A couple of days belated, but tonight we begin our long-promised discussion of William H. Gass’ debut novel Omensetter’s Luck. I’m very excited about this. Not least because I finally get to put on paper my own halting thoughts & comments about the book, now that I’ve read it for a second time, but also because I get to engage the perspectives & opinions of those who’ve agreed to read it with me. We’ll take this discussion as quickly or slowly as it warrants. Please, jump aboard even if this is the first you’ve heard of it.
With this first post, I’m kicking things off. Those who know my style & take on things like this know what not to expect anyway. I’m not interested in summarizing the book for you, introducing the characters. I’m very much assuming– and encourage the other writers in this discussion to do the same — that if you’re reading the post, you’ve either read the book (or are in the midst of reading it) or are keen on reading the thoughts of those who have. With that . . .
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I first began read Omensetter’s Luck a couple of summers ago while seated uncomfortably on a long flight between San Francisco and Brussels. My intention had been to bring along Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, but it had proved too bulky for comfortable transport. Gass’ debut novel, I decided, was far easier not only to tote between my connections but also to tuck away, alongside the hopefully unused vomit bag and duty-free catalog, in the facing seat’s sleeve when the time came to eat or rest.
They were, those early pages, a struggle. Israbestis Tott annoyed me as much as he did those about & to whom he was tottering and jabbering. I had only the vaguest sense of what he was even talking about — like I was feeling a wall in a pitch-black room, knowing it to be a wall, but not finding the information at all helpful in terms of finding my way around. The frustration Tott poses to everybody he encounters in the first section of the novel, including himself, is an interesting contrast: he clearly knows something, namely, the intertwined story of Pimber, Omensetter, & Furber, of the town of Gilean itself, long the town storyteller, he, but is wholly inadequate to its telling.
(As I read this first section a second time a couple of weeks ago, I had the sense that Tott may have in fact done a considerably better job at the telling because of his inadequacy. Perhaps worth discussing as we progress?)
More immediately adequate to the cause, certainly in pulling me more fully into the novel, was the tragic tale of Henry Pimber told in the novel’s second movement. I don’t relish the idea of saying that in him I found somebody I could identify, considering how melancholic & pathetic he is up to his dying hour. If it wasn’t identification I sought and/or found, it was a kind of kinship. The final (& longest) portion of the novel told from the perspective of the Rev. Jethro Furber may justly get the lion’s share of critical attention & appreciation, with its dexterous use of language and artillery barrage of ideas, a tendency I suspect we will largely follow, but it would be a shame if we left poor Henry hanging for too long on his “leave-taking” limb.
Because, after all, it is Pimber who first unlocks the secret of Omensetter’s luck, isn’t it? Fittingly, Omensetter last “If Brackett Omensetter had ever had the secret of how to live, he hadn’t know it” (63). (Well, no, last always, I suppose, would be Tott, who, if he tells the story at all, does so in spite of himself, which is still better than most.) Pimber’s fate is as inhuman as Omensetter’s life up to that point — whether either is more or less human, that’s a pertinent question — each a mirror-twinned, perversely embodied, effect of knowledge. For Pimber, it results in his being raised high in death; for his twin (of a sort), Omensetter, being brought low to “real life.” Is it a spoiler to say the “secret” here? Oh . . . why not?
Omensetter lived by not observing — [but] by joining himself to what he knew. (60)
Omensetter’s, in other words, was a peculiar knowledge that required neither sensation nor objectification; in truck with as little metaphor as morality. What played out for others (& eventually himself) as preternatural luck was for him an unexamined “how else could it be?” Unconcerned by a fallen world’s concerns & injustices, its superstitions & slights, Omensetter’s luck was untainted by wish or hope, not so much even by expectation, but rather guarded by a virginal inevitability that things could be no other way. An Edenic life. What Pimber comes to realize, however, is that Omensetter was no Adam — not yet anyway. That would have to wait for his Fall: into knowledge, into humanity, which was happening without his even knowing it. (There being no “story of Adam & Even,” after all, until after the Fall.)
Again, like a mirror’s twin, Pimber’s realization, his newfound knowledge, is his own Fall — but here, into the pre-lapsarian Adam, who again, odd as it may sound, can only follow in the wake of that Adam who has fallen. This Adam, the namer of trees, is indistinguishable from what he observes, subject & object collapsed, and as such is “lost” within that which he names. Which is to say, in more banal, sentimental terms, I don’t think Pimber hangs himself high & out of sight within the trees out of despair so much as, perversely (at least from a “post-lapsarian” perspective), a kind of propriety. Absent the love of Omensetter or the speech of Furber, the alternatives I hope to discuss in subsequent posts, where else to go but up so high in order to more adequately dive so low? ( “I ought to be exposed upon a mountain where the birds can pick my body, for no one could put himself on purpose in this clay. Besides, anyone who’s lived so slow and stupidly as I have ought to spend his death up high” .)