At Open Letters Monthly, Greg Gerke and Gabriel Blackwell have a long and interesting discussion about William Gaddis’ masterful novel.
I love seeing meaty new pieces on William Gaddis’ J R, which has just been released by Dalkey and remains one of the best novels I’ve ever read. Describing the book in one paragraph is tough, but Gutkin, writing for Bookforum, does pretty well:
J R follows the rise and fall of JR Vansant, an eleven-year-old sixth-grader in Long Island who builds a massive financial operation by telephone. Gaddis assembles an enormous cast of characters around JR, all of whose lives come to intersect in some way with the sixth-grader’s paper empire. There’s his teacher Amy Joubert, who unwittingly introduces JR to the power of finance when she takes her students on a field trip to Wall Street, where her uncle runs the powerful Diamond Cable corporation. There’s Jack Gibbs, the manic, drunken physics teacher, in love with Amy and his own thwarted ambition. There’s Edward Bast, an aspiring composer hired with an arts-foundation grant to teach at JR’s school, where, hilariously, he is expected to direct a sixth-grade production of Das Rheingold (JR, of course, in the role of Alberich). Naïve and easily bullied, Bast finds himself coerced into acting as the JR Corp.’s public face, and throughout the novel he remains the only character aware that the new corporate mastermind is just a kid. The book’s comic invention is huge, complete with such vivid secondary characters as Crawley, a hunting-obsessed stockbroker who commissions Bast to write “zebra music” for the soundtrack to a film lobbying Congress to transport African big game to US national parklands, or Mr. Whiteback, the middle school principal who also runs the local bank from his office. Gaddis excels at serious farce, like Nathanael West on a massive canvas.
From a series of memorials published in Conjunctions:41, Fall 2003:
I remember the bookstore, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel—so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Finding this makes me want to reread both JR and The Recognitions, certainly two of the greatest novels I’ve read.
It took a month. For those who haven’t read it, J R is a novel that’s 726 pages long and without interruption. There isn’t a single narrative breath taken at any point. Not a line break, nor a single little centered bullet marking a moment’s passing. Never once does Gaddis use such elementary techniques like writing, “Mary replied…” or “On Thursday, Tom…” It’s nearly all dialogue – much of it very funny – and readers who want to know who the hell is speaking need to be paying some serious attention. The rewards match the effort.
The invaluable Gaddis Annotations website offers this description of the novel (winner of the 1976 National Book Award), which is taken from Peter Dempsey’s William Gaddis: Life & Work:
A number of critics have said that this is the novel which comes closest to catching the varieties of spoken American English, while another has called it “the greatest satirical novel in American literature”. The first line of the novel gives us its theme: “— Money…?”. J R is a satire on corporate America and tells the story of the eleven-year-old schoolboy J R Vansant who builds an enormous economic empire from his school’s public phone booth, an empire that touches everyone in the novel, just as money — the getting of it, worry about the lack of it, the desire for it — shapes a great deal of the characters‚ — waking and dreaming lives. Through conversations, letters and telephone calls, we come to understand what Marx called “the distorting power of money”, how all value under capitalism is transformed into economic value. The novel lays before us in immense detail, in the very grain of the human voice, the alienation that is part and parcel of a world in which our innermost feelings have been commodified and where money has become fetishized; rather than it being simply a medium of exchange, a means to an end, money has become an object of desire for its own sake, an outward sign of success and power.
I’ve now read The Recognitions, Carpenter’s Gothic, and J R, and each of them is packed with intelligence, energy, and wit. One of the things that gets you through the hundreds and hundreds of pages is Gaddis’ razor-sharp satire. Here’s a crew of administrators at J R’s school talking over the upcoming budget:
—And take this one, custodial salaries, two hundred and thirty-three-odd thousand up, from two seventeen…
—Ask Mister Leroy, that’s his baby.
—Right. You mention education and they grab for their wallets. Now here’s thirty-two thousand six hundred and seventy for blacktopping the parking lot over to the tv studio.
