This is a post about Omensetter’s Luck by William H. Gass. It will take the form of a bunch of scattered observations and hypotheses. But first some introduction of the perspective from which I’ve written what follows in section II, et al, and which I’ve gleaned from nearly constant perusal of Gass’s many books of essays since I discovered them a year or so ago.
After reading the essays, one has to notice at least two things: first, that Gass is radically constructivist about fictional worlds and characters; further, that he is a writer of sentences first – of scenes and stories a distant second.
As a constructivist he compares the author to God, and he relates the history of the development of the novel to the increasingly problematic question of the author’s moral relationship to the world he creates within his words. “Before us is the empty page, the deep o’er which, like God, though modestly, we brood.” The historical move from omniscient narrators, for example, into a preference for radically limited perspectives is a move as if God created a world to run according to lawful processes and then used those laws to excuse himself from responsibility for the tragedies that consequently befell his creatures. “Novels in which the novelist has effaced himself create worlds without gods.”
Gass’s meta-fictional stories, which so perplexed and fascinated the simple mind of a John Gardner (for instance in his The Art of Fiction, where he continually referred to Gass as one of the most important contemporary writers, while remaining clueless as to the measure of his greatness), work out, in his own inevitably godlike practice of authorship, the moral quandaries involved in being God. Gass is an atheist, of course, but also a constant theologian (a practical theologian, if you will, where I mean not “moralist” but “one who practices being god and seeks to know him in that way”).
Gass’s constructivism is also a part of his awareness of the history of modernity. He knows that secularization, rationalization, bureaucratization, and commodification have put the kibosh on any mimetic ideal for fiction. People simply don’t share enough of the same world for one mirror to reflect it. Hence, “there are no descriptions in fiction, there are only constructions.” He devotes a whole essay to demolishing the idea of characters that are more real than life – as some people say of, for example, Anna Karenina. Characters are nothing but the persistent glyphs of their written name, along with whatever predicates and sentences are associated with them.
The upshot of all this constructivism is, among other things, a sharp critique of the kind of literary criticism that spends its time looking for insights into characters, formalizations of plot, and deep moral lessons. What is all that stuff, really, but the effort to interpret the revelation of an authorial God who is not transcendent and therefore not worth the effort? (To steal my own thunder: those who read with such goals in mind are rather like Reverend Furber, forever trying to wrest revelatory insight from nature, except that in this case they are more foolish, even, than him because the nature they are consulting like the Delphic oracle is just some other human’s construction. “These days, often, the novelist resumes the guise of God; but he is merely one of us now, full of confusion and error, sin and cleverness.”)
But if this is true, and most critics are like bad preachers of flawed scriptures, how exactly should one write about fiction?
The answer may be found in the other thing the essays reveal: for Gass, writing is about sentences first. He wrote:
You do not tell a story; your fiction will do that when your fiction is finished. What you make is music, and because your sounds are carriers of concepts, you make conceptual music, too.
As this quote demonstrates, it’s not just sentences, but sentences in their aspect as aesthetic constructions and concept-carriers which fascinate Gass as a writer. There are echoes here of Gass’s most important critical and philosophical influences: New Criticism and logical positivism. (I know, I know: these influences surprised me, too, when I learned of them.) The New Critical influence is felt in Gass’s emphasis upon the autonomy of sentences: they are interesting in their elemental nature, as conceptual music, prior to anything they might tell us about their times or even about the characters and events they project. The logical positivist influence is felt in his profoundly antimetaphysical polemics against character and plot and theme. Sentences, these essentially delicious and atomically elemental constituents of a novel, are where the philosophy and the life of fiction is to be found.
I imagine that Gass would prefer his own fiction to be dealt with as he deals with the fiction of others. So I’m going to try to do that in what follows. Let’s talk about some sentences. I haven’t tried to string my observations into some thesis driven argument, nor to offer an over-all interpretation. Instead I simply offer them for what they are and have tried to tie them as much as possible specifically to sentences as conceptual music.
What is Omensetter’s Luck about? Often a title will hint at what a novel is about. Not so much in this case. Certainly Tott, Pimber, and Furber speak about the luck of Brackett Omensetter. But they didn’t write the novel, though(almost) every word in it is one of theirs. Gass wrote them. This is metafiction as Gass practices it: a story about characters telling a story. Consequently the best fun and the most interesting comparisons involve the three stories, not their common object. Omensetter’s luck is like the table on which these three story-tellers sit. Don’t be distracted by Omensetter’s luck; you’ll have no problem keeping him in view. The trick is like a phenomenological reduction: be conscious of consciousness, notice the story of the story.
My synopsis, having performed this “reduction,” is this: Omensetter’s Luck is Gass’s sentences about the sentences of three men about a sentenceless man. It is a book about the misery of being articulate in the face of the pre-articulate – and yet, a book that gives us pleasure in its articulateness.
What sentences! Before comparing the three varieties of them (the sentences of Tott, of Pimber, of Furber), let’s just hang a few of them from across the whole text as if in a museum. No Duchamp, this exhibition. Context or contextlessness is irrelevant to their beauty which is musical and conceptual. Like footnotes in a good work of scholarship, they tell a second story beneath the apparent story of Omensetter and his luck. They carry us forward like Socrates’ irony. They constantly belie – in the delight they give us – the agony they appear to be giving their constructed narrators. I share them without comment, each in their own little frame:
Israbestis Tott remembers… something. He is a babbling and not very interesting ghost at the auction of Mrs. Pimber’s belongings. One after another he tries to make people listen, to re-enact his ancient role as town gossip. But it’s hard when no one remembers the ones you want to gossip about, when there’s no traction for prurience. Only the sensational will make people listen. And then, as an old man, he really wants not so much to gossip as to reminisce, but the only mode of communication he knows is gossip. A problem. Consequently many of Israbestis’s sentences trail off. His interlocutors depart, ignore him, cut him off, redirect him.
