William H. Gass, acclaimed author of The Tunnel, spent 20 years composing his latest, Middle C, and it shows. An exploration of the multiple identities we humans cultivate, it tells the story of displaced Austrian music professor Joseph Skizzen from birth to middle age, probing his fears and faults, his obsessions and his dreams.

Gass’ long-awaited novel is a modern-day classic.

Except he isn’t Austrian. And he isn’t a music professor—not really. Despite the goatee and affected accent, he’s only ever lived in London and Ohio. And he teaches classes, but his credentials are utter fiction. Living with his elderly mother in a declining mansion that the college owns, Joseph’s life is built on fibs—an odd attempt to follow in his father’s footsteps. For before Joey was born, Rudi Skizzen turned his family into makeshift Jews, changed their names and moved them from Austria to Britain to “escape” the Nazis. After the war, he drained their Jewish blood, named them again and promptly abandoned them. Joey Skizzen’s life becomes an attempt to understand his father’s crime against his family, even as he constructs his own fake self. He probes Rudi’s sin, in part, by curating a “museum” of humanity’s crimes against humanity. From his secret perch in the mansion’s attic, surrounded by news clippings of cruelty, he gazes upon his mother’s beautiful garden and tends a stubborn sentence he’s composing (and recomposing) on mankind’s ugliness.

The story travels back and forth between Professor Skizzen’s present and his youth, revealing his quirks, his charms, his own crimes and the tender heart that belies his domineering pessimism. Gass writes in a style readers will either love or hate: If you love wordplay, you will revel here; if you do not, run far, far away. Dense but dexterous, the language is absolutely packed with surprises. Very, very funny, the book is also sad, laying Joey’s almost quaint innocence in bed right alongside the adult Joseph’s darkness. Highly original—it’s doubtful any other teen character this year will bumble his way into a love triangle with rival spinster librarians—Gass’ tome satisfies on multiple levels while leaving certain questions unanswered. A showcase of 88-year-old Gass’ skill, Middle C is literature at its finest.

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