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.

Gass's Good Opinion on Opinions (the adjective is my opinion)

The compulsively quotable William Howard Gass, American author and word magician (and, in the interstices of that vocation, a professional philosopher), died a few hours before last Infamous Day at the age of infinity (or 93, close enough). The man is four months gone but the books still speak and sing (and now I'll Gass up and go for baroque) like so many Ovidian Orpheus heads scattered across the globe. Here, in a single short paragraph from his late essay "Influence" (collected in A Temple of Texts), Gass delivers an unsettling warning to anyone who reads and thinks. (Folks named Trump need not apply.)

"If you enjoy the opinions you possess, if they give you a glow, be suspicious. They may be possessing you. An opinion should be treated like a guest who is likely to stay too late and drink all the whiskey."

Friday, March 30, 2018

Adorno's Optimism

Adorno's Optimism... Yes, it sounds like the title of a book thinner than Trump on Kant or When Coetzee Smiles or Complex Sentences in Raymond Carver, but anyone who has read even a bit of Adorno has likely come upon passages of surprising optimism--or at least the possibility of optimism--that flash out of the general pessimism like a jagged lightning strike against the blackness of a stormy night. Here are five such moments from Adorno's last book, Aesthetic Theory, an epigram mine of near-Nietzschean richness:

"Aesthetic splendor is not just affirmative ideology; it is also the reflected glimmer of life free of oppression: In its defiance of ruin it takes the side of hope." (Read that again, and remember that it's Adorno, not Ernst Bloch.)

"Only when play becomes aware of its own terror, as in Beckett, does it in any way share in art's power of reconciliation."

"Every artwork, if it is to be fully experienced, requires thought and therefore stands in need of philosophy, which is nothing but the thought that refuses all restrictions." (Those last six words just became my favorite definition of philosophy.)

"If art, as Valery once said, wants to be indebted only to itself, this is because art wants to make itself the likeness of an in-itself, of what is free of domination and disfigurement."

"The making of every authentic work contradicts the pronunciamento that no more can be made." (This statement should be read in the light of Adorno's famous remark about poetry after Auschwitz and his later embrace of the work of Paul Celan. )


Colson Whitehead's fine first novel, The Intuitionist, announced the arrival of an impressive allegorical imagination. Here was a worthy heir to Ralph Ellison who wrote of race and class and the contemporary world with cool cleverness and theoretical savvy; here was Don DeLillo with a hip-hop beat; here was a writer to watch. So when The Underground Railroad appeared, with its magic realist conceit of a literal subterranean rail line transporting slaves to freedom (or not), I thought that here at last would be Whitehead's Gravity's Rainbow, his big, ridiculously ambitious, Hurricane Katrina-strength mind-blower of a novel. I expected this book to ram me down the cannon's throat, stuff my butt with gunpowder, touch flame to fuse, and blow my ass away.

Reader, it didn't.

The Underground Railroad is good enough to keep me reading, even though Whitehead is no prose stylist and his language is standard litfic stuff. It's an appropriately brutal allegory of African-American history that occasionally--but only occasionally--exhibits startling artistic power. The 'South Carolina' satire of separate-but-equal paternalistic cant and the 'North Carolina' nightmare of genocide and the American fascist carnivalesque (which Cora witnesses through a tiny hole in her coffin-like attic hiding place) are wonderfully accomplished; the other sections are less so, and the whole is dogged by narrative predictability and creaky, cartoonish melodrama--a 'Perils of Coraline' rhythm of danger and rescue, danger and rescue.... (Positive criticism might 'rescue' this aspect of the novel by pointing at Pynchon and calling it postmodern irony, but thus indicating the novel's unoriginality would be a strange defense strategy.) And the end of the story, with Cora boarding a wagon heading west, signifies two things, both rather dismal: either Whitehead is capable of thinking Cora out of slavery but not out of the imperialist, racist mythology of America's westward expansion, or he is Spielbergianly setting up a sequel, The Underground Railroad Two: Cora Kicks Californian Ass.

I closed The Underground Railroad deep in the embrace of an intentional fallacy. Surely, I thought, this little 300-page thing was not the book Whitehead intended to write. And it's certainly not the best novel he is capable of writing around these ideas. From blatant internal evidence, Whitehead appears to have intended a Gulliver's Travels-type panoramic satire of the entire African-American experience, from Middle Passage to Michael Brown. Maybe if Whitehead's publisher--or his internal editor, every writer's punishing superego--had permitted him to stretch out and write an 800-page epic a la The Sot-Weed Factor or Pynchon's big ones, he might've accomplished a mind-blowing masterpiece. This, unfortunately, isn't it. And I almost mourn the missed opportunity.

