Reading William H. Gass's fiction is a little like looking at oneself in a fractured mirror: the usual components are all there, but not necessarily in the right places. Take, for example, the title novella of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas: here Gass introduces us to Ella Bend, a sensitive clairvoyant married to a rather burdensome husband. But no sooner does Gass get us started with a very conventional opening, ("This is the story of Ella Bend Hess, of how she became clairvoyant and what she was able to see") than he injects himself into it ("Her gift was the gift of the gods
inexplicable and merciless. Marvelous is what I mean. Miraculous. Mysterious? Surely not a word so weak. Yet it has to begin with an m"). It isn't long before Ella becomes a bit player in her own story, the starring role having been appropriated by artful digressions, dizzying streams of consciousness, and Gass's own formidable wordsmithing talents.
The other three novellas in this collection are equally high-concept: a traveling salesman falls in love with his hotel room and refuses to leave; an aging spinster literally loses herself in a line from an Elizabeth Bishop poem; a young boy inexplicably decides to live for revenge. The plots, such as they are, are offbeat enough to catch the interest--what holds it, however, is Gass at play in the fields of the word. Cartesian Sonata will not be to every reader's taste--those who are impatient with absurdity, non sequiturs, and pages and pages of verbal pyrotechnics may want to steer toward more conventional literature. Those who like their fiction liberally laced with equal measures of philosophy and anarchy, however, should give William H. Gass a try.
From Publishers Weekly
Revered two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, Gass serves up an enticing mix of high-flown lyricism, sketchy narrative and momentary brilliance in his playful latest fiction (after the celebrated The Tunnel). The title novella is really an amalgamation of three short stories written during the 1960s and '70s, before and after the great stories included in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Ostensibly the story of a clairvoyant named Ella Bend, her Cassandra-like curse of psychic vision and her brutal husband, this bleak interior monologue charts the narrator's descent into near madness as she escapes into an imaginary intrigue between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Here, as in the other novellas, Gass's love of verbal wordplay almost eliminates narrative coherency. "Bed and Breakfast" is a variation on a Rod Serling plot: a traveling accountant takes a room at a rather sinister old-fashioned bed and breakfast and feels compelled to settle down there. You'd think Walter Riffaterre, the accountant, would look for a Howard Johnson's or even a Motel 6 when the landlady starts conversing in Emily Dickinson outtakes ("what would we do if we had no burden, no weight upon our chests, we'd fly, wouldn't we? Fly like fluff, up and away to nowhere, for we're nothing but our burdens..."). While this work may puzzle or even bore some readers, Gass is an engrossing character-portraitist, whose plots depend on psychic and spiritual motions rather than linked events and whose humor, inventiveness and erudition keep the ride inviting, wherever it goes. Agent, Janklow and Nesbit.
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