January 31: “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass

Here we are, one month in! I made it!  Once I got through the first week, reading stories and writing the posts became more habit than anything, and since then, me getting the post up every day has never been in doubt. A few times, I posted later than I wanted—in the late afternoon—preferring the mornings, to maximize exposure, plus stay on schedule. Really, though, as long as I get my daily post up by midnight each night, I’m good, and it’s never come close—I often read and write the night or even day before. In any case, congrats to me on a month of story posts, one of the long months, too, thirty-one days, a knuckle on the fist instead of a gap. Eleven to go.

To end my first month, I’ve chosen one of the more difficult stories I’ve chosen all month, “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass. I’ve never read Gass before, but I’ve had my eye on this sharp-looking collection, Eyes, for a while. I bought it yesterday during my weekly trip to the B&N to watch my youngest play with trains for an hour or so before I have to carry him away screaming—I still don’t know his tolerance level, just how long he could play with wooden Thomas toys before he quits on his own. I got a chance to read a couple of Gass’s stories, however, so as far as I’m concerned, time well spent.

Like John Barth, Gass is a literary critic as well as an author, but is a philosopher, too—that’s how he made his living, as a philosophy professor at Washington University. I’m always interested in what writers do—those who don’t teach writing, especially—when they’re not writing, as in for a living, and Gass’s tenure as a philosophy prof, and a critic, seems to inform his work. I don’t know how, and can’t begin pretend to have the knowledge of either criticism or philosophy to explain it, but I believe it, for what it’s worth. Maybe it’s Gass’s similarity to Barth’s work, very experimental/Post-Modern, and maybe today I’ve formed a perception of writer-critics writing very Post-Mondernly. In any case, Gass seems to be real smart real good.

I chose “The Toy Chest” for today’s entry because it’s the story from “Eyes” that I have the loosest grip on, can say the least about, so why not? I’m not getting a grade on this assignment, and if I don’t interpret the story correctly, I can’t hear any of you laughing at me (except in the Comments section, I guess, if you post an audio file of you laughing at me). But after a couple of reads of “The Toy Chest,” I understand it better than I thought I would, and have come to the conclusion that it’s also my favorite William H. Gass story ever. So, here we go.

Gass is employing some pretty complex stream-of-consciousness in “The Toy Chest,” i.e., the narration of the story is all over the place. By that, I mean Gass jumps from one scene to another quite a bit; the most interesting part of this technique is that we often jump mid-sentence, even mid-word, a new paragraph starting with a completely new stream. Sometimes a new stream picks back up with a former thought, continuing with the rest of a word that had been cut, sometimes it never does. It harkens back to Mark Costello’s “Murphy’s Xmas,” where paragraphs cut off mid-sentence, representing Murphy’s drunken blackouts—Gass’s choice are not so easily explained (though the letter “T” is often a jumping-off point). I’ve read stream-of-consciousness works before, and even taught Modernism lit class once, including Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and The Sound and the Fury. I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story. While I wouldn’t want everything I read to be written that way, I enjoy it when I come across it, authors trying to mimic thought processes as voice. Do they exactly mimic human thought pattern? No, but it can be a convincing approximation.

The story of this story centers around a young man, a kid who seems to face average adolescent problems—average for a young serial killer/rapist. Maybe it’s just the thoughts inside his head—we all picture a murder or two, once in a while, right?—but the kid is obsessed with a few things: Killing people, getting famous for killing people, and sex of all kinds, with whomever he can get it from. There’s an encounter with a girl next to his toy chest—the actual box where he keeps his toys—but also mention of another kind of toy chest, one more sexual (and filthy). My favorite line: “I wanted to be the kid the neighbors said was so happy and sweet how could he have murdered so many while living next door just down the street ….” High aspirations, and if this is how this kid thinks, his goal might be more than obtainable.

Trains play a heavy role in “The Toy Chest,” too, the character focused on trains an awful lot. Featured predominately is model set he plays with a lot with his abusive dad, the one he uses to kill dolls with, tying them to the tracks, waiting to see them cut in half. Any Psych 101 student knows what trains mean, in dreams, in our memories, this long, slick thing disappearing into tunnels and such. Using a train to kill things as a recurring image means … yikes.

Two of my favorite authors in the whole wide world are Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, Post-Modern masters who wrote some of my favorite stories, taught me a lot of lessons on what stories can be, the difference between story and fiction. I teach individual works of theirs in every class, every semester, mainly “The School” and “The Babysitter.” I’ve never taught a whole book of either, though, but have been tempted to throw 40 Stories and/or Pricksongs and Descants on my Contemporary American Fiction syllabus every time. What keeps me from going full-out is that I’m not sure how to teach a lot of those stories, stories that I love reading, but couldn’t explain to a student who asked, “What the fuck just happened?” Professors, in my humble opinion, should have at least general mastery over the books they choose for a class. Call me old-fashioned.

That’s how I feel about “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass. I love it, but could I explain it? Have I just? There’s so much going on in this story, so many images, so many weird twists, grotesque images, and a style and structure I’ve not seen before. What’s important is, I liked reading “The Toy Chest,” and I think I want to read it again, even though this post is done. Just don’t ask me to lead a discussion, or write a paper about it. Maybe I’ll ask my students after all. See what they make of it.

William H. Gass



2 thoughts on “January 31: “The Toy Chest” by William H. Gass

  1. Pingback: August 7: “Fried Chicken” by Lee Smith – Story366

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