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As indicated by the similarity of title, this new collection of Gass essays returns to the issues explored in The Worm Within the Word (1978), covering much the same ground with another deep, shaggy carpet of bravura verbal weavings. Again, Gass argues against realism: he prefers literary creations that are filled with devices and metaphors, lushly crammed with authorial intrusions; he prefers books that aren't meant to be read--but rather re-read (and taught in academia). In ""The Soul Inside the Sentence,"" Gass returns to the idea that wording is itself fraught with meaning: ""There may be, in principle, many ways to cook a goose, but the method we choose to fix on, by becoming our only one, defines us, as we define it. The way we keep the Sabbath is the Sabbath."" Likewise, in ""Representation and the War for Reality,"" he writes: ""Essence. . . belongs to language, where definition dwells, and not to things. Words mingle in more ways than thrown rice; and with a number of them rightly placed, I can make the moon jump over the cow and the fiddle play the cat. Things, however, do not modify one another, they do not interact (not in a realm without relations); they can only displace something from their way. . ."" Is Gass' language-centered criticism persuasive? Well, yes and no. When focusing on appropriate examples, he can be brilliantly convincing: here there are five fully successful pieces--on Emerson and the essay as a form, on Ford Madox Ford, on Gertrude Stein (an analysis of her use of ""and"" in a single paragraph), on The Golden Bowl (another word-by-word dissection), on the weaknesses of French Écriture. Elsewhere, however, Gass can seem to be--in his own words--""a champion so note-drunk and loyal to loops and labials he may be knocked out by his own gloves."" His principles lead him to enthuse over works of questionable quality, including John Hawkes' weakest novels and John Barth's Letters. Far more seriously, when Gass attempts to apply his language-is-all philosophy, and his alliterative, swollen style, to metaphysical dilemmas, the results can be disastrous: ""The Origin of Extermination in the Imagination,"" for example, is a morally embarrassing essay--in which the metaphor of a dented car takes a banal ride around the idea of evil, with the Holocaust compared to a junkyard. At times, then, Gass' strengths--the vast urbanity, humor, learnedness, the genuine style--can seem trivial or worse: patterns for the Emperor's New Clothes. But, at his best (a little less than half the time here), he remains a bracing, risk-taking thinker--and certainly America's most confidently baroque writer.

Pub Date: Feb. 21st, 1984
Publisher: Simon & Schuster