In 1968, a year after the publication of Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message, TriQuarterly published William Gass’s second extended fiction, Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife (WMLW).[*] Comprising sixty-three unpaginated pages and four different paper stocks and colors, the work partakes in the same debates and manifests some of the same flourishes as McLuhan’s coffee-table compilation of 1967. Both works are products of a zeitgeist of pop art, happenings, and the death of the novel sounded by Leslie Fiedler, Roland Barthes, and John Barth.
Gass keeps the book’s ontological status always front and center by a range of types, points of view, pictures, and marks. WMLW omits numbered pages, includes fonts of various sizes and styles, and punctuates the text with photographs. These first effects slow the teleology of reading. They force the reader to attend to each page or page spread as separate from those before and after. They frustrate totalizing effects, the wish to merge elements into one central theme, argument, or plot.
It would be misleading to argue that WMLW represents a sustained unmasking of pornography. The book extends more widely than that. But the material for such an argument is available. The book moves from pornographic display of the body as sexual object and narration as sexual confession to a position of indeterminate point of view where language predominates. WMLW presents and undermines pornographic assumptions in three principal ways: by the book’s visual components—its photographs, paper, and type; by the objectification and reduction of the body; and by the obfuscation of plot through multiple points of view and non-narrative incursions.
The Body of the Book
Since its first publication, WMLW has puzzled critics, who have seen it as a “dizzying display” (Saltzman 114), “a sustained piece of play” (Tanner 117), “an experiment with language” (Phelan 204), but not as a unified whole. Those critics who have seen it as a novella with a central character named Babs (Blau, Tanner) have done the book less justice than those critics (McCaffery, Caramello, Holloway, Kaufmann) who consider the book’s major metaphorical parallel between the book itself and the female body and, as a corollary, between reading and sex.
This corollary becomes the source of the book’s instability, according to Charles Caramello, who cites a “fundamental ambiguity in this work as a book” (60). That is, WMLW is both physical object and platonic idea. William Gass himself articulates this dualism when he urges readers “to perform the text, say, sing, shout the words to oneself, give them, with our minds, their body” (Habitations 227, original emphasis). On the following page, Gass notes that a book’s “paper, print, layout should be appreciated.” In approaching WMLW, readers are caught between the singing, the performative components of the text, and its static, reading, unvoiced aspects.
This tension between the book as visual and virtual object has analogues in pornography. At one point, Caramello calls the WMLW “soft-core porn” (65), and the book’s titillation provokes frequent commentary. The book offers titillation both to the reader and to the non-reader. Even if the illiterate cannot convert the marks of WMLW into words, he can see their varied arrangement from page to page. More to the pornographic point, he can see the book’s photographs, the eleven photographs of a particular naked woman and her body parts.
The photographs begin the book, frame it, and bracket the four colored sections inside. With the exception of one two-page spread (48-49) full or partial photographs of the naked woman occur only at transition points, in the first few pages of the title sequence, between the four colored sections of the fiction, on the last page, and on the back cover. As Watson Holloway notes (77-78), the naked woman is the access point of the novel; her breasts mark the way in and her buttocks comprise the back cover.
Holloway implies that a reader flipping to the back cover short cuts the narrative process, “has done what linear fiction, so-called realist fiction, tries to prevent” (78). But the browser contemplating front and back covers has not shortcut the narrative, merely measured it. The examination of the outside of any book is a precursor to any reading or the occasion to refrain from doing so. And that is true not just for the bookstore browser Italo Calvino invokes in the opening chapter of If on a winter’s night a traveler. The front and back covers of any book frame the object, provide parameters. The covers hint at the reading task inside. They are a site of speculation.
In itself, the naked torso on the front and back covers of WMLW is a mere shell. The naked woman is not by herself narrative. She is mere object. Pornographic magazines typically divide their nude pictorials into those depicting multiple participants (often with an accompanying script) and those with a single woman on display (e.g., the Playmate of the Month). The woman depicted on the covers of WMLW is without face, appendages, or name. She is assigned two tiers of ownership by the title projected across her chest: defined as the wife of Willie Masters and defined as the product of William Gass. The body of the covers is reduced to breasts and buttocks. The cover shot crops her head and arms and airbrushes away her belly button and any suggestion of her genitalia.[**] The buttocks on the back cover are disproportionately larger than the torso on the front cover.
As simulacrum for the body, then, the book suffers several distortions even before it is opened. What is more, the body on the outside of the book seems to be a different one altogether from the one pictured on the covers: the breasts are smaller, the torso more gaunt. This substitution suggests the interchangeability of pornography. It serves as a metafictional reminder that the outside of the book is separate from what is within.[***]
Inside the book, the photographs continue, but the promise of access fades. A picture book, to be sure, can only offer pictures; the subjects of those photographs are self-evidently absent. In the opening pages of WMLW, though, words and pictures coexist in a closer relationship than they do in the remainder of the book. The bastard title page depicts a woman’s left forearm extending from the gutter to the middle of the page with the four lines of the book’s title seemingly nudged off center by the encroachment. This gesture Caramello calls “the finger of the wife creating herself as a self-inspired Eve” (61), a reading that Kaufmann seconds. But the text and the photograph of the bastard title page exist in separate ontological worlds. The photograph records an actual human arm while the four words of the title exist only here on the page or in the virtual performance of their reading.
It is on the true title page that words and body coexist as they do on the cover by way of the same slide projection of title and author over the breasts of a now-reclining woman. Her shoulders and head are again cropped off, and though her belly button is visible, the same airbrushing of her genitalia recurs. The title page spread credits Lawrence Levy as book designer and Burton L. Rudman as photographer (like Medium, then, the book announces its collaborative status). The title page copyrights the book for William Gass, and in both of its reprintings credits Tri-Quarterly with original publication. The model in the photograph is not credited, is not named, neither here nor elsewhere in the book. She is, however, tagged, not just by the recurrence of the projected title and author credit across her chest but by the publisher information superimposed on the photograph on the frontispiece. (Medium begins with a similar proprietary superimposition that is glossed near the end of the book: “A trademark is printed on a raw egg by a no-contact, no-pressure printing technique” .)
