William Gass and the Music of Prose

In response to trying to produce a critique of Omensetter’s Luck as a whole, the biggest challenge has obviously been to narrow down which direction to take. As someone who tends to absorb and/or retain art and literature in terms of affect, I’d like to briefly touch on the part of the work of most interest to me psychologically, or in this case, psycholinguistically.

Before I sway too easily into the grave error we’ve been cautioned against that leads down the road of merely looking for insights into characters and ‘moral lessons,’ I’d like to keep just a moment more in regards to Robert’s thoughts on syntax and conceptual music. I have very much enjoyed (coming from a strong music theory background) seeing terminology one also uses in musical structures (i.e. phrase, period, subject, and later assonance and consonance when dealing in sound devises such as those in Frost, Swinburn or Emerson) being employed here.

A couple of days ago, I read a lovely essay by an Italian student at the University of Bologna entitled Dwelling upon Metaphors: The Translation of William Gass’s Novellas. What caught my eye in this dissertation were his thoughts on Gass’s essay in Finding a Form, “The Music of Prose” specifically. In this portion, he sees this ‘conceptual music’ as a type of second syntax:

 Musical form creates another syntax, which overlaps the grammatical and reinforces that set of directions sometimes, or adds another dimension by suggesting that two words, when they alliterate or rhyme, thereby modify each other, even if they’re not in any normally modifying position. Everything a sentence is is made manifest by its music (Gass, 1996).

This sheds an interesting light toward the question Brad previously posed, “Which has more influence over the other: does the note-level aspect inform the larger-scale musicality, or is it more that the larger-scale musicality making possible the hearing of the note-level aspect at all?” I mentioned briefly that I also had wondered this, and on first instinct was inclined to agree with the latter. Would we have even taken the chance to note the more intimate underpinnings of the text (the sentence Brad noted on p. 145, “Omensetter’s stones did not skip on forever…” being an excellent example) without previously taking in the ‘larger-scale musicality?’ I’m inclined to be doubtful.

In defense of the conclusion being the latter, where the larger-scale musicality makes possible the emergence of the smaller intricacies, what immediately struck me about Gass’s literary style even upon a cursory reading was this: simple diction and syntax. Except it’s not simple, not at all. It is what caused me to read and reread Tott’s indiscriminating rants on his imagined travels as metaphor for his pain time and time again. Of the entirety of the work (and I have mentioned it already in an earlier comment) my favorite is as follows:

 His dreams were not embarrassed by clichés, 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 (13).

I can’t recall ever reading something quite like it. In the complete chaos that surrounds Tott’s rambling, out comes this complete lack of repetition, a conclusively original thought and absolute clarity of mind. Gass’s sentences are so incredibly thick that they insist on being read time and time again. He has been called an unabashed sensualist, to which I feel there can be little dispute. I find it is the sentences-his use of diction and syntax-that ceaselessly hold blame for his linguistic success. Though they are unarguably essential, I feel it is his combination of words, not necessarily his aping vowels or repeated consonants that really render the work.

At the end of the day, we can already begin maneuvering the ins and outs of either side, and I know a good case can be made for both. However, this process could also clearly result in the dog chasing his tail. If we widen our gaze and apply this question to a broader spectrum of art and literature, could we pose it again and come to the same conclusion? Or is this a quandary best left specifically to this subtly explosive form?

On Some Sentences of William Gass

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.”

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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 . . .

* * * Continue reading “Book Discussion Group, Omensetter’s Luck: On Henry Pimber as First Adam”

Book Discussion Group Announcement: Omensetter’s Luck

At long last, after at least one broken promise that I can recall, our discussion of William Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck is almost upon us. We’ve assembled a team of crack readers who will, starting next Monday, address the novel — some theme chosen or recurring, some criticism, some reflection, etc. You still have a week to start reading and readying yourself to take advantage of the opportunity to talk intelligently about a smart book. A week to find yourself a copy of the book — beg, borrow, or steal — so you might participate as you can. Ring in the holidays with the luckiest unlucky man who ever lived & his vaguely demonic friend & preacher. It’ll do your soul good.

Book Discussion Group: For Real This Time (Winter 2011 edition)

So, I’ve been talking a good game, on and off, for about six months or so, mostly behind closed doors, via email and such, about doing another literary book discussion group here on AUFS. The book that I keep coming back to when entertaining this notion is William Gass’ truly amazing debut novel Omensetter’s Luck. This is not simply because I want to read it again, though I do, but also because of all the novels I want to read at the moment it is the one that is mostly explicitly in the AUFS wheelhouse — fallen creation, vulgar limericks, evil preachers, vague rumblings of theology with an atheistic panache.

