Considering Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, I return to Luc Tuyman’s portrait of Condi Rice, of the greyed-out tones, where the former Secretary of State’s lips are central. To Dick Cheney’s office not saying not to torture. It’s what strikes me now, a few weeks after finishing William H. Gass’s Middle C, a document made interesting by its mistakes and its lacunae, written over the last ten plus years. The narrator, Joseph Skizzen, shows how carefully he revises a single sentence and yet, all the while, we are reading a book purportedly by his hand.
How many times must we know better before we can conclude that all evidence has been doctored or withheld? The wait places us in the American Midwest, where Joseph admits to small breaches, bureaucratic infractions to allow himself to get by, to survive in the American middle class and pass himself off as a music professor at a small college.
At which point are the screams properly heard? When the quirk of his Museum of Inhumanity appears more like a balm to the character’s conscience than testimony to the world’s harsh realities.
And yet, in the uncertainty of this novel of elision, plowing through its encyclopedic references to music and man’s inhumanity to man, the character of Skizzen is what’s in play. He presents himself in such mild terms and comes across as a composite of Kafka, Bartleby, Wyatt Gwyon and Hazel Motes. His passivity is what we should question. Such a person is possible, such a person abandoned by a father is certainly possible, more possible than the alternative. Is his guilt simply that of the survivor? Or is he his father in disguise? Was his father a Nazi war criminal? Was Grunge widely available in record shops in the 1960’s?
To the dogmatic reader, one stuck in faithfulness to the text, Gass has given a paradox and a potential way out of dogmatism. How deeply should we question what we are reading while Miss Moss, one of the book’s librarian witches, breaks and manipulates old books? The writing itself mirrors the high Victorian when Joey is approached sexually. What happens to our innocence when we start asking questions? With its meter, internal rhyme and sing song, the writing is gilded, enthralling, enough to pull the reader through even the drier, small-town gossip portions of Joey’s story.
And then there’s Gass on the back cover, looking like the cheerful and encouraging Midwestern author rather than the deviser of this Cartesian puzzle. Pay attention class, the teacher is speaking. To connect this too closely to standard politics is to limit its impact. Gass has created a book precisely to pique and to stimulate, to catch between, to exist in the textual uncertainty of our time.