William H. Gass is a trickster tour guide, and his many unreliable narrators demonstrate uniquely varied hues of his own proclivities towards wordplay. Actually, with Gass, let’s not call it mere wordplay: it’s something more like the meticulous scalpel used in reconstructive surgery, as if he’s using each onomatopoeic feature of each syllable as he slices it toward the page. Yet he also can bum-rush the reader with his words with the wilder whip of an abstractionist, a paint-happy surrealist. He wrings the words of their oozy essence and heaves them—like wriggling big-mouth bass in an open-air market—till they splash up against the canvas of his typed pages.
Between his essays, short stories and novels, Gass has been at this for decades. Should Eyes be your first encounter with Gass, keeping up might be like stepping aboard an already-revolving merry-go-round. One has to open the page to certain novellas contained here, like “In Camera,” not only with a tad more gumption then your typical short story surveyor, but with a readiness to grip and grip tightly. “In Camera” will sing a strange song to you about the hypnotic power of photographs, bewitching both the greedy salesman character at the center of the tale as well as you, reader, as though he’s pulling you straight into a pool of bright oranges and rich emeralds faded upon the exposed film.
“Grass cannot be captured in color. It becomes confused. Trees neither. Except for fall foliage seen from a plane. But in gray: the snowy rooftop, the winter tree, whole mountains of rock, the froth of a fast steam, can be caught, spew and striation, twig and stick, footprint on a snowy walk, the wander of a wrinkle across the face…oh…”
And on it goes. And, sure, Gass can describe a sumptuous scene, but he can also telegraph a character so completely that it’ll be as though they’re in the room with you as you read. He does this with the pensive lawyer of “Charity”—along with the man’s infantilizing manners, quietly smoldering anger and the rapturous experiences he encounters through the surreal suit-and-tie gauntlet of K Street.
Gass doesn’t slow down after the stimulation of our senses or the hip-checking of our empathy; he also casts his life-giving spells to inanimate artifacts. From a toy train to a cinematically famous piano, Gass also shoots a supernatural spirit into the things that occupy our time, as hollow as they may be. Yes, I’m referencing the piano in “Don’t Even Try, Sam,” a testimonial delivered straight from the mouth of the instrument inside Rick’s American Cafe in Casablanca. Can a piano make you blush? With Gass writing in its blunt, chiming voice, it can. It does.
Whereas his narrators’ voices may spontaneously sashay into a sing song-like flare or the structure and meter of a sentence may start to winnow down a swirly slide cadence, he’s also not going to write about the sweetest things. Gass’ work is scrubbed free of folky slices of life, and any profound moral truths are submerged far from the surface.
This article wouldn’t be the first time Gass’ name (and, particularly, with reference to his style and the specific cerebral/sense-stretching experience of reading his work) has been uttered in the same sentence of David Foster Wallace. We say this not as an intimidation, but as an enticement. With Gass, the allure is in the challenge of finding your footing. The feverous “Charity” lassos the reader for pages-long paragraphs that feel like montages. Consider it a ride, a dazzlingly literary lurch down loud city streets where words blur past like streetlamps as his narrators decide, capriciously, to swerve you down a narrow alley or precariously accelerate for some speed bumps.
If we said that Gass writes like a poet, we’d not only feel cliché, but as though we were being reductive. You can read some novels (or novellas) for escapism, but like the chilled autumn breezes that we’ll all be feeling each morning this month, this is the kind of bracing writing that you can really feel, and it makes you feel more alive, or at least it makes you conscious of what it feels like to be alive, even if you’re a piano.