March 2013

Josh Zajdman

fiction

Middle C by William H. Gass

Before reading this, go on YouTube and type in "middle C." A handful of videos will pop up. Most of them are guides for properly tuning instruments. On a piano for example, one could see middle C as not exactly the middle but one of the keys closest to it. Click one of these videos and listen to the note. The equanimity is nominal. The sound is sharp, incisive, and almost too personal. It's slightly cringe-worthy. I've not said all this to educate you on scales, but in an attempt to describe this astonishing, brutal, creepily funny, acidic novel -- William H. Gass's first since 1995's monstrous masterpiece, The Tunnel. It's wonderful to report that Middle C is no slouchy follow-up. It's cutting, discomforting, and not real life but too close to it, and will surely be among the best novels I, and you, read this year. Also like middle C, it's hard to articulate what's so discomforting; a visceral response must suffice. As with The Tunnel before it, the specter of World War II is present and in very unexpected ways.

Middle C is the story of Professor Joseph Skizzen, née Joey, née Yankel Fixel, and born Yussell. Skizzen and his family, before his father abandoned his mother, sister, and him were Jews, weren't Jews, were religious, were secular, and more as they raced around Nazi-era Europe in fear. The father eventually fled, and the family relocated to the unwelcoming American Midwest, forever scarred. That's just a basic outline. Gass takes a man and situation we've encountered elsewhere and makes him a living, breathing, smelly human in the way he renders him. A contrary, lonely, disturbing, man with a single joy -- his museum. Yes, that's right. The Inhumanity Museum is on the top floor of Skizzen's house and allows him to keep track of all crimes against humanity, while exculpating himself from any blame as a result of his meticulous, compulsive record keeping. It isn't just the details though but the way Gass illuminates every lie in the Skizzen family, beginning with those of Joey's deadbeat dad. Each member labors to be mistaken for something and someone they are not. This is hinted at right from the beginning.

Miriam, whom Joey Skizzen thought of as his mother, Nita, began to speak about the family's past, but only after she decided that her husband was safely in his grave. His frowns could silence her in midsentence; even his smiles were curved in condescension, though at this time in his absence, her beloved husband's virtues, once admitted to be many, were written in lemon juice.

This passage is just a brief, and very early, look at the way in which a sense of haunting, "condescension," unshakeable family ties, and, loss haunt Joey. It gets worse.

At this point, a caveat may be in order. Like your first few nights in a foreign country, Middle C takes some getting used to. Early on, you may feel febrile, jetlagged, and occasionally ill. However, I assure you, it gets better. Well, the novel is terrific throughout, but you'll get used to its very special brand of strange awesomeness. This type of adjustment is prevalent throughout the novel. One adapts to one's situation, or changes it in favor of something different. Skizzen's father is a man born Jewish, who gives it up, tries to pick it up again, and then embraces varied sects of Christianity, all in an attempt to get ahead. Skizzen is a teacher of music, an observer of decline, a émigré living with his mother as an adult, and a fraud in constant fear of detection. The great thrill of reading Middle C is the structure. It zips across a chronological continuum, and just as you've figured out who's who, what name each uses and why, it zips right back. It's like reordering the Goldberg Variations. It's not quite as important to know the way things connect, but just that they do.

Part of this continuum is the development of Skizzen's thoughts, writings, and musical leanings. A great example of this is the sentence. Its first iteration opens chapter three: "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure." Gradually, it expands, metastasizes, and mushrooms into poisonous, pages-long considerations of the state of the world and its demise. They are chilling in their specificity, emotional restraint or outburst and dark beauty. Beginning as a maxim and ending as a shriek, these are the words of a man living in fear of "being denounced." As he catalogs his museum and tinkers with his sentences, as he recalls past traumas and fears future ones, we gradually see the extent of his damage.

The novel ends with the virtuosity intact. This isn't like Ravelstein or Everyman. Middle C is a novel written by an eighty-eight-year-old man still completely in possession of his gifts. Along with Omensetter's Luck and The Tunnel, behemoths of the wild and dangerous literary twentieth century, Gass has ushered in the twenty-first with as much complexity and astonishment as can be tolerated these days. It's hard to do anything but push this book on a person. Run toward it, grab it, think and think and think. Consume it. Only with that dedication can the least skillful of players find that very special middle note amidst the chaos.

Middle C by William H. Gass
Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307701633
416 pages