For all the late attention, Gaddis remains a novelist neglected by both readers and critics. This neglect is deeply regrettable and is not alleviated by ritual invocations of his importance or uncritical adulation. In four novels totaling over twenty-four hundred pages William Gaddis made an honest and brave attempt to assay the way we live now. A master satirist, he both scorned and relished the absurdity of a culture which pays a book it does not read the empty compliment, "contemporary classic." The difficulty of Gaddis's books stems less from their shows of erudition than from their embrace of the awkward and evasive speech out of which each of us makes a self to meet the selves we meet. Like his fiercely difficult and untimely predecessors Melville and Faulkner, Gaddis demands of his readers that they match his stake of industry, courage, and intelligence.
Though Gaddis insisted repeatedly upon the irrelevance of writers' lives to the understanding of their works, his life presents a constant temptation to the allegorist. His life seems to illustrate in sequence the artist's possibilities in America. As a young man, he is a bohemian, thrown out of school, drifting around Europe and Greenwich Village. His encyclopedic denunciation of the falseness of contemporary civilization receives brickbats from the critics and yields royalty checks of $4.70. Gaddis in middle age is an American Kafka, flacking for Pfizer and other commercial leviathans while working steadily through nights and weekends on the labyrinthine J R. Finally, Gaddis enjoys the kind of old age normally reserved for faithful political lieutenants, mediocre poets, and college presidents: he is showered with encomia and foundation money and honored as one of America's most distinguished living authors, even if on the whole his novels remain unread.
Born in Manhattan on 29 December 1922, Gaddis spent his early childhood in Massapequa, Long Island. This community was later to serve as the setting for the Long Island sections of J R. In fact, the ultimate disappearance of the Bast home in that book has its roots in the Gaddis family's struggles with the Massapequa school board. Gaddis told Dinitia Smith in a magazine profile, "I wrote J R in revenge against Massapequa" (38). Gaddis's parents divorced when he was three years old. His mother, an executive with the New York Steam Company, a forerunner of Consolidated Edison, sent him to board at the Merricourt School in Berlin, Connecticut, at the age of five. Though his loneliness at this school may be reflected in the dismal recollections of Jack Gibbs in J R ("End of the day alone on that train, lights coming on in those little Connecticut towns stop and stare out at an empty street corner" (119)), Gaddis also expressed gratitude later in life for the rigorous, traditional education which he received there.
At the age of thirteen, Gaddis returned home and attended public high school on Long Island. During high school, he contracted "a tropical fever of unknown origin" (Smith 39). Like his character Wyatt Gwyon, Gaddis was diagnosed as suffering from erythema grave. This diagnosis means only "extreme irritation and redness of the skin"; it is the name of his symptom, not of the symptom's cause. Whatever its origin, the disease was severe enough to reduce Gaddis's weight, again like Wyatt's, to seventy-nine pounds. Gaddis was subjected to a barrage of medical procedures and finally recovered. However, the treatment for this illness turned out to cause kidney dysfunction, which eventually rendered him unfit to serve in World War II.
Gaddis entered Harvard in 1941. His literary talents found an early outlet at the Harvard Lampoon, and he became its president in his senior year. Gaddis's sketches for the Lampoon showed flashes of the absurdist wit and fondness for both recondite knowledge and vulgarity that would later animate the great novels. One piece notes that wartime ship production has outpaced the store of admirals' names with which to christen them, and so future destroyers will end up bearing names like "Blatz" or "Boy Scout Troup No. 71 of Oakdale" (Peter Koenig 6). Another purports to translate for lazy French students Guillaume Ravenkills Putains Que J'ai Connues (Kuehl and Moore, In Recognition 4). On the whole, though, Gaddis's time at Harvard, its classrooms emptied by a war he could not join, seems to have reinforced a sense of isolation and singularity engendered earlier by the Connecticut boarding school and lengthy illness. Gaddis left Harvard in his senior year without graduating. An alcohol-inspired encounter with Cambridge police drew the attention of the local newspapers and a resulting invitation to withdraw from the dean of the college.
Gaddis found a congenial position at the New Yorker as a fact checker, work he later described as the ideal training for a writer. At the same time, he commenced initial sketches of what, ten years later, would become The Recognitions. Toward the end of 1947, he left New York to travel. He went to Panama City with hopes of working as a journalist, hopes soon dashed by his struggles with Spanish. Instead, he worked on the canal, sorting bolts and running cranes. The outbreak of war in Costa Rica led the adventurous young Gaddis to San Jose, and his account of his experience there merits quoting in full:
The fighting was out around Cartago, where I was handed over to a young captain named Madero and issued a banged-up Springfield that was stolen from me the same day. We leveled an airstrip out there for arms coming in from Guatemala. Life magazine showed up and rearranged the cartridge belt for an old French Hotchkiss over the blond sergeant's shoulders before they took his picture beside it, and when the arms came in we celebrated with a bottle of raw cane liquor and the sergeant took us home for dinner where I met the most beautiful girl I've ever seen and passed out at the table. When it was all over I stayed around San Jose for a while, and I never saw that sergeant's sister Maria Eugenia again, and finally came home [like Otto Pivner] on a Honduran banana boat. (Moore, Reader's Guide 304)
Gaddis spent the following summer living at his family's house on Long Island, traveling frequently into New York to prowl the bohemian haunts of Greenwich Village, despairing at the spectacle of immense talents and energies squandered for lack of a coherent purpose that could guide and organize them, vying for the affections of the eccentric poet and painter Sheri Martinelli, gathering material for what would become The Recognitions. He soon moved on to Spain, where he lived for two years. There he met Robert Graves and began serious exploration of the mythological underpinnings of his novel. Stints in Paris, North Africa, and back in New York followed. Finally, in 1952 he secured an advance for the novel and retreated to an isolated farmhouse to complete it over the winter. He also met Jack Kerouac during this period, who memorialized Gaddis as Harold Sand in The Subterraneans.
Harcourt, Brace published The Recognitions in 1955. Gaddis told an interviewer decades later that "I almost think that if I'd gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn't have been terribly surprised" (Abadi-Nagy 58). Famously, this was not the case. The initial reception of The Recognitions has frequently been described as a low point in American book reviewing, though it perhaps pales in comparison to the hostility directed at Moby-Dick or Pierre. Jack Green published a series of amusing analyses of and diatribes against the book's reviews in his underground newspaper newspaper; these have been collected as Fire the Bastards! Green catalogs such questionable judgments as "The outside world of modern American life, which is surely a legitimate subject for the novelist today, is described so imperfectly, [sic] and so superficially as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it" (33), "One flat statement about the book can be made with confidence: Entertainment is not a primary objective" (9), and "What is 'The Recognitions' about? Really, I have no idea" (5). Green notes that the few ardently hostile reviews are outweighed by the mass of noncommittal ones. Critical indifference proved sufficient to sink sales of The Recognitions. In a 1986 interview Malcolm Bradbury told Gaddis that he and his friends in graduate school in the 1950s had eagerly read the novel and considered it a work of major importance; Gaddis tartly observed that they must have been passing around a shared copy of the novel, based on his sales figures.
Shortly after the publication of his novel, Gaddis married Pat Black. The couple had two children, Sarah and Matthew. With a family to support and hopes for literary fame dashed, Gaddis began working in public relations, initially for the pharmaceutical company Pfizer International. Over the next decade, Gaddis held several corporate writing jobs. He wrote film scripts for the army until his growing concern about American involvement in Vietnam led him to resign. He worked for a year on a book for the Ford Foundation about television in the schools, but this project was never completed. He wrote speeches for corporate executives. At the same time, he was engaged in several writing projects which remained incomplete, but fragments of which surfaced in his later novels: Once in Antietam, a play about "Socrates in the US Civil War" (Kuehl and Moore, In Recognition 12), a work about automation and the arts presumably called Agape Agape and focusing upon the player piano, and a screenplay for a Western. Toward the end of the 1960s Gaddis resumed work on an novel about business which he had set aside some ten years before, the novel that would become J R. During the same period, his first marriage ended, and he married Judith Thompson; the couple moved to a Carpenter Gothic house in Piermont, New York.
Appreciation for Gaddis's achievement in The Recognitions had slowly built through the 1960s. The book was reissued in paperback by Meridian in 1962, and both sales and reviews were markedly stronger than in 1955. Gaddis received a grant from the American Institute for Arts and Letters in 1963. The poet Karl Shapiro planned an issue of the journal Prairie Schooner devoted entirely to The Recognitions, though this plan was scrapped after Shapiro quit his job over an unrelated censorship controversy. In the early 1970s The Recognitions gained increased attention from critics such as Tony Tanner and became the subject of several doctoral dissertations. The sixties and early seventies also saw a turn away from the midcentury's predominant social realism in American fiction. The dark comedy and metafictional pyrotechnics of authors like Pynchon, Vonnegut, Coover, and Barth created a context more hospitable to Gaddis's writing.
J R was published in 1975, twenty years after Gaddis's first novel. It won the National Book Award, judged by William Gass and Mary McCarthy, and garnered generally favorable critical attention; two prominent dissenters from this praise were George Steiner, who proclaimed the book "unreadable" in the New Yorker, and John Gardner, who predicted that Gaddis's fiction, diagnosed as the pessimistic productions of a crabbed spirit, was doomed to eventual oblivion. Although the press was more favorable than previously, J R's sales proved disappointing: "the promise was not fulfilled as I hoped it would be," Gaddis later said (Smith 40). He was able to leave behind his corporate writing assignments, however. As a visiting professor at Bard College, he taught a seminar on failure in American life and literature, with a prominent place given to that bete noire of The Recognitions, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. During this period, Gaddis's second marriage came to an end, and he met Muriel Oxenberg Murphy, a Manhattan curator, television producer, and socialite, to whom A Frolic of His Own is dedicated.
His financial security finally guaranteed by awards from the Guggenheim and MacArthur foundations, Gaddis spent the early eighties working on Carpenter's Gothic, a comparatively brief work (262 pages) by his standards. The form of Carpenter's Gothic, Gaddis told several interviewers, was an exercise he set for himself in obeying dramatic unities and revivifying stock plot elements: the mysterious stranger, the adulterous affair. The novel's content is more clearly tied to contemporary events than those of its predecessors; Gaddis parodies mercilessly the religious fundamentalists and fervid cold warriors of the Reagan Revolution. The novel, published in 1985, garnered lavish praise from Cynthia Ozick in a front page New York Times Book Review article. The Times's daily reviewer proclaimed it the first Gaddis book he could read with pleasure and in fact the first he could finish, though this had not stopped him from reviewing J R.
