“iffy,” “light,” is how Gass describes MIDDLE C, which is almost certainly his last novel (“No more novels” he says in the same interview). moreover Gass is getting really old; the best we can hope for is probably one last book length essay (is BAROQUE PROSE still in the works?)
middle C is mediocrity. the protagonist Joseph Skizzen is a nobody and a fraud just like the rest of us. his family fled Austria, pretending to be Jewish, assuming new identities and names at every step from there to Ohio. the father abandons them in the process. there’s a lot of business with identity and the self — Joe’s mother has to replace her birthname Nita with the adopted Miriam, and even Joseph’s car (he fakes his own license to drive) has two names, the Rambler and the Bumbler.
Yet, if only an act, what a reality! She would quiz the sky: Who was he [the father]? and Joseph, now in his wiseass teens, would reply, Who is anybody? which would mightily annoy his mother, for she felt, in her world, you knew for a lifetime, and a lifetime before that, because you could perceive his grandparents, provided you knew them, who someone was, and how they would be when good or bad fortune came; who would shovel when it snowed or cough when it rained; who sharpened the scythe before they swung it; who, when burlap bagged the apples, drank the most cider; and who would be a column and a comfort when sickness overcame your life and lowered it into the grave. He’s a steady fellow, folks said of steady fellowy sorts, as if there was nothing higher to be attained (30).
and there in characteristic lyrical brilliance is Miriam’s belief in the stable (or steady) individual subject. identity is also linked with historical trauma:
Nobody was better. We were all illegal. […] Everybody claimed to have received, in his or her inherited past, a horrible hurt. This justified their resentment, though it was the resentful that had harmed them. Opferheit. Victimhood was commoner than any common humanity. Mutual suspicion and betrayal feuded men together. Exile was birth by another name. (30)
of course we all inherit a past, but even this is shaky ground for finding out who you are. MIDDLE C explores Joseph’s past in a nonlinear fashion, skipping from his boyhood and youth working at a record shop, underperforming and dropping out of college; adulthood, faking ID and papers to work at a library in another town; building a fake CV to become Joseph Skizzen, professor of modern music history at Whittlebauer, and curator of the Inhumanity Museum. like Theresa Cha’s fragmented excavation, none of these discrete pasts help to crack the mystery of who Joseph is. he’s the sum of all the phoney personas.
some of my favorite chapters concern the Inhumanity Museum, and Joseph’s obsessive reworking of one sentence: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure” to “The fear that the human race might not endure has been succeeded by the fear that it will survive.” The sentence versions are in bold and come with a little bit of prose, like variations — and the the book’s 45 chapters seem to work in a similar way.
it’s all wonderfully misanthropic. Joseph’s ruminations about writing this one sentence sometimes spin off into amazing visions of apocalypse:
Markets worldwide would crash as reckless cars on a speedway do, striking the wall and rebounding into one another, hurling pieces of themselves at the spectators in the stands. With money worthless — that last faith lost — the multitude will riot, race and race first, God against God, the gots against the gimme. Insects hardened by generations of chemicals would consume our food, weeds smother our fields, fire ants, killer bees sting us while we’re fleeing into refuge water, where, thrashing, we would drown, our pride a sodden wafer. (25)
i wonder if MIDDLE C is a parody of social-realist fiction. it’s the most plotty of Gass’s narratives by a lot. it seems to throw us a bone by sketching out a protagonist who does things and finds himself in trying and unjust circumstances, and has a clear backstory, but uses it all to show how childhood offers no answers to adult psychology. there’s one scene in which Joseph and Miriam (who live together) visit the daughter Deborah and her husband’s family. it’s an aggressively boring domestic scene. It’s entirely cliched and Gass knows it, as if he’s packing in as many naturalist tropes as he can and getting by only with his prose style.
identity is part of the “machine of modernity.” it amounts to political representation, one of modernity’s many mechanisms.
His identity, Joseph Skizzen slowly realized, was wholly his affair. Further, the best security for that secret self was the creation of a faux one, a substitute, a peephole pay-for-view person. […] Go into debt. Get a loan. Buy a car. Learn to drive. Pass a test. Receive a license: with a face on it that says, Hi! I am the guy I say I am, see my smile? read my date of birth? my weight? my height? in my head, brown eyes are brown, make no mistake, I am that guy — there — under the laminate. (141)
tracing Joseph’s growth means also looking at what he reads and listens to. we get Thomas Wolfe, Bruno Schulz, Schoenberg, Bartok; all of whom Joseph has great reactions too but also as “Herr Fraudulent Prof” knows nothing and bluffs his way through one lecture after another.
our favorite artists and thinkers and heroes and people are components of our own being. the nonlinear structure of the novel dispenses with any telos of who Skizzen becomes — we’re beyond the simple bildungsroman. instead of a line we’re in a space where Joseph has and will become. at the same time, the closest we can say is that he’s become like his father: does the inherited past win out after all?
and there’s a lot to be made of all the women in Joseph’s life. except for Hazel, the car saleswoman and gifted church singer, their names all start with M. Majorie and Miss Moss in the Urichstown library are an odd couple but also seem to blur together. indeed the lack of quoted speech blends together the 3rd person narrator’s lyricism with the speech of the characters in a pleasing way. but these women are strange and a little predatory; in two cases Joey has to fight off the advances of another woman. actually he doesn’t get down with anyone in the novel. perhaps acheiving identity through love and personal relations is another one of those novelistic themes for the trash bin.
it’s plotty, it’s biographical; it should be Gass’s most accessible work yet, and it is in a way. but on the other hand, perhaps the next level from that lecherous fascist William Kohler in THE TUNNEL is a dude only vaguely misogynist, whose achievements will amount to nothing, is confused about who he is, uncertain about the future, and sometimes feels deeply lonely. just another life.
the space of becoming is what Badiou identifies as “ceremony.” MIDDLE C demonstrates how we can be different things in time without necessarily experiencing these things as a whole intelligible self, and does so with the quiet life of a nobody. a ceremony of a novel.