Thursday, February 04, 2010

William H. Gass, Omensetter's Luck (1966)

Let's hear it for novels set in Ohio! Represent!

Omensetter's Luck. Oh-Men-Set-Ter's Luck. I had wanted to read this novel for a long time without really knowing anything about it. It seemed to be a well-regarded book that was still somehow obscure. It had about it--or seemed to have, to my limited perception--a kind of sexy, postmodern aura. And that title, man--that evocative, mysterious title. Omen--a mystical, occult kind of word. Setter--a more practical, craftsmanlike word. Juxtaposing these two to create this totally unique name--it floored me. What kind of 'luck' would such an individual have?

Somewhat surprisingly, these vague, inchoate notions of mine are actually relevant to the book--Brackett Omensetter isn't actually the main character, but he is a leatherworker, and there is something putatively mystical about him. I win!

Is the novel 'postmodern?' Well, sure; you could make the case--certainly, the brief first section, "The Triumph of Israbestis Tott," makes it clear that there is at least a good case to be made for seeing the history presented therein as stories the accuracy of which it is impossible to judge. However, this isn't exactly all-pervasive, and in terms of history-making, it seems more like a somewhat less extreme Absalom, Absalom! than anything else. Indeed, Faulkner and Joyce seem to be the novel's key reference points. It's a fairly difficult novel, and there are times when one is strongly reminded of parts of Ulysses.

The real main character is Jethro Furber, the town's new preacher, a man torn apart by cynicism, unbelief, thwarted lust, and feelings of inferiority. Gosh, when I put it like that, I make him sound like every stereotypical fallen man of the cloth ever, but he is redeemed from banality (I think) by the writing itself--his narrative often lapses into ferocious streams-of-consciousness, punctuated with occasional dirty (or just plain bizarre) doggerel, and while the effect can be trying at times, I find it mostly mesmerizing.

It would be very, very tempting to compare Furber to The Tunnel's Kohler (their names even sound the same, sort of!), but while the resemblances are pretty obvious, dwelling on them would very likely cause one to short-change the differences, which to my mind are more important: the thing about The Tunnel is that, to employ a really obvious turn of phrase that I have no doubt a whole bunch of people have already used in relation to the novel, there is no light at the end of it. It's more of a mausoleum, really. An architectural marvel, sure, but still--Kohler is essentially a corpse. No meaningful relationship with the outside world is desired or possible. Furber is not at all like that--he may be a cynic, he may spend a disproportionate amount of time ranting at the ghost of his predecessor, but there's still life in him--he isn't dead inside; he still aspires, on some level, to be more than he is.

This is illustrated in his relationship, such as it is, with Omensetter. The back cover describes it as a "confrontation between…a man of preternatural goodness and…a preacher crazed with a propensity for violent thoughts." This creates the impression that we're going to be witnessing some sort of allegorical battle between Good and Evil, which isn't really the case. Describing Omensetter as "preternaturally good" seems like a stretch; it would be more accurate, I think, to say that he represents--to Furber, certainly--a kind of natural, prelapsarian simplicity. Furber tries to imagine Omensetter experiencing sexual desire and fails, because he can only picture his nemesis as an Adam, having sex if at all in a purely animal way devoid of all the cultural entanglements that make up sexuality for the rest of us (paging Judith Butler).

But does this make Omensetter "good?" As I hinted at earlier, we don't actually see all that much of the character, and I'm tempted to just call this a failing of the novel. I'm not convinced that we really have all the information we would need to get a clear bead on him. However, is it "good" that he's perfectly content to let a fox who's fallen down his well die of starvation/thirst if the fates don't somehow see fit to rescue it? Is it "good" for him to refuse to get the doctor for his infant son who is evidently dying of diphtheria? You could argue that I'm getting caught up in irrelevancies here--the point being more Furber's perception than Omensetter himself in any objective way--but the fact remains, he is shown doing these things and you want them to mean something.

At any rate, this is Furber's problem with Omensetter--as someone hopelessly ensnared in his own fears, neuroses, and doubts, he is desperately jealous of someone who appears to have no such problems, and this jealousy manifests itself as anger. But! He isn't turning his back on the world. When Omensetter is accused of murder, Furber finds himself defending the man (and having a nervous breakdown of some sort, but what can you do?). His section, which makes up the great bulk of the novel, is entitled "The Reverend Jethro Furber's Change of Heart," and this is what that title seems to be referring to. On balance, he reveals himself to be a sympathetic character, which is more than you can ever say for Kohler, and that's why the novel works for me in a way that The Tunnel didn't.

At any rate, these are just my scattered thoughts. Don't try to crib them for your book report, kids. I've completely elided any mention of one important character, for instance, and your teacher might wonder about that. Also, at the lack of any mention of the "luck" in question. Just read the damn book like you're supposed to--you probably won't regret it.


Blogger Unknown pontificated to the effect that...

Didn't read your comments to incorporate into any kind of "report," - read it because my daughter is in a new band that decided to call themselves Omensetters. Your review told me a lot more about it than other things I've come across...Thanks! Now I may just read it...and will have more to ask her about when we have lunch on Friday.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous pontificated to the effect that...

Really interesting blog on Omensetter's Luck and The Tunnel. I've been working on (with?) Gass myself, and have established a blog in which I've been commenting on Gass, among other things, as inchoately, if not more so, than yourself. For now I'm especially interested in images of enclosure in Gass -- of which Kohler's tunnel is the 800-pound gorilla in Gass's fiction. Thanks and take care.

12:22 PM  
Blogger GeoX, one of the GeoX boys. pontificated to the effect that...

Cool. I'm glad that my ramblings are interesting to someone. I would guess that you're already familiar with HL Hix's book Understanding William H. Gass, but if not, you should check it out. I found it most illuminating.

2:50 AM  
Blogger Signed, Make Meaning pontificated to the effect that...

This was a wonderful novel. A first quick reply about the character of Omensetter: I felt I had to go through the same issue of trust or belief in him as the townspeople (at least according to jethro), which was the only thing that actually got me through some of the more 'trying' parts of the novel (Jethro's brabbles). The first and third part are absolutely astonishing after my first read (if you consider the the trying part of the brabbles as the second part), so I'm already looking forward to rereading it (+ I could better grasp his breakdown in the last part

8:46 PM  

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