As for the remaining photographs in the book, all nudes, their relationship to the text of WMLW remains implied. They are never explicitly mentioned within the words of the book. With two exceptions, subsequent photographs of the naked woman appear at the margins of each of the four-colored sections, as if to underscore their separation from the text itself. Past the opening page, the photographs exist apart from the text; the ontological overlap of the book’s titular pages disappears, whereas the various fonts and voices of the text itself jockey for position on the page. In place of overlap, the book offers what Brian McHale calls “an ontological flicker, the fiction’s reality and the book’s coming into focus by turns, first one, then the other” (180).
The “borrowed body” (Kaufmann 100) that recurs in the book’s photographs is never as directly connected to the text as it is on the opening page. McCaffery notes that “her face becomes less prominent and her body itself is emphasized” (174). The second page of text, for example, is matched by a photograph of buttocks and legs on the recto. The availability of the photographed body is steadily diminished, however, not simply by its less-frequent occurrence but by the suggestions of the poses of subsequent photographs. The last page of the blue section shows the model lying on her back, one arm across her stomach below her breasts, the other reaching across her stomach between her legs (16). The next full appearance of the model is midway through the third (red) section (48-49). Here she has turned from her back to her side, her back towards the camera. Her retreat from implicit availability culminates in the illustration that begins the final white section (57), where lithograph replaces photograph-emphasizing distance, where the body is curled up, its legs raised to the chest, its face turned from the camera.
Although the final page of the novella depicts naked breasts and stomach, the promise of sexual availability implied by the opening spread has already been put down. Why? Because these breasts are beyond the last page of text. The coffee-cup ring around the navel of this last photograph mimics the held printer’s block of the book’s first pages. The penultimate page is marked with four such rings, superimposed over the text, but the marks have already been dismissed twenty pages before, where the text calls attention to the “muddy circle” and reminds readers directly that the mark is inauthentic, mere representation (41). What is more, they are not in the same ontological space as the printer’s block and model. That is, the muddy ring of the last page is not part of the model as she is photographed; the ring simply marks the photograph. It is neither a ring literally on her body nor an image projected onto her stomach as words are projected onto the photographs of the cover and title pages.
The leg thrust from the right margin of the page at the start of the red section (41) recalls both the outstretched arm of the bastard title page and the hand-held printer’s block of the first page. Like the former, it simulates a reaction in the text; the 48-point T that begins this section tilts slightly to the left, as if kicked off horizontal. Like the latter, it begins the first word of a colored section. Compared to those photographs depicting more of the naked body, this photograph is less pornographic. It is consistent, however, with the fragmentation of the body that occurs even more strongly within the book’s text, as I will demonstrate below.
Commonly, the photographs within the book show the woman alone and isolated. There is no backdrop to any of the photographs, and her body parts are isolated as well, coming no closer to the text than the margins. The photographs depict woman on display. She is, says Holloway, “one extremity of the spectrum of art,” demanding no imaginative fill in by the viewer/reader (78).
The opening page of the book offers a tie between image and text that subsequently diminishes. The photograph that adjoins and crosses over into the first page of the text proper depicts the profile of a naked woman lifting a block letter S to her open mouth. The letter forms the beginning of the book’s text, the word she. For Kaufmann, the picture suggests the orality of language and the presence of a scripting author. The S is poised between consumption and language production, that is, speech (100). As Holloway puts it, “the text-woman is what she eats; she is nourished by, is made up of, words” (78). The very language of McCaffery’s description underscores the pornographic connotations here: “her mouth early awaiting the printer’s phallic S-block” (174). After the initial body parts depicted on the title pages, this photograph implies narrative, and it is a sexual implication. Although they abut, the words and picture here remain in two different worlds. The model and the block she holds in her hand exist beyond the text as the letters following the S do not, existed at least in those positions at the moment frozen by the camera’s shutter.[****]
The photograph and its text promise a sexual possibility that cannot arrive. The letter S is a phallic substitute that hints at the book’s subsequent isolation of the sexual anatomy and their renaming. The first sentence begun with that ontologically separate letter—”[S]he’d love him even if his head weren’t shiny”—abounds in sexual innuendo. The luminance of the implicit phallus implies the lubricity of fellatio, an act suggested by the photograph. And the verb “love” doubles as synonym for the sexual act itself with or without attendant strong attachment. It promises sexual availability, which the text subsequently shows as characteristic of Babs. At the same time, its conditional tense mirrors the frozen possibility of the adjacent photograph. Actual contact is impossible. As the text will subsequently declare, in its dismissal of the first “muddy circle,” “all contact—merest contact—any contact—is impossible, logically impossible…” (41). The photographs exist outside the text, despite the promise of the title pages’ overlap.
Subsequent photographs are likely obliquely referred to within the text in a manner that suggests their titillation. Babs remembers her father’s comments about her young body and remembers him as a “smart ass.” Across the gutter, a photograph shows the legs and buttocks of the model (7). The model lies on her back in a pose of implied masturbation below descending large block letters that begin “OO-OOOO-OOO,” a moan that suggests sexual ecstasy (16). And the two-page photograph in the third (red) section of the model with her back to the camera follows a reference to Babs fantasizing and masturbating on the page before (47).
But none of these photographs enters directly into the discourse, even at those points at which the text speaks directly to its readers. At the start of the third (red) section, the reproduced coffee ring is the prompt for the text’s next topic: the nature of language and representation and the place of names. But the boom leg atop the page elicits not a word within the text.
Finally, two textual references make the woman of the photographs even less than an embodiment of Babs, for their bodies are not the same. In the first section, Babs remembers, “Until my flesh began to lose its grip, I danced in the blue light with the best, and then I married Willie . . .” (11). Later, in the final section, where Babs reemerges at last, she lies in bed considering “a bosom born but thirty years ago and plump as ever, round as a pair of pies when I lie down” (57). The model in the book’s photographs is less “plump,” and she is far too young to have reached her forties as Babs has. William Gass himself notes his only disappointment with the book is the model, whom he thought too young (ctd. in Wolfshohl 498).
