Years ago when I had my radio show (The Book Show at WAMC, the public radio station in Albany, NY,–the show still persists under different management) I interviewed William Gass about his amazing novel The Tunnel. Usually I interviewed authors by phone, but Gass was in town for a reading and so we met in the studio. I had always admired Gass, who seemed to have learned his moves at the feet of Gertrude Stein but then vaulted himself into a whole other planetary system. His essay “On Being Blue” is a classic, the place I learned about image patterning and thematic forcing (that essay and Margaret Atwood’s novel Cat’s Eye). But I brought a baseball bat and placed it on the console between us and started the interview by suggesting he would probably want to hit me with it after I asked him a few questions. Critics were up and down about The Tunnel. Some, whom I would now describe as Tea Party Lit Crits, even went so far as to claim it wasn’t a novel at all. These were the kind of critics who only allow novels firmly in the tradition of the bourgeois epic starting with Defoe. (Sadly this is also the tradition out of which most creative writing students think they descend.) But there is a Bigger World out there, and this is a lovely reminder of the shapeliness of complexity (complexity being a whole other value system lost on conservatives of all kinds). Read this piece and think about structure, form, elaboration and the spirit of play—what should be at the heart of all great writing. Needless to say that bat was handy as a talking point, and Gass and I had a great conversation (which you can no longer hear because of copyright squabbles–although I have a tape). You can, however, read an interview with Gass at The Believer and at the Paris Review. Or read Gass’s introduction the Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy–for what he says about Burton’s sentences.
Thanks to Brad Green for sending me this link.
How to Design a Lump of Darkness
William H. Gass has long been interested in design, particularly in the marriage of language and art. In his experimental 1968 novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Gass used images and an array of fonts, colors, and symbols to suggest a text as female body below its male reader, the language the love being made. The author has admitted that some of these visual efforts were more conceptually interesting than successful, and at least one of his reasons why—”I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music”—is tellingly unhelpful. Gass’s interest in the visual arts would continue for decades, through his own photography, the Dual Muse exhibition and conference his International Writers Center put on in 1997 (painters writing; writers painting), and projects relating to what he calls “the architecture of the sentence.”
Thus it’s clear, reading this previously unpublished “Designing The Tunnel” document, that we’re hearing from a writer who cares deeply about the look of a book. “I regard these instructions and the general layout of the text only as indications of my intentions,” Gass began, welcoming the suggestions of a “sympathetic designer” who might take him closer to his goal. That said, he doesn’t sound like an author uncertain of what he wants. Having requested that the book be bound in rough black cloth, with a spine like Viking Press’s edition of Finnegans Wake, Gass stated that the reader “should be holding a heavy[,] really richly textured lump of darkness.” The cover should not have the author’s name. “Why not put the author’s name on the book? Because it is Kohler’s book. Because, in a sense, it is not a book.” Gass sounds like an art-class enthusiast describing his hopes for typography—”I would love it if every line looked like a length of barbed wire”—as well as the treatment of Kohler’s doodles, which might, if successful, bring to mind Hitler’s architectural sketches of camps. “I want something at once naive,” Gass instructed, “a little charming, and a lot unsettling.”