Nemesis (The Great Fortune), 1503 by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Nemesis (The Great Fortune), 1503 by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)
Untitled, c. 1971-1973 by William Eggleston (b. 1939)
Censer, 1485 by Martin Schongauer (c. 1448-1491)
The School of Vanity, 1967 by Jane Graverol (1909-1984)
“For me, the litmus test is always language,” George Saunders told Charlie Rose in a recent interview. “If the sentences are kind of jangly and interesting, then I know how to proceed.”
Saunders composes stories syntactically: his themes and plots and characters emerge from the right jangle, the right discordant note that simultaneously pleases and disturbs. This technique shows in his latest collection Tenth of December, a showcase for Saunders’s estimable verbal prowess and a reminder that he is one of America’s preeminent satirists.
Tenth of December also reveals some of Saunders’s limitations, the biggest of which is that he seems to write the same few stories again and again. Granted, these stories are sharp, funny, puncturing criticisms of American life—satires of corpocracy and the ways commerce infests language (and hence thought); satires of how late capitalism engenders cycles of manufactured desire and very-real despair; satires, ultimately, of how we see ourselves seeing others seeing us in ways that we don’t wish to be seen. Perhaps Saunders writes the same plots repeatedly because he thinks we need to read them repeatedly—and there’s certainly pleasure and humor and pathos in Tenth of December—but there isn’t any territory explored here that would be unfamiliar to anyone who read CivilWarLand in Bad Decline or Pastoralia.
Take “Escape from Spiderhead,” one of the stronger entries in December. This is pure Saundersville, a story nudging weirdly into a skewed future that might come too-true too soon. Said spiderhead is a prison command center where wardens subject their inmates to language and desire experiments, using drugs like “Verbaluce™, VeriTalk™, ChatEase™” (lord does Saunders love incaps) to manipulate the prisoners’ minds and bodies alike (all with consent, of course).
The story is a biting and often painful exploration of how our desires and actions might be constrained and controlled by others. It’s also an excellent excuse for Saunders to flex some of those verbal muscles of his:
He added some Verbaluce™ to the drip, and soon I was feeling the same things but saying them better. The garden still looked nice. It was like the bushes were so tight-seeming and the sun made everything stand out? It was like any moment you expected some Victorians to wander in with their cups of tea. It was as if the garden had become a sort of embodiment of the domestic dreams forever intrinsic to human consciousness. It was as if I could suddenly discern, in this contemporary vignette, the ancient corollary through which Plato and some of his contemporaries might have strolled; to wit, I was sensing the eternal in the ephemeral.
“Escape from Spiderhead” is one of several tales in December that ultimately posit selflessness and empathy as a metaphysical escape hatch, an out to all the post-postmodern awful. It’s a near-perfect little story, which is why it’s too bad when Saunders essentially repeats it (right down to the Verbaluce™/amplified language conceit) in “My Chivalric Fiasco.” (Perhaps “My Chivalric Fiasco” was necessary though; it provides the sole “weird theme park” story requisite to any Saunders collection).
An equal to “Spiderhead” is “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the collection’s strongest condemnation of how capitalism engenders bizarre ethical positions within families, between neighbors—and even countries. The longest story in the collection, “The Semplica Girl Diaries” purports to be a harried middle class father’s diary, a conceit which gives Saunders plenty of space to jangle.
Our poor narrator just wants to keep up with the Joneses, a serious character flaw that often results in hilarious hyperbole. He takes his family to the birthday party of his daughter’s classmate. This classmate’s family is wealthy, perfect, glowing, healthy, innovative, happy:
Just then father (Emmett) appears, holding freshly painted leg from merry-go-round horse, says time for dinner, hopes we like sailfish flown in fresh from Guatemala, prepared with a rare spice found only in one tiny region of Burma, which had to be bribed out, and also he had to design and build a special freshness-ensuring container for the sailfish.