The Naked Page
The naked photographs of WMLW have at least clear pornographic references even if their function in Gass doesn’t support the same ogling of pornography, even if they are not part of the text in many respects. To call the paper of the original printing part of the text is not quite accurate. It is, though, part of the book’s materiality. As it is a reading convention to see through print to what it references, familiarity makes the paper of a book simply a staging area for launching an army of type.
The paper of WMLW works against the pornographic in straightforward fashion. In its original Tri-Quarterly printing, the paper is never the neutral white of regular books. Its use of four differently colored paper stocks aligns the book with artists’ books rather than pornographic novels or even racy best-sellers. The very quality of the paper is not in keeping with the yellowing paper of well-thumbed potboilers and broken-spine paperbacks. The closest analogue to the quality of the paper of the first three sections is the construction paper of elementary school and childhood, though the quality of the paper in the TriQuarterly publication is better than that of elementary school. The coated paper of the last, white section is glossy enough for scientific or medical textbooks (though less glossy in its Knopf and Dalkey reprintings), which take a wholly different approach to the human anatomy, often isolating it as pornography does but approaching it with empirical scrutiny not sexual fantasy. Even granting different interpretations of the meaning of the paper stock, I would argue that none of the quality of the paper in WMLW aligns itself with that of pornography.
The actual progression of colors in the book’s pages can be read as a movement toward stability. The text itself makes no mention of the colors of the paper on which it is printed. The “clinical white paper” of the last section Wolfshohl finds an appropriate space in which Gass clarifies “the need for extending the imagination and its symbolic manifestation” (502). Kaufmann sees the movement to white at the end as Babs’s retreat into a cold world without a lover or a sympathetic reader (104). McCaffery sees the white of the final section in the same terms, as indicative of Babs’s loneliness and the inadequacy of the sexual experience. The progression of paper colors McCaffery reads as the stages of sexual intercourse (173-74). It is hard to know what acts of sex come with color charts. Tony Tanner refuses to make any particular colored paper signify, noting the movement between them as simply of the book’s “chameleon, protean, metamorphosing” character (118). The white of the last section is most easy to interpret in terms of Babs and her isolation because other voices and fonts drop away by this point.
If white is where Babs ends up, isolated if not lonely, away from the men who desert her on the last page of the red section, then where Babs begins in the blue section is a place of her sexual availability. The blue paper of this section points to obscenity and an ugliness in representation that Gass condemns in On Being Blue. As the book shifts from the suggestiveness of blue to the detached scientific glossy white of the last section, then, it moves away from prurience and into contemplation. It steps away from seeing Babs as the sexual object her history reports her to be in the blue section to something less embodied in the last section, where Babs speaks both as the lurking protagonist of the book and as language itself. The glossy white pages of the last section are the scattered beams of colored light brought back together into white light. Babs does not achieve a spiritual purity in the white section in contrast to the blue; she is more experienced and complex than that. But she does move past the time when she would dance “in the blue light with the best” (11) where “[her] tits shook and [her] haunches waggled” (25).
The third major visual impediment to a pornographic reception of WMLW is its array of fonts and styles and sizes, which call attention to the look of the words, not their sense. Whether one argues along with Stephen Marcus that textual pornography uses language as a quick-and-dirty conduit “to set going a series of nonverbal images” (208) or whether one holds, as I do, as Phyllis and Eberhard Kronhausens do, that pornography’s vulgar language itself is part of its transgression, no definition of pornography particularly attends to the look of words upon the page, which at its extreme is bookmaking art, not smut. At most, the beauty of particular type and particular packaging might elevate a book, might make it seem prestigious like signed, limited editions from the Franklin Mint. But status and lust are largely incompatible, as long as sexuality is private and prestige public. As pornography can be held to be primarily functional rather than aesthetic, bookmaking has not been part of its approach. If there exists an erotics of typefaces, it has not made its way into the literature and criticism of pornography.
The foregrounding of type, then, works against the pornographic tradition. And type is wildly foregrounded in WMLW. It obstructs a pornographic reading by the bulk and variety of its presence. Larry McCaffery notes that “type styles can be found here from nearly every period since Gutenberg, ranging from pre-printing press calligraphy to old German gothic, Victorian typefaces, and modern advertising boldface” (175). The first (blue) section features print of four fonts and sizes. The second (avocado) section ups the ante to fifteen different fonts including two concrete “poems” and footnotes that grow steadily in point size. The third (red) likewise has more than a dozen different fonts, a scrap of text complete with torn borders, and a penultimate page featuring the off-vertical declaration, “You’ve been had, from start to finish” (55). The last section returns to a more placid two fonts. Clarence Wolfshohl counts nineteen fonts in all, exclusive of their italicized and multiple sized variations. Gass would have used more fonts, says Wolfshohl, if the cost had not been too prohibitive (501).
It is not just the existence of so many fonts in the book; it is also their sequencing and their appearance on the page. They do not behave in the academic manner of the words I type here. Instead, they cavort upon the page, mostly horizontally, but not always, crowding every margin, expanding in size and shrinking again, leaving the text only to reappear many pages later. They appear in speech balloons for cartoons not present, in concrete poems, inscribed within the simulated coffee-cup rings on the manuscript. They do not behave.
I have been discussing the type faces of the novel apart from any sense the language conveys because the visual obstructions of the book, even before and apart from any semantic sense they have, stand front and center, keep the book from being a clear conduit to sense. They stall a pornographic approach to the book by their mere arrangement and sequencing. The book’s “Smudges, stains, and the interplay of type styles continuously unmask the book as a book, and, as a mirror of the bed might trigger self-consciousness, disturb the throes of reading” (Saltzman 114). Instead of the sexual body, then, the visual components of the text keep the textual body ever present.
