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Friday, March 21, 2014

Crazy-ass Literary Fiction OR Middle C by William H. Gass

Book Type: Crazy-ass literary fiction

Stereotype Alert: Too weird for traditional stereotypes...

Cover Art: Someone stole my keyboard and all they left me was middle C and C#/Db.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Jesus.  You sort of want to put everyone out of their misery at one point or another, but one has to wonder if a lay or two would have made Joseph a bit more normal. 

Character Score: 5.5-6 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: The life of Joseph Skizzen manages to be complete run of the mill and just plain crazy all at once.  

X-Factor: Holocaust reversal


Stereotype Alert: I can't even.  Psychologically there's plenty stereotypical about Joseph.  But in the context of how his story is told... I guess the descriptions of small Midwestern religious colleges are a bit stereotypical.  But they are spot on at the same time.

Cover Art: I actually think this is a really beautiful cover.  It does fool the reader into expecting to read something WAY different, however.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Really.  Not going there.  I feel like there aren't enough characters in this book for me to even cast this properly unless everyone gets a "bludgeon."

Character Score: I really enjoyed Miriam.  And Rudi is so wacky that you can't really help but wonder where Joseph gets his weirdness- even if (especially if???) he did grow up without his father around.  Gass did a great job of creating veeeeery unique characters.

What's the Story?
Middle C is unlike any other novel I have ever read.  The storytelling doesn’t unfold in typical linear fashion and because of this the reader becomes increasingly curious about how our narrator, Joseph Skizzen, gets from point A to point Z.  Joseph’s tale begins before he is even born, with his parents and sister living in their native Graz, Austria just before the dawn of World War II.  Sensing that the Nazis will soon be creating more than their fair share of problems in his homeland, Rudi Skizzen flees to London with his family by pretending that they are Jewish refugees.  Joseph is born shortly after their arrival and the Skizzen (now called Fixel) family manages to survive the Blitz.  Joseph’s father “reinvents” or renames himself several more times and then disappears mysteriously after the war.  After desperately searching for her husband, Joseph’s mother Miriam then manages to relocate herself and her two children to a small town in rural Ohio. 

And here is where Joseph’s story takes off.  We can see the two Skizzen children grow into their new lives as Americans.  Joseph is quiet and not particularly book-smart while his sister Debbie becomes a cheerleader and wants to be a part of all things fashionable.  Joseph begins to enjoy his piano lessons with a local teacher, but it is apparent that he is self-taught in playing popular tunes than anything else.  We are then shown a look at Joseph as an older man, one who has used the entire attic of his large home to house what he calls his “Inhumanity Museum” which is host to countless newspaper clippings spotlighting all manner of man’s terrible acts.  We bounce back and forth in time to see Joseph working as a high schooler in a music store, then as a college professor, then a college student, then as an assistant in a small town library.  Each sector of Joseph’s life creates another layer of lies he tells himself to continue on his way. 

I began this book thinking (due to the title) that it was about music.  And in many ways, music plays a big role in Joseph’s life.  But the result of Gass’s novel is so unlike any story I’ve seen told that it is hard to place my finger on what the biggest point of the narrative truly is.  Middle C  is a fascinating, careening tour through the mind of a seemingly ordinary man who lives a seemingly ordinary life but it is certainly an extraordinary novel.  

X-Factor: Seriously.  How many books have you read about Jewish people pretending to be Christian so that they could escape Germany/Poland/Austria etc. and persecution at the hand of the Nazis?  Now how many books have you read where someone pretends to be Jewish so they could escape the Nazis?  Until now, I had read zero.  God I hope this wasn't an actual thing that happened on a regular basis at the time.  It just seems so... icky.  But in the context of setting up Rudi and his eccentricities, it worked like a charm.

I can't say enough about this book.  I really can't- my grasp of the English language and my own personal feelings cannot fully encompass all that I would like to say about this novel.  If you are generally a reader of literary fiction, I would highly recommend it.  That's all I can really say.