12 Winters Blog

More on Omensetter’s Luck, et al.

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 28, 2010

I continue to work on annotating Omensetter’s Luck, William H. Gass’s 1966 novel.  Images of enclosure continue to stand out for me in the text, especially Jethro Furber’s sense of his own body, especially his skull, being a sort of enclosure from which he would like to escape.  The psychological implications, especially when read via trauma theory, are fascinating.  Trauma tends to colonize the psyche of the individual and “haunt” the conscious mind, unbidden.  In an earlier post, I wrote about Macbeth’s visitation of the witches in their cavern suggesting to me the Scot’s exploration of his own unconscious mind, with the witches representing a traumatic event that has been lodged there.  Clearly Shakespeare was interested in, what we would call, the unconscious and its effects on the conscious mind (Macbeth doesn’t know if the bloody dagger that leads him to Duncan is real or a figment of his imagination, as is the case with Banquo’s ghost; and Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking and suicide are due to a “mind diseased”).

Meanwhile:  The Web is an amazing thing.  I’ve had two email inquiries about my dissertation thanks (apparently in both cases) to the Register-Mail article about my completing the Ph.D. that was published online.  Due to the second inquiry (from Raymond Osborne of Boston University), I learned that the article was linked to “Nods Online & In Print” at Tunneling:  A Resource for Readers of William H. Gass website.  When I checked it out (who wouldn’t?), I came across a blog post on Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel that is really interesting.  In a comment about the blog I learned there’s a band named Omensetters (the commenter’s daughter is in the new band).  Also, in a subsequent email from Ray I learned of the blog Raul de Saldanha, for lovers of literature, which has some connections to Gass, etc.  It’s amazing, the interconnectedness of the information, but also a little overwhelming to try to take it all in.  Nevertheless, I appreciate people troubling to contact me about my dissertation, and it’s exciting to meet (online) others who appreciate Gass as much as I do.

On the creative writing front, I’ve been working steadily on “The Authoress,” my novel in progress, and have more than 180 manuscript pages at this point.  I’ve been able to add about three pages a week, by writing for about thirty minutes each morning, Monday through Friday, by hand, then typing up those pages on the weekend.  I’m working on a section now that I’ve been writing without editing/revising as I go, which is unusual for me.  Normally I begin each day’s writing by reading/revising the previous day’s output.  I think I’ll wait until the entire section is drafted before revising the whole thing at once, so to speak (revision is always on-going of course)–I’m curious how that approach may affect the revision process.  So far I’m pleased with what I’ve written, but the earliest chapters were begun three years ago.  I fear that the tone and style of those pages are distinctly different from what I’m producing now–reconciling these issues will be one of my chief goals as I revise, revise, revise.

I want to work on my Gass paper this afternoon (but the US does play Canada at 2 for Olympic gold . . . decisions, decisions).

Notes from the Louisville Conference 2010

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 21, 2010

I’ve just returned from the Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900 (LCLC)–ungainly title but terrific conference–and I wanted to share some of my finds and observations.  For any literature folks who haven’t been, it’s a top-flight international conference and well worth the effort.  It’s normally the last weekend in February and will be again in 2011.  I didn’t hear any concrete numbers, but it seemed attendance was down a bit (as universities are being hit by the economic crisis as well, and departments are having to pare back their travel allowances–in times of economic downturn, humanities and the fine arts tend to find themselves on the bureaucratic chopping block); nevertheless, the panels that I attended and participated in were up to their usual standards.  I chaired a panel on Joyce’s Ulysses on Thursday.  Even though it was not a prearranged panel, all three papers dealt with Molly Bloom, offering new assessments of her character in the novel.  Throughout the twentieth century, commentators tended to characterize her as a wanton woman, even a whore–but these papers were much more open-minded about her roles as wife, mother, woman.  I was especially intrigued by Elizabeth Kate Switaj‘s paper on “Ulysses as Lesbian Text” as the writer, a doctoral student at Queen’s University, Belfast, dealt with an approach to reading that identifies “space” for interpretation in a text that may not, at the surface level, seem to support such a reading.  One of the reasons I found this approach so attractively provocative is that my own pedagogical hobbyhorse in recent months has been to get my students to embrace ambiguity in their analyses of literature.  It seems that in the last couple of years especially my brightest students are “mathy” and “sciencey” types who want to reduce every work of literature to some sort of calculus equation that can be definitively “solved.”  I tell them that the humanities aren’t about simplifying everything down to its “correct” answer.  Humans are complex, and therefore ambiguous, creatures who often don’t understand their own behaviors and attitudes, leave be the behaviors and attitudes of others.  A sophisticated textual analysis doesn’t shy away from conflicting and conflicted conclusions–these sorts of conclusions are meaningful in their own right as long as they’re grounded in textual evidence.

I was also treated to some of Switaj’s poetry.  Speaking of creative panels, I especially liked the work of a young poet named Jeremy Allan Hawkins, who read from the thesis manuscript he’d submitted the previous day for his MFA from the University of Alabama.  I enjoyed the short story “Blue Sky White” by Tessa Mellas, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Cincinnati.  Deborah Adelman’s (College of DuPage) cross-genre piece “Fleshing out the Bones” was very engaging, being part memoir, part fiction; as was Greenfield Jones’s (Louisville, Ky.) novel excerpt from Rêve Américain; and Adam Prince’s (University of Tennessee, Knoxville) “Ugly around Him” from his book-length manuscript.

