91 year old William Gass’ prose is still gorgeous in Eyes: Novellas and Stories

Posted on November 5, 2015


Eyes by William Gass book cover

Eyes by William Gass book cover

My review of William Gass’ new book of short fiction appears in New York Journal of Books.  Read that review first. Additional remarks (including a longer excerpt from the book and additional biographical info about Gass) that appeared in a different and now defunct publication begin with the next paragraph.

91 year old William Gass’ prose is still gorgeous in Eyes: Novellas and Stories

“The brown paper wall bore tears and peels and spots made by drops of who knew what — expectorations past. Yet in such stains lay lakes full of reeds and floating ducks and low loglike boats. Instead of the sort of wall which furnished a rich many-toned background for so many of Atget’s documents: instead of the cobbled courtyard that the remainder of the photo surrounded, shadowed, or stood on; instead of gleaming disks of stone with their dark encircling lines; instead of the leaves of trees in a flutter about a field of figures; there might be — instead — a single pock, the bottom of it whitish with plaster: that’s what he had to look at, descend into, dream about, not a rhyming slope of rock, its layers threaded and inked; not the veins of a single leaf like roads on a map, or a tear of paper resembling a tantrum — his rips didn’t even resemble rips — or faded petals that have fallen like a scatter of gravel at the foot of a vase; not an errant flash of light centered and set like a jewel: instead he had a crack, just a crack in a window, a cob’s web, or that of a spider, dewdrop clinging like an injured climber to its only rope of escape; not a clay flowerpot given the attention due to a landscape; not a scratch on the hood of some vehicle, not directional signs painted on the pavement, instructions worn by the wheels of countless cars; not a black eye enlarged to resemble the purple of a blown rose. These were the images in his borrowed books, the material of his mind’s eye, the Lilliputian world grown taller than that tattered Peruvian giant.” — William H. Gass, “In Camera,” Eyes: Novellas and Stories

Literary critic Steven Moore once called William H. Gass “the finest prose stylist in America.” The paragraph quoted above from the first novella in Eyes: Novellas and Stories, 91 year old Gass’ new book of short fiction, is evidence that Moore’s assessment is still accurate. In my New York Journal of Books review of Gass’ new book I write: “The two novellas and four short stories in Eyes show his prose virtuosity and his dim view of human nature undiminished at age 91.”

As in his other works of fiction, the characters in the two novellas and four short stories that comprise Eyes have flawed personalities and most are racist. Gass, who grew up with a racist and abusive father and has cited childhood anger as a major influence on his fiction, has said that he writes “to get even.”

Yet though Gass has an adversarial relationship with his characters they also have some of his own attributes, especially a love of aesthetics with respect to a variety of artistic genres and a tendency to discourse at length on favorite artists and the criteria that define their work.

Eyes’ characters include an unscrupulous fine art photography gallery owner who both verbally abuses and educates his protege/employee, a corporate lawyer overwhelmed by requests for charitable donations and other monetary assistance, the piano from the set of the movie Casablanca, a folding chair, a music professor, and a tween-age boy.

I conclude my NYJB review of Eyes with an enthusiastic recommendation “to readers who enjoy dense prose and experimental fiction” for whom “the attentive reading it requires is amply rewarded.” For a fuller discussion of Eyessee that review.