In this paean to the pleasures of language, Gass equates his text with the body of Babs Masters, the lonesome wife of the title, to advance the conceit that a parallel should exist between a woman and her lover and a book and its reader. Disappointed by her inattentive husband/reader, Babs engages in an exuberant display of the physical charms of language to entice an illicit new lover: a man named Gelvin in one sense, but more importantly, the reader of this “essay-novella” which, in the years since its first appearance in 1968 as a supplement to TriQuarterly, has attained the status of a postmodernist classic.
Like Laurence Sterne and Lewis Carroll before him, Gass uses a variety of visual devices: photographs, comic-strip balloons, different typefaces, parallel story lines (sometimes three or four to the page), even coffee stains. As Larry McCaffery has pointed out, “the lonesome lady of the book’s title, who is gradually revealed to be lady language herself, creates an elaborate series of devices which she hopes will draw attention to her slighted charms [and] force the reader to confront what she literally is: a physically exciting literary text.”
“The lonesome wife is, plainly, poetry lonesome for the poet: if she is truly courted and loved, instead of insultingly ‘had’, she will respond accordingly and save the language” – The New York Times
“(B)ehind the fussiness of much of the book there is a real urgency, a powerful vision of the loneliness inherent in writing (you write because you can’t speak, for whatever reason) and of writing as a useful and articulate image for loneliness of other kinds.” – Michael Wood, The New York Review of Books