Sentences — September 17, 2008, 12:10 pm

Pushing Slightly Against the Skin of his World

There’s a short story in John Haskell’s collection I Am Not Jackson Pollock (FSG 2003) called “Glenn Gould in Six Parts.” The story’s ambition seems to be to look at, and then to peer beyond, some of the received ideas we have about Gould: the genius, the troubled artist, the pill-popper, the recluse, the shut-in, the hypochondriac, the enigma. Enigma: the word’s root comes from the Greek for ‘fable’, and Gould is most often viewed from that distant point of view which sets us either far below him to stare up in awe or far above him to peer down in condescension. Haskell, though, tries to treat Gould not as enigma, not as a creature of fable, but as a fallible human being. And of course, there are many ways such an ambition can go wrong. It’s Updike, I think, who coined the term “pathography” for biographies of famous people that skew to the revealing of and reveling in their subject’s weirdness or dysfunctions. Haskell’s fictional story largely skirts such pitfalls, and manages, over its dozen pages, to touch at something valuable about the way we fabulize the geniuses we love and, invariably, lose.

In its animating idea, Haskell’s story would not seem radically different from the movie Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, and yet it nonetheless differs in fundamental ways. If you’ve seen the movie, you can’t escape Gould’s virtuosity: the film is a pageant to his prowess. Naturally, the movie attempts to present more than merely Gould’s artistry but, for me at least—in part because Glenn Gould is not in the movie, but rather a talented actor is pretending to be Glenn Gould as Gould’s recordings run—there is a certain distance from Gould that never is bridged despite the thirty-two attempts to do just that. Gould remains enigmatic, the film only making him seem moreso.

Whereas Haskell’s story tries to burrow past that busy surface to a quieter pith. He does this imaginatively, creating scenes that could have happened—Gould, about to play in a church that has been made into a recording studio, distracted by his worried certainty that someone unseen hides in the dark; Gould, visited by a fan in search of an autograph and perhaps more, wanting to touch her but unable to. There are six of these imagined vignettes, and all of them have, as their spines, the not uncommon idea of there being a vulnerable person behind the vigorous artist. Haskell’s narration, though, his perspective on that idea, is uncommon. He appears as a sort of explicator, not of the scene so much as about Gould in the scene, giving direction as if to actors who might play out what we are reading:

All of us create a world—Glenn Gould included—an individual world in which we function. As we live, we establish the boundaries of that world; we get comfortable with certain habits, certain rituals and people, and he’s comfortable in a a world of purity, or at least a world whose boundaries he can control. And although this woman has no desire to take that away, he feels the need to protect himself. He doesn’t like to stand too close, or what he thinks is too close, and people have different ideas about what intimacy is, and Glenn Gould has his idea, whatever it is, and he thinks that the two of them are moving in that direction. He can feel her getting near to the edge of his world, and although he enjoys talking about the cold he can feel her pushing slightly against the skin of his world, and instead of allowing that and the feelings that follow, he acts to avoid it, to avoid the human contact and the fear that goes with it. He opens his door and stands to one side. And she understands—or rationalizes—that yes, he’s a great man, etcetera, and he needs his privacy, etcetera, and it’s only when she actually starts to walk out the door that he feels the freedom to realize that talking to her is pleasurable, and he says to her, almost accusatorially, “You’re leaving?”

‘Intimacy’ can be a tricky task for any of us. “We are all so afraid, we are all so alone,” Ford Madox Ford tells us in The Good Soldier, “we all so need from the outside the assurance of our own worthiness to exist.” The communality of that need, the discomfort that we feel, from time to time, at someone “pushing slightly against the skin of [our] world,” makes that need no less governable. Haskell’s evocation of that mutinous commonplace, the poignant precision of his “slightly,” gently suggests the fragility of the very moorings that keep us from sliding out and away from the larger world in which we must, to some degree, make our way.

Haskell’s attempt to reveal the mind and heart of someone exalted for his artistry but who, like any of us (“Glenn Gould included”) suffered silently, has been, in light of last Friday’s horrible news, a boon companion. Ably, the story does what David Foster Wallace said fiction must do and which Wallace’s own writing—peerlessly—did do: “to give the reader, who like all of us is sort of marooned in her own skull, to give her imaginative access to other selves.”

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