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Gass and his Willie

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“I held a small, limp pen.” – William H. Gass on the writing he did as a student at Kenyon College.

I want to devote two or three posts to a writer with a sporadic but intriguing relationship with photography: William H. Gass. I’ll start with the publication of his 1968 novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. In 1968, TriQuarterly magazine, which is still run out of Northwestern University, published the second of several independent “supplements” to their literary magazine. This supplement was Gass’s novella Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife. The paper bound version, which was sent to subscribers, features front and back covers that have, respectively, frontal and rear photographs of a female nude. On the front cover, the undulating typography of the book’s title and author attribution gives the appearance that the text was projected onto the model’s body. So immediately, even before we’ve opened the book, we are presented with a strong correspondence between the physicality of the human body and of the work of literature, not to mention the overt sexualization of writing. Literature as a form of seduction. Within the pages of the novella, which are printed on four different colors of paper, are more photographs of the nude model, along with faux coffee-cup stains. The provocative pin-up-like photographs, redolent of Playboy magazine, suggest an equally provocative text, but instead Gass subversively provides a text that provokes the reader into an almost bewildering confrontation with typography and multiple narrative streams. These narratives toy with the reader’s expectations and even, on occasion, playfully taunt the reader. One page boldly declares “From start to finish, you’ve been had.” To further confuse the reader,the narratives sometimes run parallel to each other on the page. One page is even printed in reversed type so that it is a mirror image of the facing page. Throughout, the act of writing is equated with sexual acts. I think it can be argued that the photographs, which replicate the male gaze over the female body, are so clichéed that we are meant to see them ironically, for Gass’s text subverts the terms of the male gaze. It is Willie’s lonely wife, not Willie himself, who is the primary narrator, serving as a kind of Molly Bloom voice, and it is the the poor penis that comes in for the most serious mockery. After sex, she says, men “fall asleep on me and shrivel up. I write the finis for them, close the covers, shelf the book.”

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Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife was an entirely new way for a work of fiction to look. Its photographs were credited to Burton L. Rudman and its design to Lawrence Levy. Whatever precedent Gass, Rudman and Levy had in mind, if any, it would not have been found on the fiction shelves of the library. At the time, in fact, there were only a few examples of photographically-embedded fiction widely known in the United States and they were by Wright Morris (1910-1998).

It is curious that modern photographically-embedded fiction in America originates with two Midwesterners. Morris was born in Central City, Nebraska (current population less than 3,000) and Gass was born in 1924 in Fargo, North Dakota. Wright, a writer and photographer who was undoubtedly influenced by the seminal book by James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Know Praise Famous Men (1941), effectively invented a way for written text and photographs to coexist on an equal basis, often by letting each claim a page of their own across every two-page spread in books that he referred to as “photo-texts:” The Inhabitants (1946), The Home Place (1948), God’s Country and My People (1968), and Plains Song, for Female Voices (1980). But beyond accidents of birth and a lasting interest in the Midwest as a subject matter, the two writers approach to the photography that appeared in their work could hardly be more different. Morris himself photographed the images for his books, using his writing and photography as an act of preservation for the rural past that was rapidly disappearing. Gass, on the other hand, began his career as a post-modern experimentalist with a powerful interest in the philosophy of language and the role of the writer, and has only used photographs by others in his two photo-embedded works. This is in spite of the fact that Gass spent some time seriously trying to become a photographer. In an engrossing interview with John Madera over at Rain Taxi, Gass talks about a time when he was “doing a lot of photography” himself. But when he met Michael Eastman, who supplied the photographs for his 1998 novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s, Gass says he realized “I was a total amateur and no good, and so I stopped.”

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Since 1968, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife has been reissued several times with slight variations in the design and is currently available in a new edition by Dalkey Archive. It has also become one of the more discussed and analyzed classics of postmodernist writing, so I won’t attempt further dissection here. The best place to start reading about the book is Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass: A Casebook, an online resource created by Dalkey Archive. Here are the contents of The Casebook:

“Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Literary Language and the Problem of Meaning” by Richard Henry [This includes the best discussion of the role that photographs play in Willie.]

“The Book as Book” by Richard Henry [A review of the different editions of Willie.]

“Gass on Willie” by Richard Henry. [Excerpts from selected interviews with Gass.]

 “Reading Body-Books: Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife reconsiders Tristram Shandy” by Karen L. Schiff

 “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife as Pornographic Critique” by Rolf Samuels

 “Selected Bibliography”

Interviewed just eight years later in 1976 by Thomas LeClair for the Paris Review, Gass was already back-pedaling a little on the experimental aspects of his novella, especially his failure to make a polyphonic piece with simultaneous voices.

Yes, I was trying out some things. Didn’t work. Most of them didn’t work. I was trying to find a spatial coordinate to go with the music, but my ability to manipulate the spatial and visual side of the medium was so hopelessly amateurish (I was skating on one galosh), and the work also had to go through so many hands, that the visual business was only occasionally successful, and most of that was due to the excellent design work of Larry Levy, not me. Too many of my ideas turned out to be only ideas—situations where the reader says, “Oh yeah, I get the idea,” but that’s all there is to get, the idea. I don’t give a shit for ideas—which in fiction represent inadequately embodied projects—I care only for affective effects. I’m still fooling around with visual business, but I am thinking of a way to make them sound. One problem, for instance, is trying to get the sense (in print) of different lines of language being sounded at the same time, or alternately, or at different speeds or pitch, as in music.

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In interviews, Gass often talks about the process of writing as a physical act and he often equates literature with the body, as he does in the front and rear cover images in Willie. In the Paris Review interview he talks about deliberately changing his handwriting  one day during college. “I sat down with the greatest deliberation and thought how I would make each letter of the alphabet from that moment on. A strange thing to do. Really strange.”

As an artist you are dealing with a very abstract thing when you are dealing with language (and if you don’t realize that, you miss everything), yet suddenly it is there in your mouth with great particularity—drawl, lisp, spit. When the word passes out into the world, that particularity is ignored; print obliterates it; type has no drawl. But if you can write for that caressing, slurring, foulmouthed singing drunken voice . . . that’s a miracle.

With Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Gass hijacked the production of his book from cover to cover and forced the images and text to physically interact, creating one of the core works of postmodern writing and metafiction. It’s a book without precedent and, perhaps more oddly, it’s a book that didn’t really spawn any successors.

Coming soon: “Emma Enters a Sentence (and loses her photographs),” on Gass’s novella Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop’s.

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