Friday, April 12, 2013

Review: Middle C

Middle C
By William H. Gass
Knopf March 2013
395 pages
From the library 

Middle C

In 1938 Austria, a man refuses to be complicit with the Nazi's inevitable rise to power. He changes his name and identity, as well as those of his wife and two small children. But it seems that in constantly changing his identity, he has forgotten who he is and where his responsibilities lie. He leaves his family behind, never to be seen again. His wife relocates to Ohio with their children and while the daughter Debbie easily adapts to American life, Joey searches for answers in music, in books, and in the lonely corners of his own mind.

This novel is difficult to read. In some ways, that turned me off from reading it but in other ways I admired Gass' decision to tell this story on his terms. Middle C is difficult to really get into and once you put it down, it is hard to pick it up again. That being said, I think I'm glad I persevered and read this novel.

We go back and forth between a young Joey who is trying to find his way in life away from the shadow of his father's bad decisions and an older Professor Joseph who has lost most of his grip on reality, perhaps because he is constantly recreating it. The professor lives as a hermit when not arguing with his mother or shaking his head at students who don't know as much as he expects. The character of Joey is quite naive and open, while his older self is bitter and broken. The fascinating part is watching how one becomes the other.

Joseph is disgusted with the world in which he lives. He creates a museum of inhumanity where he contemplates the atrocities committed by humanity all over the world throughout time. He constantly writes and rewrites a single sentence in an attempt to put the evil of humanity into words just as he rewrites his own history. But his attempts to remain unencumbered by relationships are hampered by his father's legacy.

"His father, he liked to imagine, understood how future conditions drew upon present desires to ready the field and plant the earth, scour cities and hills for next year's pogroms; how the masked ball that has not yet been held brings about its preparations: an engraved invitation, a new dress, a novel disguise, a fresh date. And there are all sorts of details that "flesh out" these dreams: the corsage that a boyfriend sends ahead of himself, the dark car that whisks you and your young prince away, the bright lights that dominate the party rooms, the music of Mozart, the glitter of silks, skins and jewels...ah, he had let his mind flee into a fiction...he heard hunting horns, hooves, and baying dogs.
For the young prince will become a poor printer, the bright lights will be those of searching beams, bomb sounds will follow sirens, and sometimes screams will even precede. But he, Joey the Joseph, will have no actual past; he will be safely out of the stream of consequences: I was not here, I was not there, I was not noticed anywhere."

Middle C is unlike any novel you have read before. The concepts and the language are challenging, but Gass is revered as a master at the top of his game. His questions about identity, history, and humanity will resonate with readers who are willing to stick with this book to the end.

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