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CARTESIAN SONATA by William H. Gass

CARTESIAN SONATA

and Other Novellas

By William H. Gass

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1998
ISBN: 0-375-40168-7
Publisher: Knopf

Four virtuoso performances, playfully juggling exuberant prose with sly postmodern speculations on the nature of desire, fiction, and the soul. A fascination with absorption, with the process of dissolving into some much-studied subject, seems to lie at the core of these novellas. In the title piece, a hapless biographer struggles to render something of the life of a woman who had clairvoyant powers, but finds language elusive, and truth uncertain. The deeper he digs, the less he knows. In “Bed and Breakfast,” a shady traveling accountant is at first intrigued, then obsessed, by the overwhelming numbers of “objects, ornaments and endearments” the stately owner of a bed and breakfast has accumulated. Used to living in a featureless world, he finds the mass of kitsch (from bottles to wall plaques) oddly reassuring, and in them, he discovers “History. Not a life lost, not a thought gone, not a feeling faded, but retained by these things,”a tenuous connection with simple, restorative life. Not surprisingly, he cannot imagine ever again leaving his lodgings. “Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s,” the grimmest tale, features a desiccated would-be poet who tries, quite literally, to plunge into the lines, to virtually become the words, of her favorite poet, with rather grisly results. “The Master of Secret Revenges,” another faux biography, offers the life story of Luther Penner,. who creates a religion based on the principle of leveling an ingenious revenge on all those thought to have harmed one. Because these tales are by Gass (The Tunnel, 1995, etc.), they are of course much more than the sum of their odd, alarming characters and parts, and they—re full of deeply inventive wordplay, droll references to philosophy, as well as ingenious metaphors about the nature and purpose of artistic creation. Displaying crackling verbal energy, a fond fascination with the detritus of our culture (our “priceless and useless and adorable” artifacts), and a shrewd grasp of our conflicting (and conflicted) beliefs, these startling novellas remind us that Gass is the most purely original (and idiosyncratic) of our major writers.