breath of a salesman

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In “Icicles,” the third story of Heart of the Country, we follow a guy named Fender from one evening to the following one, in which he counts peas in his pot pie, goes to his work at a real estate office, bungles a house showing, and looks at the icicles forming on his house. The people in his lonely world include Pearson, his boss and a bit of a gasbag, his co-worker Glick whose youthful hobbies grate on Fender’s nerves, and a woman named Isabelle.

This piece unfolds as a mile-a-minute free-form indirect discourse made of monologues and self-dialogues and autobiographical memories. And yet for all the stuff presented there’s a lot that Fender won’t say, even to himself — shameful thoughts that he has to repress, and is the source of his gradual unhinging. He has sunk so far down into his mind, his inner language, that any words that come out of his mouth astound him with their seeming artifice; he’s estranged from his own outward self.

As i read i marvelled at how oppressively flat Fender’s world is: the suits and mannerisms, and clean suburbia. The Amerikan Dream, built on the backs of black and brown people launching the Movement concurrently with this story’s action, is shown here to be so empty and insipid and surreal in its chronic boredom. Like “Pedersen Kid” the Gertrude Stein experiments in repetitions is at work here. Fender is particularly haunted by the word property (“Prop-purr-tee”) and phrases from Pearson about houses owning their owners, your body as your owner, it being like a house. The sanctity of white property has objectified human life.

Terrific. Years ago. When he seemed a prophet, sometimes a god. At the tip, he’d exclaim, raising his ink-stained fingers. A thrill would shoot through Fender, and he’d repeat the words to himself, considering again the wisdom of his teacher. Everything is property. Pearson’s face would glow, his hair shake. Everything is property. Think of it. Some sort of property. Then he’d rush through the office naming objects, lifting them up. This and this, and this…this ear, he says triumphantly, fingering the lobe, this ear belongs to Isabelle…

There’s also a bit made at trying to grasp the significance of token objects, superficial things that supposedly signify something deeper:

Pearson is listening. He wrinkles his nose. The newspaper, folded to real estate, comes down. The image of his heavy gold ring passes across the desk. Years ago he’d explained the ring to Fender, holding his hand to the light. I love this business, Fender, he’d said. I have this funny feeling about it. I love it. That’s what this ring has always meant. The first time I slipped it on, it struck me — love! Pearson twisted the ring but Fender never saw it clearly, he was looking away at his shoes, and he still had no idea what the emblem on it represented. Fender, you know, it’s like — you aren’t Catholic,  Fender, are you? — well, it’s like being married to the church. Like nuns or monks are. Aren’t they? That’s it. That’s fine. Like monks or nuns.

Once again i dont have much to say in response, but that’s the interesting part about Gass’s writing. They confound the normal procedures of reading, be it a theory lens like Marxism or feminism or symbolism or what he calls “cheap psychology.” Like “Mrs. Mean” there’s almost no narrative progression, no major decisions taken, no profound change or revelation or insight in the protagonist. At the risk of sounding reductive, there is only language that is unfolding. There is a sinister passage about the icicles toward the end:

The beauty of the icicles was a sign of the beauty of their possessor, Fender thought. They were a mark of nature’s favor like fair skin, fair hair, blue eyes. Only the icicles mattered.

Maybe Pearson’s racism is a caution for readers who need “meaning.” How good is it if it can give license to racist logic that makes superficial differences like skin and hair into profound signifiers of “Nature’s favor” or dis-favor? i skidded through this story but it merits really close reading. It’s like a slow wreck upon this single white man’s reality crashing with what he takes himself to be, and he’s consumed by the world that is supposed to be his to master. One of those “male his-teria” narratives, perhaps.

We can see it at work in this excerpt, in which Fender goes to work in the morning and finds himself irritated by Glick’s dried flower hobby. A blizzard of recurring thoughts and impressions — and no sense of either control over his mood or any kind of distance between his mind and the myriad stuff blowing through. He’s inside the “heat” in his body, and the intrusive thoughts of the icicles go through his stomach, which struck me in light of some Taoist wisdom imparted by my acupuncturist about the mind wanting to be among the body as an emperor would want to be amongst his people, although this leads to unbalanced being. And such petty, poisonous thoughts that go through Fender; but then again i have to wonder after these kind of passages just how coherent and together “Fender” could actually be.