As I have already argued, the titillation and disappointment of the book’s photographs connect to the reduction of the woman to her body, specifically to her sexual body. This objectification is replicated diegetically in the book’s language by metaphors and names for Babs and her body. She is “mouse” and “poker table” (5), “toilet tube” and “flesh-like copy” (9). She is a “pocket hankie” with a body “like a pudding” (12). When she is most mistreated by her lovers, she is the toilet in which they leave their excrement (56), the very judgment Angela Carter makes of that prototypical mistreated woman, Sade’s Justine (Sadeian Woman 75).
Babs’s body parts have names, as do those of her lovers. Her nose is “Czar Nicholas” (5). Her father calls her breasts “a regular dairy” (6). Her “in-between” might be called Phyllis or Corinne (15). As they hide their names—”they were always Phil” (5)—Babs’s lovers hide their penises, not simply behind the condoms that keep them separate from Babs, but also behind language. Her lovers attach “all sorts of pseudonyms” (5) to their penises, and Babs imagines others: Percy and Raphael (11), Roger and Juan and Otto (14).
The first section with its base narrative of the sexualization of Babs abounds in references to body parts and the lubricants they release. Saliva is the “sweet wine of love” (6). “Semen softens the skin” (14). There are references to phlegm (1) and the “shit of a lifetime” (10). The lubricants join body representations with the chain of narrative. If sperm is the ocular proof of pleasure achieved (the cinematic “money shot” discussed in Linda Williams’s Hard Core), then lubricity is the ongoing testimonial of bodily function. These body confessions abate as the book progresses, as the promise of pornography possibility falls away.
Fluids lubricate the body and move between bodies but not between Babs and her lovers. Early and late (5, 42) Babs imagines herself a poker table with “rings on [her] belly where men have set down drinks” (5). This imagined connection is photographically replicated on the book’s last page (63) and at the start of the third section, where the speaker refers to a ring over the text as a representation. It is not the stain itself but “represents the ring left on a leaf of the manuscript by my coffee cup” (41).
The speaker here, not clearly Babs, emphasizes the representative nature of that mark upon the page, expounds upon the gulf between the mark and the act it represents. Were lips smeared with high-gloss lipstick, they would still remain on the other side of an ontological divide: “A wall divides us” (41). The mark of the lips on the page, says the speaker, would always be a printer’s reproduction of the gesture. The page promises a closeness that the text admits to be a lie. Within the diegetic realm of the section, the mark is a coffee-cup ring, a residue of contact, a reminder of what was there and was taken away.
The ring returns on the last page of the third (red) section, hovering above a return to Babs’s point of view after she has mostly disappeared from the book amidst the cacophony of fonts and voices of the previous fifteen pages. Babs reports observations of residue. The men who are her lovers forget some small thing, “his red and white bow tie, an empty airmail envelope,” but Babs does not read these as promises the men will return. They take even their sperm with them, she says, “in a little rubber sack.” Babs is what they mostly leave behind. She calls herself “their turds in the toilet” (58). The wall between Babs and her lovers is latex; that between her world and ours, ontological.
Passions of a Stableboy
The implication of my argument to this point is that Babs is a pornographic object to men throughout the text and that the book is the story of her sexual misuse, but that overstates the primacy of Babs within the book. Certainly, the most consistent voice in the text belongs to Babs, who begins speaking with the second sentence of the book. But her voice and point of view are buried in the middle sections of the book, returning only ambiguously in the closing section. Frequently, words lack identifiable speakers. What is more, the pyrotechnics of font style, size, and placement go beyond sound; they steadily foreground WMLW’s bookishness, its status as literal object rather than transcribed speech.
The reductions and distortions of pornography are most vividly critiqued in the one-page mock excerpt of the Victorian pornography Passions of a Stableboy (24). This one-page[*****] would-be culling embodies and exaggerates prominent features of porn: collapsing time and space; emphasizing positions over personalities, which produces an emotional gulf despite the physical proximity; and, in its Victorian form, using elaborate metaphors for sex.
Arthur Saltzman notes that Gass objects to pornography on formal grounds. “Pornography counts on our prudishness to gain its effects, and they come at the expense of the whole design” (108). Saltzman then quotes from On Being Blue, a passage in which Gass explains the reduction of characters to body parts as “a sudden, absurd and otherwise inexplicable magnification . . . without plan or purpose” (17). The purpose, Gass declares elsewhere, is not really absent; the purpose is titillation. But the cost is a lost sense of proportion.
Saltzman refers to the stableboy excerpt without amplification, which is unfortunate, since the passage so nicely exemplifies the reduction and collapse about which Gass complains in On Being Blue. The introduction of “the sexual, in most works, disrupts the form,” Gass explains: “there is an almost immediate dishevelment, the proportion of events is lost; sentences like After the battle of Waterloo, I tied my shoe, appear” (16-17). In this mock pornographic except in WMLW such an absurd sentence does appear. The stableboy narrator sandwiches the sentence “The American War began” between his declaration of love and his assertion of the distance between himself and the high-born lady. The page likewise ends with a sentence absurdly bridging the local and the global: “But times are times, our place was in our places, so she took her tall proud soul away, alone like a small cloud on clear day, although she limped a little up the gravel path.”
