Somewhere in the early part of this literary octopus, the narrator considers the difficulty of reading.
"There are Muses for the several sorts of writing," he says, "but none for any kind of reading. Wouldn't one need divine aid to get through The Making of Americans, Ivanhoe, Moll Flanders or Grace Abounding?
Or this one. Gass' new novel, 30 years in the making, is a most bewildering ream of print - a sprawling mental maze with enough font styles, shifting text margins, bleak sex and all-round aesthetic malarkey to strain the commitment of the most devoted reader.
Here's what I made of it. The narrator, a German History professor named William Frederick Kohler, has just completed a new book about the Third Reich, Guilt & Innocence in Germany. The book we are reading is an introduction which has taken on a life of its own: a self-berating monologue about Kohler's guilt - his dysfunctional family, his cheerless sex life, and his murky role in Nazi Germany.
Kohler, we learn, both served and betrayed the Third Reich, creating a permanent rupture in his consciousness. This leads to the usual Banality of Evil questions: Was the Holocaust an aberration of mankind or perfectly in keeping with it? Is evil our natural state? Is there, to boil things down, any hope?
Kohler thinks not. He imagines himself as the head of his own political alliance: the Party of the Disappointed People.
When Kohler isn't burrowing into his sour jeremiad on being and nothingness, he's giving it a literal metaphor: digging an actual tunnel out of his basement. His tunnel, like his book, doesn't lead anywhere; it's a pointless chore, an existential act, and an artistic statement.
Gass' Tunnel, like Kohler's, is a multi-level enigma that yields less interest with every fresh layer. Gass is not a compelling writer; he's either baffling you with his structure or boring you with his style.
No surprise, then, that this tunnel doesn't break through anywhere. It just stops, presumably out of plain weariness. At this point you realize what you suspected all along: the story is entirely too thin to justify the demands its Byzantine convolution makes on the reader's patience.
Of course, what I see as faults - windiness, overwrought symbolism, navel-gazing sexual reveries - well-meaning academics may see as marks of a unique and vibrant vision. They will explain that it's the kind of complex book that "demands" several readings, just as Joyce and Faulkner and Pynchon do.
But those writers, for all their complexity, at least knew or know how to make a book move. Gass just guns his engine, spins his wheels and never leaves the parking lot.
by William Trevor
Viking 213 pages $21.95
William Trevor is best known for his princely short stories, where mundane lives are overwhelmed by the treachery of the heart. This new novel takes the most overworked subject-a serial killer-and renders a riveting tale of human loneliness.
The Felicia of the title is a poor Irish girl who leaves home to seek the British soldier who has made her pregnant. Into her life arrives Mr. Hilditch, a portly bachelor and-not unlike the salesman in Flannery O'Connor's Good Country People-a practicing expert on the power of sympathy.
Mr. Hilditch knows that compassion will get you everywhere, especially with girls in a strange town, the kind who usually aren't missed and, so far, haven't been found. He takes Felicia under his wing, fully intent on dispatching her the way he did "the others." (Another O'Connor touch: the real heroes of the story are a group of mildly ridiculous millenialist evangelicals-"fools for God," to use O'Connor's phrase, who make up in humanity what they lack in normality.)
Trevor is not interested in gore or sensationalism. He's interested in faith, the kind people cling to when they have nothing else. We readers know that Felicia is on a dead-end journey for a boy who couldn't care less about her; Felicia cannot afford such thoughts. Hilditch's intentions, likewise, are perfectly clear, but trust, and a certain amount of pluck, are all Felicia has left.
This is a tale rich in psychological suspense, a page-turning cat-and-mouse game of the mind, heart and will.
WHAT WE WERE READING IN THE 60S
The title of this guidebook through Groovy Lit 101 raises some questions. Just which Sixties are we talking about? And just how long did the decade last?
Not surprisingly, professor Beidler's Sixties is academic and countercultural, operating in a time-warp. It began sometime in the early 1950s - with Kerouac, Presley and Playboy - and expired in the 1970s, when about a fifth of the 60 or so books he discusses were published.
Beidler says they reflect (bear with me) "an experience of language across a range of printed texts whereby a community of the word found it possible to construct itself politically and historically as a fact of consciousness and to do so in ways which have now become part and fabric of our lives."
Beidler's Sixties canon includes the era's enduring writers - Pynchon, Mailer, Salinger, Heller, Kerouac and Kesey - and its relevant cultural fossils: Abbie Hoffman, Timothy Leary, Herbert Marcuse and Paul Goodman.
The historical predecessors include Thoreau, Blake and Kahlil Gibran (a kind of poor man's Blake). No argument here.
But I do question the inclusion of The Graduate; and while Dr. Spock got arrested a lot, I don't recall Baby and Child Care liberating anyone's campus consciousness. And, just a question - has anyone ever read Kate Millet's Sexual Politics all the way through? I dropped Millet somewhere in the midst of her screed on Norman Mailer; she quite unintentionally convinced me he was more interesting than she was.
Beidler also overlooks Sontag, Barth, Roth and Updike. Too bad - nothing on Beidler's list defines the 1960s better than Updike's Rabbit Redux, a peerless account of the culture war on the domestic front. (I just finished hearing it on audiotape, and it's just as harrowing as when I read it 10 years ago.)
To Beidler's mind, the only significant poets are Allen Ginsburg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Sylvia Plath is here, but only for The Bell Jar.
Beidler aims to tell us what was significant and why, but the decade demands more than he gives it. He can be erudite and conversational, but too often his writing style is dense. His two- and three-page essays, full of babbling syntax and academic jargon, can last an Ice Age.
Beidler calls the Sixties the age of "our last great reading culture," when print was still the preferred media.
Funny. It seems it was around then that Gore Vidal started complaining that today's writers watch too much TV.
Rodney Welch, who frequently reviews movies and books for POINT, lives in Elgin.
© Copyright by POINT, 1995
Last modified 6/9/95