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The Far Side of Fiction

Fictions are everywhere, although we often call them something else: politeness or metaphor or simplification, perhaps. It’s a fiction to say you had a lovely evening if the evening was just so-so, and it’s certainly a fiction to say you are in the heart of the country when you are only in what is usually called its middle. There is even an element of fiction in most uses of pronouns like “you” and “we”—too many different persons are crowded into those common shelters.

Fictions are not lies, or not necessarily lies, because they don’t usually try to deceive. They arrange events and feelings, in the sense of a musical arrangement. They give experience an angle or a story. Sometimes we are not sure they are fictions—we just suspect them of some sort of stylization, catch in them what Brecht in another context calls “the scent of a mythology.”

For we’re always out of luck here,” we read in William H. Gass’s masterly story “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” published in 1968. “Everything is gray, and everyone is out of luck who lives here.” Who are “we” and where is “here”? The narrator who tells us these things is a wounded and unhappy writer, “in retirement from love,” as he says. Maybe there is no “we.” Maybe only the writer is out of luck and sees gray all around. He certainly likes to list the faults in his habitat:

Everywhere…the past speaks, and it mostly speaks of failure. The empty stores, the old signs and dusty fixtures, the debris in alleys, the flaking paint and rusty gutters, the heavy locks and sagging boards: they say the same disagreeable things.

He quotes an early-nineteenth-century lament about midwestern culture: all ignorance and no remedy for it. “Croaking jealousy; bloated bigotry; coiling suspicion; wormish blindness; crocodile malice.” Our narrator clearly relishes this sour and eager rhetoric, and adds, “Things have changed since then, but in none of the respects mentioned.”

Here” is a place called B, “a small town fastened to a field in Indiana,” and the writer arrives on the wings of a famous line by W.B. Yeats. “So I have sailed the seas and come…” is how the story opens. Well, at least the Indiana town has the same initial as Byzantium, and no doubt traveling “across the breadth of Ohio,” once we have set off into metaphor, is as good as sailing the seas. The weather of the place leaves something to be desired. The summer heat is “pure distraction…a gale can grow in a field of corn that’s hot as a draft from hell… though the smart of the same wind in winter is more humiliating, and in that sense even worse. But in the spring it rains as well, and the trees fill with ice.” But there is the autumn:

The shade is ample, the grass is good, the sky a glorious fall violet; the apple trees are heavy and red, the roads are calm and empty… and a man would be a fool who wanted, blessed with this, to live anywhere else in the world.

Always, everything, everyone, everywhere; hot as hell, ample shade, glorious violet; a fool, blessed, anywhere else in the world. Our narrator is using a recognizable idiom, leaping into generalizations, borrowing ready-made scenery, slipping into the tone of the proverb. Town and weather are not symbolist landscapes, projections of the narrator’s moods and (mainly) pain. They are as real as literary towns and weather need to be. But they are perceived by someone, and more important, written up, registered in a shared language which itself is the beginning of community. The narrator, as Gass says of Malcolm Lowry in “The Medium of Fiction,” an essay roughly contemporary with the story we are looking at, “is constructing a place, not describing one.” He is making a place “for the mind.” A writer, for Gass, makes a home in language: not an ideal residence, but a durable home all the same, even for those out of luck. Those (perhaps exaggerated) midwestern failures have an afterlife, as formidable but forgotten successes do not.

The force of individual events,” Gass says in a much later essay on the work of Danilo Kis, first published in these pages, “…is but a cough in a clinic compared to the trauma of its descriptions.” “Trauma” is too strong a word for the condition of the narrator of “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” but he is making fictions, turning coughs and their equivalents into a kind of melancholy music, exchanging triviality of occurrence for richness of record. He thinks of an old man in the town of B, remarking that he is “not sure what his presence means to me… or to anyone.” But meaning is never what people in Gass’s work ought to be looking for, at least not meaning in any portable or easily expressible sense (“ideas aren’t literature, any more than remarks are, or plots, or people, or noble truths, or lively lies”), and in his next sentence the narrator articulates a local version of Gass’s own credo or hope: “I keep wondering whether, given time, I might not someday find a figure in our language which would serve him faithfully, and furnish his poverty and loneliness richly out.”

When the narrator speaks of the people “who live here in the heart of the country” he is thinking of the country in both senses, the rural heart of a rurally minded America. But the title of the story refers to a second heart, the heart of the heart, and only the writer lives there, the person who finds figures, and sees a whole continent in the gray town to which he has retreated. The story ends with a loudspeaker playing a cheerful Christmas carol over the empty streets. The narrator thinks he recognizes the tune. “Yes, I believe it’s one of the jolly ones.” “There’s no one to hear the music but myself, and though I’m listening, I’m no longer certain. Perhaps the record’s playing something else.” What could be more desolate than this bleak jollity? But this too can be furnished out. Gass and his narrator are definitely playing something else, even if no one else hears the music.

