Paul Michael Garrison
Four of the six pieces in Eyes: Novellas and Stories were originally published in Conjunctions, a journal of experimentalist writing, and readers familiar with the work of William H. Gass will find that this collection exhibits some of his trademarks: off-kilter psychological complexity, narrative-eschewing storytelling, and (in “The Toy Chest”) a bit of play with typography. A new reader may be tempted to retread the opening of one of these complex pieces to make connections, but clarity in this case comes from moving forward, not back.
In the opening novellas, Gass’ streams of consciousness flow into pools composed, not of water, but of molasses—dense yet rich and with a tang. The long rambling sentences of “In Camera” take on a poetic air; Mr. Gab’s rhapsodies over his black-and-white prints become pieces of monochromatic imagism. Richness comes also in Gass’ sharp, telling descriptions. And the tang—it’s in the humor that rises again and again, yet unexpected and thus sly in prose of such weight. Often, it takes the form of verbal play—flippant alliteration and diction, turning words and expressions in upon themselves, but some of the funniest moments in “In Camera” come from the grotesque characterizations of the central characters and their interplay.
The tang in “Charity” is more often bitter than comedic. The white-hot animosity that seethes through Gass’ early collection In the Heart of the Heart of the Country surfaces in the misanthropic protagonist Hardy, who has no regard for anyone except his mistress—and her, he admits, he’d willingly trade for a secretary. “Charity” opens with a filmic montage in which everything seems to happen at once: Hardy is simultaneously a corporate lawyer sifting through donations letters, a high-schooler roped into classroom charity, and a submissive lover servicing his mistress. Hardy’s memory-within-memory examines charity, in every possible form, as extortion, in which the beggar and giver are equally culpable.
This characteristic animosity exists between the protagonists of “In Camera,” Mr. Gab and his assistant Stu (short for Stupid), but it is tempered not only by the story’s touches of humor but also by a begrudging and belated tenderness between the two. Not so in “The Toy Chest,” the collection’s new and final story, a disturbing mélange of sexual exploration, childhood toys, violence, and familial dysfunction, all through the lens of faulty stream-of-consciousness typing (both are faulty, the typing and the consciousness).
In the middle of the book, we see through clearer eyes, which aren’t even human. “Don’t Even Try It, Sam” dishes out a social critique of Casablanca in the guise of a Hollywood confessional, only the crusty, old narrator is the studio piano played in Rick’s bar. Gass’s sense of play expands in this and the following story, “Soliloquy for an Empty Chair,” to include inanimate narrators as the collection’s most gregarious characters. It’s as if we’re given an excerpt from The Hidden Lives of Inanimate Objects, and the point of view is as refreshing as it is wry. For instance, folding chairs don’t care about what gender or ethnicity you are, just how much you weigh.
There’s a hazy sense of period throughout the collection. Elements like the sexualized bondage of secretaries, elaborate shaving routines, and numerous references to detectives as “dicks” evoke a sense of yesteryear, much as one would feel stepping into Mr. Gab’s dusty shop of black-and-white photographic prints, whereas references to the 1990s, AIDS, and computer technology bring us closer to the present. Like the piano in “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” we straddle two eras.
As a collection, the pieces in Eyes provide an ebb and flow between experiment and story, between sharpness and humor and even pathos. Their variance in style and approach speak of a writer who is not content to write just one thing but is reaching for the next.
Eyes: Novellas and Stories
William H. Gass
Alfred A. Knopf
Release date 15 Oct. 2015