Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Middle C by William H. Gass

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.