A set of stories about senses and sensory deprivation from contemporary American literature’s longtime laureate of disillusionment.
Gass (Middle C, 2013, etc.) has always been a love-hate proposition. He's an exquisite maker of sentences, weighing his prose like a poet for rhythm, consonance, and intellectual heft. (“Color is a lure. Color is candy….Color is oratory in the service of the wrong religion….Color is camouflage.”) But his fiction is a tough sell, built as it is out of storm clouds and fury at a humanity that has forever fallen short. The two novellas that anchor this collection reveal the upsides and downsides of that approach. The excellent, punningly titled “In Camera” is set in a photography gallery whose holdings are carefully guarded by its owner and whose acquisition processes may not be strictly legal. That question gives the story its drama, but Gass is more interested in exploring the ways photographs can render (and in a way surpass) reality, closing with a dry but artful riff on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” “Charity,” a story almost entirely without paragraph breaks, explores one man’s lifetime of exasperation with pleas for donations, from cookie-schlepping Girl Scouts to junk mail to telemarketers; the feeling of oppression Gass creates is palpable if static; its dour mood rarely shifts. The remaining stories are shorter (if not necessarily lighter) experiments in form and style: a story told from the perspective of the prop piano in Casablanca, another about a man who communicates solely with his hands, a man recalling his childhood in fragmented prose that evokes stray puzzle pieces. It says something about Gass’ talent and flexibility that he can write an effective story that’s narrated by a barber-shop folding chair. But this is Gass’ universe, and here, even folding chairs don’t get off easy.