“Icicles” by William H. Gass

Glick was holding a ballpoint pen between his teeth like a pirate. It was a green pen and it made Fender think: pickle. Glick nodded briefly at Fender who was feeling his way now through an office unnaturally dark and full of lurking obstacles. Goodness but it’s bright outside, he said, his voice false as a wig, which both surprised and annoyed him, since it was a small thing to have said, and he’d certainly meant it. The typewriter was repeating a letter — likely x. Glick nodded again and sucked noisily on his saliva. Fender, in his turn, blinked hard to unmuddy his eyes. Prospects. They made him think dirt. They made him think rags, snakes, picks, and the murder of companions. With difficulty he wriggled out of his coat, found he was angry, and began impatiently stuffing his scarf in a sleeve. Glick’s flowers were rustling like ghosts behind him. The coat hanger swayed and clinked. The typewriter continued to drum and rattle. Isabelle…Ah, Isabelle — but unfortunately…

At his desk he opened drawers. Glick was saluting him, wasn’t he? with a flower. These are new, Glick said, removing the pickle to speak. New, Fender wondered, how new? I just brought them in this morning, a change, Glick said, and time for it too, the others were dusty. Fender grew watchful. It was a joke perhaps. And he realized he’d given voice to his thoughts. But…I mean…why, he finally said, why these…well…these old dead flowers? Dried, they’re dried, Glick said, it’s a hobby of mine, strawflowers are easy — Helichrysum, Helichrysum monstrosum; then there’s Statice, sea lavender, Statice sinuata; and Angel’s breath, of course, Gypsophila; Xeranthemum; Rhodanthe, Swan River… Why was Glick going on like this just now? He’d been in the office over a year and there’d never been any occasion for — any need to mention — to go into that strange foolishness of his. Fender squeezed his head in the corner of his arm and thought of his icicles growing in long carroty lines. Ah, they should be careful…Slowly the room began to sort itself. Glick had a heap of leaves and other withered things on a newspaper. He kept thrusting stems in a vase, then yanking their heads. Grasses, he was saying. Pampas grass grows anywhere from ten to twenty feet high. Grasses, said Fender blankly. Hare’s-tail grass and foxtail millet, that’s Setaria italica. Quaking grass, which is Briza maxima. Fender’s anger suddenly flared. He bent and rummaged through his file drawer. That ass, that ass, he thought, just like him too — ten to twenty feet indeed, what a liar — just think, how could he compare… I saw a good many icicles this morning, he said, his tongue thick. He hated that foreign language. Glick was standing back, tipping his head from side to side, winking absurdly. They’re all over, he said. All over? Well, I suppose they are. All over, eh? Everywhere, Glick said, like weeds; you should have seen the bunch I kicked off my car. I can bet, said Fender, hardly able to speak. His head was filled to bursting. When I think of you, Glick, he said to himself, I think: pickle! Have you ever really looked at an icicle, Glick? really looked? Sure, Glick said, straightening, sure i have, why? But Glick wasn’t listening and there was no need for Fender to reply. He slid back deeply in himself, into the threatening heat, his heart and the typewriter thumping, while fear fro his icicles passed like a cloud across his stomach. I’ve a fever, Fender decided, shivering as though to verify the diagnosis. So Glick had a hobby. Think of that. Where were the figures on the Ringley house? A hobby. Imagine. No, his mind drew back, he couldn’t picture it. Where was that colored card? He always put those figures on a colored card. Glick was folding and removing the newspaper from his desk whose surface, gleaming, seemed to leap beneath it. He’d put it — he’d put it somewhere — where? …oh he was in a fury, a fury. He glared at Glick to be rude. Blue suit this morning, by george. Desk rubbed. Tightly knotted dark tie lit by metallic threads. What was the reason? And then these carefully collected old weeds. Dried, dead, what was the difference? Left to sweat in the sun like prunes and raisins. Latin, was it? Latin, of course. Hoo. Mummification. He’d writen down that couple’s name — he had — he knew he had. It was an attack on him, all of it, everything…. And Pearson would come in a bit. Ah, now Glick was busy. His french cuffs slid from his coat sleeves. Bizz-bizz-bizz. Well, Pearson would come in a bit. Shatteringly. Nothing up with those numbers, Mr. Pearson, I’m afraid, no, nothing up. His icicles now — they ought to increase themselves carefully. If he had time he’d just drive by during lunch — see how they were doing. Strawflowers, did he say? Aaah. They were perfectly turned, that’s how nature did it. Drops gathering at the tip, then falling away. OF course icicles were all over. Who’d said otherwise? Climate general, conditions everywhere the same, consequences similar, very natural, who — Fender drew a deep shuddery breath. My my my, old fellow, friend, what a way really, what a way, take hold now, get a grip. When I think of you, Glick…monstrosum? is that what he said? it had the right sound. Lord. The show-off. The fake. But such a shame. They were so fragile. Such a shame.

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