To young Joey Skizzen “no surprise was nice”, and he eventually contrives to live an exceptionally bland life. He is, in effect, a resolute Epicurean, following the celebrated dictum: Live unknown. Don’t try to stand out because this will draw the gods’ attention. Keep one’s pleasures modest, one’s passions tamped down, one’s appetites under control. Early in the novel there is a throwaway reference to the Laodiceans, who, St. Paul tells us, were lukewarm in their religious convictions, “neither hot nor cold.” “Nobody,” Joseph says, “has worked harder to get nowhere than I have.”
Is a life of quiet retreat the most we can hope for in this cruel and capricious world? For years Joseph has been refining a single sentence — the novel offers dozens of variants — that initially reads: “The fear that the human race might not survive has been replaced by the fear that it will endure.” In the attic of his house, Professor Skizzen has, moreover, created the Inhumanity Museum. This consists largely of photographs and newspaper clippings about torture and massacres throughout history, about every form of human vileness and cruelty. Gass lavishes pages on the needless deaths of composer Anton von Webern and writer Bruno Schulz, both non-combatants, both stupidly, absurdly shot by trigger-happy soldiers.
William Frederick Kohler, the protagonist of Gass’s previous novel “The Tunnel,” reacted to insult and injury by becoming insulting and injurious, a bigot and Nazi-sympathizer. In contrast, Joseph Skizzen uses every ruse available to remain “a person pure, clean, undefiled, unspoiled by the terrible history of the earth.” As a result, he can proclaim that he is “untarnished as a tea service!” He has no complicity in human affairs, “affairs that are always and inevitably . . . envious, mean, murderous, jealous, greedy, treacherous, miserly, self-serving, vengeful, pitiless, stupid, and otherwise pointless.”
Yet to achieve this supposedly blissful state of middle C, of desperate mediocrity, Joseph has adopted a life of self-repression, fakery and deception. In this regard, “Middle C” takes its place in that great line of modern novels about inauthenticity, from Andre Gide’s “The Counterfeiters” and Thomas Mann’s “Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man” to William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions” and the works of Philip K. Dick. However, there is nothing sham to William Gass’s art: It’s not just dazzling, it’s the real thing.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday.