William Gaddis: Finishing "J R"

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.