In Defense of the Invisible: Eyes: Novellas and Stories by William H. Gass
“There are no magic words,” said William Gass in his seminal collection The World Within the Word. “To say the words is magical enough.” Gass, no stranger to such conjuration, has practiced his own brand of experimental, decadent, and richly complex literary bewitchment for nearly half a century. From the tangled beauty of his debut Omensetter’s Luck (1966) to the sui generis meditation On Being Blue (1975) to his American Book Award-winning magnum opus The Tunnel (1995), the 91-year old belle-lettrist has indelibly marked American letters with a luxuriant, lavishly jeweled prose style whose gorgeous obscenities landed him in one of the great literary grudge matches of the last century, facing off against the arch-moralist John Gardner. In one of their more legendary exchanges, Gardner, a fine novelist in his own right, claimed that the difference between them was “my 707 will fly while [Gass’] is too encrusted with gold to get off the ground.” To which Gass famously responded: “There is always that danger. But what I really want is to have it sit there solid as a rock and have everybody think it is flying.”
That extraordinary mimesis is once again marshalled for Gass’ newest collection Eyes: Novellas and Stories, his first work since 2013’s Middle C. Comprised of two novellas and a handful of short stories, Eyes circles familiar Gassian material — isolation, meanness, obsession, and the wonder and terror of representation — while packing enough formal inventiveness and lyrical sleights-of-hand to keep even the most seasoned Gass acolyte pleasantly off-balance. As might be expected from its title, Eyes is concerned with the implications of sight; more precisely, it is the inverted capacity of seeing — what Jan DeBlieu calls “a glimpse of all that happens out of the realm of human vision” in the book’s epigraph — that especially grips Gass here. These stories strive to tease out the invisible relations required of our existences in order for something — anything — to be seen. “Only once had the world realized these relations; they would never exist again; they had come and gone like a breath,” one of his characters says early on, and the mystery of these words hangs on a wire above the entire collection. What comprises our vision of ourselves? Of others? Of objects? What unseen metaphysical scaffolding — like a photographic negative — can be intimated from the limited world of the visible?
Nowhere are these questions handled with more grace, verve, and surprisingly un-Gassian gentleness than in the opening novella, “In Camera”, which tells the story of Mr. Gab, a greedy (and possibly criminal) aesthete whose love of photography supersedes any moral framework, and his orphan assistant Mr. Stu (a diminutive of “You Stupid Kid”) whose physical deformities and feigned ignorance belie the development of his interior life. Mr. Gab, owner of a drab photography print shop possessed of a suspiciously fine library of images, has found life to pale in comparison to his beloved photos. In the idealized image he sees —
a testimony to the unerring fineness of the photographer’s eye; an eye unlike the painter’s, he claimed, because the painter constructed; the painter made up his image as if the canvas were a face; while the photographer sought his composition like a hunter his prey, and took it away clean, when it was found, to present in its purity, as the result of an act of vision, the sort of seeing no one else employed.
Through the mouthpiece of Mr. Gab, Gass uses the language of photography throughout in order to complicate and, at times, ennoble the act of seeing. “The right click demonstrates how, in an instant, we, or our burro, or our shovel, or our eye or nose or nipple, were notes in a majestic symphony,” says Gab. In the surprisingly tender denouement, a crisis enables Mr. Stu to help Mr. Gab see that “a whole world made of fragility and levitation” can, perhaps, exist among and between us outside the frame. There is subtle, nuanced mercy and heart in what develops between the two, like a photograph years in development finally presenting its richness.
The collection’s other novella, “Charity”, is vintage Gass, a remarkably complex exploration of shame, privacy, pride, and the ambiguous motivations inherent to the act of giving. It follows a young lawyer, Hugh Hamilton Hardy, whose self-loathing arises from his status as “an EZ mark” among panhandlers, schemers, and beggars. A rejected act of charity haunts him from his childhood:
having known both sorts of shame — having inflicted shame and suffered it — shame searing his soul so its skin smoked — Hardy knew the difference between a guilty conscience and crushed pride, between — in a shameless world — getting caught and being defiled.
Gass interweaves sexual memory and dialogue from Hardy’s most recent relationship, adroitly calling into question the ways we use (and abuse) our own sexual currency as charitable gesture. The increasingly blurred lines between shame, need and generosity underpin a surprising exchange at the story’s end that echoes the charitable trauma of his youth. Gass calls into question how we curate the objects of our charity, and what we choose to ignore out of shame or self-interest. In “Charity”, the empathetic offering is as likely as not a desire in disguise: an inverted way for Hardy to coerce others to “feel sorry at him, for a change, all night long.”
The short stories featured in the collection are, by and large, about objects rather than people. “Don’t Even Try, Sam” allows the battered and forgotten piano Dooley Wilson plays in Casablanca to air its grievances in a one-sided interview about old Hollywood, artifice, and memory. It isn’t clear if the piano is even functional (as its keys seemingly refuse to plink), but that is largely beside the point as this funnily eccentric one-off — the literary equivalent of a ditty — ponders the ways in which storytelling provides meaning and, even if only briefly, wards off obscurity. “Soliloquy For an Empty Chair”, meanwhile, gives voice to a foldable metal chair in a barber shop that somehow becomes a melancholic rumination on the inevitability of disintegration. “We die through use…when rust’s slow debilitations pick at what we are and what sustains us with more repetition and determination than the woodworm,” says the chair. In these stories, the oft-ignored life of objects is brought to the fore, vignettes whose psychosis, humor, wit, and absurdity are both a joy in their own right while also a subtle interrogation of how, where, and why we spend our attention.
Returning to Jan DeBlieu’s lovely epigraph, “eyes”, beyond being receptacles of vision, are also geographic features “where an underground spring suddenly bursts to the surface.” These places of mystery — “where dry ground becomes soaked with life-giving water” — are pitch-perfect allegories of Gass’ fiction. In his more than capable hands, our condition is slandered, complicated, buffed, broken open — and, finally, illuminated. It is perhaps an irony that Eyes: Novellas and Stories, a collection written near the end of his career, makes for a wonderful entry point into the Gassian literary cosmos. In these strange, piercing stories we read of ourselves hungrily and with a growing awareness. We read for the inimitable prose style, of course, and the brilliant narrative gambits — but we also read to see what he sees. Mr. Gab, when rhapsodizing over his photographs, professes that our lives “are lifted up and given grace when touched by such lenses”; so, too, are Gass’ stories “such lenses” in which life and literature shimmer and intensify. May we all learn to see with such eyes.