Gass hits right notes in new novel

Mike Fischer / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel /

Published Mar 24, 2013 at 05:00AM

“Middle C” by William H. Gass; Knopf (416 pages, $28.95)

There’s an amusing and apt anecdote about William H. Gass, whose exhausting but also exhilarating new novel, “Middle C,” has just been published.

During a 1978 debate, novelist John Gardner explained how he and Gass were different by stating that “my 707 will fly and his is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.”

Gass — who loves metaphor and surely enjoyed this one — was quick with his reply: “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”

Judged by its story line alone, “Middle C” isn’t much of a plane, and readers waiting for a plot-driven liftoff are in for a long stint on the runway. But there’s so much going on within this plane’s dazzling interior that one can easily spend hours in one’s chair, taking flights of fancy that put more pedestrian trips to shame.

“Middle C” revolves around protagonist Joey — or Joseph, or Professor — Skizzen. Born to Austrian parents in London just before the Blitz, Skizzen teaches music history in an obscure college in southern Ohio while living in the nearby town with his mother, an avid gardener.

Despite having no college degree, Skizzen lands his job by lying about his origins, his credentials, his musical knowhow and even his interests; he chooses Arnold Schoenberg as his specialty, correctly surmising that nobody on the faculty understands the 12-tone scale and that he can therefore learn what he must and glibly fake his way through the rest.

In his spare time, Skizzen sits in his attic, assembling what he dubs his Inhumanity Museum. It’s a grisly collection of books and clippings chronicling all the ways in which we’ve been cruel to each other — confirming Skizzen’s self-righteous belief in his own moral superiority, as one who has never sullied his own hands with history’s horrors.

Skizzen’s efforts to keep his nose clean are related to his increasing number of sketches — Skizzen is German for sketches while suggesting schizophrenia in English — portraying who he is.

Skizzen designs each of these public personas to shield his naked self from the world’s scrutiny. He wants to be respected rather than known or loved — a recognized success who never needs to reveal his true self or engage with those around him. Being respectable, without risk: It’s a definition of the middle class — one of many referents for the novel’s clever title.

Gass structures “Middle C” like Skizzen’s personality: An atonal composition that sounds numerous notes while the key — the self — remains invisible. It’s a gutsy move, sacrificing narrative drive and testing our patience as we try to put together the puzzle pieces — Gass’ chapters, written in a variety of styles and voices.

Along the way, Gass pays homage to the high priests of Modernist literature, in literary variations that echo Skizzen’s multiple personalities.

In addition to the novel’s preoccupation with Schoenberg — a shout-out to Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” — its highlights include wordplay and a pastiche of high and low culture reminiscent of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” a polyphonic chapter recalling Woolf’s “The Waves” and a sustained meditation on guilt that comes straight from Kafka’s “The Trial.”

Lurking behind all of them is Gass’ beloved Henry James. For all the wit and humor in “Middle C,” Skizzen is ultimately most reminiscent of those many tragic Jamesian characters who are too afraid of life to live it — let alone come to grips with who they are — until it’s suddenly much too late for them to ever know.