Bill Gass, the aesthetic is no mere stucco

Gass has balls. This is, in a nutshell, what I generally feel when I read William H. Gass. Besides an elegant and extravagant way with words, rather well renowned, Gass has guts. There is a fineness in his expression (which is incredibly exquisite indeed) that is surpassed only by the brazen boldness that it conveys. One just loves the virtu(e) and relentless poise in Gass’s voice. One has to. This is a voice that is quite erudite. And a voice with a compelling tone that laments a lot. Not in nihilistic indulgence but, on the contrary: griping (de)constructively. In essence, it is a voice that indicts and imbibes. A voice that echoes the voids. And more than anything else, Gass’s voice is a voice that plays with sounds. A voice that arrests routine readerly appropriations. And a voice that is immensely neat in its compressions (of concepts) – yes, ‘spareness’ and its master Don DeLillo comes to mind. In short, a voice that grips. But most importantly, Gass’s voice is a voice that exposes. It’s a voice that exposes all the frailty and all the innate lameness in us. Hence the virtue, hence the verve.

Makes me think of Emerson. “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”

This voice just flips in and out of the loop that connects the reader and the read, blurring (up and away) the clearcut boundary between the two. Through this moebius twist a space opens up wherein everything turns into a kind of resonance, an inside; a stream of pure experience that is not, as William James would say: doubled up yet. This is an aesthetic ambience where the reader is not an appreciative outside(r) putting, let’s say, the text like a pair of gloves on the hands of his imagination, but rather he finds that he is the very glove turned inside out observing, feeling, in effect, the shady textures it is woven out of. Escher-like. The shape of this experiential dynamics could be well illustrated by the paradoxical surface of a Klein bottle where the inside flows seamlessly into the outside and back inside – sides that actually exist only in the binary schemes of perception.

This is, incidentally, what, I think, happens in better movies where the hero and the villain are not partitioned into distinct polarities but are contained within a single consciousness (that, in addition, turns out to be but a reflection of my own). In this scenario I not merely identify, but I recognize. Hell of a difference. In recognition there is no safe distance, only a pressing immediacy and intimacy that urges one to own up to the truth(s) of his (shallow) being. This is what I like about DeLillo’s fiction as well, by the way. Think of Libra or Falling Man.

“The truth takes grit to give and guts to receive.” This passage, from his essay titled “Evil,” I’d say, sums it all aptly up. It tells everything about Gass’s big book The Tunnel too. All the sludgy negativity and resentment that the Nazi researcher Kohler feels are the sort of emotions that are not that alien to us either. Even if the pungently misanthropic sentiments are merely “enjoyed” in a kind of voyeuristic fashion we are still complicit in our excitement of sharing in its experience. No matter how troubled he appears, we can definitely relate to Kohler. The uncompromising level of sheer honesty is just fascinating, rather than shocking. Naturally, one inevitably starts to wonder about Gass himself, of where he actually stands, so to say, in all this, and this is why it’s all so gutsy. No matter what Gass thinks, the things that he writes about are just there, brutally there. And they are there because they are here. In a sense. Throughout the text there is this lingering feeling that evil is not something over yonder, that evil and its myriad threads, in fact, are ceaselessly spun from our heart, from a heart that is troubled and confused and anxious and, in a word, human. All too human. The great phrase from the book, namely: “the fascism of the heart” refers, I think, to a fascism that comes from a state of mind that is especially tuned to the the level of (un)certainty that we feel from moment to moment in our lives.

This lingering feeling is there, basically, because of the sonic susurrus of the text, the en-chanting sound that envelops us in an ambience, an interiority, an intimacy. It is this ambience and this resonant intimacy that instills the tacit recognition: there is no outside. The abject (stuff we reject) springs from inside. Monstrosity comes from inside. The outside/other that is reified into concrete beings out of the basic insecurity and lameness in our own being only triggers the responses we might have, not causes it. This is how, for instance, every response reflects the structure of the ego-self, with all its inhibitions and limitations. Gass is one of those writers who show the shadows of the soul. And for him the best medium to facilitate this descent is sound. Sonic invagination. For Gass knows what James Guetti also knew: while the visual (that thrives on variations) detaches the reader the aural (that thrives on repetitions) attunes him. This is why the plot is always somewhat secondary to the mesmerizing sonic reverberations in Gass’s prose.


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