Plot, he argued, was of secondary importance, though it was not absent from his stories. His plots just didn’t come in standard linear form. Though he never wrote a chase scene or a courtroom scene, laws were broken in his stories, and there was plenty of terror and brutality.
Since his first novel, “Omensetter’s Luck,” was published in 1966, Mr. Gass was one of the most respected authors never to write a best seller. (He wrote only two other novels but many novellas, short stories and essays.)
He received a raft of awards, including two National Book Critics Circle Awards for collections of criticism and philosophy: “Habitations of the Word” in 1985 and “Finding a Form” in 1997. He won four Pushcart Prizes, the Pen-Faulkner Prize and a $100,000 lifetime achievement award from the Lannan Foundation in 1997.
The novelist John Barth, a fellow practitioner of metafiction, predicted that Mr. Gass would someday rank high in the history of American arts and letters. “If he doesn’t,” Mr. Barth said in 1999, “it will be history’s fault.”
Mr. Gass’s admirers loved the layers of poetry and philosophy that kept them digging like archaeologists through the strata of Western intellectual thought. But his complex fiction lost many readers and caused some critics to accuse him of sacrificing character for literary gimmicks.
“Oddly enough I think of myself as more of a realist than most of the realists,” he told The New York Times in 1999. “In my books there’s darkness. You don’t know everything. In the Victorian novel, everything is clear; in the real world, motives are mixed. People are unreliable. There are contradictions. People forget. There are omissions. You certainly don’t know everything. There aren’t good people and bad people. There are shades of this and that.”
His masterwork was “The Tunnel” (1995), a 652-page novel in which the main character, the lonely, miserable and unlikable William Frederick Kohler, a middle-aged history professor at a Midwestern university, retreats to his basement, where he begins, little by little, to tunnel his way out — metaphorically trying to escape from a loveless marriage and a painfully unhappy life.
All the while, Kohler reflects on that life in a series of digressions as he struggles to write the preface to his magnum opus, a study of Nazi Germany. Mr. Gass said of his character: “This guy is either lying or he is forgetting or…