From an American literary master, variations on the themes of art and human nature.
Making notes in the margins of this book (or any book) by William Gass quickly becomes an exercise in pointlessness; virtually every line offers up something noteworthy. And it’s a good thing, because a novel whose dramatic high point is a faculty meeting, subsequently celebrated in song, is probably not one you’re going to read for the story. We’re in heady territory here, familiar and intoxicating to the writers and literary readers who revere the 88-year-old Gass, perhaps a little airless to the wider and largely uninitiated reading public.
The story, such as it is, follows its protagonist along two alternating and occasionally intersecting paths — that of the boy Joey Skizzen coming of age; and that of his older self (Joseph Skizzen) managing the sort of maturity at which he’s arrived, as a professor of music at a small, no-account Midwestern college he’s bamboozled with a fraudulent résumé and superior airs.
Joey is a mere kid when, in 1938, his shape-shifting father recasts his small family as Jews and moves them from their native Austria to England, where he promptly morphs into a British chap, then disappears altogether. The family somehow ends up in a small town in Ohio, and there, under the tutelage of a lonely, arthritic piano teacher in possession of a Victrola, Joey’s musical education commences.
Meanwhile, the older Joey, Prof. Joseph Skizzen, is pursuing two projects: the assembling, in the attic of the rundown Victorian house he shares with his mother, of his Inhumanity Museum, displaying clips of every atrocity ever pictured or cited; and composing and revising a sentence that first appears as “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.”
Joseph is a crabbed, isolated character, true to his stated goal: “to pass through life still reasonably clean of complicity in human affairs.” But the book is much bigger and better than that — sometimes to a fault, as Joseph, protesting the inadequacy of his knowledge, even musical, conveys in his commentary and lectures a brilliant command of whatever topic he touches. Moment-to-moment the writing is characteristically wonderful and weirdly entertaining, making language in the high and low registers ring true and sound new at the same time — and though, as Joseph remarks, “it is not easy to find a funny bone in a charnel house,” Gass manages to get plenty of yuks out of this dead serious material.
Along the way, in the guise of those lectures (and asides and lists and soliloquys), he gives us a history and explanation of modern music that is at once a key to reading the themes and variations of his novel and an eloquent defense of artistic outliers like himself. As he says about Béla Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” the ostensible subject of one such lecture, “he was taking a musical world, like the warring one outside his studio, in all its prolixity, conflict, and chaos, and trying to resolve those factions in a triumphant chorus for a triumphant close.”