There are a few vocations,” Gass says in an early essay,

…that are so uncalled for by the world, so unremunerative by any ordinary standards, so inherently difficult, so undefined, that to choose them suggests that more lies behind the choice than a little encouraging talent and a few romantic ideals.

Such a vocation, Gass continues, “requires the mobilization of the entire personality—each weakness as well as every strength, each quirk as well as every normality.” His examples are “the practice of poetry or the profession of philosophy.” And his chief models, we can easily guess if we have been reading him for any time at all, would be Rilke and Wittgenstein. Rilke “because his work has taught me what real art ought to be; how it can matter to a life through its lifetime; how commitment can course like blood through the body of your words”; and Wittgenstein because of the way he said things, “the total naked absorption of the mind in its problem, the tried-out words suspended for inspection, the unceasingly pitiless evaluation they were given.” “What you heard was something like a great pianist at practice: not a piece of music, but the very acts that went into making that performance.”

What about being a novelist? Gass thinks Rilke’s achievement allows him to measure the smallness of his own, and perhaps he believes that novelists mobilize something less than their entire personality for their work, or diffuse that personality into their narratives and characters. But he is certainly dedicated to fiction as an art, and a largely uncalled for one at that. “No court commands our entertainments,” he writes in a 1981 preface to the volume In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, “requires our flattery, needs our loyal enlargements or memorializing lies…. Mammon has no interest in our service.” You will recognize the relish of rhetoric here (“we are always out of luck”), and of course even serious publishers sometimes turn a dollar or two. Mammon might send one of his underlings to deliver a check. But then here as in the earlier example, the rhetoric is the point. It’s not that the writer doesn’t want (and get) readers. He wants readers who are willing to feel unwanted, who like to believe they wouldn’t show up at court even if they were invited. Or to follow Gass’s metaphors rather than his direct assertions, he wants readers who are ready to believe that something like blood can run through the body of words, and who can hear words as engaged in a difficult form of performance. “The dictionary is as disturbing as the world,” Gass writes in On Being Blue. This is not everyone’s experience, and we may think the writer needs to get out more in the world; but the dictionary is where the words linger, resting from their worldly exertions, and it’s good to remember that even in repose they are disturbing.

Gass is always a writer, whatever genre he is working in; and always thinking about writing as well as doing it. He is not even, in the end, opposed to meaning as long as it comes late, after all the hard work and deep pleasure of making and reading sentences. That’s when “the song is built and immeasurable meanings meant.” He is the author of five works of fiction (Omensetter’s Luck, 1966; In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, 1968; Willie Masters’s Lonesome Wife, 1968; The Tunnel, 1995; Cartesian Sonata, 1998); a book-length prose meditation (On Being Blue, 1976); a book about translating Rilke (Reading Rilke, 1999); and six collections of essays (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 1970; The World Within the Word, 1978; Habitations of the Word, 1985; Finding a Form, 1996; Tests of Time, 2002; A Temple of Texts, 2006).

The essay volumes, apart from revealing in their titles an unrepentant taste for alliteration, offer reflections on writers new and old, on the practice of fiction, and on a series of questions that for Gass seem to have migrated from philosophy to literature. “In philosophy,” he says, “you settle one bill only by neglecting another”; and in literature, I extrapolate, you never settle your bills but you don’t close the accounts either. The new book, A Temple of Texts, moves toward questions of theology at the end (“Sacred Texts,” “Evil”), and has the advantage of containing, as its center and title piece, a collection of brief notes on fifty cherished works that Gass selected for an exhibition at Washington University, St. Louis, in 1991. The idea, he tells us, was “to represent works which, I feel, have changed me as a writer in some important way.” This is less arrogant than creating a list of Great Books, he says, although “that is not to suggest that I do not believe in great books, for I believe in very little else.” Gass’s choices range across time and forms and languages, from Plato’s Timaeusto Cortázar’s Hopscotch, with a strong leaning toward Modernism broadly understood (Mallarmé, Henry James, Woolf, Ford, Joyce, O’Brien, Mann, Kafka, Broch, Svevo, Pound, Yeats, Stevens, Faulkner, Stein), and Rilke gets four entries (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, Duino Elegies, Sonnets to Orpheus, letters). There is a very funny postscript:

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