Gass called this first section an overture. (Remember that sentences are conceptual music. Gass takes that designation quite seriously.) It sounds the themes and characters that will be developed later. It is medley and fantasia, haunted by experiences yet to come (as far as the reader is concerned). Like any good overture, it was composed last.
Each of the three narrators will fantasize. They will seize upon the tableaus of everyday life and enter into them in strange ways. Pimber does it with trees and with a fox. Furber will elevate it to the level of exegesis, dialoguing with gravestones, listening to sounds and divining in them judgments. Tott does it with old, cracked wallpaper, in one of the most beautiful passages about a day dream I’ve ever encountered. It could almost come straight out of Browne:
You could imagine maps in the wallpaper. The roses had faded into vague shells of pink. Only a few silver lines along the vanished stems and in the veins of leaves, indistinct patches of the palest green, remained—the faint suggestions of mysterious geography. A grease spot was a marsh, a mountain or a treasure. Israbestis went boating down a crack on cool days, under tree boughs, bending his head. He fished in a chip of plaster. The perch rose to the bait and were golden in the sunwater. Speaks stood for cities; pencil marks for bridges; stains and shutter patterns laid out fields of wheat and oats and corn. In the shadow of a corner the crack issued into a great sea. There was a tear in the paper that looked exactly like a railway and another that signified a range of hills. Some tiny drops of ink formed a chain of lakes…
I don’t have much to say about Tott, just one recommendation: go reread his section after you’ve finished the book. It’s considerably more interesting then.
Henry Pimber is pitiable. Probably the most sympathetic character. He is a namer, as are all three narrators. Tott is a failure at naming. A boy has to explain to him the importance of names: he can’t just call Kick’s cat, “Kick’s cat,” because “I know a kid got his name erased and he went away forever. […] he went away invisible so no one could see him.” “No one at all?” “Only trees. Things like that.” Pimber, on the other hand, knows about names. Brad has already observed how Adamic this makes him. But Pimber’s names have their greatest effect on himself. He identifies himself with what he names, with a fox, with trees. Eventually he extends the limb of a tree with his own body. (Furber is the best at naming. Omensetter himself is affected by Furber’s naming.)
As a namer, Pimber tries to find a name for Omensetter. He loves Omensetter. But he just can’t identify himself with the lucky man. His sentences are largely loving anthropomorphisms. Strangely, he can’t anthropomorphize Omensetter:
Not Adam but inhuman. Was that why he loved him, Henry wondered. It wasn’t for his life—a curse, god knew; it wasn’t for the beet-root poultice. It lay somewhere in the chance of being new… of living lucky, and of losing Henry Pimber. He had always crammed humanity in everything. Even the air felt guilty. Once he would have seen each tree along this slope boned humanly and branching like the black bile tree, the locust, despondent even at the summit of the highest summer. How convenient it had been to find his friends and enemies embarked in tame slow trunks, in this or that bent tree, their aspirations safely in high branches and their fires podded into quiet seed. He could pat their bodies with his hands and carve his name and make up animal emotions for them no fruit could contradict. It was always easier to love great trees than people. Such trees were honest. Their deaths showed.
Jethro Furber’s sentences take the form of long, eloquent, bitter, allusion-riddled, world-creating monologues. That is Gass’s best genre. The Tunnel is one long instance of it. In several essays and interviews, Gass has revealed that his father was a violently bitter man with terrible things to say about the many kinds of people he disliked. One can’t help but see in Gass’s embittered monologuers an enhanced, sophisticated, erudite version of his own father.
Furber despises the pre-articulateness of Omensetter. Sunday while he preaches – holds the rest of the whole town hostage to his own articulateness – the Omensetter family lounges outside in the gravel and trails their feet in the stream, noisy with enjoyment. Furber’s account attempts to diminish the Omensetter pre-articulateness by rendering it as meaningless noises. Consequently his monologue is at first punctuated by mocking onomatopoeias. Yet we can’t mistake Furber’s jealousy that Omensetter and his dog are more successful at arousing his congregation – albeit to pre-articulate playfulness – than his own failed pulpit dramatism. (Before his first sermon he attempted a dramatic pause and was thoroughly embarrassed when the pianist started playing a hymn to cover the silence.)
Furber and Omensetter upend religion’s desired contrast. The natural man, pre-religion (and therefore, presumably, pre-grace) is supposed to be vile and doomed. The religious man, on the other hand, is supposed to be salt and light, the agent of grace. But Omensetter is the zestful beacon, the purveyor of beet-poultice miracles, the lucky man (and Gass has said that luck functions as grace with an assumed name in this story). Furber is a preacher whose longstanding relationship with the Bible began as a form of permissible masochism. He preaches law and looks for punishment. When he first read it, the New Testament was rather a disappointment.
Consequently, Furber’s sentences are larded with allusions and direct quotations of the Old Testament. That and dirty poems. He provides the basis for a comparison which reveals that the two genres are not so far apart as they may seem.
As I’m sure everyone noticed, Furber mispronounces Brackett Omensetter’s name until the time when Omensetter tells him about Pimber’s death. From that point on, “Backett” is “Brackett.” This is the chief indicator of Furber’s change of heart.
Could there be a more amusing and revealing contrast than that between Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and the Gilean of Gass’s demonic pastor?
I could go on and on and on about Furber, but, as Brad pointed out in his post, the last section of the book is the richest vein. So I’ll leave it mostly alone for others to talk about
If none of the many scattered observations above offer any meat to chew on in the comments, perhaps at least everyone who has read the book could do the following: type out your favorite sentence from the book, from the perspective of “conceptual music.”