Misanthropy, atrocity, the Midwest—Gass revisits some familiar themes in this novel, though this ride is smoother than its epic predecessor, The Tunnel (1995).
The hero of this engaging, melancholy novel is Joseph Skizzen, an Ohio music professor who consistently dissembles to get ahead in life, from the driver’s license he faked to get his first job to the CV he invented to enter academia. But, Gass wants us to ask, aren’t we all born into lives of fraudulence? Joseph’s father, we learn early on, repeatedly changed identities to smuggle himself and his family out of Austria in advance of the Nazi horrors. In a struggle to reckon with that past, Joseph privately maintains an Inhumanity Museum, filled with newspaper clippings and photos of war, genocide and further proofs of mankind at its worst. Joseph’s deep-seated frustration with man’s inherent insincerity is exemplified by a sentence he obsessively revises: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” Gass positions Joseph as symbolic of civilization’s pervasive mediocrity: The title refers to a piano note but also suggests middle-class anxieties, mid-20th-century social catastrophes, Midwestern simplicity and middle-of-the-pack intelligence. (Joseph was a C student.) In comparison to the black-heartedness of The Tunnel, this is practically a comedy, and its pleasures shouldn’t be discounted. Gass remains a master of apt metaphors, graceful sentences and a flinty, unforgiving brand of humor; it may be the most entertaining novel you’ll read that half wishes humanity was wiped off the map. And though Joseph feels more like a symbol than a character, his neuroses over God, power and survival make him a rare creature in contemporary American fiction: a man as concerned with the big picture as with himself.
Gass, now 88, clearly has endings on his mind, which he addresses with fearsome brio and wit.