These examples bracket the sexual encounter itself, which is built more on function than on person. Susan Sontag famously describes pornography as a “theatre of types.” Sontag declares that it “is the nature of the pornographic imagination to prefer ready-made conventions of character, setting, and action” (148). That pornography reduces characters to their functions and social positions is evident from a survey of titles of pornographic books from any era. Among the ten specimens of “obscene” books analyzed in the Kronhausens’ Pornography and the Law are The Lascivious Hypocrite, The Confessions of Lady Beatrice, The Oxford Professor, and Memoirs of a Russian Princess. Steven Marcus discusses at length the nineteenth-century smut classic The Lustful Turk. Such titles would fit comfortably alongside those advertised on the last two pages of Snowbound in Torment, a 1968 Pompeii Press softcover: The Tortured Tourists, The Illegitimate Heiress, The Countess in Golden Chains. Advertising pages at the end of The Flesh Peddlers (1971) offer more of the same: Sub-Teen Seductresses, School Girl Slut, Sex Diary of a Teen-Hiker, among many others.[******]
Both the titles of Gass’s novella and that of the mock Victorian book it excerpts could slide into such lists without seeming out of place. These book titles emphasize characters’ roles over their particular identities or personalities. Babs is simply a stage name for Willie Masters’s wife. Her “real” name never appears, blocked out by her function as wife and by her isolation. The narrator of this excerpt is likewise unnamed, as is the “wine-vested lady of the manor house” with whom he sports. Their names matter less, after all, than their roles as sexual stand-ins and transgressors. Since transgression must have its boundaries, she is high and pure, and he is low and vile. She is an “angel” with “flowered body” and “white teeth,” who grapples with the groom in the “turded territory” of the stable. She is “cool as the tower,” perched “high above” the “straw ground” to which the narrator will “topple” her. His is a world of “bluebottle flies”; hers one of “pure Castilian.”
So great is the gulf between them, in fact, that the stableboy cannot span it. The displacement of person to function in this pornographic parody allows the stableboy only metonymic pleasure. Despite his absurd declarations of libidinal intent in the exaggerated purple prose of Victorian pornography (e.g., “I shall bonnet the head of my masculine thrust with your flowered body”), the stableboy “pour[s] his manhood’s pride” not in this high-born lady herself but into her boot. The jodhpur which he pulls from her leg is “the long well of her separated self.” Such fetishism further distances sex from “Milady,” whose boot serves as class marker and object of desire.
With the “real” object of desire so close at hand, a displaced object might not be necessary, but Gass makes a point here about artifice in pornography. Pornography builds upon substitution; its language relies on language of previous pornography. But, at base, it functions as substitute for sex, in fact, not merely substitution but distortion. The boot separates stableboy and lady, for by mounting it, he does not mount her. Three successive sentences begin with the inclusive “we,” but the union is suspect even within the fiction of the passage. The stableboy declares, “we were three: boot, stableboy, and she!” Past its failure to unite, the stableboy’s fetish actually divides the stableboy’s perspective into first and third person, a division in keeping with the psychological origins of the fetish.
For Freud, the fetish arises from the castration complex. The child sees that his mother has no phallus, feels the threat of his own lost phallus, and so retains his initial belief that the woman is the same as he is. Rather, says Freud, “in his mind the woman has got a penis, in spite of everything; but this penis is no longer the same it was.” The fetish serves as a protective substitute, but it cannot completely mask “an aversion, which is never absent in any fetishist, to the real female genitals” (154). Christian Metz cites Philippe Dubois in arguing photography’s fetishist nature: “with each photograph, a tiny piece of time brutally and forever escapes its ordinary fate, and thus is protected against its own loss” (158). For Linda Williams, the money shot of film pornography is the central fetish of the genre.[*******] If Freud’s premise is that neurosis defends against unbearable ideas (in this case that the fetish as compensation for castration anxiety), then this stableboy excerpt, like the entire genre it parodies, is a defense, a conservative strategy, masquerading as sexual freedom, converting into genre conventions desires too threatening to face. In this sense, the stylized, ritualistic world of pornography and the well-worn narrative paths it provides cannot threaten extradiegetic sex.[********]
In the context of this novella, however, the fetish of the stableboy amounts to less than this. The stableboy is in himself too flimsy a figure to warrant such psychological complexity. The very presence of Babs heightens the degree to which the stableboy is psychologically slight. Her psychological complexity, despite the interruptions and gyrations of the book, is highlighted by this pornographic parody, in which Gass reveals the deep distortions of desire within the conventions of pornography. It would be too much, certainly, to see this single, abrupt, “borrowed” page as a microcosm of the novella it invades. But the passage does resonate with the pornographic critiques elsewhere in the novella. The fetish serves too as analogue for the metafictional premise of the lack. It’s not the missing phallus that conjures up the fetish as replacement; it’s the missing referent within the text: the extradiegetic world for which language must always act as distorting substitute.
The displacement upon which the fetish builds resonates with the isolation of Babs throughout the book. In the subtle way that the swirling texts within WMLW interact, the jodhpur of the stableboy is echoed across the page on the recto in a speech from Babs’s perspective: “My feet grew pale in my boots. Love left me” (25). The story of Babs is one of desertion. The stableboy gets close to the lady of the manor, but does not enter. Babs’s lovers come and go, but always they are separate from her, separate for not accessing her consciousness. “It’s nothing about me; it’s not me they love,” she reports in the first section (9). On the last page of the red section, Babs says that her lovers always leave something behind when they go. “IT’S SUPPOSED TO MEAN THEY WANT TO COME BACK, BUT I CAN’T BELIEVE THAT, FOR I NEVER SEE THEM AGAIN” (56). They take their “SPERM AWAY IN A LITTLE RUBBER SACK” (56), the prophylactic boot into which they spend themselves.
Retreat from Plot
The effect of the book’s visual components is an obstruction of plot that the sense of its words confirms. It is not simply how the words appear upon the page; it is how they function within the text. While the book starts with pictorial promise and the beginnings of sexual confession, each section moves it further away from such a plot and closer toward the essay or language experiment that critics have called it.
The perspective of the first section is largely that of Babs, more consistently than in the middle two sections of the book. Two fonts predominate here, both in first person, both Babs’s voice, one in boldface, one regular. The italicized, regular text also belongs to Babs, though it is in third person. The boldface font is Babs musing about the body and its secretions, the body more than her body, but also the difference between one’s own saliva, shit, feet and those of others. The story the regular font tells in this section establishes Babs’s sexuality from an early age: being teased by her father about her breasts (6); coupling with a railroad conductor, “a rehearsal, for what had been her life since” (11); examining penises in the sunshine “in the old days, when she was young” (12). The first section also displays the ongoing presence of sex in her adult life as burlesque script writer (12) and stripper. She recalls her many lovers in the company of Phil, the one at the moment of this stream-of-conscious narration, and she recalls their common mistreatment of her: “You’re supposed to be lonely—getting fucked” (9).
