Book Discussion Group, Omensetter’s Luck: On Henry Pimber as First Adam

A couple of days belated, but tonight we begin our long-promised discussion of William H. Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck. I’m very excited about this. Not least because I finally get to put on paper my own halting thoughts & comments about the book, now that I’ve read it for a second time, but also because I get to engage the perspectives & opinions of those who’ve agreed to read it with me. We’ll take this discussion as quickly or slowly as it warrants. Please, jump aboard even if this is the first you’ve heard of it.

With this first post, I’m kicking things off. Those who know my style & take on things like this know what not to expect anyway. I’m not interested in summarizing the book for you, introducing the characters. I’m very much assuming– and encourage the other writers in this discussion to do the same — that if you’re reading the post, you’ve either read the book (or are in the midst of reading it) or are keen on reading the thoughts of those who have. With that . . .

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I first began read Omensetter’s Luck a couple of summers ago while seated uncomfortably on a long flight between San Francisco and Brussels. My intention had been to bring along Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but it had proved too bulky for comfortable transport. Gass’ debut novel, I decided, was far easier not only to tote between my connections but also to tuck away, alongside the hopefully unused vomit bag and duty-free catalog, in the facing seat’s sleeve when the time came to eat or rest.

They were, those early pages, a struggle. Israbestis Tott annoyed me as much as he did those about & to whom he was tottering and jabbering. I had only the vaguest sense of what he was even talking about — like I was feeling a wall in a pitch-black room, knowing it to be a wall, but not finding the information at all helpful in terms of finding my way around. The frustration Tott poses to everybody he encounters in the first section of the novel, including himself, is an interesting contrast: he clearly knows something, namely, the intertwined story of Pimber, Omensetter, & Furber, of the town of Gilean itself, long the town storyteller, he, but is wholly inadequate to its telling.

(As I read this first section a second time a couple of weeks ago, I had the sense that Tott may have in fact done a considerably better job at the telling because of his inadequacy. Perhaps worth discussing as we progress?)

More immediately adequate to the cause, certainly in pulling me more fully into the novel, was the tragic tale of Henry Pimber told in the novel’s second movement. I don’t relish the idea of saying that in him I found somebody I could identify, considering how melancholic & pathetic he is up to his dying hour. If it wasn’t identification I sought and/or found, it was a kind of kinship. The final (& longest) portion of the novel told from the perspective of the Rev. Jethro Furber may justly get the lion’s share of critical attention & appreciation, with its dexterous use of language and artillery barrage of ideas, a tendency I suspect we will largely follow, but it would be a shame if we left poor Henry hanging for too long on his “leave-taking” limb.

Because, after all, it is Pimber who first unlocks the secret of Omensetter’s luck, isn’t it? Fittingly, Omensetter last “If Brackett Omensetter had ever had the secret of how to live, he hadn’t know it” (63). (Well, no, last always, I suppose, would be Tott, who, if he tells the story at all, does so in spite of himself, which is still better than most.) Pimber’s fate is as inhuman as Omensetter’s life up to that point — whether either is more or less human, that’s a pertinent question — each a mirror-twinned, perversely embodied, effect of knowledge. For Pimber, it results in his being raised high in death; for his twin (of a sort), Omensetter, being brought low to “real life.” Is it a spoiler to say the “secret” here? Oh . . . why not?

Omensetter lived by not observing — [but] by joining himself to what he knew. (60)

Omensetter’s, in other words, was a peculiar knowledge that required neither sensation nor objectification; in truck with as little metaphor as morality. What played out for others (& eventually himself) as preternatural luck was for him an unexamined “how else could it be?” Unconcerned by a fallen world’s concerns & injustices, its superstitions & slights, Omensetter’s luck was untainted by wish or hope, not so much even by expectation, but rather guarded by a virginal inevitability that things could be no other way. An Edenic life. What Pimber comes to realize, however, is that Omensetter was no Adam — not yet anyway. That would have to wait for his Fall: into knowledge, into humanity, which was happening without his even knowing it. (There being no “story of Adam & Even,” after all, until after the Fall.)

Again, like a mirror’s twin, Pimber’s realization, his newfound knowledge, is his own Fall  — but here, into the pre-lapsarian Adam, who again, odd as it may sound, can only follow in the wake of that Adam who has fallen. This Adam, the namer of trees, is indistinguishable from what he observes, subject & object collapsed, and as such is “lost” within that which he names. Which is to say, in more banal, sentimental terms, I don’t think Pimber hangs himself high & out of sight within the trees out of despair so much as, perversely (at least from a “post-lapsarian” perspective), a kind of propriety. Absent the love of Omensetter or the speech of Furber, the alternatives I hope to discuss in subsequent posts, where else to go but up so high in order to more adequately dive so low? ( “I ought to be exposed upon a mountain where the birds can pick my body, for no one could put himself on purpose in this clay. Besides, anyone who’s lived so slow and stupidly as I have ought to spend his death up high” [70].)