Set against such a pristine backdrop our hapless narrator’s own life seems stressful and shabby:
Household in freefall, future reader. Everything chaotic. Kids, feeling tension, fighting all day. After dinner, Pam caught kids watching “I, Gropius,” (forbidden) = show where guy decides which girl to date based on feeling girls’ breasts through screen with two holes. (Do not actually show breasts. Just guy’s expressions as he feels them and girl’s expression as he feels them and girl’s expression as guy announces his rating. Still: bad show.) Pam blew up at kids: We are in most difficult period ever for family, this how they behave?
I love how Saunders works I, Gropius in there—his dystopian touches work best when they are simultaneously over-the-top (idea) and graceful (delivery of idea). These moments of humor don’t deflate the extreme anxieties that “The Semplica Girl Diaries” produces; rather, the humorous, hyperbolic eruptions add to what turns out to be a horror story.
Like the narrator of “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” the eponymous would-be hero of “Al Roosten” is painfully attuned to how others might/do see him. “Al Roosten” is one of several of December’s exercises in how we see others seeing us (set against the backdrop of how we desire others to see us, etc.). The story starts at a charity auction where local businessmen are being auctioned off (including Roosten’s rival Donfrey—an echo of Emmett) and then heads precisely nowhere (or rather, remains entirely in poor Roosten’s skull). First paragraph:
Al Roosten stood waiting behind the paper screen. Was he nervous? Well, he was a little nervous. Although probably a lot less nervous than most people would be. Most people would probably be pissing themselves by now. Was he pissing himself? Not yet. Although, wow, he could understand how someone might actually—
That sentence-interrupting final dash precedes the intrusion of the “real,” phenomenological world into Roosten’s consciousness. There’s much of James Thurber’s “Walter Mitty” in “Al Roosten”—and, indeed, much of Mitty in Saunders generally—perhaps because Saunders’s jangles lead him to explore the strange gaps between thought and action, reality and imagination. It’s worth sharing a few paragraphs of Saunders’s technique:
Frozen in the harsh spotlight, he looked so crazy and old and forlorn and yet residually arrogant that an intense discomfort settled on the room, a discomfort that, in a non-charity situation, might have led to shouted insults or thrown objects but in this case drew a kind of pity whoop from near the salad bar.
Roosten brightened and sent a relieved half wave in the direction of the whoop, and the awkwardness of this gesture—the way it inadvertently revealed how terrified he was—endeared him to the crowd that seconds before had been ready to mock him, and someone else pity-whooped, and Roosten smiled a big loopy grin, which caused a wave of mercy cheers.
Roosten was deaf to the charity in this. What a super level of whoops and cheers. He should do a flex. He would. He did. This caused an increase in the level of whoops and cheers, which, to his ear, were now at least equal in volume to Donfrey’s whoops/cheers. Plus Donfrey had been basically naked. Which meant that technically he’d beaten Donfrey, since Donfrey had needed to get naked just to manage a tie with him, Al Roosten. Ha ha, poor Donfrey! Running around in his skivvies to no avail.
We can note here the transitions between what the world sees (in those first two paragraphs) to how Roosten sees the world seeing him. This is Saunders at perhaps his finest, showcasing a meticulous control of free indirect style; Roosten is simultaneously pathetically endearing and loathsome. He is attractive and repellent precisely because we understand him—what it is to see him, but also what it is to be seen in the way he is being seen.
The titular story, which closes the collection, also offers a Walter Mittyish figure, a “pale boy with unfortunate Prince Valiant bangs and cublike mannerisms” who sneaks off into the woods to fantasize about the Lilliputian “Nethers” who might try to kidnap his crush Suzanne (whom he’s never addressed, of course). “Somewhere there is a man who likes to play and hug, Suzanne said,” the poor boy imagines. Again, this is Saundersville, where we laugh out loud and then reprimand ourselves for our cruelty and then engage, empathize, say, Hey kid, I’ve been there too…
“Tenth of December” is a sort of rewrite of two stories from Pastoralia, “The End of FIRPO in the World” and “The Falls.” I suppose I don’t mind, but I wish that Saunders’s jangles might lead him to new plots. Despite its rehashing of these earlier stories, “Tenth of December” delivers possibly the strongest case for empathy-as-transcendence in the collection. Our boy gets a shot at actually living up to his haircut—he’ll valiantly help a suicidal terminally ill man, who will, in turn, help him. What the story illustrates best though is how impulse precedes action and action precedes thought, how action can be shot through with memory:
He was on his way down before he knew he’d started. Kid in the pond, kid in the pond, ran repetitively through his head as he minced. Progress was tree to tree. Standing there panting, you got to know a tree well. This one had three knots: eye, eye, nose. This started out as one tree and became two.
