by William Gass
Knopf, March 2013
416 pages / $28.95 Buy from Amazon
In a recent interview with the Los Angeles review of Books, William Gass cited a fellow titan of high postmodernism when asked about the role of obsession in his fiction. “[William] Gaddis maintained that the writer needed an obsession; he or she would then worry about it like a cat with a rag. The obsession may be hard to spot and it took me some time to discover mine: the stupidity of mankind, its misuse of reason.”
If the common thread of Gass’s fiction has ever been too translucent or opaque to put your finger on, with that sentence he gave us the decoder key to his entire oeuvre.
And where do human beings misuse their reason more than in regard their own self-image? This is the question that Gass chooses to plumb in Middle C, just the third full-length novel of his otherwise prolific career.
Middle C, in the makings for a decade and a half, comes along at a time when neuroscience is probing more and more deeply (and for some, uncomfortably) at the question of what exactly makes us us. Experimental psychologist and author Bruce Hood opined in his 2012 book, The Self Illusion, “If we are so susceptible to group pressure, subtle priming cues, stereotyping and culturally cuing, then the notion of a true, unyielding ego self cannot be sustained. If it is a self that flinches and bends with tiny changes in circumstances, then it might as well be non-existent.”
And it’s hard to argue. We are funny creatures that, largely through trial and error in testing social boundaries, concoct these permanent-if-illusory entities we like to call selves, ideas which are only further hardened whenever they are challenged by evidence of their amorphousness. Or, as it’s elegantly put with regard to our protagonist, “In Joey’s case, ignorance encouraged certainty.”
But before we ever meet Joey, aka Professor Joseph Skizzen, we are introduced to his father, an Austrian patriarch named Rudi Skizzen who decides to give he and his family new, Jewish identities in order to escape the advancing Nazis and gain asylum in England, where Joseph is born as Yussel Fixel. Of course, all along we have the sneaking suspicion that Rudi is less concerned with his family’s safety or complicity in the atrocities to come, and more ashamed of — or maybe even just bored of — his Austrianness.
In England, with wartime sympathy for the refugee class waning, Rudi reinvents himself once again as janitor and gambling man Raymond Scofield, before his ultimate dematerialization, leaving his family behind and, we’re lead to believe, making off for the New World
The story then picks up in Ulrichstown, Ohio with Joseph, who, right from adolescence, seems uncomfortable as a member of the human race. As he would express as a more articulate — and equally rancorous — adult, “the desires that men displayed, either alone, at social clubs, in political parties, or as communities, leagues, and nations, were fundamentally so measly and uninteresting, and the methods employed to achieve them so borrowed, makeshift, and inadequate, that what was eventually obtained was a shambles, leaving their suitors dissatisfied, angry, and searching for more satisfactory targets.”
Still, in a fit of irony, Joseph discovered something he did want to be: Austrian. And an educated Austrian he would become. Using his imagined Austrian upbringing and a love for “difficult” modern music to boost his air of superiority, Joseph lucks and feigns his way into a position as Professor of Modern Music at the tiny, austere Whittlebauer College, a position for which he is, er, under qualified for, by some measure.
As an adult, Skizzen spends his free time cultivating his misanthropy by building his own private atrocity exhibition in the form of a room full of loosely catalogued newspaper clippings featuring all manner of horrific acts performed by humans on other humans. Dubbed the “Inhumanity Museum,” the project serves as a continual proof for Skizzen’s distrust and revulsion at his fellow man. After all, “Joseph Skizzen was a man who enjoyed the repeated proofs that his views were right.” (And all this while still living with his mother, who has her own mess of a time with identity.)
And so the story plods and chugs, skipping ahead and doubling back on itself, weaving an intricate picture of our anti-hero’s forged identity. Anything resembling a climax takes most of the book to materialize (though in a book about a fraud, such a climax always seems a page away), and what we have for most of our time is an exhaustive exercise in character development, which could be seen as the form of the book following its function.The reading process may at times feel labored, but never unrewarding. Gass maintains his cantankerous contempt for conventional plot, but his sentences, as always, are a delight. Gass often speaks semi-religiously in interviews about his love of the sound of a good sentence, believing that even our inner voices are prone to trip over clumsy clauses. In short, you won’t find a dud in the bunch.
As dense a text as Middle C is, it’s downright charitable for Gass to now and again drop a thesis sentence at our feet, like in Chapter 18 when he writes, “The automobile enslaved and set free at the same time. This realization, appropriate to so many things, would become a constant in the character of Joseph Skizzen while he was a professor of music at Whittlebauer College.”
Gass, an unapologetic proponent of the academic world, is surely aware of the posturing in his profession, both as a professor and a writer, that often precedes substance. Whether or not Joseph Skizzen is ultimately a likeable or even sympathetic character will likely continue to be a point of contention for many readers. I, personally, found myself rooting for him to escape detection as a fraud as the book went on, and perhaps the genius of the work is that the book’s meaning shifts depending on your idea of the self. As Gass said in his 1996 essay, Finding a Form, “The reader’s freedom is a holy thing.”
And it is in the face freedom in the man-is-condemned-to-be-free sense that Skizzen most seems to falter. He wishes to make his choices, but not to take responsibility, in the sense that he makes a bold proclamation of who he really is — a professor of contemporary music of some merit — without any of the social constructs like degrees or licenses that typically gives one the courage to stand behind such assertions of identity.
Throughout the book he comes across almost like an alien anthropologist trying to make sense of human behavior, all the while believing himself to somehow be outside of it, as exemplified by the experimental manner in which he goes about creating a new identity. Joseph Skizzen sits flush in the middle of an existential exercise in which he assembles something of a persona by a series of tests, or games in the Wittgensteinian sense, in which he gauges the change in his public image by little adjustments to his appearance, mannerisms, purported likes and dislikes, and so on. Before he knows it, he finds himself, like his faux-French teacher Madame Mieux, “defined by these deceptions.”
What Middle C sets out to do, I think, is tear down the false dichotomy between the real and imagined self, inviting us to rethink whether we are who we believe we are or who others believe we are. Joey, as a budding musician, was often reproached by his music teacher, Mr. Hirk, who noted that “his improvising was not improving anything but his ability to mimic.”
But where then does the difference between existing and appearing to exist come in? Aren’t we doomed at that point to ideological arguments about authenticity that all seem to fail when faced with, “If it walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck….” Skizzen walks like an Austrian professor of modern music, and he talks like an Austrian professor of modern music.
The answer, as any important answer tends to do, lurks somewhere in between, and may even be beside the point. Wasting time pondering such questions might very well be what Gass means by a “misuse of reason.” Gass has never been known as a moralist, but perhaps, if there is a moral to be found here, it could be summed up simply in the words of another great post-modernist, Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote in Mother Night, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.”
James J. Fitze is a writer and editor living and working in New York City. He currently writes a “living novel” at thedownmachine.com.