THE KNOWN WORLD by Edward P. Jones

Like Jeffrey Eugenides' Middlesex (a novel with which it otherwise contrasts in virtually every way), Edward P. Jones's The Known World seems like a 700-page novel that has been severely pared down to a more commercially viable length. It remains, however, a good and powerful novel with flashes of startling originality and even brilliance. The tale of the escaped slave mailed in a packing crate to New York and freedom is worthy of Garcia Marquez or Rushdie at his 1980s best; the confrontation scene between Henry and Augustus (Augustus, striking Henry with a walking stick: "Thas how a slave feel"; Henry, snapping the stick over his knee: "Thas how a master feels.") possesses a primal tragic power and a visceral, gut-level greatness. Most stunning of all, though, is  Augustus's kidnapping near the middle of the book, a scene in which the modulation from dark comedy to violent tragedy captures something of slavery's sadistic, absurdist evil that I've never before seen in American art. And even the novel's flaws are, for the most part, errors of ambition, 'positive' flaws: Jones tries to cram the whole history of his imaginary Virginia county into a single 388-page novel, and through judicious use of his signature flash-forwards, he almost convinces us; but the consequent thinness and uncertainty of his characterizations shows that William Faulkner chose the better road, spreading his Yoknapatawpha over an entire career's worth of books rather than stuffing the Snopses and Joe Christmas and Caddie and Temple Drake into a single seriously magnum opus. The Known World is not the second coming of Faulkner or Morrison, but it is very impressive for a first novel (more impressive, indeed, than the first novel of Faulkner and at least on a par with Morrison's The Bluest Eye), and hopefully it won't be this slow, deliberate writer's sole novel.

Richard Ford, Mediocrity

I don't like Richard Ford. Don't like the novels, and probably wouldn't like the guy. If I met him tomorrow I'd hock a loogie on his cheek and say, "Colson Whitehead says hello." (For those unacquainted with the feeble feuds of America's amazing shrinking literary culture (Where have they gone, the Mailers and Vidals of yesteryear?): Several years ago, Whitehead wrote a negative review of a Ford book, and when the two men met some time later, Ford displayed his usual level of maturity and savoir faire by literally spitting in Whitehead's face. Yep, the guy sounds like a total fucking asshole.)

To adapt the recently late, greatly lamented William H. Gass's line about the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Richard Ford is a novelist who sets his sights on mediocrity and always scores a bullseye. His prose is bland, dull and tin-eared, his imagination slim to nonexistent, his novels repetitive, monotonous and burdened by clichés. Contra the book-reviewing extablishment, he is not "one of the great American novelists of his generation" (Washington Post Book World, where they should know better); nor has he "forg[ed] a new way of writing fiction about, and out of, American life that is as revolutionary as Proust's..." (John Banville, who certainly knows better). Richard Ford is an average, conventional, grossly overrated writer whose rather dumb novels have been overpraised for decades and whose overinflated reputation, ballooned to Albuquerque Festival size by critical hot air, is ripe for criticism's corrective pen-prick. I ascribe his currently high literary reputation to a number of factors, among them critical inertia and MFA program canonization. Ford writes directly, even cravenly, to an audience of white, upper-middle-class academics, MFA students, and English majors past and present; and he gives this audience conventional novels to which they can painlessly apply the conventional critical clichés. As a dollop of whipped cream atop the smarmy sundae, he gives them characters with whom they can unproblematically identify. And as the maraschino on top, he gives them prose in which the few ambiguities result from authorial insecurity rather than intellectual complexity or aesthetic daring. Ford's novels challenge neither author nor readers. As a writer he plays basketball with a hoop the size of Taft's bathtub, and his readers enjoy a lukewarm bath in lives no better written or imagined than their own.


Largely owing to the second word in its title, linguistic relic of a much more racist time, this novel is rarely read today, and that fact is even more unfortunate than Korzeniowski's titular N-bomb (which was problematic even in its day: the first US edition was re-titled The Children of the Sea (lose the first definite article and you have a name under which Star-Kist would sell tuna to cannibals), not, apparently, because publishers deemed the N-word offensive, but because they feared white readers wouldn't buy a book with a black title character--to which someone might've objected that many, many white readers purchased copies of Uncle Tom's Cabin...). It's unfortunate--as I was saying before that rudely interrupting parenthesis--because The Nigger of the Narcissus, while not one of Conrad's greatest works, is a thoroughly enjoyable, sometimes beautiful, sometimes cleverly ironic, ultimately enigmatic tale of the sea. The novel's showpiece, a long storm scene in which the boat nearly capsizes and the crew must lash themselves to the tilted deck, is realized with near-hallucinatory vividness, demonstrating the aesthetic goal stated in Conrad's much-quoted preface: " make you see." Elsewhere in Narcissus, Conrad's rhetoric tends to get in the way of his representations, a criticism that might also be applied to Heart of Darkness, but there the rhetoric is so beautiful that any objection seems almost churlish. In Narcissus, Conrad has not yet brought his prose style to the Wagnerian symphonic grandeur it would achieve just a few years later. Here the lyrical passages seem self-consciously 'grand,' and he annoyingly overuses the adjective 'resplendent.' The Heart of Darkness comparison points out another weakness of Narcissus that the author would very soon overcome: his failure to characterize the narrator. Conrad's invention of Marlow as the ridiculously long-winded tale-teller of Darkness and Lord Jim both grounds and complicates those narratives in ways that Narcissus, with its seemingly arbitrary shifts from third-person point-of-view to a collective 'voice of the crew' to an invisible first-person singular (an "I" who never appears as a character), fails to achieve. The Nigger of the Narcissus often reads like a tale told by a Marlow not yet birthed from the Conradian brain.