The Year of Reading Dangerously – William H. Gass
You only need to flick through the pages of William H. Gass’ Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife to become aware that this is something a little different. Whether it is the sheer variety of fonts, often apparently fighting for space on the same page, the ever-multiplying asterisks lining up like orderly ants, the stains left behind by a careless coffee cup, or the behinds and breasts that embellish the text from cover to cover – something will catch your eye.
Most of the narratives focus on Willie Masters’ wife, Babs, who is, indeed, lonely and looking for company. Having found the novel’s title emblazoned across her naked torso on the cover and frontispiece, she bends to take its first letter into her mouth, he breasts swinging towards the text like unwieldy punctuation. First and third person narration intermingle as she contemplates the names men give their penises, her “breasts as big as your butt”, and whether saliva is “the sweet wine of love” (though this latter line of thought is in a different font, perhaps not her voice at all…). Some suggestion that all is not simply smut is to be found in a consideration of imagination:
“I feel sometimes as if I were imagination – imagination imagining itself imagine.”
Men, she suggests, do not want to use their imagination and therefore need to be seduced into using it by her form, just as it says later:
“No-one can imagine – simply – merely; one must imagine within words or paint or metal…Imagination is its medium realised. You are your body…and the poet is his language.”
Thank goodness, then, it’s all an extended metaphor for writing – the blurb confirms this (“Disappointed by her inattentive husband / reader…”) – though this may not be entirely obvious when we are quickly engulfed in a script about a man who finds a penis in his bun. This already extended hotdog joke is lengthened further (I can feel the innuendo taking over) by copious footnotes, not always on the same page as the text from which they originate, and eventually requiring a record-breaking* twenty-five asterisks. As the play progresses the footnotes (generally discussing how the play should be performed) become more and more prominent –the text enlarges until finally it seem to be pushing the few lines of dialogue left off the page.
Is it funny? Well, it’s about funny, often making suggestions as to how to play a scene for humour: at various times we’re informed timing, contrast and repetition are the essence of the comic; puns also feature. Ultimately we are told:
“Actually it doesn’t matter how this scene is played for this is what they call a naturally humorous situation.”
However, we are told this in the shape of a tree, which I find makes any truth more palatable. Rather than humour (though there are some who find him funny), Gass seems more interested in making sure we don’t forget we are reading. Just as Babs draws attention to her body, so Gass draws attention to his text. The script format itself, lacking performance, is a reminder, but the footnotes, like being constantly tapped on the shoulder while watching a play, are even more attention-seeking. Throw in frequently changing fonts, Alice in wonderland letters, casually shrinking and growing, and sentences which writhe the page around like a bucketful of snakes, and you are unlikely to lose yourself in the story. When a coffee cup ring appears Gass cannot resist pointing out that it is not a real coffee stain:
“The muddy circle that you see just before you and below you represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup. Represents, I say, because, as you must surely realise, this book is many removes form anything I ‘ve set pen, hand, or cup to.”
In other words, the sign which reminds us that what we have in our hands is an artefact is itself artificial.
Gass’ chaotic and kinetic creation has its admirable qualities, but my general feeling was that the joke went on too long and wasn’t all that funny anyway. It is probably not entirely a good sign that I only laughed when I came to the page that said:
“You’ve been had, haven’t you, jocko? you sad sour stew faced sunofabitch. Really, did you read this far?”
Danger rating: see above. Also, perhaps best not read on a train.
*I made this up.