—That’s the only bid that came in.
—And there’s this twelve thousand dollars item for books.
—That’s supposed to be twelve hundred, the twelve thousand should be paper towels. Besides, there’s already that bequest for books for the library.
—Did it say books in so many words? No. It’s just a bequest for books for the library.
—Use it for a pegboard. You need a pegboard in a library. Books you don’t know what you’re getting into.
Later in the novel, a few writers discuss their working lives:
—I get letters from college kids who have it assigned in their courses, they must be passing one copy around. If he’d let me have the rights back do you think I’d be sitting here now?
—Yes I know, I mean I’ve been working on a Western I can finish if I can get an advance on this book about cobalt or whatever it is for your company, then with the final payment on the Western I’ll be able to get far enough on the cobalt book to collect the second payment and settle things with this Foundation where they’re handing out grants to novelists who want to write plays and I…
–Yes I’ve been working on a play myself…he tilted back, got his feet up on the file drawer again –I think I…
–Yes well to get a grant you have to be a novelist not a playwright but you have to be writing a play not a novel, I’ve applied for that under the name Jim Blake because that’s the name I wrote another Western novel under called Guns of God and if I can change the novel I’m working on now into a play for just long enough to get a grant I…
These types of conversations — funny and sad, with failure floating everywhere — are all over the place. The copy of the book I have (from Penguin, with Warhol’s $4 on the cover) has a fine introduction from Frederick R. Karl, which touches on failure specifically. Here, Karl is writing of Jack Gibbs, a physics teacher at J R’s school and fumbling writer with big plans:
Gibbs, then, is working against the grain, and of course in Gaddis’s messy world he must fail, as does anyone who attempts either to tell the truth or to run up against received opinion. The best Gibbs can do is to read aloud from early passages, or relate his ideas, to Mrs. Joubert; for when he finds his notes in one of the hundreds of cartons littering the 96st Street apartment — Milton’s Pandemonium redefined — he is incapable of ordering them into his thesis of disorder. He falls victim, as he must, to the very forces he is attempting to explain. He is part of Gaddis’s grand plan of “American failure,” which permeates all three of his novels and was, indeed, the subject of a course he taught at Bard College. Its thesis is straightforward: The American failure projects some inchoate ideal but is incapable of finding his (or her) way out of the morass, which can be accomplished only rarely through some form of art. All else is counterfeit. The failure screams “fake,” while the successful ones deny that disorder has won.
J R is, without a doubt, a major work of art. I’m really glad I read it, and I’m really glad it’s behind me.
So I finally finished William Gaddis’s “The Recognitions.” Man, was that a long book. More than 950 pages of very small type, characters the narrator doesn’t bother to introduce to the reader by name now and then, and leaps in plot and setting. Much of the dialog was flat-out amazing. There were penetrating lines like this one, from Esther to Wyatt:
You do hate the winter, don’t you. There were no taxicabs in sight, and they walked hurriedly. — ou always look so much colder than other people do.
And hundreds of pages later, Esther again to Wyatt (who has just reappeared):
—And what is it now, this reality you used to talk about, she went on more quietly. — s though you could deny, and have nothing to replace what you take away, as though … Oh yes, zero does not exist, you told me. Zero does not exist! And here I … I watched you turn into no one right here in front of me, and just a … a pose became a life, until you were trying to make negative things do the work of positive ones. And your family and your childhood, and your illness then and studying for the ministry, and … when I married you we used to talk about all that intelligently, and I thought you were outside it, and understood it, but you’re not, you’re not, and you never will be, you never will get out of it, and you never … you never will let yourself be happy. Esther was talking rapidly again, and she paused as though to give effect to the softness of her voice as she went on, though her memory crowded details upon her and it was these she fought. — here are things like joy in this world, there are, there are wonderful things, and there is goodness and kindness, and you shrug your shoulders. And I used to think that was fun, that you understood things so well when you did that, but finally that’s all you can do, isn’t it. Isn’t it.“
And poor Otto, in his sling, pretending to have sold his play:
—Oh, but, I mean, of course I am, I just, everything’s been so sort of … you know, and I, and maybe … someone’s mentioned to you? about my play, I mean? he blurted out. She shook her head. — ell I mean, it’s nothing, nothing really, but …
And there’s a priceless line given to Otto at this same party, on the topic of his play.