Suddenly he was not purely the dying guy who woke nights in the med bed thinking, Make this not true make this not true, but again, partly, the guy who used to put bananas in the freezer, then crack them on the counter and pour chocolate over the broken chunks, the guy who’d once stood outside a classroom window in a rainstorm to see how Jodi was faring with that little red-headed shit who wouldn’t give her a chance at the book table, the guy who used to hand-paint birdfeeders in college and sell them on weekends in Boulder, wearing a jester hat and doing a little juggling routine he’d—
There’s that dash again. Dare I liken it to the dashes of Poe, of Dickinson? Maybe, maybe not.
I’ve shared some highlights of December, which I believe outweigh its weaker spots, unremarkable pieces like “Puppy,” a transparent exercise in how class in America inheres through a system of seeing/not-seeing others, or “Exhortation,” an amusing but forgettable memorandum that reads like Saunders-doing-Saunders.
“Home” is really the only story I would’ve left out of December. It’s the story of a war veteran trying to reintegrate into a society that flatly reiterates “Thank you for your service” while doing precisely nothing to actually thank the vet. Saunders’s sentiments are clearly in the right place, but the story rings false and hollow, its authorial anger overriding the humanity of its characters. At its worst moments, “Home” gives us a world of shuffling grotesques whose quirks preëmpt any possibility for genuine pathos. Saunders, usually in command of language, seems strained here. And it’s not a strain of venturing into new territory; no, all of Saunders’s tricks and traps are on display here (including an unexplained/unexplored substance called MiiVOXmax). Perhaps that’s the problem. Perhaps there’s too much of the author in the story.
And maybe that’s why I like the short, visceral two-paragraph perfection of “Sticks” so much–it seems freer, sharper. At fewer than four hundred words it’s easily the shortest piece in the collection (and the shortest thing I’ve read by Saunders). “Sticks” condenses the harried middle class hero of almost every Saunders tale into one ur-Dad, stunning, sad, majestic. It’s also the oldest story in the collection, originally published by Harper’s in 1995, which means it predates the publication of all his other collections. I don’t know why Saunders included it in December but I’m glad he did. It breaks up some of his rut.
That rut, by the way, is a pleasure to roll through—a fast, funny pleasure, but a pleasure nonetheless. Saunders is very good at highlighting our culture’s ugly absurdities, and he usually does so with moving pathos. And if his jangly sentences are their own raison d’être, then so be it. They are harmonious and sour, soaring and searing. Recommended.
[Ed. note—Biblioklept first ran this review in April of 2013]
The Tree of Wisdom, 1990 by Wolfgang Grässe (1930-2008)
The Cave, 2017 by Nicola Verlato (b. 1965)
William Gass: I don’t know whether The Tunnel’s hole is a trope for the Postmodern because I never understood Postmodernism. I’m not a Postmodernist. I only understand that term as it is used in architecture, where it makes some sense to me, and I don’t find the movement of much interest even there, simply eclectic and superficial. My work is probably best characterized as late or decayed Modern end of the road sort of thing, last gasp. All of my principles and models and so forth come from modernism. People may call The Tunnel Postmodern because of certain elements—visual, mostly—but everything I do has been done previously by other people. Even the dislocation and fragmentation is old stuff. Labels reflect the desire many people apparently have to give new life to old ways by conferring upon them new names. All kinds of exciting things are going on in the novel all over the world, and no one work puts an end to the production of another kind.
Jan Castro: Maybe we should trade our definitions of Postmodern. My definition, based on studying a bit with Sartre scholar Michel Rybalka, is the French idea, drawing from the range of sources that have existed both in modernist and in premodernist literatures. Modernism is a fairly strong rejection of the past whereas postmodernism recycles the past without taking it too seriously. According to my definition, you would be in the camp. You evidently have a different definition.
