An Inventory of Inhumanity

Middle C

by William H. Gass
Knopf, 395 pp., $28.95
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Dominique Nabokov
William H. Gass, New York City, 1986

In the attic of his college-owned Victorian house, Professor Joseph Skizzen sits surrounded by horror. The walls are all covered with “atrocity pictures, some of them classics,” like the naked girl running along the Vietnamese highway. But there’s also a set of Goya etchings, “in poor reproductions to be sure,” and then Grünewald and Grosz as well as “machine-gunned refugees…photographs of instruments of persuasion…buffalo hunts, seal cubs as they were being clubbed…[and] notable assassinations.” He keeps a pair of scissors in every room of the house, ready to snip any suitably appalling bit from the newspaper, and now has boxes of clippings about executions and rigged elections. Bookshelves hold the Newgate Calendar along with volumes on all forms of “racial cleansings from then to now.” Special exhibits in what he calls his “Inhumanity Museum” get stuck to hanging strips of flypaper, an upended forest beneath which the professor must duck his head.

Almost forty years ago William Gass told The Paris Review that in order “to produce my best work I have to be angry…. I write because I hate. A lot. Hard.” The protagonist of Middle C is a naïf in comparison to his creator, and though he has a bit of the gusto with which Gass has in other works defined his own disgusts and dislikes, he can’t quite rise to jeremiad. Skizzen makes his list of wretchedness in something closer to sadness than hatred. He does, however, share Gass’s obsessive care with language, and his real work in this curatorial project lies not in assembling its contents but in putting together its catalog, in the struggle to write the one sentence that will pose his museum’s lesson:

The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
Joseph Skizzen caught himself looking at the sentence as if he were seeing his face in his shaving glass. Immediately, he wanted to rewrite it.

In German die Skizze is a sketch or an outline, a rough draft, and that’s exactly what the professor has produced. The cadence is deliberately off, and Gass will keep it that way, putting the leading character of his third novel through several dozen skizzens spread over many chapters, and with each one immediately subject to criticism:

One’s concern that the human race might not endure has been succeeded by the fear it will survive.
“One”? A word that distanced responsibility. A cowardly word, “one.” Why not another number? Why not the can in a corner pocket?…

Some of these revisions will go on for a page of boldface type; some won’t limit themselves to just one sentence. Yet Gass will finally allow the character to tighten it into epigram; at the end, he will get it right.

The professor calls himself Joseph Skizzen, but while that’s his real name it’s not his legal one …

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