describes has infected his prose. About the rebarbative, patriarchal anonymity of "his woman," need anything more be said? Objects objectify: it's what they do.) my god, he jigs, he swigs, he sings the very latest tra-la-las and sends his kids to scouts and all-white schools, (The patriarchal militaristic frontier kitsch of scouting meets de facto educational segregation at the end of a wordburst that begins with Gass gearshifting from relative lethargy to hysterically stomping monosyllabic frenzy. Our author is back on his game, jazzing it up again, singing hard bebop to drown out the tra-la-las of simpering commercial pop--always a weasel, in the opinions of Gass, Adorno, et al.) he rounds his bottom to a pew, loves pulpitry, and contributes yearly to a cause; (I too love Gass's word 'pulpitry,' which sounds borrowed from his beloved Baroque era. And there's the lovely sculptural perfection of that first phrase: the man molding his ass to fit the pew as he molds his thoughts to fit the conventional dogmas of pulpitry (which puns with puppetry), a self-mutilation that issues in the banal charity-talk cliché of the final five words.) with splendid sexlessness he breeds--boards receive their nails with greater sensitivity-- (Has the word 'splendid' ever seemed less splendid? Gass drains the adjective of meaning just as Mr. Average's inept fucking strains all human meaning out of sex. The surreal carpentry comparison is unforgettably disturbing: sexuality as a dehumanizing act.) he kites the lies he's learned as high as heaven where they sing like toads in trees, (Gass's prose now ascends kite-like to a level of complexity and compression usually reserved for poetry. The word "kites" functions as both verb and metaphor while also suggesting the carrion bird (Gass's deflated angel) and the kiting of checks (religion as monetary fraud: "Gimme ten percent of your income or go straight to hell and tell 'em Reverend Todd Dodge sent ya!") This metamorphic, multifaceted kite flies the average man's average prayers to a heaven several notches below Dante's on the beauty scale, where the songs of Rilke's angels have descended to the lonely blorping of a lowly, warty tree toad.) yet he sickens just the same, and without reason, (After that inexultant rise to degraded heaven comes the slow decline. The pace of the prose slackens as he sickens; the music modulates to a minor key.) for he's been to bridge and bingo, said his rahs as well as anyone, never borrowed on his insurance, kept his car clean, and put his three sons twice through Yale; (This life wasted in the Cheevery suburbs of Updikeville is as banal and hollow as its dominant short vowels: a minor mournful monotony, all as meaningless as sending anyone, let alone three ones, twice through Yale. That 'through' is a nice, subtly scatological touch: Yale, like an anus, is a place the shit goes through.) but age, which is not real, (Of course not. In America we're eternally 25--until we're eternally 75; the only true eternity, the death that eats us all, is one of the things popular culture comes to deny by distracting from distraction with distractions.) hangs like a dirty suit inside his freshly pressed tuxedo; (Gass's variation on Yeats' image of a scarecrowish old man, "a tattered coat upon a stick"; of course, this American variation must characteristically dissemble physical decline, concealing it in a elegant package that reads ambiguously as both upper-class formal wear and the gauzily tasteless attire of a high school prom.) thus he fails, (Like a cashless business, like a Trump casino, he dies not, merely fails; religion then becomes a bankruptcy court offering a second chance after the business has bellied up.) assumes another slumber, (This ass assumes the sentimental sleep of our culture's customary death denial. The verb here takes a double meaning, both the making of an assumption (with overtones of a specifically Catholic denial of death) and the act of pretending, as in 'assuming an air of confidence' (my dictionary's example). Listen to those sibilants sending him slumbering home--more of those to come:) and dies like merchandise gone out of season. (The only possible end to a meaningless, commodified life is a meaningless, commodified death. Listen to the sounds of the sentence mimicking the dying fall of a heart monitor, those three spiky i's declining to an almost flat line of mournful o's... Stick a fork in that motherunfucker. He's done. No escaping this Gass attack. It's worse than World War One.... But wait. For a few years, there have been rumors of rat-like scrabbling at the gravestone's base, and now that Easter's here I can bring the Bad News that He has risen--in fact, he rose a year and a half ago, just in time to vote for Trump.)


Later in this essay, when he shifts to the topic of art, Gass writes: "Art does not, I hasten to say, have a hortatory influence; it's not a medicine, and it teaches nothing. It simply shows us what beauty, perfection, sensuality, and meaning are; and we feel as we should feel if we'd compared physiques with Hercules."


After several hours deep inside Gass's long sentence, I feel a dire need to hit the gym.

1 comment:

tj said...

Good to see you finally show up to the funeral. Entering one of his sentences eulogistically was very appropriate.