WG: Modernists all rode the recycling bike. The modernist tradition certainly rejects certain parts of the past, but only certain parts. Even when you have someone like Ezra Pound saying “make it new,” he’s going back to Provençal troubadours, to the Greeks. At the same time he’s saying this, he’s off stealing something from Confucius. So you can call, let’s say, Picasso modern, but he’s borrowing from Japanese, African, or other sources. This always takes place. What is important is not whether you are looking back (you had better), but how and for what reason. When you go back as a modernist in architecture, you’re going back to see, for instance, in Palladio, what you can discover about the very foundation of architecture. You can find in an earlier writer like Sterne, the very foundations of fiction—its possibilities. You don’t reach back to imitate them, to use Sterne like little signatures later on so people will say “Sterne!” When an architect suddenly starts using columns or round windows or friezes to remind us of the past, he’s probably only employing pastiche. But to go back to somebody with the idea of discovering what the art is all about, not by copying their style or mode, but by discovering the fundamental principles which they may help you to wield, that is what modernists tried to do at their best. Corbusier goes back to earlier principles to find out what architecture is all about, not to dance the Palladian polka.
I find Postmodernists rarely interested in fundamental things, but only interested in finding qualities of the past which they can decorate a modernist shed with. Most Postmodern buildings are merely modernist buildings wearing a different skirt, to switch the image. There are a few exceptions. Sterling’s Museum in Stuttgart, for example, is a triumph.
So when one returns to an earlier model, it’s not to copy something, it’s to refine the essence of the whole task. You know Cervantes understood fiction more deeply than almost anybody. You go back to find out what he knew if you can. That’s one more reason why certain people like Calvino or Borges or Beckett are so wonderful. They’re wondering what’s fundamental to their art. I undercut certain traditional forms in order to discover that beneath those superficial forms there is something that my novel, as crazy at it may appear, can share with a very well-mannered Jane Austen novel. We’re doing the same thing, basically.
JC: You have been put into the Postmodern camp by your friend Heide Ziegler.
WG: Yes, Heide certainly does, and most critics do. But when a number of us—John Barth and John Hawkes and I—were in Germany some years ago, and the Germans kept calling us postmodernists, we all rejected the label.
From an interview with William H. Gass published in Bomb #51, Spring 1995.
RIP William H. Gass, 1924-2017
I have now deleted three iterations of this “RIP William H. Gass” blog post. (If this iteration survives I will not edit it (this is the only way it will survive)). Each of these earlier drafts did not start with the grammatical subject “I” (here referring to me, Ed Turner, the dumbass blogger running this dumbass blog). Instead, I (I!) tried to make “William H. Gass” the grammatical subject of each sentence (or, like, he, the pronoun reference to Gass; or, in a bit of extension, his body of literature (or some such iteration))—leading to sentences like these:
“William H. Gass was one of the best and perhaps most underrated American authors of the past one hundred years. He published three novels in his lifetime: Omensetter’s Luck (1966), The Tunnel (a project that took over a quarter century to finish, published in 1995), and Middle C (2013). Gass’s literary criticism—a broad term here, one that serves as a catchall for language and life and what it all means—was and is especially special in its special specialness. William Howard Gass is a literary giant who will continue to cast a long shadow” [Etcetera].
The truth is that I have to be the grammatical subject here because I want to perform the action expressed by the predicate verb, a verb which we have not yet arrived to, thanks to all of my dilly-dallying. That verb I want to arrive at is Thanks. Thanks is the whole damn big main point of this deal: I want to say Thank you. I want to say thank you to William H. Gass (he here the you) for teaching me to read literature anew. And by literature, I mean words:
“It seems a country-headed thing to say: that literature is language, that stories and the places and the people in them are merely made of words as chairs are made of smoothed sticks and sometimes of cloth or metal tubes” (Gass, “The Medium of Fiction,” Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
I look at the silly little blurb I spurted out above, the indented bit that begins with the grammatical subject William H. Gass. It ends in a metaphor that is properly a cliché—Gass as a giant who casts a long shadow—an image that Gass the critic wouldn’t even bother to pick apart, I hope, it being such a hackneyed bit. I’d be better off to image Gass as a giant reflecting light, not casting a shadow. A generative grow lamp, a big fat beaming sun, shining down, nourishing words. But that’s probably just as corny too.
