Warning: spoiler ahead.
No one wants to grow up a Nazi.
The prologue of Middle C, the latest novel by the master William H. Gass, presents a sort of overture to a musically themed work, establishing as many motifs as it does moral questions by telling the family history of protagonist Joseph/Joey Skizzen. The identity crisis begins with the first sentence: “Miriam, who Joey thought of as his mother, Nita…”, a phrase which establishes Gass’s devilishly confusing attitude toward proper names and their assignment. It will take some time for readers to work out that Miriam and Nita are in fact the same person, and that Joey will grow up to be Joseph or Professor Skizzen or sometimes just Skizzen.
The first chapters promise something like a backwards-looking Great American Novel, with Skizzen’s lifelong goal of leading an ineffective existence, guilt-free and grey, a piece of furniture in the lives of his students, rooted in the bizarre history of his family, led by their father out of Austria in the ‘30s for fear of becoming party to genocide. As a boy, after his father’s never-explained disappearance in America, Skizzen learns a few things about the piano—and the adventure stops there, as he puts his head down and refuses every opportunity for growth provided him.
Reading the work of an author who simply has lived as long as Gass often provides that deliberate and fulfilling pleasure of seeing a passage of particular dramatic importance grounded in a behavior or environment which the narrator clearly knows well; here, one may raise an eyebrow at the author’s close knowledge of how to forge a driver’s license, which nicely shades Skizzen’s process of remaking his own identity, one of the novel’s most prominent themes. Then again, as he winks in a later section detailing Professor Skizzen’s academic fraud, “[His] career depended upon the ignorance of others…” and so, in turn, may Gass’s style.
Yet in a way, the most spectacular accomplishment of Gass’s novel, filled with reworkings of the same ruminations on evil, man’s inhumanity to man, genocide, guilt, music, death, pain, sex, mothers, fathers, sisters, sin, hate, success, failure, academia, aging, and staying the same, is that it renders all of the above so crushingly mundane. The prose shuffles from topic to topic, skipping about in time with a rather loose temporal structure and paragraphs that seem preoccupied, even when focused on a particular subject—however horrifying.
None of the many, many narrations upon Joseph Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum approach the pristine insight of Israbestis Tott taking a journey into his wallpaper in the opening pages of Omensetter’s Luck, though the early scenes of a young Joey learning piano from the wizened Mr. Hirk (the novel’s most compelling character by a considerable stretch, and not least for his timely exit before its turgid misanthropy really sets in) come closest:
“Mr. Hirk leaned like a broken pole against the piano. Hold out your hand, Joey, hold it out, the gnawed right hand that plays—there—that hand is pagan, it is a human hand, it is for shaking and touching and grasping and caressing; it is not made to be a fist; it is not made for praying, for gestures of disdain, for tearing one’s hair or holding one’s head, for stabbing, for saluting; well, now, see my hand here? this crab? this wadded clutch of knotted fingers? it is the sacred hand, the scarred and crucified claw, the toil-destroyed hand, fit only to curse its God. It has given up every good thing. Having given up every good thing, no good thing comes near. Not, certainly, the major third, the pagan chord. The foundation of nature—which is vibration…Nature is nothing but vibration.” (47)
These passages, through Mr. Hirk’s oblique and rambling monologues that range from teacherly rebukes to anecdotes about popular singers to musings upon the intersections of ontological philosophy and musical theory, comprise Gass’s most compelling distillation of his concerns; the subsequent scenes of the older Skizzen grappling at his desk with his ambivalence toward humanity, kicking a can across the attic, still living with his mother, have an arresting poignancy along with their pitch-black comedy. Skizzen’s fundamentally a comic figure, his sexual exploits and hyper-conscious interior reflections during his college lectures representing well Gass’s theory of character design through omission, through leaving the most important details unspoken.
It’s in the final chapters that one truly comes to admire the novel’s structure, inelegant and rambling as it may be. As the major arc of Skizzen’s life draws to a close, with a mounting sense of paranoia undone by a rather predictable twist in the last few pages, the swing from fear to elation and back, once more, to troubled routine, practically crushes the reader with its sense of a life wasted. Once more Gass’s theory of absence comes into play: his protagonist’s reaction to a temporary reprieve from his own neuroses is to return to the same futile, circuitous thoughts that have plagued him over the preceding 400 pages.
Even the pitch-black motif of Skizzen’s Inhumanity Museum—a collection of notecards memorializing moments of man-made atrocities, comprising one staggering argument for humanity’s extermination—seems to fade into a more oblique commentary on modernity. Though technology has little place in the world of Middle C, which is to say Skizzen’s 1930s-occupied mind, the Inhumanity Museum provides a morbid analogy to the effects of new media and the Internet, as the ever-mounting weight of knowledge of good and evil takes a paralyzing toll on the professor.
Middle C practically screams for an editor. There’s a bizarre propensity in critical discourse about books by established novelists—a group to which Gass most certainly belongs—to not question even obvious flaws in the text, such as the formalist flights of fancy indulged here. Of what purpose are these long lines of bracketed dashes, perhaps meant to imitate musical notation? Do they contribute to a larger experimental structure? If Middle C includes further schematics that would comprise such a structure, this writer missed their purpose altogether. Gass is a national treasure, but indulgence for indulgence’s sake always shows.
Whether Middle C ultimately achieves the heights of Gass’s previous work must be assessed only after a careful reading. More than most any other novelist living, his writing resists piecemeal interpretation, sentences converging together only in hindsight like an optical illusion that disappears once you take your eyes off the dot in the middle. Finding that dot takes time, but the moment of singular, heartbreaking clarity achieved by Middle C is undoubtedly worth the search.