[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Caramello examines Gass's postmodern ambivalence toward authority, textuality, and the deconstruction of reality in Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife.]
If dreams are made of imagination, I'm not afraid of my own creation.Rodgers and Hart, "Isn't It Romantic?"
But though he had breathed heavily, groaned as if ecstatic, what he'd really felt throughout was an odd detachment, as though someone else were Master.John Barth, "Lost in the Funhouse"
William H. Gass calls a brief encounter with Wittgenstein "the most important intellectual experience of my life";1 he is acidic on the topic of Sartrean engagement in literature;2 he describes himself as "very much a Valérian";3 and he consistently argues that art "teaches nothing. It simply shows us what beauty, perfection, sensuality, and meaning are" (Fiction and the Figures of Life, 274). The title of his collection of stories, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, implies a position: there is no heart at the center of fiction; there is only language, the phrase "the heart." The title of his second collection of essays, The World Within the Word, neatly encoding both an aesthetics and a metaphysics, expresses a position: language contains a world, language seeks to contain the world that contains it.
The epistemic shift that Derrida associates with "the end of the book and the beginning of writing" and that Roland Barthes designates as that "from work to text"--the shift we have considered at length--bears directly on the issues raised by Gass's fiction. Derrida, we recall, speaks of the cultural categories of "a good and a bad writing: the good and natural is the divine inscription in the heart and the soul; the perverse and artful is technique, exiled in the exteriority of the body." Predicated on a metaphysics of presence and authority--on the idea of the Book--the dichotomy collapses once one acknowledges the decentered play of "writing."4 William Gass would seem to have acknowledged this play. But if we can consider Barthes's "work" and "Text" as analogous to Derrida's "book" and "writing"--recalling Barthes's use of "work" to refer to the concept of literature as that which is produced by a discrete authorial presence and "Text" to refer to the concept of literature as that which is produced largely in its reception, that which is cut loose in the intertext, that which participates in the phenomenon that he describes as "the death of the author," that in which there is "no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins"5--then we might have to place Gass on the side of book, work, and authority.
Indeed, Gass's work reveals a deep ambivalence on this matter of textuality and authority, the ambivalence that obtains throughout postmodern American fiction. His brief novella, Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife, published over a decade ago, both represents and manifests this ambivalence.6
It is appropriate that the first line of the preface to Gass's first collection of essays, Fiction...