Middle C by Willy G
Middle C by William Gass
The postmodern door-stopper is mercifully slipping out of fashion. Though short for its kind, Middle C is a particularly infuriating example, because underneath it all is a pretty good story struggling to be told.
In the years before World War II Rudi Skizzen evacuates his family from Austria by pretending to be Jewish. He arranges for them to continue on to the United States, but when he suddenly disappears, they are left to pick up the pieces in rural Ohio. His son, Joseph Skizzen, is especially hurt; struggling with his father’s disappearance, not really fitting in anywhere in this new society, he builds his life on an elaborate facade.
Chapters alternate between two plot threads. The first follows "Joey" Skizzen's coming of age and development into the embittered "Joseph" Skizzen, which is where the second plot thread begins. “Professor” Skizzen is now a pretentious lecturer of music at a middling university (his students call him “Professor Namedrop”). He spends all of his time in the attic, obsessively documenting terrorist attacks, massacres, war crimes, and genocides for a project he calls the “The Inhumanity Museum.” Occaisonally, he looks out his window to watch his mum potter about the garden. Most of his chapters are angry solipsisms directed at his mum, his sister, or the human race, each stemming from an attempt to rewrite the first sentence of a book: The fear that the human race will survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.
Joseph is obsessed with atrocity because he cares about the fate of humanity. But this obsession gives way to nihilism; if the human race is capable of holocausts and Holodomors, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if everyone just went away forever?
Skizzen’s problem is that he can’t look beyond himself. He is locked in his own mind. Even the narrative voice, ostensibly Skizzen’s, has some kind of roving God’s-eye perspective that can discern what everyone else is thinking. There are no quotation marks; dialogue is only ever attributed to people by Narrator-Skizzen, alongside a jumble of their thoughts, motives, actions, and feelings, all wrapped up in bizarrely elaborate metaphors and conceits. The result is that all characters sound the same—as if they’re mere figments of Skizzen’s mad imagination.
There are many nods to this throughout the book, such as when the “coming-of-age” plot thread catches up to the point where Skizzen begins his Inhumanity Museum:
Nevertheless, in the attic where he had begun to accumulate clippings, he imagined several versions of what he thought might be his father's response and practiced some appropriate performances. He often assumed the voices of others and presumed their points of view. (334)
Skizzen struggles with the question of his father. In the end, he believes that Rudi abandoned the family out of a wish to become totally anonymous in the hope of remaining beyond the atrocities of the coming war.
In a state of exception, the old rules go away and the powerful take all. Winners write history. The victors administer an arbitrary justice. Everyone ends up morally culpable for something.
Rudi Skizzen wanted to avoid getting his hands dirty by changing his identity, but in doing so, he overlooked the hurt and abandonment he caused his family:
His father had a dream: to keep his hands forever clean. Joey wasn’t clear whether his father had ever understood that it takes a lot of digging in the dirt to do that.
While we never learn for certain what Rudi’s motives were, this line of reasoning brings Skizzen enough closure for him to want to choose to embrace life. He accepts his role as a professor, rejecting “anonymity and its protections.” (344)
This is, above all, a novel about artifice. Skizzen is sometimes “Joey” Skizzen, sometimes “Joseph” Skizzen, sometimes “Professor” Skizzen. At one point he gets a fake ID card which adds a few years to his childhood in Austria. Based on this he cultivates a new personality, that of a snobby old-world aesthete, a somebody who was in the high culture of pre-war Vienna. This is all protective mechanism, a way of distancing other people from his real self—a self that appears to have “no real beliefs” (316).
In fact, Skizzen doesn’t even know that much about music. He can play a bit of piano, but pretends that arthritis has robbed him of the talent he had in his youth. He lies about his credentials, establishing himself as a professor mostly through the ignorance of his peers (all deeply religious and conservative, but set on hiring Skizzen for his “expertise” in “modern” music as a concession to the secular world).
The most distinctive part of this book is its pungent writing style, which overpowers just about everything else about it. Gass weighs down his paragraphs with lengthy conceits and implausible metaphors, most of which are in the service of nothing more than their own (attempted) sonority. While Gass can hear a “pretty” sentence—he will certainly follow an intriguing metaphor—his writing lacks restraint and balance.
