50 Books: On Being Blue by William Gass

William Gass as photographed by Herb Weitman

Today I read an email—from a smart guy who was clearly a top-decile writer of English—that contained a parenthetical aside inside a parenthetical aside. Neither interruption improved my understanding of the sentence or my assessment of the person who wrote it, but I sympathized. The urge to add one more layer has overcome us all. Probably it is more likely to overcome those of us who have a knack for writing sentences. Nuances occur to us and we try to pack them in, for the same reason we overfill the tacos we make at home, until anyone else who tries to eat them winds up with a mess running down the back of their hand. The mess in this analogy is, uh, implications lost to unclear syntax. The filling falling out of the back of a taco is the failure of reading comprehension, whose rate increases with complexity until the audience for a given sentence shrinks to one. I am sorry for the inscrutable metaphor, but I had so much meaning for you to savor and I wanted to pack it all in there, until the tortilla just split apart.

How we put meaning into English sentences—or rather how it enters the reader’s mind unbidden, particularly overtones of sexuality related to color—is the subject of William Gass’s On Being Blue, which is billed as “a philosophical inquiry.” It is that. It is also a tour de force, partly because form follows function and partly because, it would seem, Gass really enjoys writing. That’s the gist of his surprisingly affecting closing argument, which is that [SPOILER ALERT] you’re going to die soon, so you should write as much as possible. He does not explicitly advocate this kind of maximalism until the end of the book, but he tacitly endorses it along the way through maximalism of other kinds.

On Being Blue is hard to read. Despite his argument that the function of the writer is to create, via sentences, a consciousness for the reader to experience, a lot of Gass’s sentences demand we step away for a second to figure them out. I often read before bed, but I found that I could only comprehend this book in daylight. My approach was to read a sentence, think about what it meant, and then read it again to check my work. The distance this method imposed was compounded by the fact that I was re-reading; I first read On Being Blue about five years ago and, I realized with growing horror, remembered very little from the first time through. Instead of recognizing old twists and turns, I found the book to be like a hedge maze that, embarrassingly, I was lost in for a second time. The flaw in this analogy is that you cannot step up into the air and consider the hedge maze from above, whereas I kept removing myself from the flow of Gass’s argument to puzzle out what he just said.

This thicket of language is the right way for Gass to expound his theories of connotation and how the sentence says what it does not state. Most failures of comprehension were my fault. Occasionally, though, I was taken by the uncharitable suspicion that he was being intentionally abstruse. Take this paragraph from page 73, where Gass is discussing the changing significances of blue over time:

Seldom was blue for blue’s sake present till Pollock hurled pigment at his canvas like pies. Rarer still, since such sensitivity in the brush tip is a rarity (in the penis rarer, in the poet rarest of all), color became the breath of bodies, every hue the aching limit of a life, as if it rose up from within the substance it covered the way feeling changes the color of the chameleon, or like those remarkable cephalopods whose configurations alter with their moods, or as, inadequately, our own blood comes and goes like sunshine dreaming among moving clouds.

Emphasis added, and bro: you’re thinking of an octopus. That’s the remarkable cephalopod whose configuration alters with its mood. If you were to use this term that every child knows, you would admittedly lose some elucidation of meaning but also shave off one euphemism and two subclauses from what is already a very cumbersome sentence. I’m willing to do the work, but don’t make me jump through hoops to prove how cunningly you make them.

Clearly, this kind of maximalism is a choice. The question is whether it is necessary, which is a polite way of asking whether it’s performative. Maybe that parenthetical about penises and poets is necessary to unify perceived color with subconscious sexual desire and the artist’s craft, which is an important part of Gass’s overarching thesis that “blue” material enters into language through color and metaphor. Or maybe he made the connection and couldn’t resist pointing it out, i.e. telling us that he did.

That may be the real inquiry at hand in On Being Blue. Where does sophistication shade over into demonstration? When does the parenthetical not add another shade of meaning but rather indicate, as my high school English teacher said it did, a part the author knew he should leave out but lacked the discipline to cut?

