A Review of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass

“In language, there’s no imagination without music, because music is the movement of imagination.”

This one started off with promise, both in terms of prose and conception, but like On Being Blue, any theoretical or thematic thread or sense of cohesion is quickly abandoned, even more so in this little book. My copy is a TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two (North Western University Press) 1968 edition that has a set of blue, dark yellow, and cherry-red pages, ending in glossy white. It was sold on eBay as “sleaze” yet one would only get a tad more genital stimulation reading this for pornography than Nabokov’s Lolita (on a similar note of mislabeling, I purchased a 15-dollar signed Dalkey Archive paperback of The Tunnel, which was listed as “horror”). Simply put, neither are erotica and the most erotic part of this book is the photographs of a woman’s parts, cunt unincluded. (Strangely, the cover model’s belly button and stomach shadow are also unincluded in this edition, airbrushed out to reflect inhuman ‘perfection’.)

Aside from somewhat vague musings on the meaning of literature, language, and the sexes, most of this novella reads like a random compendium of context-less excerpts, including some notes in the margins that at times read like micro-poems (“Do not say more than listening can explain!”), as well as a brief misquote from Volpone by Ben Jonson inserted between the lines of a paragraph before disappearing into the trench of the pages. Yes, the pre-MZD typographical trickeries are the star of this labyrinthine shit show, from text within coffee stains and backward text to text in the shape of a tree or an eye.

The closest thing to plot is a fractured play about a man who finds his own penis baked inside a bread bun. The play is purposefully bogged down by footnotes upon footnotes, some of which have their own footnotes (DFW would be pleased), and even a somewhat foot-fetish-note. Other than that, there’s a ‘story’ about a lonesome woman who cuckolds her husband or imagines she’s doing so, thinking up names of potential lovers like a quantum Molly Bloom in superposition.

A fun moment occurred during a philosophical tangent in a footnote, in fact, when the text suddenly morphed into a thicker font and adopted a hostile tone: “…Now that I’ve got you alone down here, you bastard, don’t think I’m letting you get away easily […] down here where it’s dark and oily like an alley, meaningless as Plato’s cave….” It then goes on for the length of the next page, but other than being a clever idea that produces textual awareness, nothing comes of it. And that feeling pretty much sums up the entirety of the project. As though agreeing, that’s essentially what one page says in the latter half of the book, the beginning and ending of a paragraph which has a much larger font that combines to read: “You’ve been had, […] from start to finish.”

This brief book is worth looking into for scholars or dedicated fans of experimental literature, even if the experiment is a failure, for I must emphasize that in theory a lot of these concepts are great, but their execution is lackluster on the whole, cold even, predating works that are similar in their textual and even sexual play but with clearer purpose, such as Mulligan Stew, Love in a Dead Language, If on a winter’s night a traveler, etc. With that said, I think this one is for Gass completionists.

“I’m only a string of noises, after all—nothing more really—an arrangement, a column of air moving up and down, a queer growth like a gall on a tree, a mimic of movement in silent readers maybe, a brief beating of wings and cooing of a peaceful kind, an empty swing still warm from young bloomers…ummm…imagine the imagination imagining….”

Just before posting my review, I stumbled on this Paris Review interview with Gass from 1976, in which he seems to agree with my assessment: “…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.”

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George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

2 thoughts on “A Review of Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife by William H. Gass

  1. I’m a Gass completionist so I’m going to read this baby, negative review be damned. But I do sometimes wonder what went through the head of some people back in the 1960s. Many ’60s writers felt they had to support every experimental trend, it was in the air; so a rhetorical writer like Gass had a go at visual stuff involving typography, mixed media, etc., because his peers were doing it too. But Gass was a wordman from head to heel. I never saw him as a maker of “concrete novels” like Federman and Sukenick. I don’t think he was comfortable thinking of words as anything but sounds, so I’m not surprised if he botched this experiment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely don’t want to shoo away the right readers. My hope is that my review can help readers make a better decision as to what is worth their time based on their specific interests. I definitely think you could get a thing or two out of this slim volume. Funny how ‘new’ books that play with typography and whatnot are considered fresh but this stuff has been going on for practically a century (people need to read more of what’s come before). Anyway, I’m sure this experiment helped Gass to parse things out when it came time to dig into The Tunnel. There are some overlapping tics in each case. Do let me know what you think of it whenever you get the chance. Cheers!

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