Is there any interest for such a thing, though? We can push it off until December, if that works for you working & student stiffs. I have in mind basically doing it like the Jennings reading group: open threads for a few weeks, followed by a cluster of three to five posts on a theme or direction of your choosing. If you’re interested, comment as such.

Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?

I have recently been on something of a “contemporary novel kick.” While I typically incline toward novels by dead white men, I’ve been reading a lot of stuff by white men who are in fact still quite young. Books like Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan, David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (which I started reading this afternoon over lunch). (Oh wait, there has been one living white woman, too — Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs.) There are things one could say about all of these. Indeed, I know of many a blog and/or magazine dedicated to doing as much. But for our purposes here, I feel like they perhaps need a little more time — or, to be honest, perhaps it is merely I who need more time to know what to say about them. But for the sake of a self-indulgent gravitas, we’ll condemn these works to their present youth and insist for now that they “grow up a little” before we include them at this table peopled (mostly) by those under 35. There is heady stuff afoot here, as you know, and the church must first be thought out of its imperial impasse and Milbank put in his place. Continue reading “Who wants to DIG into The Tunnel? Who wants to let loose some Gass? Huh? Anybody?”

Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 4


I finished my second reading of Kleinzeit while sitting on a bed in the ER.  It was my second visit with Hospital in as many weeks.  I was waiting for Specialist to arrive because the Hobanesque symptoms I had been experiencing for the last month were baffling all the other doctors (as they would baffle Specialist and Assistant).  Sister was nowhere to be found, but three doctors took turns independently finger-fucking my asshole (to check my prostate, they said) so that’s got to count for something.  (Why is it that they all pat you on the hip after they finish?  Is that something they get taught in med school?  It’s as though they were letting me know that, hey, if I wasn’t a great lay, at least I was an obedient one and tried real hard to be good.)

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Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 3

Normally I don’t talk about novels in public. Compared to the work of others, like Robert’s like past post or Brad’s ruminations, my reflections rarely say much. Novels are, for me, an intensely reflective experience. They resonate with me rather than how I understand myself socially. Reading novels for me might even be a very narcissistic activity. Even when I suggest novels to friends I do so furtively, perhaps hoping to make a connection that I normally cannot make. All of this, cloyingly earnest as it likely sounds, seems apt with regard to Kleinzeit. While I agree with Brad that this is not really a psychological novel it is, in a sense, a secular Kierkegaardian novel. Continue reading “Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 3″

Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit, 2

Kleinzeit touched the paper with the brush, drew in one smooth sweep a fat black circle, sweet and round.

That’s it, said Death. My present.

The first and, probably, recurring item that must be addressed by a reader of Kleinzeit is how to understand the Big Guys. The Big Guys are such characters as Sky, Death, Hospital, Underground/Underworld, God, Glockenspiel, Yellow Paper. Often they speak to Kleinzeit, to Sister, to Redbeard. Sometimes they do things on their own, as when Glockenspiel wonders when it will be played in the underground, before Kleinzeit has dreamed or encountered it. One way of understanding this — which Brad has broached in his post — is that Hoban is “unshackling” objects, in a sense, from their correlationist shackles: making them, simply put, characters rather than accessories and scenery. Certainly they are characters — for instance, I would say Hospital, Underground, and Death are as well-rounded as Redbeard — but I find it difficult to believe that we can understand this to be an object-oriented novel. On the contrary, I would make the case that it’s a supremely human-centered novel, one that enters the solipsistic world of those “characters” we breathe to life with our own words: when we curse the table that stubbed our toe, chat with ourselves, pray, resent the building where we lie sick, or communicate with the instrument we play best.

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Book Discussion Group: Kleinzeit

I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? said Kleinzeit
Not my problem, said the mirror.
(p. 7)

I always love it when the first page of a novel paves the way for the all that follows. These are very nearly the first words of Kleinzeit, and already Russell Hoban has laid out where he is going and more or less how he is going to get there. As becomes clearer still in subsequent pages, we find that his is going to be a path of not-quite blank sheets of A-4 paper lead leads us to places that are, in a sense, familiarly foreign. We encounter diseases unlike any we’ve heard of before and that are identified by words whose otherwise recognizable referents do not at all match up with what is being described. Hypotenuse. Hendiadys. And even the (fat) human condition (aka, “chronic ullage”) (p. 34). Deadly stuff, these, it turns out, so it behooves us to be on guard of the symptoms: for Kleinzeit, the flash of pain to make Pythagoras proud, from A to B, coupled with  the “seething in a perfectly silent room” (p. 12).

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