The total effect of Babs’s narration in the first section is sexual confession, something like Molly Bloom’s at the close of Ulysses. But it is also aligned with the pornographic tradition of sexual confession. Among the representative samples that the Kronhausens discuss in Pornography and the Law are The Confessions of Lady Beatrice, Nelly, or Confessions of a Doctor, and Memoirs of a Russian Princess. The most extended analysis in The Other Victorians is of the anonymous nineteenth-century tome My Secret Life. Such confession extends to pornographic film as well. In Hard Core Linda Williams finds the source of films’ “quest for the magic that will make sex speak” (2) in Michel Foucault, who writes in The History of Sexuality that sexual confession is but one manifestation of a “singularly confessing society” (59). For Foucault, it was not the Other Victorians who talked about sex, but the Other Victorians who did not. The myth of Victorian reticence was “a digression, a refinement, a tactical diversion in the great process of transforming sex into discourse” (22).[*********]
The promise of sexual confession fades as soon as the large-font moan that looms over the reclined model at the end of the blue section-“OO-OOO-OOO my Mister Handsome how could you?” (16). Although Babs is present in the second section, her function changes. She is confessor no longer but annotator to a burlesque script, one in which she performed, perhaps one of those she claims to have written (12). Either way, in commenting upon this skit, Babs loses the narrative function established in the blue section. The titillation and pornographic implication of her sexual autobiography are replaced with an editorial function and director’s chair.
If the narrative stalls in relation to Babs, who does not dance in this section, it does not reside stably with the story of the burlesque skit. The script depicts a man and woman at a table for breakfast. The man discovers a penis in his breakfast bun and tries to communicate that discovery to his wife, seated across the kitchen table. Since this skit is one performed by Babs during her days as a stripper, she speaks about its performance with a certain authority. But the narrative pull of this section is undercut by the commentary on the skit, a series of ever-amplifying footnotes that claim more and more of the page until they nudge the script toward the gutter (35) and finally off the page altogether in a shower of asterisks (36). It is not just that the sexual adventures of Babs are replaced by a burlesque bit that aims for humor rather than arousal; it’s that the skit steadily disappears in the section, leaving the commentary, floating free from a story line.
The story within this section assumes a smaller and smaller proportion of the page. The amplification of footnotes shifts the reading pattern. When the reader must flip pages ahead to match footnote to referent; when the steady march of strung asterisks requires stopping and counting the beads of each footnote to ensure it matches up; when footnotes themselves have footnotes, as is true for footnote three, which embeds notes four and five[**********] ; under these conditions the story of the reading overwrites the story of the skit. Such permutations justify Saltzman’s representative judgment that “the novella is spatially, not temporally, governed” (113).
The visual story of the footnotes extends to their font and style. The font of the penultimate footnote grows proportionately as the page progresses (35) before returning in the final footnote to the size established at the outset of this section. An off-cited note accuses the reader of seeking smut in a boldface font larger than the dialogue it ostensibly glosses (22). And Gass further sports with the established style of footnotes by inserting a declaration in Gothic letters about the role of the historian, a declaration that attaches to no asterisk string above but is labeled and obscured by a pyramid labeled simply “Las Bas” (30). This unattached, mock Freytag pyramid gives way by the end of the section to marginal glosses completely unrelated to the skit and in fact borrowed from other texts, e.g. the sentence from Tristram Shandy (36). Like the footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), R. M. Koster’s The Dissertation (1975), and Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine (1986), these footnotes end up somewhere far away from the text that begets them.
The story of this second section leaves the burlesque skit behind and becomes instead the story of its reading. The agent of the action is the reader, who must negotiate among the meteor shower of asterisks. The question of “what will happen next?” attaches to the typographical shifts of each successive page. Plot detaches from the skit, which is increasingly crowded out by the footnotes. The footnotes themselves move away from a relationship with their originating text. Notes that gloss how certain lines of the skit are to be delivered (“this giggle is what they call a stage giggle” ) give way to trumping declarations of the “essence of the comic”—timing, contrast, and repetition (33-34). Such a movement undermines the function of footnotes and sends the reader further away from the only plot in this section, that of the skit.
From the perspective of the pornographic, the proliferation of notes represents a move away from the titillation established in the first section, which characterized Babs as a sexually available protagonist. The loss of plot in this section itself subverts the teleological rush of pornography, but other gestures in this section of the novella aid in that subversion.
The most prominent of these gestures is Babs’s boldface attack on “dear brother, lover, fellow reader” (22). Although the letters within the footnotes grow in size late in this section, only here does the font of the notes change in style, midway through a footnote on language. This long invective against the “smart ass” reader accuses him of “looking for dirt like a schoolboy, down at the foot of this page” (22). The speaker seems to be Babs. She calls herself a siren and claims she can hold the reader by threatening, baiting, and luring him with sexual promise (“sugar my cunt like a bun for Easter”). But her ultimate goal is to switch the object positions of voyeurism. The watcher will become the watched, “in the light of my lights,” and the depersonalization of such gazing will affect not Babs but those who have stared at her. The effect of that looking—”lick[ing] the sweet heart out of your heart”—makes obvious the criticism of Babs’s mistreatment and of her sexual objectification.
The thwarting of plot in the third section arises from a continued submersion of the sexual Babs introduced at the start of the novella and a proliferation of voices and fonts with non-narrative motivations. Plot gives way to meditation, and Babs’s reminiscences, non sexual, go into hiding.