By the time A Frolic of His Own appeared in 1994, Gaddis's position as an elder statesman of American letters was secure. The novel was greeted with a torrent of praise and a second National Book Award, placing Gaddis in the rarefied company of Saul Bellow, John Updike, and Philip Roth. Mario Cuomo named Gaddis the official writer of New York State. A growing number of book-length studies of Gaddis's work appeared, led by Steven Moore's essential scholarship. Even though the heavy cigarette smoking featured throughout the novels had begun to take its toll on their creator, it seemed as though Gaddis had finally achieved the literary recognition that had eluded him through lonely decades of obscure toil. William Gaddis died of prostate cancer on 17 December 1998. At the time of his death, he was working on a manuscript entitled Agape Agape. This project, originally envisioned as a nonfiction work on automation and the arts, centering on a history of the player piano, eventually was transformed into a fictional monologue in the style of Thomas Bernhard. It is not clear presently when or if this manuscript will be published, although a forty-page translated excerpt was broadcast as Torshlusspanik (an allusion to J R) on German radio in 1999.
Of the critical work now extant on Gaddis's oeuvre, Moore's remains the best starting point. Moore has performed indispensable philological labors on all Gaddis's books. His Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's "The Recognitions" not only provides background on the book's countless allusions but also identifies the references on which Gaddis relied. Moore has performed similar studies for Gaddis's other novels; these annotated guides are available on the Internet at the Gaddis Annotations website. This site also contains Moore's exhaustive Gaddis bibliography. His William Gaddis is a useful thematic overview of Gaddis's writing up to Carpenter's Gothic. Finally, he and John Kuehl edited the seminal In Recognition of William Gaddis, the first collection of critical essays devoted to the author. Of particular interest in this collection are John Leverance's "Gaddis Anagnorisis," a rhetorical analysis of Gaddis's style as a pastiche of "seventeenth-century loose baroque prose" (Leverance 33), Steven Weisenburger's "Paper Currencies: Reading William Gaddis," an inventive discussion of the interplay of art and currency in The Recognitions and J R, and David Koenig's "The Writing of The Recognitions." This last essay is adapted from Koenig's dissertation "Splinters from the Yew Tree," a study of the structure and composition of The Recognitions. Koenig had access to Gaddis's notes and manuscripts in the preparation of his thesis, making this an invaluable exploration of Gaddis's creative process, although in a later interview with Kuehl and Moore, Gaddis disputes Koenig's interpretation that Harcourt, Brace insisted upon substantial cutting of the manuscript.
Critical interest in Gaddis expanded alongside the large-scale importation of French theory into American English departments. Since many of Gaddis's characteristic obsessions--counterfeiting, art and the cash nexus, the duplicity of language--mirror theoretical concerns, it is unsurprising that some sympathetic critics have read Gaddis as an illustration of theory, just as more conservative critics condemn Gaddis and theory as springing from the same decadent and obscurantist impulse. Carnival of Repetition, by John Johnston, and The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis, by Gregory Comnes, provide examples of both the benefits and the perils of such an approach. Both studies do illuminate Gaddis's work, but they pay short shrift to the aspects of Gaddis's fiction that resist theory's linguistic vertigo. While characters like Basil Valentine and Cates might delightedly agree that "there is nothing outside the text/system," it is less clear that Gaddis would endorse this conclusion. Christopher Knight's Hints and Guesses: William Gaddis's Fiction of Longing serves as a useful corrective to this theoretical turn, and its rich cultural contextualizations of the novels are an essential resource for any serious study of Gaddis.
Any attempt at an overview of Gaddis's work is bound to be incomplete, given its complexity and grand scale. Suitably caveated, though, we may begin exploring his work by examining three pairs of master concepts about which the novels incessantly inquire: tradition/innovation, realism/artifice, interpretation/misinterpretation. Each of these pairs (we can call them binary oppositions if we must) define a dimension of conceptual space which Gaddis explores both thematically and formally throughout his career. For example, the interplay of tradition and innovation is considered thematically through the omnipresence of technology and its effect upon art. This subject, the focus of both the unfinished monograph Agape Agape and Gaddis's first published work outside the Harvard Lampoon, "Stop Player. Joke No. 4," haunts all the novels. In a casual conversation between Wyatt and Esther in The Recognitions, we find "(a discussion: did the coming of the printing press corrupt? putting a price on authorship, originality)" (92). Oscar Crease's central struggle in A Frolic of His Own concerns the usurpation of his play by the movies; he only sees the movie itself when it is played on television, an even more technically sophisticated and commercially degraded medium. A stream of advertisements, radio commentary, and telephone conversation provides the sonic backdrop to all the novels.
But while Gaddis is clearly skeptical of enthusiasts for technological "progress," he is not a simple reactionary. It is, after all, surprising when he declares that J R is "in many ways a traditional novel" (qtd. in Knight 20). The Recognitions does reflect a nostalgia for the situation of the Flemish painters, who "found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so this.., and so in the painting every detail reflects ... God's concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then" (251). But this nostalgia is coupled with an awareness that the harmonious marriage of form and content available to the Flemish painter has ruptured beyond repair. As a result, an artist who, like Gaddis, refuses to settle for an art in service of the modern gods of self or commerce cannot simply retreat into imitation of received forms, the sort of unsuccessful strategy pursued by new formalism in poetry, for example. Such a strategy will result only in a counterfeit of the original impulse. Instead, Gaddis embraces innovative form, featuring liberal employment of parody, pastiche, collage, and distancing devices, in the service of such traditional, if contradictory, ends as the accurate representation of reality, the creation of an autonomous artifact, moral instruction, and entertainment. This tension between form and content, coupled with the incompatibilities discernible within the novels' guiding intentions, accounts for much of the mixed brio and pathos of Gaddis's creations.
Gaddis gives our second theme, the nature of reality, a similar dialectical treatment. His work cannot be described as simply realistic, although one can find in it painstakingly accurate descriptions of the minutiae of counterfeiting, high finance, and the law, as well as close observation of the conversational patterns of contemporary Americans. Neither is it pure artifice, turning its back upon the world to signify nothing but the bare wealth of its own intrinsic patterning, even if the novels both separately and as a whole are marked by intricate structures of conceptual rhyme and self-reference. Gaddis's approach to the question of realism might be most accurately described as naturalistic means put to non-naturalistic ends. Gaddis disliked the work of Vladimir Nabokov, but his writing has a closer affinity to Nabokov's than to that of many writers more commonly cited as Gaddisian. Both writers successfully convey a sense of a cosmos governed less by ironclad laws of causation than by cruel and whimsical relations of coincidence, paradox, and irony. But while their universes are arbitrary, their descriptions of it are not. Only through obsessively careful attention to the specific data of the actual world, Marianne Moore's real toads in imaginary gardens, can these two master conjurers create their poetic alternate realities, these worlds recognizably ours even when most askew.
Much of the difficulty in Gaddis's texts can in fact be traced to one or the other of these impulses. In the service of naturalism, the authorial presence, already attenuated in large swaths of The Recognitions, virtually disappears from the later novels. Almost all of the action of these novels is related through dialogue; what narration there is tends to description, if lyrical, of the natural world. Psychological motivations and causality must be inferred from the behavior presented to the reader. On the other hand, these patterns of motivation and causality are tangled in the extreme. Seemingly insignificant details can assume major importance through the mysterious operations of a chance essentially identified with fate through its "unswerving punctuality," as a phrase occurring in all four novels observes (R 9; J R 486; CG 223; F 50). These intricate plots, communicated as they are inferentially through dialogue and scattered observations, make intense demands upon a reader's concentration. Though Gaddis is avowedly a difficult author, he is rarely obscure; for the most part, close reading will yield the significance of the initially darkest passage.
A passage from J R may help clarify our consideration of the interplay between realism and artifice. The frustrated writers Tom Eigen and Jack Gibbs are talking with Beamish, the attorney for Triangle Products, a company in which their suicidal friend Schramm had large holdings:
--Jack damn it look take that off will you? and just let Mister Beamish leave if he ...
--Wait shut up Tom look, twelve million only get about nine after capital gains though right Beamish? Fixed assets seven and a half million look, somebody gives you two million one hundred thousand on that and you get eighty percent of the difference what you ask and what they pay back from taxes, two, three, four hundred wait, God damned many zeroes, million, four million three hundred twenty thousand, wait let me got a pencil?
--Jack God damn it will you just take that off and let Mister Beamish get ...
--No this ah, this sounds interesting Mister Eigen, I ...
--Getting all this down Beamish? Wait damn it ...
--Look now you've split it, what the hell did you ...
--Three million Beamish can't be right, inventory three million Beamish?
--Yes I'm afraid inventory control had been rather poor until ...
--Poor must have been God damned nonexistent, all right you take ninety percent of that two point seven million get eighty percent of the difference back on taxes for two hundred forty thousand add it up ... here Tom, drop in on Mrs Schramm give her these ... he'd reached under the bed, --still plenty of good wear in them ...
--What in hell is ...
--Add it up your asking price is four and a half million and four and a half back on taxes you've got nine all you'd get anyhow, write off some of those accounts receivable as bad debts and you might cut off another half a million, how's that. (395)
At first, such a passage presents serious difficulties for the reader, not the least of which is figuring out what is going on. Even disregarding the liberal use of direct address to indicate the direction of the conversation, however, it is fairly easy to identify the various speakers by their distinctive patterns of talk: the deferential tones of Beamish, the profane irascibility of Eigen, and the drunken bravado of Gibbs. The characters do tend to name each other more frequently than is normal. But this single concession to readability is far outweighed by the acute fidelity to real speech patterns demonstrated in the abrupt, lurching interruptions of self and other which only intermittently yield to coherent statements of complete thought. I find particularly sublime in this passage Gibbs's clipped "God damned many zeroes" as he calculates a possible tax write-off.
The details of that calculation offer the other realistic aspect of the scene. Like the other financial intricacies of J R, like the legal niceties of A Frolic of His Own, and like the historical, anthropological, and pharmacological arcana of The Recognitions, Gibbs's plan for selling Triangle Products successfully turns out to be factually accurate for the most part. Although the book value of the company is, Beamish assures the men, substantially over $12 million, the company has been difficult to unload, in part because its investments in tobacco and wallpaper appear to have been ill-timed. Gibbs argues that selling the company for four and a half million turns out, after taxes, to be equivalent to selling it for twelve million. Capital gains taxes reduce the twelve million to a net nine. Tax breaks on losses of $5.4 million on fixed assets and $300,000 on inventory, on the other hand, add an additional $4.56 million to a sale price of $4.5 million.
While J R documents late-twentieth-century financial and linguistic practices quite faithfully, it is also a densely plotted network of symbolic meanings. Throughout the book, several characters' clothes, initially definitive of identity, deteriorate and migrate from one character to another. This process represents one strand in the larger theme of entropy, a theme signaled by the name Gibbs (Willard Gibbs formulated the second law of thermodynamics (Abadi-Nagy 74)). When Tom Eigen rebukes Gibbs for rummaging through their dead friend's wardrobe, we are given one more fleeting moment in a sequence that also contains: the tear in Gibbs's pocket from the subway (243); the loss of Gibbs's shoe, loosened when its lace burst into flame, to the renegade taxi driver Hardy Suggs (272); Gibbs's, Vogel's, and Glancy's purchases from the thrift store to which Dan diCephalis's daughter has sold his suits for Brownie points (319); and Amy's gift to Gibbs of Joubert's old summer suit (484).
The scene, in its casual glimpse of this ceaseless downward spiral of clothing exchanges, exemplifies several of Gaddis's most characteristic artifices. First, as Johnston has detailed for The Recognitions, Gaddis's characters take part in elaborate systems of mapping and mirroring. Gibbs, for instance, by being caught up in the clothing exchange, is linked to Bast (whose shoe he borrows), diCephalis, and Joubert. And these characters all share deeper resemblances to Gibbs. Bast and diCephalis are also working on major projects, though Bast is able to continue working by reducing the scale of his musical work, and diCephalis enjoys institutional support for his conformist work on measurement. Gibbs is linked to Joubert through Amy, not just by being her lover, but by ultimately disappointing her.
While the intensity with which Gaddis pursues these systematic resemblances between his characters is distinctive, one might stop short of Johnston's assessment that "the proper name in Gaddis's fiction designates not so much a subject as something happening among a set of terms or elements" (139). It is rather the tension between the opposing perspectives of characters as psychologically motivated actors and as products and pawns of impersonal systems, discursive and otherwise, that Gaddis exploits. His work as a whole bears implicitly the message that the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of reconciling this tension is a, perhaps the, crucial issue for contemporary life. We must not delude ourselves about the possibilities for individual action in a world governed by vast corporate-military-governmental bureaucratic structures, by entropic natural law, and by the vagaries of chance. But at the same time, the realism that such a systemic view entails must not become acquiescence. A meaningful life is still possible, though by no means easy, as Gaddis's own example makes clear.
The clothing interchange also provides an example of the rich layers of interconnection which link all the novels. Through recurrences of character and incident, the three later novels in particular create an imaginary New York metropolitan area to rival Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County; such interconnections include the revelation that Christina Lutz (from Frolic) and Elizabeth Booth (from Carpenter's Gothic) were schoolmates. The novels are also thematically interconnected: not only by the large-scale themes of tradition, artifice, and interpretation, but by lower-level topics to which Gaddis returns repeatedly. So we could see the gradual deterioration of suits and shoes as they pass from character to character as one more illustration of Gresham's Law, the principle that bad money drives out good, a principle often mentioned in The Recognitions. Gaddis clearly believed that the law applied not only to its immediate economic context, in which people tend to hoard coinage of greater purity and circulate coinage of lesser, but to systems of exchange in general.
Finally, Tom Eigen and Jack Gibbs both serve as figures for Gaddis himself. Eigen has invested seven years in writing "one of the most important books in American literature" (417) according to Gall, himself another Gaddis stand-in. The book, however, was neglected by its publisher and attracted a small audience indeed. He supports himself and his family with corporate writing jobs and continues to work on a play about the Civil War; the fragment of the play we are given (262) turns up again in Oscar Crease's Civil War play Once in Antietam (Frolic 70). Gibbs, in turn, has labored unsuccessfully for years on an opus about mechanization in the arts entitled Agape Agape. Similar figures for the author abound in the other novels: besides Oscar Crease, these include Willie, the novelist working on an arcane novel intended for "a rather small audience" (373) in The Recognitions, as well as that novel's Otto, who shares Gaddis's youthful affectation of keeping his writing arm in a sling, and McCandless in Carpenter's Gothic. Is it paradoxical for an author so insistent upon the divide between writers' lives and work to inscribe himself repeatedly in that work? Gaddis, after all, in response to inquiries about his life, has cited Wyatt Gwyon's "What did you want of him that you didn't get from his work?" (Recognitions 95). But from this authorial reticence arises no inconsistency, just as the wealth of allusion in his work does not belie Gaddis's impatience with questions about influence. In each case he objects to the search for reductive explanations of the novels which seek to evade their essential fictionality, substituting putative knowledge of the work's "real sources" for the complex and elusive experience of the novels themselves.
The question of interpretation provides the final grand theme of Gaddis's writing. This issue gets its fullest exploration in A Frolic of His Own, which takes as its subject the arena in which interpretation has its most visible consequences in America, the legal system. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes appears as a guiding spirit for that book's Judge Crease, as Norbert Wiener does for Gibbs in J R. Holmes's pragmatic legal realism denied the recurrent fantasy that proper interpretations of the law, and in particular the American Constitution, can be reduced to an automatic divination of original intent, a legal fundamentalism that in contemporary times often allies itself with the biblical fundamentalism attacked in Carpenter's Gothic. Rather, Holmes viewed legal interpretation as an always provisional process of finding living meaning in the dead letter of the law by balancing the competing claims of intent, precedent, and present context: "as the law is administered by able and experienced men, who know too much to sacrifice good sense to a syllogism, it will be found that, when ancient rules maintain themselves..., new reasons more fitted to the time have been found for them, and that they gradually receive a new content, and at last a new form, from the grounds to which they have been transplanted" (qtd. in Knight 220). Interpretation, Gaddis and Holmes would agree, is a human necessity, always fraught with peril, for which, as Eliot said of criticism, there is no method but to be very intelligent. Perhaps the greatest danger is a rigid insistence upon one's own perspicacity.
Examples of the deceptive certainty which attends misinterpretation abound. More sophisticated versions of the biblical fundamentalists include the power brokers who believe they discern the real workings of the world, men like Recktall Brown and Jack Cates, and to a lesser degree Paul Booth. Supremely confident in their ability to read and direct events in their own interests, all suffer eventual falls from their heights of influence. The Recognitions is replete with comic misreadings and misunderstandings. Some are mere snapshots: "He's been talking for simply hours about the solids in Oochello. Wherever that is" (570). Some have weightier significance, as when "Dick" sends Reverend Gwyon's ashes in an oatmeal can to the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de la Otra Vez. And a cascade of misinterpretations accounts for the book's most hilarious scene, Otto's attempt to meet his father, Mr. Pivner, for the first time. Mr. Pivner tells Otto to wear a green scarf, so that Pivner can identify him. Unfortunately, Frank Sinisterra has given identical instructions to his partner in counterfeiting, whom he is meeting in the same hotel bar.
Another moment of misinterpretation in The Recognitions anticipates a set piece in Carpenter's Gothic. While visiting his lover, Esther, who is married to Wyatt Gwyon, Otto indicates a drawing on the wall of Wyatt's studio. It is, he asserts, a "magical diagram," led to this conclusion by an earlier conversation with Wyatt about alchemy. Esther corrects him, explaining that the diagram is only a study in perspective (129). Similarly, in Carpenter's Gothic, Paul Booth sketches out for his wife the web of influence which he expects to navigate. Later, the Mormon missionary-turned-spook Lester interprets the sketch as an illustration of the battle of Crecy (147). While McCandless, himself no slouch at interpretation, makes light of Lester's certainty ("Always get it right don't you, Lester"), Lester's misinterpretation does get a note of support from the narrator, who, forsaking his usual neutrality, likens the arrows on Paul's sketch to those that darkened "the skies over Crecy" (107). And Lester's reading carries a seed of truth, if we accept the apocalyptic intimations of the final pages: just as Crecy inaugurated the use of firepower, the forces sketched by Paul have brought about its apotheosis. Even if misinterpretation is ubiquitous, it may fortuitously lead us to the truth, just as the worthless painting concealed under a forged Titian may itself conceal a real Titian (Recognitions 450).
American novelists, a cranky, unreasonable bunch as befits an unreasonable and cranky country, continue to cobble together impossibly grand imitations of life in bicycle shops and ivy-eroded faculty offices long after the great American prospectus eclipsed the novel as a measure of youthful ambition. Even as this odd guild cherishes the novels of William Gaddis for models of crafty accomplishment, the least savvy among us must recognize with what consummate grace the fates have deigned to replace reality as we once knew it with a Gaddisian simulation. Sadly, Gaddis did not live to see missile strikes in Khartoum and impassioned exhortations for impeachment occasioned by the lingual exertions of a young Revlon PR rep, missed the instauration of the amiably dull scion of the Texas Bushes certified per curiam in the dead of night, never heard waitstaff and computer technicians angrily denounce the death tax which robs Rockefellers and Waltons alike of the fruits of their forebears' labors. But had Gaddis lingered to view the latest rigged trials of our heralded missile defense system, he might have repeated the questions with which he closed his 1981 piece for Harper's, "The Rush for Second Place": "Will anyone be left to sing the day's hit song, `Yes, We Have No Mananas'? Will anyone have been accountable? And will it, any of it, have been worth doing well?" (39).
The Recognitions (1955)
On the infrequent occasions when The Recognitions is discussed, it is often described as a novel about forgery, an observation as cogent as that Moby-Dick is about whaling. The central character, Wyatt Gwyon, is a talented painter who turns to forging Old Masters when his attempts at original painting prove unsuccessful. Gaddis began the novel as a parodic retelling of Faust, and the novel retains at its core the story of Wyatt's temptation by the Mephistophelean Recktall Brown, his ensuing mental and spiritual deterioration, and his eventual redemption. But like Melville's meditations on the whale ship Essex, Gaddis's parody of Faust grew into a labyrinth which encompassed a critique of contemporary society, a reflection on the nature of art, and an allegory of the ultimate nature of the cosmos.
