On a piano keyboard, which mimics the human vocal range, the middle C is the C closest to the center. That’s Joseph Skizzen — the protagonist of William H. Gass’ long-awaited follow-up to his 1995 masterpiece “The Tunnel” — a middle-of-the-road yet slightly off-center academic who wants nothing but “the chance of an unnoticed life.” But it just might be a stand-in for the author.
If Gass’ body of work were a keyboard, you’d have his debut novel, “Omensetter’s Luck” on one end and of “The Tunnel” at the other. Meditative stream of consciousness versus impossible-to-ignore experimentation. Modernism versus whatever came afterward.
His new novel, “Middle C,” occupies the middle ground between the two, containing both the horrors of the modern world and the author’s love of corny similes. It’s as if at age 88, Gass is trying to make peace with the clashing stylistic impulses he’s wrestled over the course of his long career.
Like “The Tunnel,” “Middle C” features an academic haunted by the past and obsessed with composing a strange document. But none of the adornments that made “The Tunnel” an unconventional reading experience (and a nightmare for printers) are on display in “Middle C.”
Shortly after Joseph Skizzen’s birth at the onset of World War II, his father, Rudi, hatches a daring plan to outfit everyone in the family with a Jewish identity and move them out of Austria. Rudi — now Yankel Fixel — arrives in London just in time for the Blitz. “The family didn’t look very Jewish, but who, Yankel argued, would admit they were Jewish if they weren’t Jewish?”
Unsurprisingly, the ruse comes to light and the Fixels are exposed as frauds, prompting another change in identity. This time the transformation is undertaken in secret so that Joseph’s father can escape from London and abandon his family.
Now marked as a charity case, Joseph, along with his mother and sister, are relocated first to New York, then to New Jersey and finally to a small town in Ohio — the state where Gass has set most of his major works of fiction.
Weary of the hazards of assimilation, Joseph’s mother holds on to her Austrian origins, which include a rich garden, simple meals and piano lessons for young Joseph, who proves to be a natural: “His skills were suitable for a saloon. He was a honky-tonk kid.”
Joseph isn’t a prodigy, but he’s close, and he embarks on a project to learn all he can about modern music: first as a clerk in a record store, then as an assistant in a library. His quest is marked by the American impulse to be whatever one wants to be coupled with an Austrian anxiety over not having one’s papers in order. He takes a short detour as a student at Augsburg Community College but finds everything about the experience lacking and is “led away from education by learning.”
Nevertheless, Joseph ascends to the rank of professor at Whittlebauer College, where he lectures to indifferent students on how “the modern movement in all the arts, as far as he could see, was partly defined by its hatred of history.” His success must remain a closely guarded secret because it’s built on a foundation of lies.
Joseph is obsessed with history, because his own is a fabrication. Each night he retreats to his attic, where he curates the Inhumanity Museum, a collection of newspaper clippings dedicated to atrocities, and composes hundreds of versions of the same sentence that attempt to capture the moment when the fear that we are all going to die transmutes into relief in knowing that it will end.
Haunted by memories of rockets whistling through the night, Joseph expects his carefully crafted house of cards to come toppling down at any moment. He attempts to minimize this danger by avoiding scandal, and for Joseph that means any kind of meaningful contact with the opposite sex.
This represents the most radical shift in emphasis from the author’s earlier work, which is suffused with what was once called “blue” language. The sections that feature Joseph’s anti-amorous adventures with colleagues and co-workers are some of the novel’s most engaging scenes. From a pot-smoking French teacher to a licentious librarian, Gass’ proficiency with dialogue yields highbrow situational comedy.
Is Gass, a lifelong academic, speaking through Joseph? Are we to read Joseph’s pronouncements on modern music — a field of study so remote from contemporary concerns that someone who has never practiced it can teach it — as Gass sounding the death knell for postwar American literature?
Tellingly, the only piece of music that Joseph composes during the course of “Middle C” is a hilarious bit of doggerel called “The Faculty Meeting” that appears near the end of the novel. The song takes aim at everything that is loathsome about the systemic bureaucracy of higher education.
Gass has long been regarded as one of the top practitioners of literary fiction in American letters. At times, he has been all too eager to show off his skills; here he strikes a more subdued, if not slightly somber, note. An academic satire is a peculiar choice for a swan song, but a thoroughly entertaining one that will be remembered long after the music stops playing.
Ruland is the author of the short-story collection “Big Lonesome” and the host of the reading series Vermin on the Mount.
William H. Gass
Alfred A. Knopf: 416 pp., $28.95