The starting font of the section, the same as that which began the novella, does not return to Babs’s sexual life upon or off the stage but shifts into musings about referentiality. Beginning the section with declarations of artifice—”this book is many removes from anything I’ve set pen, hand, or cup to” (41)—is a standard metafictional ploy for undermining conventionalized referentiality. References to the arbitrariness of names—the “cup” that could just as well be called “harris” (42), the many names she has known (43)—follow from a note in the avocado section on the random assignations of language: “What’s in a name but letters?” (26). The speaker is Babs, but the risk of that declaration is plotting. For Babs is but a stage name belonging to particular scripts as Willie Masters’ lonesome wife has its own scripts (52). One choice excludes others, and the seduction of story and evocation of place risk allowing the reader to forget that always there is “just a smith of words” (54) here, whose creamy coffee so lovingly stirred (42) exists “only here in this sweet country of the word” (53), not in the cup that does not make the muddy ring upon the first page of the section.
But this voice is just one of several banded through the section, all of which oppose a pornographic reading practice. As the footnotes in section 2 produce a back and forth reading motion, these horizontally banded narratives of the third section force a certain reading practice upon the reader, who cannot read here as he would turn the pages of a best-seller or pornographic novel. The all-caps voice that starts on the section’s second page picks up Babs’s musings from the start of the novel, where she has wondered about being a poker table. But this band is full of Babs imaging lovemaking with her own “mist of images” (44), images that decry Willie’s “making love like someone on the stage” (46). Against such “vulgar” lovemaking, in another font Babs imagines “better plays” and “better lives” (42). The skit of this font replaces the slapstick interaction of the burlesque stage with an imagined poet lover, whose gaze molds Babs into an icon of “fresh and newborn” beauty, though she has “played the whore to thousands” (46). All these fonts and voices depict a Babs different from the sexual confessor of the first section.
The last banded font of this section begins halfway through and is not apparently any version of Babs. Instead, it is the book speaking itself, declaring its freedom, ignoring the “regular connections,” skirting facts and logic if it so chooses (50). It endorses the imagination, in every act of which there is “a disdain of utility, and a glorious, free show of human strength” (52). It attends to sound, for “there’s no imagination without music” (47). It is a different kind of language, separated both from the pragmatic, “the speech of science and good sense,” and from the purely philosophical, “the speech of the ultimate mind, abstract, soldierly, efficient, and precise” (51). These are the language forms that operate functionally, those for whom this oft-quoted passage applies: “The usual view is that you see through me” (50).
The antithesis of such imaginative language, the epitome of such plugging functional language is pornography, a judgment brought home by the penultimate page of the section (55). Here, sandwiched between 48-point halves of the declaration “You’ve been had, from start to finish” the pornographic approach is condemned outright. The reader looking for racy passages and swift, sexy plotting is condemned in second person as a “sad sour stew-faced sonofabitch,” a “literalist at loving” whose page skipping and prurient intent does an injustice to the book and to Babs. Here, reading Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife is likened to making love to Willie Master’s lonesome wife. It ought to be done with care. As Marion Blau explains, “The stupidity of thinking that simulated titillation may in any way substitute for a genuine act of love becomes readily apparent” (44).
Blau, though, makes the speaker here Babs herself. That is not true. This voice is the angry version of the voice that endorses the language of imagination across the page, the voice that calls “the man of imagination . . . capable of life to a greater stretch than others” (54). The angry perspective of the “you’ve been had” speaker is echoed in the two columns of the previous recto (53). The left column suggests a description of the named Babs (“What’s this girl look like?”) and wonders about depicting “cunnilingus or fellatio—they have wide appeal.” But the right column argues against such a pandering approach: “We can’t make love like that anymore—make love or manuscript.” This is the same equation of language and lovemaking offered in second person two pages later.
What confirms the cost of a literalist approach to reading WMLW and to loving Babs is the last page of the red section, which returns to the all-caps font and voice of Babs in bed. Here, she considers the tie between her stripper life and her current life of indifferent, sequential lovers. The difference is only one of money, she claims. “I TOOK MY CLOTHES OFF ON THE STAGE—NAKED PLAYED THE FOOL, THE NAG, THE SHREW—FOR MONEY. MY DEARS, I WAS BORN A PRO, A PRO, SO REALLY NOTHING’S CHANGED” (56).
The prominence of Babs and the story of her sexualized life have been replaced with a non gendered admonition against seeking such voyeuristic pleasure. Here is the novella’s deep-structure bait and switch. But this perspective of language speaking does not originate in this third section. Both font and voice begin instead at the end of the previous section with the medium foregrounded, “No one can imagine—simply—merely; one must imagine within words” (37). Later the voice declares itself “only a string of noises, after all” (38) and on the last page of the section asks readers to “imagine the imagination imagining” (40). The placement of this voice, at the end of each section, is a strike against a merely functional narrative impulse.
The last two pages of each section, where the text speaks itself mark a stall in the story of Babs, pornographic or not. And in each section that stall is supplemented by arrangements of words in concrete form: the all-seeing eye oval of text (37); the rambling text shaped like a fir tree (39), which illustrates “an arrangement, a column” that imagination speaks across the page gutter; the torn scrap of stream-of-consciousness that recurs nowhere else in the text (54); and the French declaration in nineteenth-century font requesting that the public not whistle Wagner (54-55). Each of these is spatially, not temporarily located. And each occurs on just one page or one spread. They are textual displays, text not acting as conduit for steamy plot, but not displaying itself as Babs has either, since nothing in their shapes or their placement is erotic. They are places where the forward movement of narrative reading is paused.
After the point-of-view and font excesses that stall plot at the close of section 3, the final section comes across as comparatively calm. The font is that which began the novel, Babs speaking from her bed. But the sexual promise has been swept away. Her lovers have departed, and her smut-seeking readers have been scolded. A sympathetic approach to Babs is now possible. She declares herself “no longer the nooky-look-see sort of tease I was” (58). But if the person returns, her plot purged of lust, she is not Babs as we have glimpsed her. The stable font of the section belies a subtle shift in point of view. Rich, referential words detailing elements of Babs’s world (e.g., the late material reminder of “the books by Miss Pearl Buck I glued up in a stack to stop the door” (59)) give way to more musings upon language. The voice of the text speaking returns at the end of this section, just as it did at the close of the previous two sections. But this time Babs claims that perspective as her own, claims to be “the girl upon this couch” and the creator “who’s waltzed you through these pages” and “I, the language” (60). Here in the last section of the novella, the disparate points of view unite to produce a view of Babs as Willie Masters’ Lonesome Wife, italics intact. It is a far cry from the sexual playing field or poker table Babs imagines herself at the outset of the novella.