The novel opens with the death of Wyatt's mother, Camilla. Crossing the Atlantic with her husband, a Calvinist minister, Camilla is taken ill and dies as the result of a botched appendectomy performed by the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, posing as a ship's doctor. Reverend Gwyon has Camilla buried in Spain and, after a period of travel, returns home to his young son. Gwyon is a distant father, preferring to pursue the studies in the pagan roots of Christianity, particularly Mithraism, which exert a growing power over his thought. Under the pious scrutiny of his Aunt May, Wyatt develops a talent for painting, exercised in copying European masterworks; in particular, Wyatt works on a likeness of the Hieronymus Bosch tabletop which Gwyon brought back from Europe. He does not finish this piece before leaving home to study for the ministry, just as he cannot finish a copy of his mother's portrait, or any original work. In the years that follow, Wyatt abandons his theological studies for art, rejects an offer from the unscrupulous art critic Cremer, who promises favorable reviews in return for a percentage of sales, and settles in New York with his wife, Esther, where he works as an architectural draftsman and restorer of paintings.
This atmosphere of promise unfulfilled is transformed upon the arrival of Recktall Brown, apparently conjured by Wyatt with a spell from the Grand Grimoire (Moore, Reader's Guide 126). Brown, a vulgar, mysterious businessman, convinces Wyatt to forge works by such Flemish masters as van der Goes and Bouts. They are abetted in this scheme by Basil Valentine, a renegade Jesuit, secret agent of Hungary, and connoisseur of art. Valentine publicly raises doubts about the authenticity of these works and then confirms their provenance. As models for these "rediscovered" paintings, Wyatt uses his own image, captured in a mirror, and the poet and heroin addict Esme. Esme, to whom Wyatt feels an increasing erotic attachment, is explicitly linked to Wyatt's lost mother; she serves as the model for the completion of Wyatt's copy of his mother's portrait, and in a final encounter, she dons Camilla's earrings before entering Wyatt's bed.
Wyatt's growing doubts about his enterprise with Brown and Valentine come to a head when he informs Valentine that he has kept fragments from the forgeries, in order to prove his authorship should the occasion arise. At Valentine's suggestion, Wyatt turns these fragments over to him before leaving New York. In a state of mental disorder, mirrored in a stream-of-consciousness narrative, Wyatt returns to his father's house, in a confused attempt to return to the ministry. The Reverend Gwyon, however, lost in arcane studies and schnapps, takes his son for an aspirant to the Mithraic priesthood, arrived to undergo the twelve trials of fortitude, including death at the hands of the Pater Patratus. After destroying the forged Bosch tabletop that he had substituted for the original years ago, Wyatt returns to New York. There, at Brown's Christmas party, he tries to expose their forgery ring, only to find that Valentine has destroyed the evidence left in his keeping. At the height of the party, Brown dies, falling down the stairs in a suit of armor he had donned as a frolic. The party quickly disperses, leaving only Valentine and Wyatt to squabble over the corpse. When Valentine tries to seduce him into a renewed partnership, Wyatt stabs him with Brown's penknife. He then flees to Europe, echoing his father's dictum: "Spain is a land to flee across" (429).
At the cemetery in San Zwingli, where his mother was buried decades ago, Wyatt encounters her killer, Frank Sinisterra. Sinisterra, who has taken the name "Yak" (the name of the quarry of Mr. Inononu, a Hungarian associate of Valentine's), has read that an Egyptologist named Kuvetli (Inononu disguised) seeks a lost mummy; he plans to fake a mummy using a body from the cemetery. Sinisterra is aware of his responsibility for Camilla's death, and, in recompense, he offers Wyatt a forged passport ("Stephan Asche") and enlists his aid in the mummy hoax. He keeps a watchful eye over "Stephan," fruitlessly trying to dissuade him from carousing with prostitutes, including the innocent Pastora. Frank makes a mummy from the body of a martyred little cross-eyed girl, mistakenly placed in Camilla's tomb; the girl's putative body, en route to the Vatican for beatification, had been remarked upon for its large size. Stephan and Frank travel together to Madrid, the mummy in tow; at the train station, separated momentarily from Frank, Stephan flees when he hears that the police are searching for a North American "falsificador."
He finds refuge at the Real Monasterio de Nuestra Senora de la Otra Vez ("Our Lady of the Second Time"), where his father had stayed years ago, and where the rapist-murderer of the little cross-eyed girl does penance as the janitor. Here he is discovered by Ludy, a relentlessly middlebrow novelist writing a piece on religion for a popular magazine (the style of Ludy's drafts suggest Henry Luce's Time). Confronted by Ludy, who took him for a thief, he introduces himself as Stephen (the name his mother intended for him). During their conversation, he explains his practice of "restoring" the monastery's paintings by scraping away their surfaces, while he and Ludy eat the grayish bread which the monks have unwittingly baked out of the Reverend Gwyon's remains. He tells Ludy of his adventures in North Africa, where he shot in self-defense Han, his companion from student days. In his last conversation with Ludy, Stephen, freed finally from his legacies of familial guilt and loss, makes Thoreauvian resolutions to "simplify" and "live deliberately," and then he is gone.
Though Wyatt is the central character of The Recognitions, this synopsis of his story cannot do justice to the book, considering that he figures only intermittently in the action of the book's middle five hundred pages, often disappearing for close to a hundred pages at a time. Aspects of Wyatt's situation are mirrored in the novel's myriad lesser characters, a circumstance signaled by the vanishing of Wyatt's name after the third chapter. Gaddis wrote during composition: "he [Wyatt], the no-hero or not-yet-hero, is what the other person might be: in Valentine's case, the self-who-can-do-more, the creative self if it had not been killed by the other, in Valentine's case, Reason, in Brown's case, material gain; in Otto's case, vanity and ambition; in Stanley's case, the Church; in Anselm's case, religion, &c. &c." (qtd. in Koenig 100). All of Wyatt's heroic and antiheroic actions take place against a vividly drawn background of artists, frauds, would-be artists, would-be frauds, and critics. These include Arthur/Anselm, the scat-obsessed writer who hides Tolstoy's Kingdom of God inside a girlie magazine, and who eventually castrates himself before joining a monastery; Stanley, the pious composer who perishes in the novel's final lines, as the cathedral at Fenestrula collapses around him; Max, the fraudulent painter who offers a torn workshirt as abstract expressionist canvas and publishes Rilke's first Duino Elegy as his own; Big Anna, the gay sunburned Boy Scout fancier; and Mr. Feddle, last seen holding a copy of Dostoyevski's Idiot, its dust jacket hand-lettered with his own name.
Of all these, the most central to the novel is Otto Pivner, Harvard graduate and aspiring playwright, introduced to us as he insinuates himself into Wyatt and Esther's domestic life. Otto cadges many of his lines, both for conversation and for his play, from Wyatt; Gaddis describes Gordon, the protagonist of Otto's play, as "a figure who resembled Otto at his better moments, and whom Otto greatly admired, [who] said things which Otto had overheard, or thought of too late to say" (121). After a brief affair with Esther, Otto heads for Central America. He returns from this adventure sporting a sling, which, he claims, he got during an outbreak of revolutionary violence. Like Wyatt, Otto has a troubled relation with his father; in fact, he has never met Mr. Pivner, a meek diabetic. A meeting arranged between them leads, through a hilarious series of mishaps, to Otto mistaking Frank Sinisterra for his father, being mistaken for Frank's counterfeit pusher, and thereby receiving $5,000 in counterfeit twenties. Distributing this unexpected largesse freely, Otto is responsible for Stanley's arrest. Shaken by this revelation, he meets Wyatt shortly after the scene at Brown's party. Wyatt, however, is interested only in the fate of his model Esme, committed to Bellevue after a suicide attempt. Otto abandons New York for Central America again. This time, he is caught up in a real revolution. In the tumult he is knocked unconscious; revived, he is amnesiac and states that his name is Gordon.
Even this woefully brief summary of Otto's career makes plain how large a role the idea of recurrence plays in The Recognitions. Although this concept is most evident in the theme of counterfeiting and forgery central to both the main plot and the embroidery of subplots, it is not restricted to these local themes. Rather, it comes to work as a principle at the level of plot and action itself. The dramatic structure of The Recognitions is essentially at war with itself. On the one hand, as the above synopsis displays, Wyatt's story follows a traditional narrative plan of linear progress; Wyatt succumbs to temptation, experiences various trials and setbacks culminating in the climax of Brown's death, and eventually finds a kind of redemption in his Thoreauvian resolve. But Gaddis's growing discomfort with this very traditional structure is indicated by his change in plan regarding its resolution. Initially, he planned "a final chapter in which Wyatt would be `at last redeemed through love' "(Koenig 36). By returning to the prostitute Pastora and their daughter, Wyatt would achieve narrative closure to rival anything offered by Oprah's book club. In turning away from this dream of dramatic fulfillment, Gaddis inevitably foregrounded the other principle at work throughout the book, that of static recurrence. The tension between these two principles is not a flaw in The Recognitions; rather, it is an essential strength of the book that it creates a space for the coexistence of the principles of progress and of stasis, each with their own truth, their own enduring grip upon the imagination.
An apparently trivial example of what I mean by the principle of static recurrence is provided by the joke of Carruthers and his horse. Moore helpfully provides the joke, which is never given in full, in his Reader's Guide: "two stuffy British majors are discussing the latest scandal: `Heard about Carruthers?' `No.' `Been drummed out of the army.' `God, what for?' `Caught in the act with a horse.' `Ghastly! Mare or stallion?' `Mare, of course--nothing queer about Carruthers!' "(Moore 97). While the joke has obvious thematic relevance, given the mingled homoeroticism and homosexual panic that suffuses the text, I am more interested here in the effect of its repetition. We encounter the joke at pages 66, 306, 631, and 941. These appearances give us glimpses of the joke's development: at 631, we learn that Carruthers had a mare, while at 941, we get the punchline--"Nothing queer about Carruthers." In a sense, then, the course of the joke through the length of the book gives us a narrative development. A joke is, after all, a model of narrative writ small. Stripped of such fripperies as symbolism, mood, and character development, a successful joke gives rise to the pure rising tension and sudden release which narratologists have long discerned at the heart of plot. But the periodic recurrence of the joke over the course of this immense, insanely complex novel produces a different effect: not one of progressive discovery, but of familiar recognition. This recognition in turn gives rise to a disturbing and uncanny sense of ennui. One does not admire the tellers of the joke for their wit. Instead, they appear almost like automata, pointlessly shifting about chits in an endless linguistic exchange. As Ed Feasly puts it, "finally we're all just parodies of each other" (614). Like Rilke's angel, Carruthers hovers changelessly over this absurd social panorama, ceaselessly pursuing his equestrian delights.
