If readers fail to apppreciate the range and subtlety of William Gass's essays in his latest collection, Tests of Time, he'll partly have himself to blame. Gass's prose is the very model of mixed-diction modernism, but one voice threatens to outshout the rest: a Lear-like old cuss, out of temper with the times. (Oh, the usual gripes: pop culture, political correctness, irrationality, and the failure of others to see what he was up to in his widely unread 1995 novel,The Tunnel.) Quantitatively, however, rant takes up relatively little space compared with literary wonder-working. "The Nature of Narrative and Its Philosophical Implications"ˇnot a snore, despite the titleˇusefully argues that story and fiction are not synonyms but antonyms. "There Was an Old Woman Who" corrals the nursery rhyme, the Holocaust, and the O. J. case into a ringmasterly demonstration that true history is the history of human consciousness. Still, you keep bracing yourself for Gramp's next outburst.
"For twenty-five years," Gass claims, "I have been writing about resentment, and maybe I am now ill of my occupation." This preemptive half-admission doesn't make him any more attractive when he gets onto "shrill and posturing" minorities and "the typical liberal strategy of whining about environment, upbringing, background, and forces of society and nature." But when Gass flips into p.c. mode himself, oh-so-casually referring to the writer-in-general as "she," or noting that "the story of Adam and Eve has been used for centuries to denigrate women"ˇ denigrate, yet!ˇyou begin to see that his is a radically divided sensibility. You could waste hours figuring out whether you agree or disagree with this or that "position" Gass "takes"; ultimately the play of his sensibility trumps whatever he's playing with.
When considering literatureˇalways his happiest choice of topicˇGass himself makes a similar argument against the centrality of content. The writer, he says, writes "not by running with the bulls in Pamplona . . . not by enjoying an unfortunate marriage . . . not by holding the thinning fingers of your aids-eaten friend, alas, though it feels sad enough to be inspiring, for that kind of thematic content counts for nothing." He quotes Flaubert's idea that "there are no noble subjects or ignoble subjects; from the standpoint of pure Art one might almost establish the axiom that there is no such thing as subject." And Gass concludes that "right reading . . . must be for relations, continuities, balances, breaks, disembowelments of design, surprising restitutions of order."
Aha: Then Gass is a formalist? Sure, except that he has (like Flaubert) a passionate attachment to the concrete, the fleshly, the particular: "If one is to see the world in a grain of sand, one must first see the sand." He hangs his concluding essay, "Transformations," on the image of dewdrops on the leaves of a whitebud tree in morning sunlight; in the title essay, he quotes an exquisitely visualized passage of Walden in which Thoreau recalls fishing at night, and comments that "there's no moment too trivial, too sad, too vulgar, too rinky-dink to be unworthy of such recollection, for even a wasted bit of life is priceless when composed properly or hymned aright, even that poor plate of peaches slowly spoiling while its portrait is being painted."