10 thoughts on “Book Discussion Group, Omensetter’s Luck: On Henry Pimber as First Adam

  1. I just picked up the book so I have only finished the chapters of Tott and Pimber. I am glad that I was not drastically missing something in reading the first chapter. I will wait until I finish the book but I hope to come back to the account of Tott ‘traveling the wall’ in all his limitations. That strikes me as significant given some of the directions you are outlining. Looking forward to it.

  2. Yeah. As I see it, Gass sets quite a hurdle for himself, by design, with that false-opening of a first chapter. You are very immediately enveloped in the frustrations of sense & language, which appropriately are thematic pegs for the rest of the novel. Tott totters about by way of it; Pimber gives up on it; and Furber rages by way of it.

  3. I would like to talk more about the “inadequacies” in Tott’s introductory ramblings, yes. Something that stuck out to me immediately, however, was the metaphoric journey he kind of goes on in description of his pain (p.11-12). This is very interesting to me, and also reason I’m still stuck in the first section, because I’ve reread this ‘pain’ section about 6 times. Why so long and descriptive? Why so in-depth? And then he goes in in p. 12

    “His dreams were not embarrassed by cliches, but in each he always knew the precise feel of the air, what manner of birds were singing, the position of the sun, the kind of cloud, the form of emotion in himself and others, and every felicity of life.”

    With this statement, it’s almost as if we have this incredible moment of lucidity and reason in all of the confusion (if that’s what it is) and why? What is Tott’s inadequacy? I’m at the point where I’m still not sure what quite to make of his ramblings, but the imagery is proving really evocative and, at some points, I would even dare to say calming.

  4. Tott’s major inadequacy seems to be the his inability actually to tell the story he wants. Either because of his mental associations sending him in other directions, or due to the inattention of his audiences (the couple, the boy, etc.). Diana brings up an interesting point, by way of that quote esp. — it seems to me that there Tott is actually moving quite close to Omensetter’s “secret” — the absence of any distance between self & world, sense & sensed, etc. Perhaps not wholly, as there remain differences between him & his environment, but certainly a blurring. I’d not considered that. If this is so, maybe Tott is far more astute than our frustration initially allows him. Perhaps we might come back, as people finish the novel, to whether he, in his articulate confusion, embodies to some extent the “solution” to the tension between Omensetter & Furber.

  5. I have thanked Brad elsewhere for pointing to this novel but I’ll thank him again here. Thank you, Brad, this really is up there as the attempt at grandiose suicide every good book needs to try to be. I specifically liked the afterword. It has given me a way to address my own writing once, maybe. Only the preface of Carnap to his central work is in the same league.

    I have to say that in reading this small village tale I experience more recognition than I feel it pointing to themes of a more mythical nature. This includes the dementia of Toth that pre-emptively deflates the events to be told later and de-romanticizes the whole ‘innocence’-thing, cfr “Lying there staring at the wall in the partial darkness hour on hour, the pain rising periodically as high water and leaving only a slight backwash of relief when it receded, Israbestis lamented bitterly his lack of education.”

    The xenophobia towards the intruder, the unhappiness of Henry that is revealed when confronted with alternatives, the bitterness of Henry’s wife capable of jealousy of both those who have more and those who have less, the warm welcome without words and complications by some … all of it is recognizable and unremarkable. As is the suicide or the assisted suicide and the confusion of the search and the need for answers and the impossibility to get them. It’s as if it could have happened near you.

    Actually, it all probably did happen near all of us. We’re probably just too much like Tott in our inability to recount it in a way that lifts it (and therefore us) up out of this our everyday’s mud.

  6. I very much agree, Guido. The mythic nature of the tale is all quite surface, but in such a way that talking about it can make one feel like s/he is reaching literary depths. But what you say is a helpful reminder — and arguably is even the lesson learned by Furber at the end of the book. But, as people are, I think, still reading, I’ll remain vague about that.

    I love your comment, too, re: how Lucy Pimber is “capable of jealousy of both those who have more and those who have less.”

  7. Ugh. Just finished chapter five of Furber’s section, not sure if it was therapeutic or traumatic as a preacher myself. Should be recommended reading in homiletics classes or at least somewhere in the seminary curriculum. But as Furber points out his audience will likely always be a particular ‘no one’.

  8. “… it seems to me that there Tott is actually moving quite close to Omensetter’s “secret” — the absence of any distance between self & world, sense & sensed, etc.”

    What do you make of the “Kick’s Cat” exchange? Does it reveal anything about Tott’s understanding of what went down, do you think?

  9. Guido-
    “Actually, it all probably did happen near all of us. We’re probably just too much like Tott in our inability to recount it in a way that lifts it (and therefore us) up out of this our everyday’s mud.”

    Brilliant. For whatever reason, I’d not quite thought about it this way. But it’s obviously very appropriate, and tragically accurate.

  10. Oh, and Robert, really enjoyed your post today. I actually did a bit of reading into one of Gass’s earlier essays (Finding a form) and thought the metaphor of music to various literary devices was incredible.

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