cover image Cartesian Sonata: And Other Novellas

Cartesian Sonata: And Other Novellas

William H. Gass. Alfred A. Knopf, $24 (288pp) ISBN 978-0-375-40168-8

Revered two-time winner of the National Book Critics Circle award, Gass serves up an enticing mix of high-flown lyricism, sketchy narrative and momentary brilliance in his playful latest fiction (after the celebrated The Tunnel). The title novella is really an amalgamation of three short stories written during the 1960s and '70s, before and after the great stories included in In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Ostensibly the story of a clairvoyant named Ella Bend, her Cassandra-like curse of psychic vision and her brutal husband, this bleak interior monologue charts the narrator's descent into near madness as she escapes into an imaginary intrigue between Marianne Moore and Elizabeth Bishop. Here, as in the other novellas, Gass's love of verbal wordplay almost eliminates narrative coherency. ""Bed and Breakfast"" is a variation on a Rod Serling plot: a traveling accountant takes a room at a rather sinister old-fashioned bed and breakfast and feels compelled to settle down there. You'd think Walter Riffaterre, the accountant, would look for a Howard Johnson's or even a Motel 6 when the landlady starts conversing in Emily Dickinson outtakes (""what would we do if we had no burden, no weight upon our chests, we'd fly, wouldn't we? Fly like fluff, up and away to nowhere, for we're nothing but our burdens...""). While this work may puzzle or even bore some readers, Gass is an engrossing character-portraitist, whose plots depend on psychic and spiritual motions rather than linked events and whose humor, inventiveness and erudition keep the ride inviting, wherever it goes. Agent, Janklow and Nesbit. (Sept.)