This may seem an overinterpretation of what is, after all, a minor joke in the vast framework of the novel. But its pattern, in which apparent action is transformed by repetition into stasis, recurs at all levels of the novel. Verbal echoes are omnipresent, both within characters' speech and in the narration: for instance, the critic's inevitable answer to "Did you read it?" "No, but I know the son of a bitch who wrote it" (179, 936); or the duplicate descriptions of San Zwingli, which appears "suddenly, at a curve in the railway, a town built of rocks against rock, streets pouring down between houses like the beds of unused rivers" (16, 776). Actions in the novel also frequently mirror earlier actions. All the cocktail parties end in violence: Herschel striking Hannah, the critic slugging Anselm, Wyatt stabbing Valentine. Conversations between Otto and Esther parodically replicate earlier conversations between Wyatt and Esther (147-48, 619-22). Finally, Wyatt's project of forgery is intended as an attempt to replicate a lost Golden Age. By abandoning the contemporary demand for originality and obsessively reconstructing the material processes of the old masters, Wyatt hopes to recover a spiritual purity to which they had access. If this attempt is determined to fail by the inherent vice of his materials and models, necessarily tainted with timeliness, it is also continuous with his father's effort to reconstruct through scholarship the primordial roots of monotheism underneath the accretions of Christianity.
This unmasking of apparent activity as mere repetitive status lies at the heart of the novel's theory of history. The characters who, unlike Max, reject the bad faith of our time universally suffer from malaise. Though the patent roots of this malaise vary from individual to individual, Gaddis implicitly diagnoses a single latent root: modern historicist self-consciousness. Historically naive eras could experience the narratives which gave meaning and direction to life as necessary and progressive. But in our contemporary plight, we are doomed to see all narratives, and hence all values, as contingent; our lives come to seem stale repetitions of earlier forms, once vital, now drained of meaning. The figures of Gwyon, Wyatt, and Stanley warn us that simple nostalgia is no remedy for this problem. We cannot choose to live in simpler times. In fact, as Valentine reminds Wyatt, even our impression of these times as simpler is a sentimental fantasy: "your precious van Eyck, do you think he didn't live up to his neck in a loud vulgar court? In a world where everything was done for the same reasons everything's done now? for vanity and avarice and lust?" (689-90). Transcendental meaning was never easily won; and to the extent that earlier eras did afford traditions within which such meaning could be found, these traditions cannot be reconstructed through individual fiat.
Were those first reviewers justified, then, who criticized Gaddis for his harsh, despairing view of life? Put aside the question whether "heart-warming" is the highest term of critical praise, whether James Herriot beats King Lear Gaddis's work does offer hope. While Gaddis himself located the hopefulness in his work in the destinies of his characters ("Wyatt has been part of the corruption, but at the end he says we must simply live it through and make a fresh start" (Abadi-Nagy 64)), I think it is more usefully discerned in the accomplishments of the novels themselves. It is often remarked that Gaddis's novels are littered with failed artistic ambitions. Too often the quick conclusion is drawn that Gaddis himself recommends something like Wyatt's retreat into antiart, scraping away the painted surfaces, or Bast's gradual diminution of his musical project, as though Gaddis failed to realize that the massive scale and ambitions of his own novels contradicted their imputed message. The real message of the novels is that literature remains a living tradition, within which the most extravagant victories may still be won, provided one steers clear of the traps that ensnare the likes of Wyatt and Bast. Bast is done in by an inability to focus on his project and recognize the dangers of his entanglements with J R and Crawley. Wyatt, on the other hand, like Stanley, suffers from the misguided character of his devotion to art. Their reverence for art tempts them into cathedrals whose foundations can no longer be trusted. Pure irreverence is no solution, either, unless one takes Max as one's model. It is an irreverent reverence for tradition, as epitomized by Gaddis himself, that alone can clear a space within which real work might still be done. The dialectic nature of this stance is given concrete form in the brief self-portrait of Willie carrying "two books, one titled, The Destruction of the Philosophers, the other The Destruction of the Destruction" (734).
In no aspect of the novel is this spirit of serious play more apparent than in its allusiveness. The overwhelming density of allusion in the novel perturbed many initial reviewers; one typically petulant critic wrote in the Hudson Review: "as we press on through Mr. Gaddis's heavy artillery fire (I counted eight different languages en route, and there may well have been more) we begin to suspect that his contempt may extend to all those who know less than he" (Green 55). Specious though such a comment may be, it is perhaps understandable when one encounters a typical catalog of Reverend Gwyon's library: "On the desk before him, piled and spread broadcast about his study, lay Euripides and Saint Teresa of Avila, Denys the Carthusian, Plutarch, Clement of Rome, and the Apocryphal New Testament, copies of Osservatore Romano and a tract from the Society for the Prevention of Premature Burial. De Contemptu Mundi, Historia di tutte l'Heresie, Christ and the Powers of Darkness, De Locis Infestis, Libellus de Terrificationibus Nocturnisque Tumultibus, Malay Magic, Religions de Peuples Noncivilises, Le Culte de Dionysos en Attique, Philosophumena, Lexikon der Mythologie" (23). A daunting list. But the conclusion that Gaddis is merely showing off reveals more about the intellectual insecurities of critics than about The Recognitions. Allusion in fact serves two distinct functions in the novel. By now, it should be no surprise that these functions are at cross-purposes, nor that I believe this to be a benefit.
On the one hand, Gaddis deeply admired Eliot (Koenig reports that he originally planned to bury a line-by-line parody of Four Quartets in The Recognitions (67)), and his allusive practice owes much to Eliot's and Pound's modernist collage. A framework of key sources underlies much of the novel. As compiled by Moore, these include Faust, Dante, medieval alchemy, and Fraser's Golden Bough. As in Pound and Eliot the invocation of these sources serves both to indicate the eternal recurrence of certain aspects of human experience and to demonstrate the debased form that that experience takes in modernity. It is not far at all from Eliot's Marvell parody, "But at my back from time to time I hear/The sound of horns and motors, which shall bring/Sweeney to Mrs. Porter in the spring" (43) to Gaddis's echo of Dante: "He stood numb, surrounded by ice, among the frozen giants of buildings, as though to dare a step would send him head over heels in a night with neither hope of morning to come nor heaven's betrayal of its triumphal presence, in the stars" (699).
But side by side with this nostalgic, reverential function, allusion in The Recognitions also has an excessive, comic side. One ought to read the catalog of Gwyon's books not as a challenge, but as something of a joke. A similar jocular spirit animates the Hungarian quotations, which Gaddis picked up from patrons at a Hungarian restaurant. While this excessive display of erudition for humorous purposes might strike one as typically postmodern, it is in fact part of a venerable humanist literary tradition. Reverend Gwyon's library would not be out of place in Rabelais, Montaigne, or Shakespeare, who was not just showing off when he had Holofernes say:
Fauste, precor gelida quando pecus omne sub umbra Ruminat,--and so forth. Ah, good old Mantuan! I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice; Venechia, Venechia, Chi non te vede, non te pretia. Old Mantuan, old Mantuan! who understandeth thee not, loves thee not. Ut, re, sol, la, mi, fa. (Love's Labour's Lost 4.2.95-100)
J R (1975)
J R is Gaddis's great work. While The Recognitions is a virtuoso and deeply intelligent novel, J R surpasses it in its rigorously disciplined form, its subtle emotional palette, and its unrelenting diagnosis and critique of the infernal state of contemporary America. Gaddis's later novels, each impressive in its own right, together form an extended coda to J R, developing its themes and formal innovations. In this novel Gaddis presciently answers Tom Wolfe's much-heralded call for novelists to return to social documentation. Instead of peddling warmed-over magazine sociology dressed up with typographical tricks, however, Gaddis offers genuine and passionate insight into the nature of power and control in this country. J R is also among the most exuberantly inventive works in our literature. Its continuing neglect is a cultural crime.
Unlike The Recognitions, J R has no clear central character. The novel tracks several distinct story lines, all linked through overlapping characters, locations, and themes. It takes its title from J R Vansant, a sixth grader living in Massapequa, Long Island. Neglected by his parents, J R attends a typical American middle school, the administrators of which are far more concerned with keeping order and implementing the latest technological and curricular wizardry than with educating their students; as the superintendent observes, "all we've got left to protect here is a system that's set up to promote the meanest possibilities in human nature and make them look good" (463).
J R begins his self-education on a field trip to New York, where his social studies class is buying a share in Diamond Cable, in order to introduce the students to the world of "corporate democracy" (49). Diamond Cable is a subsidiary of the conglomerate Typhon International, which is controlled by the family of J R's teacher, Amy Joubert. During the field trip, J R and a friend visit the bathroom and overhear Joubert's uncle, John Cares, talking to her father, Monty Moncrieff, about a proposed tender of Diamond stock set up to allow Cares a substantial tax write-off. Discovering the children, Cates imparts the secret of leverage, advising them that "the trick's to get other people's money to work for you" (109).
J R takes this lesson to heart. He initiates a stockholder suit against Diamond Cable. By borrowing against the proceeds of his settlement, he buys nine thousand gross of plastic forks from the navy, which he sells to the army at a profit. Buying up discounted bonds, he takes over the dilapidated Eagle Mills. Even though the textile company can't turn a profit, he realizes that its pension fund can serve as collateral for more investments, while pieces of the company can be sold off at a loss and capital investments depreciated at an accelerated rate, yielding substantial tax credits. J R rapidly builds a vast commercial empire, with the reluctant aid of the composer and erstwhile music teacher Edward Bast and an expanding set of dubious agents, none of whom realizes that the voice on the other end of the phone is that of a sixth grader disguised with a ragged handkerchief. At their height, J R's holdings include Ray-X, a toy company diversified into weapons and thermocouples, the women's magazine Her (soon redubbed She), integrated chains of nursing and funeral homes, the Nobili pharmaceutical company, and the Alsaka Development Corporation, its name taken from J R's misspelling of Alaska.
The empire's foundations are shaky, though. The lawyer Beamish deplores its "near frenzied emphasis on the letter of the law at the expense of, in fact too frequently in direct defiance of its spirit," with corporate activities "preponderately inspired by such negative considerations as depreciation and depletion allowances, loss carryforwards tax write-offs and similar ..." (525). Shortly after Bast's disastrous trip to Wisconsin to donate major household appliances to a Native American reservation, unfortunately not yet wired for electricity, during which Bast, in a rented Indian costume, delivers an inflammatory PR statement and touches off a riot, the entire scheme begins to unravel. Federal agents converge on J R Corporation's 96th Street center of operations. Narrowly escaping, Bast and J R share a limousine down Park Avenue, during which J R confides, "I just, always, I mean I always thought this is what it will be like you and, and me riding in this here big limousine down, down this, this here big street ..." (636). The SEC bars J R and Bast from future involvement with publicly traded companies, but at the novel's end, J R is breathlessly explaining his new plans for entry into public life into an unattended telephone.
