Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Middle C

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. The book was a present from my little brother and my future sister-in-law, neither of whom gave this book to me in exchange for a laudatory review.)

Middle C, William H. Gass
December 2013 to 13 January 2014 
5 / 5 stars

Joseph Skizzen is a fraud. Or maybe just a chameleon. Or is he a forgery beget by a phoney? It could be that he's just an isolated man who's so far removed from the rest of humanity that he has no idea his own shortcomings are not a damnation waiting to be unveiled but rather the nifty revisions and coping mechanisms and all-around mainstays of any given human being.

William Gass's Middle C is a lot of things without being any one thing, just like its protagonist, Professor Joseph Skizzen. It's a novel written like a song, what with its refrains, themes (and variations on such), shifting tempos, divided segments and a triumphant resolution that practically breaks into a swelling crescendo of a happiness it spends its entire duration trying to reach. It's a coming-of-age tale but also a story of self-discovery and second chances. It's a fictional tale of a man who creates his own image from delicately calculated fictions, and a celebration of mediocrity most prodigiously cultivated.

Skizzen himself is an aggressively unremarkable individual: a professor with a half-true resume; a meddling musician; a self-taught bibliophile; an isolated soul with no real frame of reference for the universal elements of the human condition that should give him a sense of community but drive him to endless self-doubt; a man with a $35 car he barely knows how to drive, but that's okay because his license is a forgery he probably put more effort into fabricating than he would have actually trying to obtain a legal one (to be fair, Skizzen was a child immigrant with nary an official paper to any of his names, leaving him to forge documents to prove that he's a man with an identity). His interests and musical tastes are obscure, mostly so no one else will find him out as the fraud he insists he is.

Thing is, had he spent more time cultivating kinships with anyone other than his mother and the women who clumsily try to seduce him, Skizzen wouldn't have to spend so much time fiercely guarding what are the inconsequential lies everyone tells themselves--voraciously devouring music we're not even sure we like but feel obligated to pretend that we do, which Skizzen feels is one of his greater sins--because that's the very stuff of the human experience. It probably doesn't help that Skizzen's father changed his own identity, his family's identities, their nationality and religion according to circumstance--like claiming to be Jewish to flee Austria and to free themselves from the blame of association with Nazis--all for the sake of keeping his hands and conscience clean, an aim negated by leaving his family of newly minted Londoners after a beefy racetrack payout gave him the means to free himself from familial shackles. Which the elder Skizzen did seemingly with neither a second thought nor a twinge of conscience.

It's hard to know where you came from when a part of you is missing but it's easier to forge a new identity when you're forced to figure out where you're going. Skizzen's father taught him little else beyond turning a man into a character with a pliable history, an art upon which Skizzen improves. He tells himself that he studies the obscure so no one can get the intellectual jump on him, not realizing that preparatory learning delivers the same outcome he denied himself by religiously maintaining an unobtrusive C average in school--that is, the acquisition of knowledge--but with the bonus of it all being voluntarily self-administered. As a professor, he augments his soft but naturally acquired foreign flavor and adopts peculiar habits to further embellish the charming oddities one would expect from a music professor. He digresses into beautiful tangents that exhibit his self-cultivated intellectual garden in thoroughly unpretentious, innocuous ways, bringing the information he feels he doesn't deserve to know to life with a genuine application not often seen in those whose minds are veritable treasure troves of tasty informational morsels soured by self-obsessed bombast. Things become real when they become actualized and tangible, and the personalities and quirks and interests Skizzen meticulously fosters as a facade are who he is because they comprise the only Skizzen people know him to be.

But Skizzen is so determined to ostracize himself from not only his surroundings but also humanity that he does things like allow himself to be consumed by perfecting a sentence that came to him as a raw, unpolished germ of an idea: "The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure." Skizzen later entertains a fleeting admission that he no longer believes beauty is possible in the world, as his faith in the goodness of men has been effectively dismembered by painstaking devotion to his Inhumanity Museum, a collection of articles occupying the attic of his house (on loan from the school that employs him, his employer blissfully unaware of his padded resume) that tell of the ongoing atrocities mankind is inflicts upon itself over and over again, a permanent display that is always growing under its curator's watchful eye and indefatigable devotion. While Skizzen struck me as a mostly sympathetic figure who just never had the emotional means to forge lasting connections, the toxicity of his pet project has tainted its lone patron's soul a bit, though perhaps its true service is to remind him to keep others at arm's length, lest they get to close and finger him for a fraud.

What could have been a hodgepodge of back-and-forth meanderings across a few periods in a deliberately unremarkable man's life turns into a medley of experiences under Gass's direction because Gass is just one hell of a writer. In prose that's as rich in vocabulary as it is proof that it's time I start accepting that not all similes are inherently inferior to metaphors, a symphony in middle c emerges in unassuming, detachedly self-aware and bitterly optimistic resplendence.

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