—My play, I … Otto commenced.
—Yes, Chrahst, you ought to try selling a battleship.
That’s it for quotes. There’s a ton to unpack theme-wise — original creation; falsehoods — and those will occur to me now and then (particularly if I’m able to find a great essay on the novel). I won’t pretend to have gotten half of Gaddis’s goods in a first reading. But that’s all I’m getting for now.
Oh: There’s a case to be made that the last scene of this epic novel — a last-page last scene — is the greatest and most vivid I’ve ever read.
Last night I finished my review of the new satire “Home Land.” One of the things I mentioned in the review itself was my effort to remember that this novel is intentionally grubby and slouchy and isn’t (I don’t think) trying to be a major work of profound meaning and deep insights. (Though Gary Shteyngart proclaims on the cover that the book helps him “to understand how we got to be where we are today, as a country and as a people.”) I posed the question in my review of whether it’s fair to criticize a recognizably unimpressive narrator for failing to impress you with the book he’s narrating. Who’s not impressing me here – just the narrator (who’s been written as an unimpressive loser) or also the author?
Somewhat relatedly…last night I was reading William Gaddis’ “The Recognitions” (does this thing ever end? It’s great, but I won’t mind catching sight of the finish line) and came across a passage that deals with a critic’s response to a book. The issue here is whether a critic is responding to the book at hand or to what his own inclinations would have been for the story. This brief bit, from page 603, comes from a boozy holiday party that’s been going on forever and doesn’t stop (I’ve checked) for another 40 pages.
–He’s a critic. He writes about books, or some God damn thing. Now come on. But Benny pulled from Ellery’s grasp on his shoulder.
–How long is it since you’ve seen the sun rise? he demanded. Then he went on,–How you would have done it. That’s the way everything is, isn’t it. How you would have done it. Not how it should have been done, but how you would have done it. When you criticize a book, that’s the way you work, isn’t it. How you would have done it, because you didn’t do it, because you’re still afraid to admit that you can’t do it yourself.
I’ve reached page 200 of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions — only 750 pages to go. I really liked his “Carpenter’s Gothic,” and I’ve had Recognitions on the mental list for a few years. I moved it to the front of a real list after seeing it again on one of those writers’ must-read lists – in this case William Gass’s 1991 booklet / exhibition “A Temple of Texts: 50 Literary Pillars.”
(Sidenote: Last night I met Mr. Gass, an enormously important writer for me these last few years, at a reading here in St. Louis. He said that his next book of essays is currently at Knopf and should be out at some point; it will include a revisited “Temple of Texts,” as well as, I was happy to hear, the remarkable Lannan Foundation reading he gave to an audience late last year. I highly, highly recommend listening to the 80-year-old Gass give this wise, funny and challenging recap of his life as a writer.)
But back to Gaddis, whom Gass has championed and whose book in question he introduces. The novel is quite great so far. A few passages:
(For the first time in months) he put his arm around her; but his hand, reaching her shoulder, did not close upon it, only rested there. They swayed a little, standing in the doorway, still holding each other together in a way of holding each other back: they still waited, being moved over the surface of time like two swells upon the sea, one so close upon the other that neither can reach a peak and break, until both, unrealized, come in to shatter coincidentally upon the shore. (109)
That was Wyatt and Esther. This is Otto and Esther:
He smiled, and leaned toward her. But his smile made hers suddenly the less real, less a smile as its life drained from behind it while the smile remained fixed on her lips; then her lips opened again and it disappeared. (127-128)
If the rest of the novel is this great, it will surely be one of those Big Books I long remember reading for the first time.