Edward Bast's role is not limited to that of J R's representative. The illegitimate son of the composer James Bast, he initially teaches music at J R's school, where he is directing a presentation of Wagner's Rhinegold. J R plays the part of Alberich the dwarf in this production, until he absconds with a bag of money standing in for the Rhinegold. Bast soon gives up this job after quoting salacious passages from Mozart's letters over the school television system (though Representative Pecci objects less to Bast's reference to "believing and shitting" than to his mention of "superstitious Italians" (42, 40)). This setback is no tragedy, though, since Bast's teaching job is merely in service of his composing. Initially, like his father, Bast plans to write an opera. Through the course of the novel, this ambition progressively declines, first to an oratorio, then to a suite for small orchestra, and finally to a piece for unaccompanied cello.
Bast's financial activities gradually overwhelm his artistic ambitions, even though these activities rarely pay off as promised. His work for J R, ill-defined and undertaken reluctantly, yields payment only when he cashes in his stock options, a move that leads to his investigation for insider trading. He is also commissioned to write a film score by the idiosyncratic broker Crawley. Bast will provide "zebra music" to back Stamper and Crawley's film of African wildlife, intended to drum up support for stocking American parks with big game. In this endeavor as well, Bast finds getting paid difficult, because Crawley expects him to provide not only a score, but a full recording, the cost of which Bast must bear himself. As a third job, Bast begins monitoring the radio for ASCAP, ensuring that no songs are played without royalties. J R gives him a small transistor radio with an earpiece, and, as Gibbs says, "he composes with that thing playing in his ear all the time" (568).
Bast's frenetic activity eventually puts him in the hospital with double pneumonia, nervous exhaustion, and malnutrition. In the hospital Bast completes his piece for solo cello (using a purple crayon). Bast initially attempts to destroy his composition, feeling that it represents a selfish devotion to an ideal with which he does not even identify. This outburst comes in the wake of his roommate Duncan's death and his learning from the lawyer Coen that his elderly aunts' house has been taken away, his aunts consigned to an Indiana nursing home. But after a confrontation with his cousin and half-sister Stella Angel, in which she confirms that James Bast is his father and informs him that their mother Nellie killed herself, Bast rescues his manuscript from the wastebasket. Leaving with his cousin, who has consolidated her hold on the family player piano business, Bast resolves to live on his own terms: "I've failed enough at other people's things I've done enough other people's damage from now on I'm just going to do my own, from now on I'm going to fail at my own" (718).
Bast is aided in his musical and business endeavors by Jack Gibbs, a fellow teacher, who lends him a key to an apartment on 96th Street in Manhattan. This apartment, the setting for the longest unbroken sections of the novel, emblematizes the novel's descent into chaos. Amid its gushing faucets and unhinged doors, a torrent of characters--including Bast, Gibbs, Tom Eigen, Beamish, the foul-mouthed Rhoda, her musician friend Al, and assorted delivery persons and federal agents--struggles vainly to maintain control, slowly ceding the advantage to the onslaught of mail solicitations, self-help packages, and unrealized intentions. Hidden in the oven is Gibbs's unfinished opus, Agape Agape, the density of which may be observed in its opening phrase (following the epigraph: "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best" (288)): "Posted in a Leadville saloon, this appeal caught the eye of art in its ripe procession of one through the new frontier of the 'eighties where the frail human element still abounded even in the arts as Oscar Wilde alone, observing the mortality in that place is marvelous, passed on unrankled by that phrase doing his best, redolent of chance and the very immanence of human failure that century of progress was consecrated to wiping out once for all" (289).
Gibbs, who initially appears instructing a class on the concept of entropy, renews his commitment to completing this study of art and mechanization through his tenderly observed love affair with Amy Joubert. The affair is consummated some time after the bitterly funny night on which Gibbs and Eigen share recriminations about their failed marriages and Gibbs invents "Split, the Divorce Game." Though Gibbs attempts to finish the book to prove his worthiness to Amy, he finds himself unable to do it; the project, diabolically complex to begin with, cannot be successfully taken up again after a lapse of years. Convinced that he has leukemia, later revealed as a misdiagnosis, Gibbs avoids Amy, who submits to a loveless union with the lawyer Cutler. Gibbs sits for his portrait at the book's close, enjoying an ambiguous freedom after abandoning Amy, Agape Agape, and his pseudonymous identity as Grynszpan.
Patrick O'Donnell has noted that the complexity of J R is most fundamentally located not at the level of plot, theme, or character, but "in the twinned questions of 'who is speaking?' and `what is s/he talking about?' "(3). The Recognitions demands close attention to the details of its multiple plots, but frequent authorial intervention allows the reader to determine without excessive difficulty the identity of characters and the location of scenes. In J R, as though Gaddis generalized from Wyatt's namelessness in the earlier novel, pinning down the specifics of any situation becomes a trying task. This difficulty is signaled from the beginning. The novel announces its grand theme in its first words: "Money ...? in a voice that rustled" (3), an opening that will be echoed in Frolic's "Justice?--You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law" (13). But only after several lines can the reader see that this line is spoken by Edward Bast's Aunt Anne in conversation with the lawyer Coen.
This initial scene between Coen and the Bast aunts provides a stylistic and thematic model for the entire book. Their conversation proceeds in associative bursts: the aunts' continual rambling from the focus of his questions frustrates Coen, while his use of technical legal expressions only serves to confuse them further, as when he describes Edward as an infant. During the conversation, such crucial topics as the struggle between commerce and art and the control of corporate operations recurrently rear their heads, while Coen's mishaps (he loses a button and breaks his glasses) anticipate later, larger disasters. Following this scene, the first in a series of narrative transitions effects a cinematic pan from the Bast home to the exterior of Whiteback's bank, where we are introduced immediately to Bast, Joubert, Vogel, and Whiteback. But only after scrupulously attending to a hundred pages or so of initially inscrutable dialogue does the reader begin to comprehend the web of interrelations that thread through the disparate locations of school, corporate headquarters, family home, and artist's studio.
J R foregrounds the inferential work which is the basis of reading. Conventional narrative operates by raising questions which the reader expects the author to resolve in time: Who was the third man carrying Harry Lime's body? Will Henchard be reunited with the wife he sold off? An author creates narrative pleasure by creating and confounding expectations, which can arise only if the reader is inferentially engaged with the story. In J R, as in his later novels, Gaddis inscribes this essential mystery of narrative into every moment. Not only is the identity of the mysterious stranger or the nefarious mole in question; so is the identity of every speaker, and the import of his or her words. This puzzling aspect of Gaddis's work, akin to impulses in such writers as Nabokov and Perec, is exemplified in the novel's one-sided telephone calls. Here, for example, is Bast on the phone with J R:
No all right, all right! But listen this list of telephone messages Virginia had waiting for me about all kinds of ... no that broker Crawley about some drug company with an Italian name and something called Endo whatever it is, somebody named Wiles had been trying to reach me about a string of nursing homes and a lawyer named wait a minute, here it is Beaton who wants to discuss drilling rights on those Alberta and Western right of ... what? No but listen he's a lawyer and Piscator's a lawyer, let him discuss it with ... well when he gets back then and you and Piscator can get out there and play to ... to see who ...? No, no I haven't been up to the hospital today and I ... look I don't know if he's still whispering his trade secret to the nurse and I can't sit beside his bed day and night to ... no I don't have a map right here! and I ... Well of course the brewery is on a river but I don't know where it is in relation to these Ace mining claims or the Alberta and a what? You meant to tell me about what Indian reservation right in between what ... (381)
The rise and fall of J R Corporation is charted in a series of these one-sided calls. Only an observant reader will understand that Bast here refers to Nobili (the "Italian-named" pharmaceutical company), that J R asks him to visit Mr. Wonder, the brewer, in the hospital, to ensure that he doesn't surrender the secret of his beer (cobalt) to the nurse, and that functionaries of Typhon International (Wiles and Beaton) have begun to take an interest in J R.
While O'Donnell sees these conversations as "radically destabilizing," emblematizing in their fragmentation Baudrillard's notion of the hyperreal, such a reading ignores their very readability. They may be difficult to interpret, but Gaddis takes care to give the reader sufficient information to allow eventual interpretation. The conversations, like the novel as a whole, therefore represent the inverse of the advertising slogans and business jargon that permeate its world, as well as our own. Advertising slogans promise a readability they can never fulfill: "you deserve a break today," on its face a simple, friendly invitation, is in fact the end product of a sophisticated and expensive process, the purpose of which is to engender unlimited desire, a system from within which a "break" is theoretically inconceivable. Business jargon, in a converse process, conceals the most banal and brutal ends under a pseudoscientific and unreadable veneer, as demonstrated in Whiteback's persistent correction of utilize for use, or in contemporary apologetics for the New Economy. Such practices, I gather, are what Baudrillard gestures at with phrases like "gravity and any fixed point must disappear" (qtd. in O'Donnell 1).
In contrast, Gaddis's novel actually makes good on what it promises. It will deliver its message to its rightful recipient, in return for an investment of time, energy, and intelligence. Its decentered surface to the contrary, the novel even follows a roughly conventional narrative pattern, introducing myriad plot threads over the first hundred pages, bringing them into increasing internal and mutual conflict as J R's company mushrooms from its humble beginnings, culminating in multiple climaxes through the extended section set in the 96th Street apartment, and yielding a denouement during Bast's hospital stay. And if its world demands strenuous effort to interpret, if its gaps must be filled in not through willful readerly fiat but by the patient application of analytic imagination, it resembles in these respects above all others the world in which we dwell. Forcing us to recognize the perils of glib platitudes, whether of certainty or despair, may be Gaddis's supreme achievement.
Like The Recognitions, J R is not encyclopedic solely in its investigation of the subject matter of business. It also contains a dazzling array of humorous modes and devices. A brief list of examples encompasses double entendre, scatology, puns, comic characters, and comic confusion: 1) Davidoff explains "he wants a look at what Skinner's got laid out this way Mister Duncan, gal I brought along from Diamond topflight track record in curriculum management in here spreading out this whole textbook line," while Skinner has sex with Miss Flesch in the next room (517). 2) After Nora diCephalis retrieves the penny she had fed to her brother Donny:
--Daddy, I got your penny back. Here ...
