By William Gass. Knopf, $29.
Professor Joseph Skizzen has spent a lifetime distilling a single thought into its purest expression. This mission is something Skizzen’s creator, the famously deliberative William H. Gass, no doubt sympathizes with deeply; Middle C is the 88-year-old writer’s first novel in nearly 20 years.
Fearing the stain of Nazism, fiddler Rudi Skizzen adopts a Jewish identity to secret his young family out of Austria and into Blitz-era London. Rudi doesn’t stick around for long, however, absconding to Canada the first chance he gets. With little more than a handful of counterfeit identifications, the remaining Skizzens immigrate to rural Ohio. Because son Joey lacks proper papers, assimilation proves difficult. Joey makes his way by exploiting an aptitude for piano, eventually forging the documents necessary to secure a position at a middling local college. While piano provides stability, Joey’s true calling is his “Inhumanity Museum,” a secret archive housed in his attic. There, he obsessively catalogs mankind’s atrocities—everything from arson to genocide—and rebukes the perpetrators.
Gass orchestrates his fiction with thematic elements as a composer might a symphony, reworking the events of Joey’s life to more thoroughly explore the idea that all individuals share in a universal guilt. Just as his father shirked responsibilities for Joey and his family, Joey seeks to eschew the blame for the ugliness he gleefully documents in his museum, coming to embrace his once-shameful, fraudulent identity as an ethical circumvention. Typical of Gass’s subversive fiction, Middle C forgoes easy moralizing in favor of a more ambivalent relativism. In the case of Joey Skizzen, it’s mendacity, not truth, that will set you free.