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Posts Tagged ‘postmodernism’

Enlarge and Linger

November 14, 2014 | by

On William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country.

gass

William Gass teaching at Washington University, 1974. Photo: Washington University Magazine

In the heart of the heart of William Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, deep inside the title story, the narrator contemplates his cat, Mr. Tick: “You are a cat—you cannot understand—you are a cat so easily.” The confident Mr. Tick, unlike the narrator, does not worry over his mortality or think about the burden of self-consciousness. He does not care that the past is past. He does not fear possibility or imagine himself as anything other than the cat he is. Mr. Tick spends his time murdering birds and walking across rooftops. Content just to be alive, he moves elegantly, “his long tail rhyming with his paws,” leaving our forlorn narrator to fend off loneliness on his own, with the only weapon he has at his disposal: words.

Words are free, there for the taking, and William Gass makes sure we are aware of their infinite potential. Words can be used to command, to describe, to denigrate. They can be strung into sentences and bellowed in a song “in such a way that from a distance it will seem a harmony, a Strindberg play, a friendship ring.” We understand nuance and learn how to prepare for consequence with the help of words. We can make beautiful things with words. Those inclined can dare to treat the medium of language as an inexhaustible source of art.

Art is the business of serious writers, Gass insists. A brilliant essayist as well as one of this nation’s most important novelists, he argues in his essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction” that the task for a serious writer is twofold: “He must show or exhibit his world, and to do this he must actually make something, not merely describe something that might be made.” In his emphasis on making, Gass, who turned ninety this year, is proposing that the meaning generated by a work of fiction goes beyond its mimetic familiarity. The purpose of an imaginative narrative isn’t to confirm what we think we already know about reality; rather, it offers “a record of the choices, inadvertent or deliberate, the author has made from all the possibilities of language.” A fictional cat may reflect qualities of a real cat, but it is better appreciated as a product of the author’s agile mind. Read More »

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Thomas Berger, 1924–2014

July 22, 2014 | by

The Times has reported that Thomas Berger died a little more than a week ago, on July 13, just shy of his ninetieth birthday. Berger wrote twenty-three novels, the best-known of which is 1964’s Little Big Man, a western picaresque that was later adapted into a movie starring Dustin Hoffman.

The Times obit finds a through-line in his work: “the anarchic paranoia that he found underlying American middle-class life.” “It was Kafka who taught me that at any moment banality might turn sinister, for existence was not meant to be unfailingly genial,” Berger said in a rare interview. He enjoyed a cult readership throughout his prolific career, and his books bear blurbs from the likes of John Hollander and Henry Miller; in 1980, The New York Times Book Review proclaimed, “Our failure to read and discuss him is a national disgrace.”

Today, his most outspoken advocate is probably Jonathan Lethem, who discusses an early (and démodé) fondness for Berger in his Art of Fiction interview: “When I got to Bennington, and I found that Richard Brautigan and Thomas Berger and Kurt Vonnegut and Donald Barthelme were not ‘the contemporary,’ but were in fact awkward and embarrassing and had been overthrown by something else, I was as disconcerted as a time traveler.” And Lethem effused in an essay for the Times a few years back,

Berger’s books are accessible and funny and immerse you in the permanent strangeness of his language and attitude, perhaps best encapsulated by Berger’s own self-definition as a “voyeur of copulating words.” He offers a book for every predilection: if you like westerns, there’s his classic, “Little Big Man”; so too has he written fables of suburban life (“Neighbors”), crime stories (“Meeting Evil”), fantasies, small-town “back-fence” stories of Middle American life, and philosophical allegories (“Killing Time”). All of them are fitted with the Berger slant, in which the familiar becomes menacingly absurd or perhaps the absurd becomes menacingly familiar.

Berger, who spent most of his life diligently removed from public life, seemed to submerge himself in a goulash of genre fiction, emerging every few years with something new and piquant. The variety of his books is borne out by their incredible first-edition jacket art, some of which I’ve gathered above—vibrant pastiches of everything from noir to Arthurian legend, many of them with a unabashed lowbrow strangeness that’s anathema to jacket designers today. As the author himself put it: “I am peddling no quackery, masking no intent to tyrannize, and asking nobody’s pity.”

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