William Gass is perhaps best known as the author of complex, notoriously demanding novels -- his most recent is the aptly-titled "The Tunnel" (1995) -- yet his surest talent may be as an essayist. In such books as "On Being Blue" and "Habitations on the Word," Gass has explored literary and philosophical questions with an imaginative playfulness and an analytic rigor that's rare among his fiction-writing contemporaries.
Whatever his subject, Gass cuts through obfuscating jargon and journalistic cliche, often with salty wit. "The Pulitzer Prize in fiction," he writes in his latest collection, "Finding a Form," "takes dead aim at mediocrity and almost never misses." He describes contemporary literary minimalism as "not the minimalism of Stein and Beckett, in which a few selected means are squeezed into a mighty more which is the result of less" but rather "the less that less yields." Other essays here sample such arcane topics as Wittgenstein's challenge to contemporary fiction, Nietzche's linguistics and "Language and the State of Nature."
Gass isn't always reliable. He tends to view aesthetic philosophies (and individual artists) through the prism of his own creative obsessions. This makes him far more interesting and dependable when he's celebrating work which, like his own fiction, emphasizes form. Thus his essays on neglected modernists like Robert Walser and Ford Maddox Ford ("Ford's Impressionisms") shine, as do his treatments of Gertrude Stein and William Faulkner in "The Vicissitudes of the Avant-Garde" and his appreciation of Latin American "magical realism" in "A Fiesta for the Form." One will look in vain, however, for sympathetic, judicious treatment of tendencies (notably realism and expressionism) for which Gass feels less affinity. Despite his occasional lapses, the essays in "Finding a Form" leave the reader with the memorable imprint of a unique and subtle sensibility at work.