I attended several thought-provoking critical panels, including one on the graphic novel–an area of literature that seems to share a lot with postmodernism, especially postmodern texts as trauma texts.  Graphic novels tend to be nonlinear and elliptical, thus putting the reader in the position of having to piece the narrative together in order for it to make sense.  Victims of trauma, by the same token, tend to communicate the source event in nonlinear, elliptical “texts” that must be reconstructed by a listener/reader.  Another paper (by April D. Fallon, Kentucky State University) has made me interested in e. e. cummings’s poetry in a way I hadn’t been previously.

My own presentations were well enough received.  I read my story “Communion with the Dead,” which was published in the fall 2008 issue of The Chariton Review.  I also presented it at the College English Association Conference in March 2008.  I enjoy reading it aloud, but it’s a bit tricky.  For one thing, at a couple of key places in the story I switch to unpunctuated stream of consciousness, and minus any visual cues for the audience, it may not make perfect sense (not to overuse the word, but it’s meant to be elliptical even when being read, as opposed to listened to); also, there are several Italian names that look interesting (and a bit exotic, I believe) on the page, but they can be challenging to read aloud fluidly.  I also presented my critical paper “In the Heart of the Heart of the Cold War:  Cultural Trauma and the Fiction of William H. Gass.”  It, too, was well enough received.  I am attempting to turn it into a 30-page article for a European journal, and now that the Louisville Conference is over, I’ll be getting back to that project.  My physical working on “The Authoress” also came to a halt this week because of my traveling–physical working, I say, because I think about the novel all the time and I have some ideas about how it should end, though the ending is still a long way off.  Right now I’m working on a long central (I think) section that has been inspired, structurally at least, by Ulysses.  I hope to complete a draft of the novel this summer.  Meanwhile, an editor is interested in looking at my earlier written novella Weeping with an Ancient God for possible serial publication in her journal–which would be terrific, since trying to get a novella published is even more difficult than a first novel.

This morning I continued annotating Omensetter’s Luck.

Gass’s use of enclosure & a little Shakespeare

Posted in February 2010 by Ted Morrissey on February 14, 2010

I’m carefully reading and annotating William H. Gass’s 1966 novel Omensetter’s Luck.  I’m in the process of boiling down about four chapters of my dissertation into a 30-page paper or so (an editor in England is interested in seeing it when it’s completed — I sent him the paper I’m presenting at the University of Louisville next Saturday, as my Louisville paper is a much abridged version of this one I’m working on).  But I’ve been doing a lot more work on Gass since writing my dissertation last summer, and I’ll be getting much deeper (no pun intended) into Gass’s The Tunnel and Omensetter’s, which has more intersections with The Tunnel than I’d initially realized.  Gass began working on The Tunnel essentially when Omensetter’s was published, but he’d written Omensetter’s several years before — it took him awhile to find a publisher, which he discusses in the afterword in the Penguin Classics edition.

The complex metaphor of the tunnel itself (that is, the one that the novel’s narrator, William Kohler, is digging surreptitiously in his basement) has several analogues in Omensetter’s.  For example, in the “The Love and Sorrows of Henry Pimber” section of the novel, a fox has fallen down an old well on the property that Brackett Omensetter is renting from Pimber.  Omensetter is inclined to let the fox stay in the well until it figures a way out (which is unlikely at best) or until the Ohio River floods and washes the dead fox out of the well in the spring.  Pimber, who at some level sees the fox caught in the well as himself, wants to do something about its situation immediately; he eventually returns home for his shotgun and kills the fox, also wounding himself when a ball of lead ricochets off the well’s walls and strikes him in the arm.  The fox in the well is alluded to often in the novel.  But it is just one example of enclosure or entrapment in the novel.  Graves keep showing up in the text as well, and they seem to be another manifestation of enclosure/entrapment.  For example, Reverend Jethro Furber seems obsessed with the three graves in the corners of his garden — each being the grave of one of his predecessors, and the fourth corner awaiting Furber’s own interment.

Images of falling are also prevalent in Gass’s works — perhaps more on this in another post — but now I want to mention Shakespeare and, in particular, Macbeth.  There is a significant amount of work being done on the early modern period and trauma cultures throughout England and Europe, and how that trauma was manifested in the work of all kinds of artists, including the Bard’s.  What I’ve been thinking about lately is the witches in Macbeth and the fact that they don’t seem to occupy a real, physical environment.  4.1 is a prime example.  Macbeth visits the Weird Sisters in a darkened cavern, we’re informed, but where this cavern is precisely and how Macbeth knows to go there are unstated in the text of the play.  I’m beginning to think of the witches as symbolic of Macbeth’s traumatized psyche (traumatized by his own murderous disloyalty) — this is not a new angle on the play by any means — but also, to extend this idea, I’m seeing the cavern as Macbeth’s own unconscious:  a “place” he is plumbing.  If so, then the witches’ prophecies are, in essence, prophecies to be self-fulfilled in a modern psychological context; and, in fact, it does seem that Macbeth is intent on fulfilling them:  moving himself and his army (and Lady Macbeth) to castle Dunsinane, even though the third apparition warns of his doom in connection with Dunsinane; also abandoning Dunsinane for the field of battle as the English approach, even though he’s just informed us that the castle could withstand a lengthy siege.  (My Gass-Shakespeare connection was bolstered this morning as I read the section of Omensetter’s in which Furber compares himself, at length, to Hamlet.)

There is much to ponder here, and as I continue to annotate Omensetter’s it will all be a part of my witch-like brew.