Gass makes a compelling argument that there is another type of discipline: the type that leaves everything in, overfilling the taco but doing it so skillfully that nothing falls out. On Being Blue is proof it can be done, but I still wouldn’t eat it in the car, so to speak. It’s thrilling for that reason, though, and in its insistence on radical density it becomes a kind of manifesto. Part of maximalism is doing what is not strictly necessary, and in writing that is usually synonymous with failure. Paradoxically, it is also the precondition for success.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next on our reading list: A Bad Man by Stanley Elkin

50 Books in 2018: Death Wish

Charles Bronson, star of the 1974 film

Maybe the hardest thing to believe in the movie version of Death Wish is that Charles Bronson is an architect. The protagonist of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel is an accountant. The natural advantage of the novel lies in rendering interiority, and interiority is where Garfield’s book lives. Most of the film Death Wish is Bronson shooting muggers and avoiding detection by the police. In the novel, Paul does not kill until the last 50 pages or so. In the meantime, he experiences himself losing his mind.

After his wife and daughter are attacked by teenage hoodlums—fatally, for his wife, and so traumatically for his daughter that she slips into catatonia—Paul Benjamin is profoundly alone. A lifelong liberal, he finds himself brooding on crime and punishment in his empty apartment. At rare dinner parties or during more frequent conversations with his coworkers and son-in-law, he gets in arguments, finding that the prevailing consensus on New York City in the 1970s—that crime is a social disease rather than the responsibility of individual criminals, who would be better citizens under better economic conditions—suddenly enrages him. This transformation in his thinking reflects the adage that a Republican is a Democrat who has been mugged. Paul expresses a variation on this idea to his son-in-law, a left-leaning attorney who is comparably bereaved but nonetheless horrified by the change in Paul’s beliefs.

This difference in how Paul and Jack react to the same crime engages the fundamental theme of the story. Death Wish has been called a meditation on fascism, and that reading certainly stands up. Paul’s progress from urbane CPA to night-stalking murderer reminds us that fascism lies adjacent to the upper middle class. Invariably, it’s the rich who implement actual fascist government, but it’s the professionals and small business owners who support it. This reading concludes that what people think of as their deeply held political beliefs are actually products of their circumstances. Paul turns out to be one violent crime away from pursuing the death penalty for muggers. His friends, who sympathize with his tragedy but haven’t experienced it themselves, remain righteous liberals.

But Jack does experience the same tragedy, and it does not turn him into a right-wing vigilante the way it does Paul. Here lies the counterpoint. If people’s political views are merely the product of their circumstances, why doesn’t Jack go off the deep end, too? The difference between his and Paul’s reactions suggest that the individual is responsible for his own political views—and, by extension, his choices—after all. Applied as a universal principle, however, this idea is the one Paul disastrously fails to resist. He kills because he embraces an ethic of individual responsibility and takes it too far. The muggers and car thieves he guns down on the streets of New York are not absolved of their crimes by circumstance or broad socioeconomic theories. In the end, each is responsible for the crimes he commits.

The tension between forgiveness and responsibility, broad trends and individual choices, is what powers the novel. Paul gives in to the violent urges that dominate his thinking after his wife’s death, even as he consciously turns against a society that forgives criminals for giving in to the violent urges it instills in them. Paul should be a thoughtful man. He should be able to process his own suffering without taking it out on others. He turns out to be as much an animal as anybody else in 1970s New York, albeit with stronger fan support among the police.

The detail of this novel—both in its narration of Paul’s unraveling and in its oddly close look at accounting—make it a more satisfying experience than the film (which, for the record, I also liked.) Death Wish the Book also gets high marks for its authentic portrayal of violence. Paul is scared and acting blindly during pretty much every action scene, and his first confrontation with a teenage mugger is among the most accurate depictions of street violence I’ve read. The pace is slow at the beginning and hurtling by the end, which gives the reader just enough time to consider the themes without getting sick of them.

Death Wish loses points for giving all of its characters bland, interchangeable names: Paul, Jack, Sam, Henry, Bill, George. A comical number of these people’s last names are also first names, so that everyone except Paul and his son-in-law fades into a uniform paste of dudes. Maybe this effect is intentional, but I found it irritating. This half-assed naming is probably the fault of Garfield’s virtues as a pulp writer, however, and its flip side is brisk plotting and a lean story. Take three days to read this one and three weeks to think about it.

50 Books in 2018 is a recurring feature. Next I’m reading On Being Blue by William Gass.