A 900-page Gass-ian celebration.
This massive selection of writings by the late Gass (Eyes: Novellas and Stories, 2015, etc.), chosen by the author shortly before he died in 2017, is a fitting grand finale to an impressive and influential career. The 50 selections in the book, the oldest from 1958, are divided into four categories: Introduction, Fiction, Artists, and Theory. In “Fifty Literary Pillars,” about literature that influenced his own, his description of Jorge Luis Borges could also describe Gass: “Another amazing mind. Here is the consciousness of a devoted, playful, skeptical intelligence, a man made civilized by the library, as if to prove it can be done.” In “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” (1970), Gass writes that “forms of fiction serve as the material upon which further forms can be imposed. Indeed, many of the so-called antinovels are really metafictions.” A whole generation of writers practiced metafiction: William Gaddis' The Recognitions was a “thunderclap,” and Gass also explores John Hawkes, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Robert Coover. As a philosophy professor at Washington University, metafiction was a wellspring for his criticism. As he writes at the end of “The Book as a Container of Consciousness,” it “remains for the reader to realize the text, not only by reachieving the consciousness some works create…but by appreciating the unity of book/body and book/mind that the best books bring about.” As a fiction writer, Gass was regularly praised for his subtle prose style and daunting ideas, but the books sold poorly. The Tunnel was too immense and labyrinthine, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country was too dense and lyrical, and his novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (not included here) pushed its prose to the breaking point. Literature is finally catching up with him, and this compendious, literary extravaganza should spark a Gass revival.
A great deal of this material is perplexing, demanding, and obscure, but the author’s beautiful writing is always well worth a visit.