The cast a shadow cliché though seems maybe kinda sorta perhaps possibly peradventure appropriate. Gass (never the kind of hedger to use like maybe seven synonyms for peradventure) was a critic-author profoundly confident in his prose prowess. Unlike Harold Bloom, Gass didn’t foreground an anxiety of influence in his criticism or writing. Bloom’s heir apparent James Wood claimed that the “writer-critic is always showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion.” Whether he was teaching me how to read or reread Gertrude Stein or William Gaddis or Franz Kafka (et al), Gass never had to show a little plumage. I never registered any competitive anxiety, but rather a writer fully in control of his own prowess. Gass was a goldenthroated original, a dude who could wallop out a few sentences, fat and heavy, and then make them nimbly bend obliquely back to some other purpose that you weren’t aware you were jogging along to.
“I haven’t, I know, given the impression that I enjoyed Mr. Gass’s book. The truth is I reveled in it, every last vivid, golden-tongued, wrong-headed word of it. Normally, I don’t like golden boys: monsters of wit, charm, the well-shaped thighs of phrase and cadence. But I don’t claim credit for making an exception in Mr. Gass’s favor…Mr. Gass will not thank me for suggesting that his book is best read as a sensuous experience, but the fact is (embarrassing to a sobersides like me) that his sentences, true or false, are pleasures. Reading them, I find myself caring about their truth or error to begin with, but ending up not caring as much as I suppose I ought, and taking them like delicacies of the palate.
Donoghue shows a bit of plumage here to Golden Boy Gass and his “well-shaped thighs of phrase,” methinks—and why not?! What motherfucker wouldn’t wish to serve up delicious sentence after delicious sentence, if he or she was able to? Donoghue calls out Gass as a “literary rake” (as if that were a bad thing) and eventually gets to the real but secret point of his essay:
“The price the literary rake pays for his dazzle is that his works stay in the reader’s mind not as convincing arguments but as things the reader wishes he had said–like this, for me, on [Malcolm] Lowry:
‘Lowry could not invent at the level of language, only at the level of life, so that having lied life into a condition suitable for fiction, he would then faithfully and truthfully record it.'”
And there we go: Donoghue gets to it then, bending assbackwards over to not say what he really means to say: I wish I had written what Gass had written. I. There, the point. I wish I had written what William H. Gass had written.
Gass was a great writer, a great critic. I haven’t read everything he’s written—I still haven’t made it through The Tunnel, but that’s something to look forward to, not a distant chore—I haven’t read everything Gass has written, but those interested in his fiction might start with Middle C or In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (1968) or really Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas (1998), which I think is pretty perfect. Later, advance to his first novel, Omensetter’s Luck.
And you can’t go wrong with Gass’s nonfiction. Start with Fiction and the Figures of Life; here’s a sample:
“The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else (‘The Artist and Society,’ Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970).
Or seek On Being Blue (1976), a poem disguised as a riff disguised as an essay. Or The World within the Word (1978), a collection of essays pretending to be about literary criticism that are actually about life and death and family and love and etcetera. Or if you want something more recent, something more like a master syllabus (?!), get to A Temple of Texts (2006) and read Gass on Flann O’Brien and Robert Coover and Stanley Elkin and William Gaddis and Rainer Maria Rilke and Gertrude Stein and etcetera.
I could keep listing.
Gass loved lists. Good Christ, if you want a good list, you can look to his “Fifty Literary Pillars,” included (but not really the foundation of) A Temple of Texts. Gass led me to read stuff I might not have found or tried, like Georg Büchner’s fragment Lenz, or John Hawkes’s The Lime Twig or Stendhal—but what he did best was articulate what I loved or hated or what had perplexed me in the literature I’d read or tried to read before, whether it was Gaddis or Stein or Faulkner. And, selfishly, I want more of that. RIP William Gass. But, more than that, I thank you, William Gass.
