Choosing the right character to carry the story is one of the essential jobs of constructing a solid narrative. Often that character will seemingly do the work for the author in the telling of his or her story. Everything follows from viewpoint. If the wrong one is chosen, the work can still be finished, the story told, but it can be an arduous task and, except in the hands of the most skilled, the effort shows in the finished product.
From certain writers we expect the right choices as given. It never occurs to us to question them the way we might question a less seasoned author. Reputation is based on the repeated nailing of all the important factors. Such respect can be so ingrained that when a mistake is encountered, a wrong choice made, and the narrative doesn’t flow as it feels it should, there’s a tendency to blame ourselves. We’re not reading it with sufficient attention, we’re not getting all the cues, we have failed to pierce the caul of metaphor and see into the purpose of the work in hand. We are deficient, not they. If we are bored, it is because we are boring, never that the author to whom we grant such status has bored us. We are philistines, unworthy of the temple secrets.
Sometimes, this is true. There are such works that are so densely construed and meticulously articulated that they require superior attention, often more than a couple of readings, and demand that the reader bring something substantive to the text before page one is even begun.
There are also works which pretend to be like that. They can be difficult, opaque, and on the surface pointless. Often, rather than admit the possibility that the work is flawed, we may find ourselves inventing the nous and telos of such a work, doing ourselves what the writer actually failed to do, or at least failed to get right. If nothing else, the elegance of the sentences, the lexicon and vocabulary alone, convince us that this work must be good. We couldn’t write anything so self-evidently beautiful, concise, lush…artful.
Doubt is also an essential element in literature. The writer doubts in the act of writing, because there are many choices that must be continually made, from the macro to the micro. There are doubts the reader has as the story unfolds, questions to be asked and, we hope, answered. But also the basic doubt—is this book worth our time?
The work must earn our trust, assuage our doubts. Being kicked out of a narrative, something we’ve all experienced, even with the best work, is an aspect of unanswered doubt. The writer loses us when the work fails to keep interest high and doubts low.
With some writers, those with Reputations, this process gets reversed, and a work that might otherwise be set aside had it been written by a lesser light then consumes us in a quest to find the flaw in ourselves that causes us the discomfort of entertaining the possibility that this work is not what it should be.
In a recent piece in Salon.com, Robert Lennon tackles this idea. We are told certain works are worth our time because they are the epitome of what we should aspire to, both as writers and as readers.
A case in point—with regrets—is William Gass’s new novel, Middle C. The prose are fine, there is a playfulness with language reminiscent of Pynchon and Gaddis and, occasionally, Fowles, and some passages are beautiful. The whole does not live up to the potential of its components.
This is a difficult realization. Gass is one of those with Reputation. His essays are acknowledged masterpieces, his novel The Tunnel is considered a 20th Century classic. Middle C is his self-professed Last Novel. The conceit that launches the narrative—a man who changes cultural identities in order to survive the coming catastrophe of World War II, and then continues to drag his family from one set of personae to another, trying to stay one step ahead of those who may force him to conform to moral conditions he cannot abide—is fascinating, and the stage is set beautifully. Distantly reminiscent of Gaddis’s The Recognitions, fraud and imposture inform the lives of his family throughout. The attempt to find a place while simultaneously seeking an identity with which they can comfortably live, set against the backdrop of a post-war America that seemed to change both its sense of self and its expectation with each passing fad should have produced an electric work of neon clarity.
Instead, the protagonist, Joseph Skizzen, is so intent on passing unnoticed through everything and among everyone that he never becomes his own Self, but remains a potential buried within the layers of subterfuge and fraud he uses to get by. If it was Joey’s intention to keep everyone out, Gass allows him to succeed, and we are left with a skilled cipher who never engages with anything. His passion is music, but, presciently, one of his early instructors tells him flat out that he pretends to play well, that he does not let himself know the music, and so will remain a talented mediocrity.
Gass seems to have chosen the wrong character to follow. We know everything we are going to know about Joseph Skizzen by page 50.
Now had he gone with Joey’s father, we might have had a narrative with some unadorned vigor. Rudi Skizzen took chances, acted, moved, and seems to have possessed a moral center that, while manifesting in rather unexpected and abstruse ways, drove him. Had Gass followed him when he abandoned his family to head for Canada…
But we don’t have that book. We have the careful examination of the near wreckage of his family as they try to get by. Not succeed. They don’t try for that (except the sister, Debby, who embraces the plasticity of America and seems to become a Happy Suburbanite—not much a choice, perhaps, but wholly hers and made without apparent regret) but turn inward to self pity and a constant fear of being found out.
Joey Skizzen—Professor Joseph Skizzen—does not wish to be noticed. When people notice you, he suggests, then you are expected to do something, to live up to their criteria. This is well and good if you have a set of criteria of your own and work to live up to them, but Joey’s phobia removes from him any desire, apparently, to have any expectations at all of himself. He just wants to pass through, get by, be left alone.
The reader doubts, especially when confronted with a book by someone we are expected to appreciate, that his or her reactions have any merit when those reactions are negative. At best, this leads to a bit of wasted time spent muscling through a novel searching for what we are told to expect. At worst, we take our inability to gain intellectual purchase in the novel as proof that our intellect is wanting, that our taste is lacking, that we are ourselves the philistines at the gate. It is hard to realize that sometimes even a great artist produces flawed and occasionally fatally flawed work.
I was reminded of another work while going through Middle C, namely James M. Cain’s Mildred Pierce, which also told the story of people trying to change identities and pass as other than they were and dealing in various moral frauds in order to achieve questionable short-term ends. The difference was that in Cain’s work all of them had something to lose, all the way up to the end, which made the work a first-rate tragedy. In Middle C all the loss happens early, nothing is regained, and instead of tragedy we find farce.
There are some fascinating passages in this book, and the ideas with which Gass is playing are rich. But the path he followed seems to take the long way around and doesn’t go where the beginning would suggest it should. No one ought to feel inadequate as a reader in the face of such a work.