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Punched by Prose : FINDING A FORM. By William Gass (Alfred A. Knopf: $26, 352 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Nick Owchar | Nick Owchar is an assistant editor for Book Review

In this day of hyper-publishing, of million-dollar book advances and authors touring cities like rock 'n' roll bands, William Gass is a curious figure.

Now in his 70s, Gass, who heads the International Writers Center at Washington University, has published only four fiction works (Flaubert had five in his lifetime; excellent company). Last year's masterful novel, "The Tunnel," which revolves around the repulsive, lonely life of a middle-aged Midwestern professor, took him 26 years to complete.

A 26-year commitment to a single book? That's beyond the comprehension of most writers today. Gass explains why in "Finding a Form," an essay collection with immense consequences for writers and non-writers alike:

"Because few of the young people I met on my travels had the romantic aspirations my generation had, I decided that they lacked ambition. I was wrong. They have plenty of ambition, but it is thoroughly worldly and common-sense kind: They want to make it . . . they want to be hot, imitated, sought."

Nothing less than contemporary American literature's total enfeeblement is Gass' concern in this brilliant book. The 19 essays assembled here, which were all published in earlier versions in publications including the New Republic and the Times Literary Supplement, sparkle and flash like cavalry sabers in the sun. It is a collection that's on the offensive. It takes no prisoners.

Hence, this barb fired at the Pulitzer Prize, which Gass says is too politicized to discern the best writers: " . . . even pigeon poop is hit or miss . . . yet the Pulitzer Prize in fiction is almost pure miss."

Or this one, aimed at a sample of Jay McInerney's writing, which Gass criticizes for using the present tense: "The advantage to writing this slack is that the writer can't hang himself with any length of it."

At times like these, Gass' prose suddenly rears up and punches you in the nose. In an essay on Nietzsche, he says the philosopher's technique of writing in short, pithy statements created "bursts like a fragmentation grenade." His essays possess a similar power. Each is a mortar shell lobbed deep into enemy territory--at the publishing industry, university writing programs, pop culture and anything else that Gass says has contributed to a present lack of literary craftsmanship.

"My essays are malevolently anti-expository," he declares with relish in the collection's title essay. Each one is a catalog: Gass pins down a theme, then spins a multitude of associations. "Simplicities," which meditates on the fact that writing simply is hard to do, glides in a few pages over pioneer life, Japanese decorative style, Shaker furniture, Hemingway, virginity, the Greek sage Democritus and back to Japan.

This agility is more than a virtuoso performance: It instructs. Of greatest value to writers is how every essay showcases the resources of language. Gass is a defender of the Word. Testing the resiliency of language is an important message of his Gass-spel. He stretches and pulls them like rubber bands, punning constantly ("I need hate's heat to warm my art") and playing with alliteration and assonance (on Kafka: "A big bug in a bed is a bother, especially if it's your brother"), all to show words' value.

"The music of prose," he says in an essay by that title, "is nonetheless far from frivolous decoration; it embodies Being. . . ."

Gass appreciates some writers, like Robert Walser ("Masquerade"), for their control of words; others Gass pities, like Ezra Pound, who lost control of his with the World War II radio denunciations that led to his banishment from the United States. Unfortunately, this linguistic potency, used wisely or poorly, is not even possible now. Gass says American writing today is "a wet mix of journalism and melodrama" driven by dull agendas or flashy gimmicks, not by art.

To be fair, the criticism of McInerney's style drips with more sarcasm out of the context of the essay, "A Failing Grade for the Present Tense." Here Gass explains how the current popularity of present tense narration is bankrupting fiction and ruining young writers. The stories that Gass sees today in literary quarterlies and popular magazines strip away all interpretation and focus on the immediate moment: "It looks; it watches; it sees; it mops." Gone is a sense of history, a sense of the past or the future. Writers once put this tense to special purposes: It expressed a nihilistic attitude or heightened the drama of a story. Today, it's just easy to do. No burden of making judgments. No need to sound like Tolstoy. No effort to remember "literature in the grand sense," Gass laments.

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