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Portrait of the Artist as a young... Meh

William Gass produces a magisterial novel about mediocrity

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William Gass has never been afraid to admit that he’s got something big in the works. Over the last half-century, starting with Omensetter’s Luck in 1966, he’s published three full novels and a novella, all brimming with ambition. The Tunnel, published in 1995 after 20-odd years in the works, is generally considered his masterpiece, and it would probably be required reading if he’d hung himself. A year after that, however, that window of opportunity closed with David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. But Gass proudly carried on, to be admired by a favored few; he’s juggled careers as a successful professor of philosophy and essayist, never fated to be prominently displayed in millennial dormrooms. Now that he is almost 90, I don’t see any place left for Middle C (Knopf), his latest novel. But that doesn’t mean younger writers shouldn’t buy it. It’s a brilliant swan song for a generation of literary mad men: Hawkes, Barth, Gaddis, Coover, et al.: white, male, politically incorrect, visionary, and not always easily accessible.

Gass has always been deliberately uncool and—to the extent that he mentions popular culture—a fish out of water in a world where cultural identity began with the early ’60s. His middle-American landscape is bland and parched. His heroes are loners, prophets of destruction who seem to have dropped themselves into tornado shelters, where, undetected, they narrate the downfall of their race. The fact that there’s something vindicating and even uplifting about the voices and the strategies they form is their saving grace, and even Gass’. It’s also a reminder that lit’rary fiction isn’t literary because of its pretensions but because of its small victories. Keep that in mind through this brief plot summary of what might seem like a depressing book.

Meet Joey Skizzen, whose early childhood was spent in Nazi-occupied Austria. His Gentile dad escaped from the Nazis by masquerading as a Jew, then abandoned his family in London to head off to America under a new alias. Joey, his sister Debbie, and mother, Miriam, head off to the new world and ultimately to rural Ohio, where they settle. Debbie becomes a cheerleader, easily disappearing into the middle-class landscape. Joey is a lover of music with a budding talent that never quite flowers and eventually transforms into a love of books. He acquires a position in academia. His mother lives with him, gardening obsessively, an activity which Gass follows with his trademark lyrical descriptiveness.

All characters must want something, but it’s hard to pin down what exactly Joey is looking for. He moves from high school (where he nearly gets raped by his French teacher, Madame Mieux) to Augsburg College, then to a job at a library in a podunk town, never really seeming to want anything. His lonely, lost persona seems to bring out the maternal instincts in women. But he manages to evade their ruses and preserve his virginity, building himself a home in the intellectual flatlands of America, where success is defined by a gentleman’s C. Hence the title.

Mediocrity is the palette for Gass. But unlike some of his peers—Thomas Bernhardt, William Gaddis—he doesn’t foam at the mouth about it. Nor does it send him into self-lacerations (Foster Wallace, Franzen). Gass accepts mediocrity with Buddhist equanimity, even when contemplating the more horrific banalities of life. His character Joey seems to accept his unremarkable nature as a saving grace, a musical anchor for his own inner life. It’s the nexus for an inner world that allows a young man in rural Ohio to explore musical tradition—from Tin Pan Alley to Schoenberg—and the major writers and philosophers. But if Joey is an autodidact, it’s not because of a burning desire to succeed. It’s more of a desire to survive, to create a space of his own, above the masses. In more mordant language, he becomes a bit of a snob, without ever trying to rock the boat. At the heart of the autodidact’s snobbery is the same survivalist ethic: “In short, beauty was protection against the ordinary way of being. And rural Ohio had a lot of the ordinary.”

Gass lacks the slacker vernacular of Foster Wallace and William Vollman’s tendency for populist self-aggrandizement. He celebrates a catatonic culture for what it is: the birthplace for a world of the imagination which is occasionally warped, perverse, obsessive, and private, but somehow exhilarating.

It’s hard to look at a book which features an Inhumanity Museum as one of its principle elements as a love letter to that culture. And Joey Skizzen, who slouches through life under assumed identities, is no hero. (Think Don Draper living with his mom.) But there is a sense of hope—that at the center of it, there’s a song that will outlast the inevitable downfall. As Skizzen notes in his incarnation as a professor of modern music, “for every harmonic composition there ought to be a hidden center—a musical idea from which the notes that would be heard emerge.”

Gass finds that center in astonishing moments that are this book’s greatest rewards—in the apocalyptic rants of Professor Joseph Skizzen, in the stacks of a small-town library, and in the obsessive gardening of Joey’s mom. This isn’t an ennobling or intimidating book. But it is a generous gift to generation of creators paralyzed by the specter of mediocrity: As an 89-year-old master reminds us, there’s music in the flatlands, if you listen.

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