[(review date 1 November 1998) In the following review, Wood offers positive evaluation of Cartesian Sonata and Other Novellas, though notes contradictions and shortcomings in the work.]
William Gass is the philosopher-novelist who wants to scramble our p's and q's. For many years, in both essays and novels, he has fought what he sees as the unthinking realism of American fiction. Instead of the blank essences of traditional fiction, he wants the subtle absences of the nouveau roman: instead of characters, he organizes his fictions around "symbolic centers"; instead of the architecture of plot, he attends to the fabric of form; instead of the management of reality, he prefers to liberate the sentence. The writer's task is not to make the reader believe in a world: Gass has argued that "one of the most petty of human desires is the desire to be believed, on the one hand, and the will to belief, on the other." The writer's task, as he sees it, is to stimulate disbelief, to tickle the reader's alienation.
Yet the contradictions and difficulties of being an avant-garde novelist--and, in particular, a novelist who is philosophically skeptical--are everywhere apparent in Gass's two most recent works, a collection of essays, Finding a Form (1996), and now Cartesian Sonata, a gathering of four novellas. The awkward truth is that fiction, because it is the most illusionistic of arts, is the least amenable to the kind of skepticism Gass professes. Fiction, though it may play with disbelief, labors on behalf of belief. As soon as fiction creates a human being, it signs a contract with reality, however unfair or fraudulent that contract may be; and fiction, unlike poetry, has a primary involvement with the human.
Gass is rather squeezed by this challenge. He caricatures realism as a Victorian invention, and makes it seem much less flexible than it actually is; he has sarcastically dismissed the "clear-cut characters," the "unambiguous values" and...