Here is Skizzen on the verge of realising his father's motives. He compares his own identity to a soup:
Professor Skizzen is only a memory. He is a disguise. His nose, his cheeks, his eyes, are made of a broth that others spoon into themselves. Hear that sound as they suck in bits of carrot and some peas. So I pass into their lives. I become them. I contrive what they shall see: me me not I, no not I. I guess you have the right to devour me, because you have made me possible: you picked me out of a basket, a mere folder, a sheaf of assertions; you saw fit to believe each lying page; you gave me a contract; you seasoned me like a stew; and you gobbled up much time in my life--committees, classes, study, civic service; you ate with your eyes closed. If I am a fake, so are you. If I am ignorant of some things, you are unaware of more. To you, a counterfeit is more acceptable than a real bill, the shade of a shade more important than the tree. (353)
Gass crosses the soup metaphor with a paper metaphor, before introducing two more ideas in the final sentence! His identity is not only like a prepared soup, it is also like a sheaf of “lying [pages]”. This constructed identity is like a “counterfeit bill” (it’s not real, but it still has some functional value); its illegitimate basis does not matter, because a tree is ultimately less important than its “shade’s shade” (i.e. the substance of its projection into the world).
The conceit is a literary device, an extended comparison between two unlikely things. This comparison is, at first, not obvious to the reader, but stunned into curiosity, he must cede space for the writer, who begins to develop new associations between two things, emptying them of their ordinary connotations and filling them up with new ones.
Identity is most certainly not like soup. Yet the passage starts with a good enough hook—“Professor Skizzen is only a memory”—that we are intrigued and want to know where this is going. But Gass does not carry the conceit on a unity of imagery, sound, and association. He can only lash the loose-ends together with high-strung writing and a stark metaphysical seriousness. Too many ingredients are slopped into the soup bowl, with the conceit’s underlying argument—that identity is prepared and perishable—diluted.
Wild conceits, done up with a bit of stylish writing, can really lift up a story. They require the reader to trust where the writer is taking them; we haveto, for a moment, cast aside our doubt, accept the whimsy, and seriously entertain the idea that soup and identity are fundamentally connected. Unfortunately, Middle C has so many scrambled, overwritten passages that our first reaction to these conceits is no longer curiosity, but impatience.
And then there's what I'll call "the list". The list is a favourite of the postmodern door-stopper. It is a simple enumeration of several examples of the same thing. The purpose can be to overwhelm or dazzle the reader—perhaps as Skizzen feels overwhelmed counting his atrocities. Just as often they make a passage feel superfluous or tautological, like when Skizzen realises that atrocities happen in all kinds of societies around the world, and proceeds to list a whole bunch of countries (just in case you didn’t know what “around the world” means).
In another example, Skizzen and his mother have moved into a new house, and he thinks about how messy it’s going to get:
The problem, as even Joey was able to discern and Joseph to define it, was that neither mother nor son seemed capable of putting anything back where it belonged... the idea of a possession that was utterly impersonal in its demand for order remained to the pair more foreign than French: that the crayons belong in their box, that pins should be put in their cushion, that plates need to stack in a cupboard; or even that states of affairs had their initial conditions to which they should be returned: drawers once drawn open should be shoved shut, doors ditto, shoes kicked off need to be replaced upon their owner's feet, a book, having been read or fingered to some sort of finish ought to be returned to its gap in the row... (333)
This is only about one-third of the passage! It keeps going like this for an entire page. As a way of setting the scene of the new house, a truncated version of this might have worked, as a way of whirling our mind’s eye over all its nooks and crannies. There’s just too much though, and we never see the house in such detail again, so you wonder what the point was.
We also see Gass’ inability to resist cracking lame jokes (“as foreign as French”). Gass loves mixing high and low, serious and comical, concrete and abstract, scatological and transcendental. But his timing is often wrong, with the consequence being that the joke simply denies us from feeling the full register of emotions being evoked—like when Skizzen postulates a string of calamities bringing humanity to its knees and the final extinction likened to a fart.
There are enough hints to suggest Gass crafted this book very deliberately. Skizzen declares: “I contrive what they shall see…” (353) and the literal layout of words on the page becomes more jumbled as Skizzen inches closer to his epiphany about his father.
I’ve also read elsewhere that this novel is structured in a way which reflects the atonal music of Arnold Schoenberg (a specialty of Professor Skizzen’s), with no moment having more prominence than any other. I can’t say much about atonal music, though it’s true that Middle C doesn’t “feel” like it has a central plot thread, and therefore has little sense of a story progressing. To be clear, characters do come and go, and things do happen, but the words go by more based on what the twisting metaphors demand of them, rather than the causal necessity of the characters and their travails. It’s as if we’re being led by the words—by pure artifice itself—than by the events contained with them.
Whether form reflects (dys)function or not, a well-crafted book can still lack something. Large amounts of Middle C are written as though Gass wanted to throw us off his trail. He never wants you to settle in. Skizzen’s despairs always remain at some emotional distance to us. Sentences glisten and dazzle for no purpose and we, the reader, are left unmoved.