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Fiction ‘Middle C’ strikes a sour note for diligent reader

  • Published Sunday, June 9, 2013, at 8:05 a.m.

“Middle C” by William H. Gass (Knopf, 395 pages, $28.95)

“Middle C” is a laborious read. While Gass (I won’t make a joke about his name) is an acclaimed author of “The Tunnel,” which I didn’t even get through, his new novel will reward few readers willing to slog through it.

While the book has a narrative skeleton, it lacks much narrative drive. Instead it depends on digressions about the evils in the world, music, word play and satiric jabs at academia.

The narrative begins in Graz, Austria, in 1938. Joseph Skizzen’s father foresees the coming of the Nazis to Austria, pretends to be Jewish and leaves his country for England, bringing with him his wife and two children. In London, after the war, he disappears. The rest of the family eventually moves to a small town in Ohio, where Joseph grows up and becomes an amateur piano player. He also creates a fantasy self (this is confusing), a professor whose goal is to establish an Inhumanity Museum.

Throughout the book, this Professor Skizzen reflects on variations of the statement “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” These querulous reflections include many pages listing examples demonstrating that “the human race was like a gang of small-time goons parading a big-time attitude through a midtime town.”

The protagonist – called Joey, Joseph or Skizzen – finds some relief in music and goes into great detail about its variations and intricacies. One character tells him that “the major third … is that upon which all that is good and warm and wholesome and joyful in nature is built.” The digressions about music are a welcome respite from the relentless complaining about humans’ inhumanity.

Gass also includes satirical asides about the faculty in a small college, often using word play, as here: “They will be disturbed by what seems to be an absence of the proper faith in Mr. Brightboy’s background and be instead rather high on Mr. Dimbulb, whose dossier is superlative and whose letters, especially the one from Professor Dormouse, incline their fog to drift in the pip-squeak’s direction.”

Gass has written a postmodern novel that deals in the popular themes of dislocation and creating identity through language. He uses music and its complex variations as a structure for the work. And while there is some poignancy in a young man searching his various selves for meaning after being abandoned by his father, the novel rarely captures one’s emotions.

At one point, Professor Skizzen equates middle C with mediocrity, “the bland, the ordinary, the neutral,” which also describes Joseph as he searches for something greater. Such a search could make an engaging story, but that story is not found here.

Gass, who taught philosophy, is also an essayist and literary critic. Those venues may serve him better than fiction. Some novels require hard work but pay dividends by the end. I experienced no dividends from reading “Middle C.”

Gordon Houser is a writer and editor in Newton.

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