Should humanity, in all of its cruelty, be allowed to endure? Such is the repeated refrain of William Gass’ Middle C, a sprawling bildungsroman with a deep thread of psychological interior irony that juxtaposes the beauty of the world’s great art with the horrors of history’s worst atrocities. The beauty and complexity of this novel is revealed through the absolutely impenetrable nature and communicative impossibility of language, and how this can shape identity through a life.
The novel tells the story of Joseph Skizzen, a young man without a true home and true identity after his family’s relocation from Austria as they anticipate the inevitable. The family travels to London, where Skizzzen’s father disappears, and then to Ohio thanks to a benevolent repatriation society. In Ohio Skizzen becomes a noted, yet somewhat average piano player, and in the intervening years of his life seems to slide into a variety of positions, nominations, and professional considerations with a sly yet beautiful kismet that only those without a true home and a true identity can do. He becomes a professor of music by sheer assumption, and his fake self he has built over a lifetime gnaws at his true, pure nature. These fatherless two selves mirror the two selves of the war, of the country, of the everything, and in essence remain an unresolved binary opposite driven by language in this masterful and complex novel.
The language of Gass in his writing is where he truly shines in this piece. Driving his audience through a perpetual labyrinth of language and the way it skews and drives our perception of the world. Books and language are featured as prominently as music and crimes against humanity in this piece, and it is through the compression of and whimsical, philosophical ramblings through words and our intentions behind them that this book seems to take on its strongest thematic message – that the nature of language is as incomprehensible as the nature of our identities, most of all, to ourselves at any point in our lives. In fact, perhaps it gets more convoluted and complicated the longer we try to grapple with both.
This book is a glorious soundpainting portrait of its protagonist, and in a way, it feels like the only thing that would make this a bit better would be to listen to it as an audiobook with a classical soundtrack to match the very clear cadence of language (and the many classical nods throughout. It is a book about music as well, after all). What was Gass’ ultimate message in this piece? Perhaps that humanity should be relegated to the Inhumanity Museum that Skizzen so desperately built and rebuilt within his mind throughout the novel… and maybe that art, and the author or composer, is the one worthwhile element of our existence that deserves a little credit where everything else we do is so deeply rooted in meaningless suffering and cruelty.