Stendhal’s The Red and the Black
Boston, 1943. I am about to go down to the submarine base to test out for the school there. I have come into possession of the Liveright Black and Gold edition. (What a wonderful series. I loved them all. There was Jules Romain’s The Body’s Rapture, a kooky, overwrought book, I know now, but it was sex, and it was French. There was Remy de Gourmont’s The Natural Philosophy of Love, more sex, more French. There was Balzac’s The Physiology of Marriage, more sex, more French. There was Stendhal’s own On Love, ditto. There was The Collected Works of Pierre Loüys, double dots, double ditto. There was Alexandre Dumas’s The Journal of Madame Giovanni, which was simply French, a disappointment. And The Red and the Black, like checker squares.) Anyway, I am lining up New London in my train table’s sights, and scanning the novel I have bought because of the series it is in, thinking that I’m not going to like climbing a rope through all that water, and thinking that the first chapter, a description of a small town, is commonplace, ho-hum, and will I be put in a pressure chamber at sub school like a canned tomato? When suddenly, I am suckered into Stendhal, and no longer read words (against all the rules of right reading I will later give myself), but barrel along like my own train, a runaway, holding my breath oftener and oftener, aware only of a insistently increasing tension, and it is not because I am underwater; it is because I am inside the magic of this narrative master. The Charterhouse of Parma would do exactly the same thing to me, except that I didn’t let a sub school come between us, but covered its lengthy length as nearly in one sitting as might be managed, snacking at the edge of it as though it were on a TV tray. That sort of gluttonous read is rare, and never happens to me now, when I read, because I read to write or teach or otherwise to talk, and not because I am a reading madman about to lose his soul to the seductions of a sentence.
From William H. Gass’s “Fifty Literary Pillars,” part of A Temple of Texts (2006). The essay in question is not so much an essay as it is/was a catalog to “inaugurate the International Writers Center” at Washington University.
The last sentence is what matters most to me; when I read it I nodded, or maybe didn’t nod, maybe just acquiesced in some other way, physically.
Who wouldn’t love to read like that again?
(Maybe persons young enough to not know that they are in fact reading like madpersons, seduced, etc.).
I tip my glass for gluttonous reads.
I would love to be a reading madman again, and not one who reads to write or read or otherwise talk.
Why are works of art so socially important? Not for the messages they may contain, not because they expose slavery or cry hurrah for the worker, although such messages in their place and time might be important, but because they insist more than most on their own reality; because of the absolute way in which they exist. Certainly, images exist, shadows and reflections, fakes exist and hypocrites, there are counterfeits (quite real) and grand illusions – but it is simply not true for the copies are as real as their originals, that they meet all of the tests which I suggested earlier. Soybean steak, by God, is soybean steak, and a pious fraud is a fraud. Reality is not a matter of fact, it is an achievement; and it is rare – rarer, let me say – than an undefeated football season. We live, most of us, amidst lies, deceit, and confusions. A work of art may not utter the truth, but it must be honest. It may champion a cause we deplore, but like Milton’s Satan, it must in itself be noble; it must be all there. Works of art confront us the way few people dare to: completely, openly, at once. They construct, they comprise, our experience; they do not deny or destroy it; and they shame us, we fall so short of the quality of their Being. We live in Lafayette or Rutland – true. We take our breaths. We fornicate and feed. But Hamlet has his history in the heart and none of us will ever be as real as vital, as complex and living as he is – a total creature of the stage.
From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.
The aim of the artist ought to be to bring into the world objects which do not already exist there, and objects which are especially worthy of love. We meet people, grow to know them slowly, settle on some to companion our life. Do we value our friends for their social status, because they are burning in the public blaze? do we ask of our mistress her meaning? calculate the usefulness of our husband or wife? Only too often. Works of art are meant to be lived with and loved, and if we try to understand them, we should try to understand them as we try to understand anyone—in order to know them better, not in order to know something else.
–From William H. Gass’s essay “The Artist and Society” (1968). Collected in Fiction and the Figures of Life.
Pine, 1497 by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)