R.I.P. William Gass

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In honor of William Gass’s recent death, here is an article I once wrote about his text-image hybrid Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife.

The Textual Gratification of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife

Having read a Paris Review interview in which Gass dismissed Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife as something of a failure (“I was skating on one galosh”), I wasn’t expecting much of that book. But then when I finally got around to reading it a few years ago, I concede it blew my mind—in the lewd sense, I guess, since the book’s central conceit is that the text constitutes the body of one Babs (as in ‘biblio’?) Masters, and to read her is to make love to her. I wouldn’t call the book an unqualified success; as Gass admits in that same interview, many of his ideas “turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says, ‘Oh yeah, I get the idea,’ but that’s all there is to get.” With that qualification, I confess to having been largely taken in by Babs’ seductions. After all, she consists entirely of Gass’ prose, which has got to be some of the most musical and inventive in the language.

The conceit succeeds marvelously in one particular. For such a short book, WMLW demands an awful lot of page turns. Footnotes multiply like wet Gremlins until we have to page four pages ahead and four back to keep up with them—and it doesn’t help matters that the pages are unnumbered. Three or four asterisks are manageable enough, but when you find yourself squinting to count twenty-five of the little buggers, it’s high time you realize, as Gass assures us in advertiserly print near the end of the book, that “You’ve been had.” By this point, of course, we’ve had our hands all over Babs’ body, and in the end it’s to our credit anyway because, as Babs reminds us in the print of that same ad, “Only a literalist at loving would expect to plug ahead like the highway people’s line machine, straight over hill and dale, unwavering and ready, in a single stripe of kiss and covering, steady on from start to finish.”

If the astute reader somehow manages to navigate the maze of footnotes, Gass further thwarts the “literalist” by widowing quotes at the bottoms of pages and forcing him/her to play a game of follow the fonts. Sometimes the passage is resumed; sometimes it isn’t. One page appears to be an excerpt from an Eighteenth-Century erotic novel in which a cowhand has sex with a boot. It leaves off mid-sentence and is never picked up again. Much of the second half of the book is in triptych, which forces the reader to choose a strategy. Either you’re going to read one stream of prose at a time, follow it through, then page back and start the next, or you’re going to read all three disjunctive sections of a page at a time. One footnote exhorts, “Actors can never do more than one thing at a time,” and the same, naturally, goes for readers. Unlike with music, a reader can only take in one “unit” (that is, word vis-à-vis note) at a time. Gass further plays with this by interlineating and offsetting lines of text, sometimes interlarding two mutually exclusive words or phrases so that the reader is forced to choose one if he would continue on with the sentence. And Gass uses all sorts of other disruptive tactics: intermittent photos of a naked woman; images superimposed over and obfuscating text; fluid typographies; text that goes limp and droops off the page; fonts galore; a verso that’s the mirror-image of its recto; musical notes; absurdist placards; psychedelic asterisk star-flowers; a scrap of newsprint; fish-eyed text; texts in the shape of a Christmas tree and an eye; all manner of marginalia; and simulated stain rings from the writer’s coffee cup.

The coffee cup would seem to belong to Babs herself, but it’s around this point in the narrative that Babs begins to refer in the third person to “your author,” who appears to be a man by the name of Joe Slattery who is writing a novel called Things As They Are (an allusion to G. Stein’s novel of that name?). She acknowledges that the stain on our copy of the book is only a representation of the original stain because, “as you must surely realize, this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to.” After a few pages, Joe disappears as mysteriously as he came. Is he a stand-in for Gass? Babs is pure language; her stomach can’t hold three-dimensional coffee. But then, if she can imagine black-and-white photography of a naked woman onto the page—presumably a representation of Babs herself—then what’s to stop her from imagining a coffee stain? There’s also the suggestion that the ring might be more than just a coffee stain but a kind of portal, like the crack in the wall between Pyramus and Thisbe, enabling us to peer through normally impenetrable barriers. “I have been invited to kiss many an ass through just such a barrier,” Babs tells us before inviting us to kiss her own—ontological play par excellence.