Babs is mistress of the text, which is all she can be, constructed of language as she is. As language, she can continue the advocacy of her earlier incarnation, and the book closes endorsing an expansive view of imaginative language, built from “a diction which contains the quaint, the rare, the technical, the obsolete, the old, the lent, the nonce, the local slang and argot of the street, in neighborly confinement.” These elements are to be combined, not in the derivative, stale “plot and pattern . . . we find our modern lot in,” not in “the languid pissing prose we’ve got” but in “poetry . . . impetuous and hot and loud and wild” (62).
Still, these words address writers rather than the book’s readers or make of them rewriters engaged in a “cool” book, in McLuhan’s terms, a “writerly text” in Roland Barthes’s, one demanding greater participation. Babs is made into a vessel, an object by her lovers. Although WMLW is fragmented, full of swirling points of view, voices, and fonts, by condemning her own mistreatment, Babs implores her readers to see her more wholly and sympathetically. But she wants what we cannot give, for she is always on the stage and we are always in the audience, however engaged. We cannot connect with her finally any more than can her lovers. They are separated from her by their limited intent and by their condoms. Of her last sexual partner in the book, the same Phil Gelvin who was there at the start, she avows, “Empty I began, and empty I remained” (57). Access to her body is likewise impossible for us as readers. We can access only the body of the book, its materiality foremost, its enacted, sung words secondarily. Access to Babs and to any person within is ontologically impossible, as it is in any book, but here that impossibility is repeatedly foregrounded. “These words are all I am” (60).
The book moves from the pornographic assumptions of the photographed naked body and sexual confession through a swirling of typographical currents that drown out the lustful urge and leave only the ludic impulse. Gass shows the world of Babs as pornographic, but that is the milieu of her mistreatment. Leered at by those who watch her strip and misused by her hit-and-run lovers, Babs does not condone the same behavior in her readers. And the points of view that seep away from Babs and toward the creator and language speaking do not condone it either. It is not sexual material of pornography that is wrong, but its crass mishandling.
In On Being Blue Gass is more plain about the specific goal in textual sexual representation. It must always serve the author’s language first. Gass argues that “true sexuality in literature-sex as a positive aesthetic quality—lies not in any scene and subject, nor in the mere appearance of a vulgar word, nor in the thick smear of a blue spot, but in the consequences on the page of love well made—made to the medium which is the writer’s own” (43). Against the pornographic cliches of Passions of a Stableboy, WMLW ends with a call for “a democratic style where rich and well-born nouns can roister with some sluttish verb yet find themselves content and uncomplained of” (61-62).
*The book was reprinted by Knopf in 1971 with two different paper stocks, a green-tan for most of the book and a glossy white for the last seven pages (the same as that used in the original TriQuarterly publication). When it was reprinted again in 1989 by the Dalkey Archive, all its pages were the same white paper stock, one less glossy than its original publication’s last section. In all other respects, all three editions are identical. None of them are paginated, but scholarly requirements keep me from preserving that anti-sequentiality. My numbering begins with the bastard title page. The blue section runs through page 16, the avocado section through page 40, the red section through page 56, and the glossy white section through page 63.
**Since pubic hair wasn’t visible in Playboy magazine until 1969, its omission from the cover of an issue of TriQuarterly from a year earlier might also be understood as discretion.
***The 1971 Knopf printing deletes both front and back cover photographs, substituting plain black cloth and a title on the spine alone.
****The oversized starting S also recalls the beginning of Ulysses, where the S towers over the “TATELY, PLUMP” on the bottom of the page margin like a tree over grass, though in Joyce’s novel such vast letters recur at the beginnings of sections II and III. And, of course, they are ink on the page as much as their normal-sized kin.
*****As a few critics have noted, it is the only page in the novella that is paginated. The 121 in the upper right hand corner, however, probably makes most sense as a simulation of this novel as text borrowed from outside, text recycled rather than text of varying point of view within the novella. Its font is unique within the book.
******The most exhaustive such list of pornographic titles comes from the Final Report of the Commission on Pornography of 1986. It includes titles of 725 books, 2,225 magazines, and 2,370 films (Attorney General’s 387-424), a staggering compendium of measured lust that accounts for virtually every mainstream pornographic combination and caters to the most specialized of tastes (e.g., Milky Mamas).
*******The extensive literature of the fetish is largely outside my argument, which involves fictions of such foregrounded textuality that they belie the complexity of psychological character analysis. For a treatment of fetishism and its ties to pornography, see Berkeley Kaite’s Pornography and Difference (1995), which looks at pornographic photographs rather than the hard-core films that form the basis of Linda Williams’s study. Kaite argues, among other things, that “the pornographic body is a textual body replete with fetish inscriptions” (91).
********Gertrud Koch’s essay “The Body’s Shadow Realm” (1981) discusses the body, fetishism, and cinema. Koch cites Steve Neale’s “On Pornography” (1980) for some clarifications of Mulvey’s discussion of the fetish in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Two articles by Steve Neale, “Oppositional Exhibition Notes and Problems” (1980) and “Masculinity as Spectacle” (1983) nicely complicate some of Mulvey’s claims about the fetish and identification, claims she herself reconsiders in 1981. In broader ways, Mulvey’s Lacanian, fetish-based gaze theory is qualified by Judith Mayne’s The Woman at the Keyhole (1990) and Wheeler Winston Dixon’s It Looks at You (1995).
*********James Kincaid argues that Foucault’s understanding has itself reached the proportions of the given. The dominance of the Foucault paradigm, however, “should not obscure for us . . . important points at which this spread of sexual discourse or the union of sex with talk has been resisted, locations in Victorian culture and in our own where sex talk is not only not encouraged but actively opposed” (139-41).
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