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“Order of Insects” is a very short and strange piece. It’s unique from the others by having a woman narrator, a housewife who becomes pre-occupied with the roach carcasses that turn up in their new house. She never finds them alive (and im reminded why i hate shag carpeting). There’s not even a tease of narrative progression here — her discourse is like a domestic essay, wandering in thought, from bugs to death to fears to hobbies to a woman’s place in relation to these things.
But a parallel i think develops between the body of the insect and her life as a housewife.
I suspect if we were as familiar with our bones as with our skin, we’d never bury dead but shrine them in their rooms, arranged as we might like to find them on a visit; and our enemies, if we could steal their bodies from the battle sites, would be museumed as they died, the steel still eloquent in their sides, their metal hats askew, the protective toes of their shoes unworn, and friend and enemy would be so wondrously historical that in a hundred years we’d find the jaws still hung for the same speech and all the parts we spent our life with tilted as they always were — rib cage, collar, skull — still repetitious, still defiant, angel light, still worthy of memorial and affection. After all, what does it mean to say that when our cat has bitten through the shell and put confusion in the pulp, the life goes out of them? Alas for us, I want to cry, our bones are secret, showing last, so we must love what perishes: the muscles and the waters and the fats.
Am I grateful now my terror has another object? From time to time I think so, but I feel as though I’d been entrusted with a kind of eastern mystery, sacred to a dreadful god, and I am full of the sense of my unworthiness and the clay of my vessel. So strange. It is the sewing machine that has the fearful claw. I live in a scatter of blocks and children’s voices. The chores are my clock, and time is every other moment interrupted. I had always thought that we knew nothing of order and that life itself was turmoil and confusion. Let us leap, let us shout!
She starts a collection of dead bugs, and while at first their exoskeletons, which leave aesthetic patterns and colors when their insides have evaporated, make their deaths different from those of fleshbags like us. But she sees order in the leavings of the insects and dis-order in her life even as it is managed by chores. i wonder if the dead bug’s hollowed shell resonates with housewifery.
What i enjoy most from Gass’s prose is the blending of fiction and nonfiction — short stories that could be essays and essays that catch you off guard because they read like a story. Without narrative thrust, without the reassurance of symbolism or allegory or a naturalist presentation of the world outside of us, we have only a consciousness unfolding in time; just thinking. And HEART OF THE COUNTRY squeezes out a great deal of variation from this apparently stripped down way of writing/thinking. Each piece is in the first person but they come from different extremes of “privilege,” you have the overseeing educated narrator of “Mrs. Mean” on one hand and the boy Jorge who can barely grasp what’s going on in “The Pedersen Kid.”
There’s also the relation between consciousness and the world that’s formed by the language. Fender in “Icicles” is so thoroughly in his head that the present is balled up with fantasy and stages of memory in sprawling prose, like a literary panic attack. The other end of this kind of frenzied introspection is quiet contemplation, which brings us to the title story.
In 36 short vignettes, the narrator presents us a small town in Indiana, a typical Midwestern affair. These blocks have blunt titles such as BUSINESS, POLITICS, VITAL DATA, THE FIRST PERSON. This guy is also narrating after a breakup or some kind of romantic relationship, the details are sparse.
Lost in corn rows, I remember feeling just another stalk, and thus this country takes me over in the way I occupy myself when I am well…completely — to the edge of both my house and body. No one notices, when they walk by, that I am brimming in the doorways. My house, this place and body, I’ve come in mourning to be born in. To anybody else it’s pretty silly: love. Why should I feel a loss? How am I bereft? She was never mine; she was a fiction, always a golden tomgirl, barefoot, with an adolescent’s slouch and a boy’s taste for sports and fishing, a figure out of Twain, or worse, in Riley. Age cannot be kind.
“She” is a fiction and she is also never rendered whole, only in fragments. Some of these vignettes are no longer than a couple of lines. Others go on for a page and change, such as MY HOUSE, MY CAT, MY COMPANY, which involves interactions with Mrs. Desmond, an octogenarian confidante — so many well-observed images come pouring through.
We do not converse. She visits me to talk. My task to murmur. She talks about her grandsons, her daughter who lives in Delphi, her sister or her husband — both gone — obscure friends — dead — obscurer aunts and uncles — lost — ancient neighbors, members of her church or of her clubs — passed or passing on; and in this way she brings the ends of her life together with a terrifying rush: she is a girl, a wife, a mother, a widow, all at once. All at once — appalling — but I believe it; I wince in expectation of the clap. her talk’s a fence — a shade drawn, window fastened, door that’s locked — for no one dies taking tea in a kitchen; and as her years compress and begin to jumble, I really believe in the brevity of life; I sweat in my wonder; death is the dog down the street, the angry gander, bedroom spider, goblin who’s come to get her; and it occurs to me that in my listening posture I’m the boy who suffered the winds of my grandfather with an exactly similar politeness, that I am, right now, all my ages, out in elbows, as angular as badly stacked cards. Thus was I, when I loved you, every man I could be, youth and child — far from enough — and you, so strangely ambiguous a being, met me, heart for spade, play after play, the whole run of our suits.
There’s very little i have to say about this story. ive said it before, but i love the paucity of symbolism or moral arguments that are supposed to be the lifeblood of fiction. and though i hate to use the word “just” when i say it’s just language, just animated thinking as Jane Eyre called it, because it’s a reductive sort of word when used that way. But there’s nothing simple about what Gass does with language and style, even though I cant pull out any tidy reading or critical commentary. “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” contemplates a town, its buildings and its people, invites you to bring your whole being into a fictional space. Drop in on any random page and you’ll find a haunting image. The complaint is usually that non-narrative exercises get in the way of what they call “immersive pleasure” which is supposed to come from the comfort of plot and character. But indeed, here i think is immersive pleasure in its most unadulterated form, ironic since Gass has elsewhere talked about art as an aggressive practice, and there’s a quotable line in this story about rising “so high that when I shit I won’t miss anybody.”