- The Fiction of William Gass: The Consolation of Language
Arthur M. Saltzman's book is the first full-length study of William Gass's fiction and, as such, is welcome recognition for one of our best, if most difficult, writers. Gass's critical and theoretical essays have received more attention than his fiction, especially during the last decade or so while The Tunnel has been in-progress. Saltzman's respectful and helpful study, one hopes, will return some of the focus to Gass's fiction.
In four middle chapters Saltzman gives a careful reading of the fiction from Omensetter's Luck on. These chapters offer numerous insights into character, theme, and plot if little detailed analysis of Gass's language at the level of the sentence where it is its most innovative and amazing. What Saltzman does he does well. He traces the intertangling of relationships (Omensetter, Pimber, and Furber bringing each other down or the narrator losing himself in the Means, for instance) with sureness and clarity. He identifies, prioritizes, and paraphrases the main themes correctly—Omensetter's fall from grace, the inwardness of all the narrators or "language centers" (as Gass calls them) from Furber to Kohler, the war between "worldly reality and fictional alternatives" and the metafictional emphasis in Willie Master's Lonesome Wife, and the fascism in our private lives that is the subject of The Tunnel. As a guide to the structure of the fiction, Saltzman is quite good, but he claims at one point in his discussion of "The Pedersen Kid" that these bigger constructs "are merely scaffolds for the language they occasion" and that "Clearing away language so as to better view plot is self-defeating." I agree with him but think that, on the whole, that is precisely what he does. [End Page 287] Gass himself argues that plot and theme are merely "material," ways to organize one's words. He is famous for his pronouncements that anything, if it recurs significantly in a novel—whether it be one of Lowry's volcanoes, movie posters, or bottles of mescal—can be a character and that Hamlet himself is "only a vocabulary." The point, says Gass, echoes Saltzman, is the language. At the risk of sounding like I am calling for a full revival of New Criticism, I must agree and express my wish that Saltzman had analyzed the inner workings of selected passages rather than drawing such broad outlines. Gass's prose really is poetry and at its best when most lyrical. New Criticism always has worked best on lyrics. Gass studied Gertrude Stein in order to learn how to write sentences and says honestly if immodestly that he knows more about the English sentence than anyone. Stanley Elkin describes how his best friend used to sit in his office when the two of them were at the University of Illinois during the heyday of Accent and just practice writing sentences by the hour. One would have hoped that the first book on Gass's fiction would have concentrated on these sentences and the accomplishment they really are, but we can sympathize with Saltzman when we consider the difficulty of the task. The temptation would be to quote from some of Furber's speeches or the descriptions of Omensetter or the sections of "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" or Kohler's rantings and just stand back and say to the reader, "Isn't that something?!"
Faced with the prospect of sounding silly or too clinical about the language of the fiction, Saltzman opts for his gross analysis and then retreats from the task in two other ways. He lets Gass talk for himself in yet another extended interview, and he spends two long chapters dealing with the critical debates of postmodernism. The interview with Gass is (as they always are) witty, entertaining, and provocative, but it adds little to the several that have already been done and, besides, was published previously in Contemporary Literature. The introductory and concluding chapters on postmodernism are uneven...