Omensetter’s Luck

by JDP

Gass famously coined the term “metafiction” and Omensetter is, in large part, a work of fiction about fictions: subtle shifts in narrative form and a plot replete with storytellers, liars, and old testament texts explicitly invite the reader to consider the nature of the story’s narrative.

William H. Gass / American / 1966 / 304 pages

I have a professor in my graduate program who always warns us against “navel gazing” by which he means, I take it, focusing on ourselves qua ourselves. As a political scientist, if I spend too much time contemplating how I go about conducting research, then I don’t actually end up conducting any research at all. If I continually critique the extant work in the field, but do not add my own contribution, then I fail to leave my mark in any meaningful capacity. Engaging in a thought experiment aimed at rigorously investigating the epistemological limitations of social science makes for good parlor palaver (well, it depends on whose parlor you’re in), but at some point you’ve just got to roll up your sleeves and start working. Occasionally, however, I’ll come across a published work that does both: at the same time that a scholar contributes something substantive to our understanding of the social world, she also manages to offer us a new method or approach by which we might learn additional things. By addressing substance in an innovative manner, she calls our attention to method; defying my professor’s admonishment, such a work navel gazes its way straight into productive discourse.

Omensetter’s Luck is, I think, the successful literary equivalent of navel gazing.

William H. Gass was a philosopher and literary critic long before he was a published author and “metafiction” was a term he coined during the early years of his academic career while he was working on his doctoral dissertation. It’s a term that calls attention to the structure of narrative and was first invoked to discuss a new breed of American authors who emerged in the 1960s. Metafiction is distinct from the antinovel, for example, because it does not destroy narrative, per se. Rather, it invokes the straightforward narrative tactics of an earlier generation of writers to subtly draw attention to the method, rather than the substance, of the story. It sounds like a difficult undertaking. Indeed, in the afterward to the Penguin edition of Omensetter, Gass describes the arduous years of work that went into publishing his first novel and, having read the result, I can understand why. It is a novel that distills some very complicated ideas about the nature of storytelling and, in many parts, smacks of the philosopher rather than the fiction writer. It’s a unique book that has some fairly big ideas at work under the hood.

Gass crafts the substance of the story by drawing heavily from the American authors that preceded him. There are distinct elements of the “Southern Gothic” in Omensetter, specifically harking back to Flannery O’Connor and Nathanael West. Gass also shares these authors’ preoccupation with spiritualism vis-á-vis the natural, secular world and his characters are placed in stressful situations that tend to render this opposition in stark terms. There are also evident nods toward Faulkner and Joyce in Omensetter’s stream of consciousness rants, impressionistic dialogue, and disassembly of the fence between the intra- and the interpersonal. There are literally no typesetting techniques employed in distinguishing dialogue from thought, spoken word from internal monologue (not even the Joycean dash). This makes for slow reading and I must admit that I restarted the first 10 pages three separate times before I felt like I had an adequate handle on the style.

But Gass stands alone. Despite reminding me at various points of many other authors, it is also the case that none of these authors ever wrote a book quite like Omensetter’s Luck. 

The plot itself is not so terribly interesting. Brackett Omensetter is recently arrived with his family in the fictional small town of Gilean, Ohio. He is something of a disheveled, unkept man, but he is also gregarious and helpful. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the town’s other inhabitants come to the conclusion that there is something mystical, something lucky about Omensetter. Their suspicions are perhaps not entirely unjustified, as Omensetter seems to exhibit an uncannily adroit understanding of the natural world and its animal inhabitants. Some of the townsmen are unsettled by his behavior, most notably the pastor Jethro Furber, who begins a disinformation campaign that slowly turns the town against Omensetter and — even more troubling — turns Omensetter against himself and his own family. There is a mysterious death that requires investigating, a sick infant that must be nursed, and a congregation that grows increasingly distrustful of a pastor who borders on the pathological.

It is the method by which the plot is revealed that makes for compelling reading. The novel is divided into three parts: the first two of which are shorter and, in a way, function as false introductions to the novel’s true focus, which emerges in the much longer third section. The first section is vaguely titled “The Triumph of Israbestis Tott” and describes in a fugue-like narrative an old man named Tott who attends an auction. Tott is the town gossip (he bends the ear of anyone who will listen and his stories appear at first glance to be elaborations) and it is through him that we first glean some disorganized details about the showdown between Omensetter and Furber that occurred several years prior. It is a bit unclear just what Tott’s triumph may be, but perhaps it is simply his longevity: by outlasting the other actors in the tragedy of Omensetter, Tott is now free to spin the yarn however he deems fit.

In the second section — “The Love and Sorrow of Henry Pimber” — we first see the Omensetter family come to town, find a home, and join the ranks of the Gilean community. Coinciding with these events, Henry Pimber falls seriously ill with lockjaw and it is Omesetter’s improvised poultice of beets (rather than Ferber’s fervent prayers) that keeps Pimber alive long enough for the doctor to arrive and treat his symptoms. Thus begins a strange relationship between Pimber and Omensetter where the former both admires and resents the latter. This second section of the novel is written in more straightforward prose and ends with a truly haunting interaction between Omensetter and Pimber in the deep woods outside of Gilean. When Pimber disappears shortly thereafter, Omensetter is immediately suspected of his murder.

The third and longest section — “The Reverend Jethro Furber’s Change of Heart” — is best begun with a good deal of momentum as it opens with 75 pages of Joycean stream of consciousness that is steeped in archaic old testament references, lewd sexual musings, and improvised verse. Told from the perspective of Reverend Furber, it shifts the focus of the novel toward the cosmic battle playing out in the landscape of Furber’s mind and the swirling amalgamation of spiritual aspirations, mortal failings, and man-of-the-cloth paranoia could have been ripped straight out of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The ensuing chapters that comprise this section of the novel are all much shorter, more concrete and chart out Furber’s elaborate lies and deceptions. He is an insufferable cur.

Despite trying one’s patience at times, the novel ends well and is an overall enjoyable experience. Gass is also very clever in drawing our attention to the art of fiction. Rather than straightforwardly hitting us with an unreliable narrator, we actually observe characters responding to the fictions articulated by other characters. Israbestis Tott spins his (obviously hyperbolic) tales regarding a fake world that Ferber gradually constructed from lies. Omensetter eventually has no choice but to give into these lies and conform to other people’s expectations of his behavior; it is a concession that takes his family to the brink of ruin and fundamentally reconfigures the balance of power in the town. In wrapping up the detritus from this epic confrontation, Omensetter’s Luck tarries to a powerful meditation on the fiction of fictions.

Rating: 7 / 10

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