Catafalque: William H. Gass’s “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife”

Gass, William H. (1989), Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, Dalkey
ISBN 1-56478-212-3
Orig. published as TriQuarterly Supplement Number Two in 1968

William Gass is an excellent writer. His debut novel, Omensetter’s Luck, published in 1966, is almost frighteningly good. It is the work of a confident and amazingly capable writer. It plays effortlessly on the claviature of culture, evoking the weight of religion, the confusions of the quotidian, and presents an array of thoroughly unforgettable characters. Despite of using narrative innovations, the make-up is somewhat traditional. Two years later, he published both his first collection of short prose, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country and this, his short book Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, to which “somewhat traditional” clearly doesn’t apply, at least not what you generally refer as tradition; you can see that even without reading it. See, I have trouble convincing some friends to buy some of the more difficult books I read or review. Not so with this one, which has a unique selling point. Pictures of naked women – or rather: pictures of one naked woman. Lots. Also, funny typography. Lots. Also always a great selling point. Amazon sales rank #844,486 must be solely due to bad marketing.

So, apart from boobs, how’s the book? Short, for one thing. It’s not a novella, more like a slightly longer story, with pictures and quirks. Although, come to think of it, ‘story’, well, maybe not the right word either. A slightly longer short piece of prose. I’ll stick to that now, make of it what you will. The piece of prose is about Babs Masters, the eponymous wife, who is telling this story. Or is she? As the previous lines of meaningless banter have suggested, this is no ordinary story. In a way, this is an experiment about the possibilities of telling stories. The book never just sticks to one kind of text. There’s the stream of consciousness, parts from a play, copies from a different book, coffee stains, and, finally, a more traditional first person narrative, where, for instance, we learn of Babs’ bosom:

There was never any doubt about my bosom, buddy; breasts as big as your butt there, nipples red and rubbery. A regular dairy, my father always said. Babs’ sweet buttery.

In a quote like this, two things stick out. One’s the poetical language, and by this I don’t mean truly poetical language, but language that signifies ‘poetical’ and alliteration’s one of the easiest methods to produce this effect. The other thing’s the way that, even in this short quote that contains rather precise references to all sorts of issues, situating this bawdy comment in a social/cultural context. Not a word wasted here and so it is with the rest of the short book, as well, which is surprising in a book that seems, on the other hand, so wasteful: one page is simply mirrored, the font gets bigger, sometimes for no clear reason, at times the text appears to drop off the page; as I mentioned, the book contains a tiny comic play which is copiously annotated. But, again, nothing wasted, Gass allows himself no indulgencies, the book reads almost austere, grave, monkish, in its efforts to create Art.

The book is one big performance that, of course, raises the question to what extent writing is a performance. The book appears to make fun of the reader, telling him

you’ve been had

but the seriousness of its Art undercuts any such effort. So it’s a performance, an artsy spectacle, a display of craftsmanship and experimentally minded brain, yet at first it does not appear to be a case of l’art pour l’art. The photographs of a naked woman, mostly displayed without a face, tie in well with, for example, the play, which is a play that Babs Masters performed in, and the title connects both these things to more general concerns like gender performance. Again, the book is very earnest about this, carefully making use of jokes and puns, which lose all humor when employed in as clinical a fashion as in this book. You have to read it at least twice, better still, three or four times. This short book can overwhelm you because all the disparate elements are collected in a point that appears to be outside or behind the text, or hidden in a corner or in a particularly fancy letter somewhere. What is that point? Babs Masters? Her body?

A word that is used quite a lot and in different fonts, too, is catafalque, and this is really fitting, too. The whole book is a catafalque of sorts, a bier to support a coffin; more to the point, according to this,

following a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass, a catafalque may be used to stand in place of the body at the Absolution of the dead.

So it is with the text as well. For all the concern about bodies and performance, it withdraws the body from the construct, so that the pictures are shown to have a “ceci n’est pas un pipe” effect, and the writing about bodies is just that, writing about bodies, about a female body. As Sigrid Weigel has shown, the connections between writing about women and about foreign continents are strong, as both writings can carry similarly exploratory and colonizing signatures. But this is not part of the conscious train of thought of the text. The book, I think, dead serious from start to finish, merely appears to weigh concerns other than aesthetic, but dismisses them as it goes on.

In the end, this text could be called almost masturbatory, if it wasn’t so joyless, so controlled, so awfully dry, because, as I said, all the humor, all the lust, all the wonky games are mere gestures, they are part of the text as “humor”, “lust” and “wonky games”, drawn up on a drawing table. But, and this may surprise you, I highly, highly recommend the book. It is entertaining, less in a Zizek way and more in a Kant way, to use an inappropriate analogy (that doesn’t work on most levels), but it’s still entertaining. It is awfully well done, William H. Gass is a wizard of a writer, who can achieve any effect at will, completely in control (within the limits etc.) of his material. He is a postmodern experimental writer who is interesting and entertaining and Lord knows there are little enough of those. Colonizing the female body, and conducting a purely aesthetic parlor game, but he’s among the best at that game; plus, it bears repeating: there’s boobs. To quote A Chorus Line: “Tits and Ass, Tits and Ass, have changed my life” (clip is in Italian, but the song’s in English. Starts at 2:13)

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One thought on “Catafalque: William H. Gass’s “Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife”

  1. Pingback: William H. Gass: Willie Masters' Lonesome Wife - World Literature Forum

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