--A rag, I said, don't wipe it on your dress! And look at my sandals! she got past them, rounded the corner and shook the bathroom door. --Dad! Are you in there? A rude sound responded promptly from within. (57)
3) Brisboy the Texan funeral home director tells Bast, "when he was describing the entire package idea on the telephone as vertical integration Mother was simply aghast she thought he meant darkies and whites stacked in layers like a giant Dubos torta" (547). 4) Though Crawley, the obsessive big-game hunter, Vogel the lecherous driver-ed instructor, and Ann diCephalis the artistic virago all have moments in the spotlight, they are eclipsed by the sublimely incompetent Dave Davidoff; he plans Bast's trip to the Wisconsin reservation: "No most of them never seen one had to have Abercrombie's send out some top archery types to show them how, even had to throw in some topflight canoeists so they'd know which end of the paddle to put in the ... No it's Brook Yellow Brook not stream, Charley Yellow Brook and his ... must have seen a first speech draft joke the Boss [J R] came up with about a book called The Yellow Stream by I P Daily thought it might break the ice but ..." (521). 5) Whiteback tells Amy, "right behind you there Mrs Joubert, some pictures just came in I knew you'd want to see right behind you under those clippings somewhere yes in fact you may want to usel, utilize them on the televised portion of your lesson" (450), unaware that the photos are in fact pornographic pictures which Major Hyde's son has received in the mail.
These examples demonstrate not only the range of humorous incident in the book, but the currents of racism and misogyny that underlie much of the humor. Racial difference gives rise to the running jokes of Bast's mistakenly darkened photo in the Union Falls Weekly Messenger and Davidoff's intentionally darkened photo of the visiting schoolchildren in the Typhon Annual Report; it lies behind the reports of rioting Indians and routed Africans, supplied with toy guns by Ray-X, at the book's close. Sexual humor is omnipresent, from Ann's demand that Dan take her in front of the children for educational purposes to the monstrous Zona Selk's comparison of Ann to Amy/Emily Joubert:
--It's not Emily, I just told you that it's some revolting nurse I said get me some crackers, most disgusting magazine I've ever seen tummy bulge sagging tits laxatives this revolting creature doing yogi tricks in a body stocking here show him this Beaton. There, does that look like Emily?
--Here sir it's, there's a surface resemblance but I believe this is the wife of the parent company's personnel manager the man who's just been lost in, who's taking part in this Teletravel trial apparently he used his influence to get her this position with an aid program to Ind ...
--Which position show him the top one Beaton show him el hedouli, can you see Emily doing that? Ninny wouldn't lift her leg for the king of ... (707)
One need not subscribe to a representational Puritanism to find these currents troubling. To be sure, Gaddis's work contains a strong antiracist critique: it is in part the racist attitudes of Zona, Crawley, and Hyde that mark them as thugs and boors. More importantly, both JR and Carpenter's Gothic, as we shall see, undertake a structural critique of contemporary neocolonialist politics and economics, in which Africans and Native Americans represent only obstacles to the full exploitation of natural resources. This critique is encapsulated in the bitter image conjured by Beaton at J R's close: "those who might attempt to stay on the reservation land would have to carry water some distance on their backs to irrigate the corn" (705). Although Gaddis's writing reflects a more pervasive ambivalence toward women, the crude misogyny of characters like Eigen and Vogel is certainly not depicted charitably. And what separates a comic foil like Ann from a sympathetic character like Rhoda is not sexual appetite; Ann is ridiculous because of her pretensions and cruelty, not because she, like Rhoda, flouts conventionality. Still, by exploiting attitudes for comic effect which he critiques elsewhere, Gaddis creates an uncomfortable excess of meaning. A reader like me who finds the image of the decimated Malawi troops armed with toy guns simultaneously comic, horrible, and ethically questionable is forced to confront his own complicity with the systems whose operation Gaddis chronicles so effectively. Unlike J R, we cannot excuse ourselves by claiming, "see like some of these words I didn't have them yet" (651).
Carpenter's Gothic (1985)
Brief by Gaddis's standards, Carpenter's Gothic represents less an extension of J R than its distillation. Not only do the novels resemble each other in form and theme; even their main characters share distinct similarities: Elizabeth Booth and Amy Joubert, Paul Booth and Dave Davidoff, McCandless and Gibbs. The largest departure comes in Gaddis's adherence to formal unities of time and place. Strictly conforming to this restriction in letter, while violating it outrageously in spirit, Gaddis focuses attention on the continuities and ruptures between his work and literary tradition.
The story takes place entirely on the property of a Carpenter Gothic house in the Hudson River Valley. The house, owned by the geologist McCandless, is rented by an embittered Vietnam veteran, Paul Booth, and his wife Elizabeth, the heiress to the mining concern Vorakers Consolidated Reserve. Paul, who has previously worked as an intermediary between VCR and corrupt African governments ("Paul the bagman" as Elizabeth's brother Billy calls him), is trying to establish himself as a media consultant. His main client is the Reverend Elton Ude, a Southern fundamentalist preacher hoping to expand his radio ministry in the hospitable climate of the early 1980s. This plan is complicated when Ude accidentally drowns a young boy, Wayne Fickert, and an old man during a baptism in the Pee Dee River.
Paul and Elizabeth's marriage is troubled. A heavy drinker who violently forces his whiskey bottle against the rim of the glass, leaving ubiquitous chips, Paul has left bruises on Elizabeth's shoulder. The rare conversation between them not devoted to Paul's grandiose scheming often focuses on their twin lawsuits, for Liz's physical pain and Paul's loss of consortium, based upon Liz's plane crash four years earlier. Liz retreats from this unhappy situation into an aimless routine of doctor appointments, incomplete projects, and telephone conversations. Her dissatisfaction with her way of life is demonstrated by the lies and exaggerations she tells her friend Edie: "I haven't written a word I haven't even looked at it I've, I've been so busy with, with people here a cancer charity and I'm, I mean I've even started Spanish lessons I just started them, just now when you called, I'd just come back when you called ..." (35).
The arrival of McCandless alters this dismal domestic scene irreversibly. Upon his arrival at the house to retrieve papers from his locked office, he makes a strong impression upon Elizabeth, who immediately alters her unfinished novel to feature a "man somewhat older, a man with another life already behind him, another woman, even a wife somewhere" (64). And McCandless has several lives and wives already behind him. During a confrontation with his former associate Lester, McCandless reconstructs his singular resume. He has worked for the CIA in Africa, along with Lester and their station chief Cruikshank, now employed by VCR. While in Africa he carried out geological studies searching for gold near a mission station; Lester and his current employers want McCandless's research notes from these assays. Since his return to the United States, McCandless has written a roman a clef about his African experience, in which the protagonist Frank Kinkead, like Wyatt Gwyon, resolves to live deliberately. He has also written science textbooks. This work led to a confrontation with Rev. Ude's followers in the Southern town of Smackover, in which McCandless defended the theory of evolution against Ude's creation science.
Elizabeth sleeps with McCandless, but for all his worldliness and right intentions, he too disappoints her. Unable to relinquish his pose of amused detachment, a detachment signaled most clearly when he continues to call her "Mrs Booth," he soon ignores her when he finds a more willing student of his apocalyptic theories of history: her brother Billy, a classmate of McCandless's son with a taste for Eastern religion. McCandless entices Billy Vorakers with a diagnosis of the darkening global situation based upon the rise of fundamentalist visions of apocalypse in America and violent instability fueled by neocolonialism in Africa.
This vision meshes perfectly with Paul's activities. Embroiled in a growing atmosphere of violence, epitomized in an encounter with a mugger whom he kills, Paul tries to defend Ude from a welter of charges, ranging from impurities in the water he bottles to liability for the suicide of a boy he counseled. Simultaneously, Paul participates in an intensification of Ude's hysterical rhetoric: "you are witnessing the most satanic and unconstitutional attack on the very fundamentals of American freedom, the dark beginnings of a Marxist dictator state casting the shadow of the powers of darkness over the entire world pray for America" (204).
The scenario which McCandless spins out for Africa comes to pass. Ude, sponsor of a growing African ministry, files a claim for mineral rights to the tract which McCandless had surveyed. McCandless predicts: "Paul thinks he's been using Ude but Ude's been using him and Lester's been using them both because he wrote the scenario, set up that site get a few missionaries killed and then that plane gets shot down" (236); on the plane was Billy Vorakers, in an idealistic attempt to avert war, along with Senator Teakell, an associate of Paul and Ude's. It is difficult to say who ultimately is the beneficiary of these machinations. Although McCandless believes that the powers involved ultimately desire a reestablishment of colonialism, in fact the conflict appears more likely to spark a global conflagration in the service of Ude's millenarian ends, as the headlines in the background of the book's closing make clear: "10K `Demo' Bomb Off Africa Coast: War News, Pics Page 2"; "Prez: Time to Draw Line Against Evil Empire" (259). While such nightmare scenarios may now seem hyperbolic, at the time the novel was written, fear of nuclear war was an omnipresent fact, a facet of the Age of Reagan often erased in the current revisionism.
McCandless, as Liz discovers, knows that this crisis occurs over a barren tract of land, that his earlier surveys in fact found no gold. His cynicism prevents him from trying to stop the impending conflict; this, coupled with a sense of his responsibility for her brother's death, leaves her deeply disenchanted. Sadly, this disenchantment does not last for long. After meeting McCandless's first wife, not the woman who decorated the house, and discovering that McCandless had spent time in a mental hospital, Liz dies. In a highly ambiguous scene, she apparently faints and strikes her head against the edge of a table. Against the backdrop of Armageddon, Paul leaves for Liz's funeral with her friend Edie, pausing to make a pass at her as their car pulls away.
While Carpenter's Gothic is often considered Gaddis's darkest novel--Gaddis himself declared, "I will say that this novel probably contains the ]east hope of the three" (Abadi-Nagy 75)--it also contains some of Gaddis's most lyrical descriptive writing. Consider the book's opening paragraph:
The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she'd found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she'd taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of the boys out there wiping mud from his cheek where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they'd end up that time of day. (1-2)
In this description of the neighborhood children's casual cruelty, Gaddis lightly weaves patterns of internal rhyme, alliteration, and assonance together with a syntax loosely miming the to-and-fro play of the children to create an elegiac tone, an autumnal music transmuting the banal ugliness of the scene he describes into a kind of poetry. In fact, in "that time of day," "yellow dead end sign," "swirl of leaves," and "bough caught and flung back," the passage echoes a key source underlying much of the imagery of the book: Shakespeare's Sonnet 73:
That time of year thou mayst in me behold When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
Steven Moore reports that Gaddis considered That Time of Year as an alternate title for the novel.
