Insanity runs rampant through the American Midwest, whether due to boredom, loneliness, alcohol, or the violently cold weather. The characters within this collection move through their normal lives as their minds fall deeper into a barrage of words that rattle both them and the reader. The first four stories each show a different form of this insanity – one driven from the land itself, one from boredom, one from work, and one from a repetitious life. The final story shows why so many fall into this insanity, and also how Gass himself, following in the footsteps of various big-city born writers, found his place writing in the Midwest. Each story adds to how a story is formed, and is a metaphor for the insanity within not just the minds of the characters, but in the mind of the author.
The first story, The Pedersen Kid, shows an older brother finding a frostbitten, nearly frozen child out by his father’s farm in the midst of a blizzard. He brings the child, a son of the Pedersen family a few miles down the farm roads, inside and tries to save him. The younger brother (our narrator) and the mother watch and when the child is finally revived, his ramblings make them all think a stranger was at the Pedersen farm, possibly set to kill the family. What follows is a trek, featuring the father and two brothers, through the violent blizzard as they make their way to the child’s home.
Of course, we see each member of this party go completely insane – the narrator imagining he will kill his family, the older brother possessing bouts of laughter in the face of hopeless events, and the father forcing his children to find the dropped bottle of whiskey despite the necessity to move quick. But not only is this insanity a brilliantly written, poetic stream-of-consciousness, it is also about storytelling itself – how a single 90-page novella can veer off into so many paths. It shows contradictory moments like the narrator threatening to kill his father and brother then running off into the wilderness and, in the next scene, they are all together, moving silently towards the Pedersen farm, as if nothing had occurred. Gass is using their insanity to show the insanity within the mind of a writer – where deciding a single important event can drive an author insane, can lead them to feel as if it is they who are trapped in the grasp of a deadly storm.
Mrs. Mean is the second story of the collection and is my personal favorite. The insanity in this one is derived from boredom and curiosity. The narrator is obsessed with the lives of his neighbors, watching them from his front lawn or his window, giving them names of his own creation, and creating scenes of their lives that he could not know from the outside. He intervenes with some of their lives as well, providing odd forms of information in order to observe how they’ll react under strange circumstances. And on one day during a particularly strange event, he learns of his desire to inhabit the bodies, minds, and spirits of these people he watches. So similarly does an author inhabit the minds of their characters. They create fictitious stories for people they know or simply see, they inhabit the minds of those like and unlike them, they pose odd situations or ideas against a character’s psyche to discover how others would act. And through all of this, they must inhabit and become this person, something that a single sane mind likely could not achieve.
Icicles brings the neverending, cyclical workplace to light. It shows the mind wandering and creating meaning out of simple objects and ideas that literally have nothing to them but their own matter. Yet figuratively, to the character and to authors, these objects contain worlds within them. A certain symbol, poetic expression, or piece of figurative language, can render that object powerful. It can give the object life and thus can give more meaning to life and the world around it. In this story, the world within the icicles is the only way out of this hellish life for the main character, and his obsession with the meaning of these objects renders him even further insane.
Order of Insects is not one I see often praised, but I believe it holds as much importance as The Pedersen Kid while being less than ten percent of its length. This one shows the life of a Midwestern housewife who, similar to the narrator of Icicles, is in a cycle of repetition, doing the same chores day in and day out. She fixates on the roaches that appear dead on the carpet every day. The objects begin to sway her thinking towards the idea of consciousness, of death, of skeletons. Her ideas help her ponder the purpose of our existence and why we act how we do. Her conclusions begin to come to light, but become obscured as her obsession deepens. It almost seems as if the conclusions only led to deeper insanity, further thoughts of death, purposelessness, and repetition, and thus her outlook on life worsened. It led her to an obsession so as to take her mind off the more horrifying thoughts she had. Similarly do Gass and other authors seek the meaning of life and of the human condition, and attempt to put it on the page, hoping to use symbols of the real world to elucidate their thoughts.
Finally, in the title story, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a man tells of his life in vignettes. It is built of blocks – thoughts of business, politics, neighbors, pets. It is built as a structure, and the narrator (who actually is a writer in this story), uses these blocks to try tot derive story from something so mundane. It is Gass (again being the writer from those far slower Midwestern towns when compared to the authors from bustling cities) trying to make a story out something typically not intended for excitement. There are no large gatherings, no sprees of crimes – not much at all. There is simply life itself, but as the narrator realizes, that may be the most enticing topic there is.
In the Heart of the Heart of the Country (the collection) is another masterful work by the author who I consider probably the true prose master of the English language. On a word-for-word basis, I have not come across anyone nearly as brilliant. Take this for instance (and read it aloud, feel how your tongue and lips and breath repeat the movements he intends, and how the words flow together like water):
I suspect if we were as familiar with our bones as with our skin, we’d never bury dead but shrine them in their rooms, arranged as we might like to find them on a visit; and our enemies, if we could steal their bodies from the battle sites, would be museumed as they died, the steel stilll eloquent in their sides, their metal hats askew, the protective toes of their shoes unworn, and friend and enemy would be so wondrously historical that in a hundred years we’d find the jaws still fung for the same speech and all the parts we spent our life with tilted as they always were – rib cage, collar, skull – still repetitious, still defiant, angel light, still worthy of memorial and affection.In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, pg. 166 (Order of Insects)
As I said in my review of Omensetter’s Luck, William Gass does not just use beautiful language to make nice sentences, he uses it to give more meaning to life. Thus, his books are filled with life, no matter how depressing – they are more revealing than nearly any author I have ever come across. There is brute force in his philosophy no matter how poetic, and comfort in his words no matter how dark.
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