Babs is not all bump and grind however. She’s outright cynical about romance in fact: “If you have an experimental twist, try this: expectorate into a glass—sufficiently—twelve times should do it. Do not tarry. Drink the spittle. Analyze your reluctance. And wonder why they call saliva the sweet wine of love.” She also worries about her advancing age: “I am that lady language chose to make her playhouse of, and if you do not like me, if you find me dewlapped, scabby, wrinkled, old (and I’ve admittedly as many pages as my age) [elsewhere there’s some indeterminacy about her age, but if this passage means that she’s exactly as old as the page count, then that would put her at sixty-five], well sir, I’m not, like you, a loud rude noise and fart upon the town.” And like most of us probably, what she’s ultimately after is not just sex, but love. She identifies herself towards the end of the book as “the one who’s waltzed you through these pages, clothed and bare, who’s hated you for her humiliations, sought your love, just as the striptease dancer does, soliciting male eyes for cash and feeling the light against her like a swelling organ. Could you love me? Love me then…then love me…Yes.” Babs depends on the reader for her existence. Without a reader, she huddles cold and lonely like the girl in the stark black-and-white photo near the end of the book. It is only through the readerly performance of the text that she is “constructed” and comes alive. She is nothing without an audience. Indeed, she was once an actress as it turns out, and one section of the book consists of a script for a play she once starred in—about a man who finds his own penis inside a breakfast biscuit.

There is a bit of a paradox to Babs’ melancholy, for she often brags that she is “composing” herself, suggesting that her destiny is entirely in her hands. Why then does she invent herself as the lonely wife of a man who beats her with a cane? Whatever the conceit might be, if we peer into that coffee ring hard enough, it’s Gass we glimpse, and Gass isn’t always the most sympathetic of artists. “I write because I hate,” he says in that Paris Review interview. And one apparently anonymous passage at the bottom of a triptychal page ends, “I have even felt my pencil stir, grow great with blood. But never has it swollen up in love. It moves in anger, always, against its paper.”

The reader becomes the target of some of that derision too, be it from Babs or her de-facto creator: “You’ve been had, haven’t you, jocko? You sad sour stew-faced sonofabitch. Really, did you read this far? Puzzle your head, turn the pages this and that, around about?”—all of which rather closely recalls a passage from John Barth’s “Life-Story” from the collection Lost in the Funhouse: “The reader! You, dogged, uninsultable, print-oriented bastard, it’s you I’m addressing, who else, from inside this monstrous fiction. You’ve read me this far, then? For what discreditable motive?”  Barth’s narrator then goes on to ask, “How is it that you don’t go to a movie,” just as a footnote in WMLF exhorts us, “Why don’t you go to a movie?” Both books were published in 1968 incidentally, when, according to Barth’s introduction, “together with dire predictions not only of the death of the novel but of the moribundity of the print medium in the electronic global village—those flavored the air we breathed then, along with occasional tear gas and other contaminants.” Moreover, WMLF might be seen as more fully fleshed-out (pun intended) rendition of Barth’s “Autobiography” in which the antecedent of the first-person pronoun in the story itself. Gass simply takes it a step further by making the narrator not simply the text but “an imagination imagining itself imagine.”

The last page of WMLF, while couched in Babs’ words, seems to amount to a kind of manifesto. “Let us have a language worthy of our world,” she says. “Experimental and expansive—venturesome enough to make the chemist envy and the physicist catch up—it will give new glasses to new eyes, and put those plots and patterns down we find our modern lot in.” Certainly Gass had already heeded this call to arms, not to mention anticipating the one Ronald Sukenick would make a few years later:

We badly need a new way of thinking about novels that acknowledge their technological reality.  We have to learn how to look at fiction as lines of print on a page and we have to ask whether it is always the best arrangement to have a solid block of print from one margin to the other running down the page from top to bottom, except for an occasional paragraph indentation.  We have to learn to think about a novel as a concrete structure rather than an allegory, existing in the realm of experience rather than of discursive meaning and available to multiple interpretation or none, depending on how you feel about it—like the way that girl pressed against you in the subway.  Novels are experiences to respond to, not problems to figure out.

Probably the graphic novel is more likely to fulfill this urge in the twenty-first century (Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth was, as far as I’m concerned, the first genuine masterpiece of the genre; it’s a good story, endlessly metatextual, and beautifully drawn to boot) than fiction, with its mere letters and fonts, ever did in the twentieth, but WMLW strikes me as coming about as close to fulfilling a visual/spatial imperative with more-or-less conventional print as any book I know of (Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves comes to mind as a more recent specimen, as well as Steve Tomasula’s Vas). And Gass is just so damned good at the sentence level that it’s only with some reluctance that the reader—this one at least—can heed the book’s final admonition: “YOU HAVE FALLEN INTO ART—RETURN TO LIFE.”


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