Lyrical description of this kind figures in all of Gaddis's writing. Patrick O'Donnell says of the brief narrative transitions in J R: "Many of these contain lyrical descriptions of nature in contrast to the entropic remnants of the American junkyard landscape, thus reflecting one of Gaddis's familiar themes: the destruction of `the primitive' in modern technocratic culture" (13). And Knight argues that the enigmatic beauty of the descriptions of the pond in A Frolic of His Own provide a transcendental standard of justice in contrast with the merely human standards present in the main plot of the novel. But in Carpenter's Gothic such moments of intense, meditative examination are integrated more systematically into the design of the novel, lending an air of Horatian consolation to the otherwise general pall. This consolation must be fleeting, just as the magic of the dove's resurrection in the first sentence of the novel is immediately tempered by the brutality of the actual situation revealed in the second; it is nevertheless a real presence in the book, ignored only at the peril of falling, like McCandless, into despair.
The novel aims to conquer death in another sense as well. Gaddis explicitly aimed at bequeathing new life to long-defunct literary conventions. The Gothic tradition is invoked most visibly in the scenes from Jane Eyre which flicker on Liz Booth's television screen. The world-weary tone of Lester and McCandless as they circle each other in McCandless's living room recalls the spy-ridden entertainments of Graham Greene and John Le Carre. How does Gaddis manage to revivify these conventions without making his book merely a parody of earlier forms? His characteristically oblique narrative method turns out to be suited perfectly to such an endeavor. For example, since interest in the mysterious McCandless has been developed from the opening pages, the moment when he first appears in the flesh, so to speak, could easily devolve into postmodern ironic knowingness; this is as stock a scene as can be. But the moment is defused through the use of minimal description and the characters' halting, banal speech:
--Is, are you Mister Stumpp?
He just looked at her. His face appeared drained, so did the hand he held out to her, drained of colour that might once have been a heavy tan. --My name is McCandless, he said, his tone dull as his eyes on her, --you're Mrs Booth?
--Oh! Oh yes come in ... but her foot held the door till it pushed gently against her, --I didn't ...
--I won't disturb you, he came in looking past her ... (59)
A similar combination of understatement and misdirection occurs at the close of the fifth chapter. At first, our expectations appear to be satisfied: a fire has finally engulfed the house, as foreshadowed by Jane Eyre and Lester's comments. But in fact the fire is outside; Paul, Elizabeth, and the house are still safe. The fire only masquerades as the expected climax of a traditional Gothic novel, centered upon a private, interior world. We will later have a public conflagration, but one rendered offstage, visible only in the glimpse of a newspaper headline.
This reversal is entirely appropriate for a novel seemingly confined to a single setting in which, however, the plot is driven almost entirely from offstage. Two events that do occur in the house seem fraught with drama. But the first, Liz's fling with McCandless, turns out to be almost entirely inconsequential. Paul does not discover the affair, and it seems unlikely that he takes enough notice of his wife ever to suspect much of anything. And, as noted before, McCandless remains too set in his ways, too sure in his interpretation of self and others, to be changed by his encounter with Liz; as a result, she is only disappointed. The second event, Liz's death, remains fundamentally ambiguous. Much critical ink has been spilled speculating on the cause of that death. Some writers have suggested that Paul has arranged to have Liz killed, signaled by the open door noticed immediately before her death and Paul's suspicious conduct afterward, while others insist that Liz succumbed to her health problems, perhaps compounded by McCandless's heavy smoking. Though Gaddis attempted to settle the question in a brief aside in A Frolic of His Own, in which Christina Lutz declares that Liz died of a heart attack (335), this seems to me a rare instance of his giving in to an authorial temptation he often railed against, that of chasing after a book to explain it. Like the question of McCandless's credibility, punctured by his wife's intimations of mental illness, Liz's death retains an obscurity that seems paradoxically fitting in this most straightforwardly plotted of Gaddis's books.
A Frolic of His Own (1994)
With a deserved reputation as his most accessible book, A Frolic of His Own foregrounds Gaddis's comedic and parodic skills. It does meditate upon the question of justice, especially in the play-within-the-novel, Once in Antietam, and its protagonist Oscar Crease, like many Gaddis characters before him, grapples with an emotionally tangled father-son relationship. For the most part, though, Gaddis's turn to the law allows him ample material for the construction of exquisite chaos. This playful satire of American litigiousness and commercialism lacks the bitter edge of his earlier work.
Oscar Crease is the scion of a notable American family. His grandfather, Thomas Crease, served on the Supreme Court with Oliver Wendell Holmes. His father, also named Thomas, is a judge on the Virginia Federal District Court, nominated to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Oscar, despite continual desire and occasional effort, has not lived up to this grand lineage. A community college history professor, he wrote a play in his youth intended to commemorate his family's history. This play, Once in Antietam, centers upon an unusual incident in Justice Crease's life. During the Civil War, Thomas Crease was subject to competing claims from both sides. Though he fought for the Confederacy at the Battle of Ball's Bluff, receiving a scar on his cheek when he fell from a horse, he also became eligible for Union conscription when he took command of a family mining operation in Pennsylvania. To discharge these competing obligations, Crease obtained substitutes on both sides. These substitutes met on the field of battle at Antietam and died at one another's hands.
Although Oscar's Civil War play, like Gaddis's original, has never been produced, the story appears to have made it into public view nonetheless. The Blood in the Red White and Blue, a movie directed by the notorious Constantine Kiester (formerly Jonathan Livingston Siegel, formerly Jonathan Livingston) and starring among others Robert Bredford, shares many plot points with Oscar's play, though the movie is also spiced with obligatory quantities of sex and gore. Oscar sues Kiester for copyright infringement. The progress of this action provides the book's main plot. Oscar's brother-in-law, Harry Lutz, an attorney with the white-shoe firm of Swyne and Dour, refers him to another attorney, Harold Basie. Basie initially expresses skepticism about the case, particularly after Oscar cannot find the rejection letter from his original submission of the play to Kiester, under the guise of Livingston. But Basie admires Oscar's underdog spirit and presses on with the case. Kiester's studio retains Swyne and Dour Jerry Madhar Pai, an associate with the firm, conducts a deposition of Oscar, at which he establishes Oscar's indebtedness to Plato, as well as similarities between Once in Antietam and O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra. After Oscar rejects a settlement offer of $200,000, because the settlement would barely cover his legal costs, the movie studio is granted summary judgment; the judge relies on the theory that, under New York law, a plaintiff in an action for unfair competition must establish that his or her work is novel, which Oscar, indebted to earlier authors, cannot do. Basie recommends an appeal to the Second Circuit, a forum likely to overturn a lower judge. Though Oscar's hopes look bleak when Basie disappears one step ahead of the revelation that his law degree is fraudulent, Basie's theory prevails. Judge Bone of the Circuit Court finds that the relevant New York law is preempted by federal law, so that novelty is not the only governing standard. His decision is guided by a brief submitted covertly by his old colleague, Judge Crease. Crease's law clerk later confides to Otto that the judge's decision was driven not by paternal solicitude, but by love for the law. Oscar is initially awarded all profits from the film. This award is later reduced to one-fifth of the net profits; when the movie's creative accountants declare that it netted an $18 million loss, Oscar is finally given an unspecified amount smaller than the $200,000 settlement offer.
Crease v. Erebus et al. is by no means the sole lawsuit in the novel. The book is replete with legal proceedings, including Fickert v. Ude (carried over from Carpenter's Gothic), Episcopal v. Pepsi-Cola, or "Pop and Glow," the mammoth trademark-infringement case which eventually consumes Harry Lutz, the O'Neill estate's action against Oscar for copyright infringement, Oscar's girlfriend Lily's divorce proceedings, and Oscar's suit against the historical society where the Crease family papers have been deposited. Of these many lawsuits, the two most notable are Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount and Ace Fidelity Insurance v. Sosumi. Szyrk, the case that Judge Crease is hearing at the book's outset, revolves around a dog trapped in a outdoor steel sculpture. Szyrk, the sculpture's creator, sues the town initially to enjoin it from altering the structure in order to free the dog. (The incident recalls the child trapped in one of Schepperman's statues in J R.) In granting Szyrk his injunction, Judge Crease inflames local sentiment against himself. The demagogic Senator Bilk panders to this public outrage by blocking the Judge's accession to the higher court. The genesis of Ace Fidelity v. Sosumi occurs when Oscar accidentally runs himself over: the starter on his Sosumi doesn't work, so he hot-wires it while standing in front of it. The case threatens to spin out of control, as an insurance company representative explains to Oscar: "Our legal department sought out the person you bought it from who had joined the Navy and so proceeded against the dealer from whom he'd purchased it new and the dealer then sued the wholesaler who has brought suit against the manufacturer who in turn is suing the assembler of the defective component parts ..." (476). With Lily's assistance, Oscar obtains a settlement that will cover his medical bills.
While Oscar commands some sympathy in his struggle to prevail against the Goliaths of Hollywood, he is too caught up in his lawsuits to react sympathetically when tragedy strikes several characters around him. Lily's brother Bobby is killed in a Porsche accident. Harry Lutz, who has already suffered a car accident as a result of exhaustion, dies of unspecified causes. Oscar's inability to regard Harry's death except through the lens of his own legal travails is particularly blameworthy given Harry's regard for Oscar. Harry, who turned to corporate law only after frustrated beginnings as a novelist and public interest attorney, tells his wife Christina (Oscar's half-sister) that "he really admired what [Oscar] tried to do because he'd tried it himself that's what he used to say, about failing at something worth doing because there was nothing worse for a man than failing at something that wasn't worth doing in the first place" (461). Finally, while Oscar is stricken by Judge Crease's death at the age of ninety-seven, this death affects him primarily because of his unfulfilled need to prove himself to his father. The novel closes with the three survivors, Oscar, Lily, and Christina, regressing into a chaotic and childish state, merely breaking even on their long-awaited settlements and inheritances, while around them ring out insistently the trochaic rhythms of the schoolroom classic "The Song of Hiawatha."
The novel, in which the interpretive process of common law plays so central a role, itself gives rise to a wealth of interpretive issues. One might begin by investigating the several genres of text folded into the larger narrative: Oscar's play, the deposition, the legal opinions. There is the issue of class and ethnicity, underlined in various characters' reactions to the African-American lawyer Basie and the Indian lawyer Madher Pai. Knight organizes a stimulating discussion around the differing concepts of justice espoused by several of the leading characters. And the Darwinian imagery of the nature programs Oscar incessantly watches could fruitfully be connected with the dog-eat-dog legal world which drains Harry Lutz's life away. While all these issues invite fuller consideration, my discussion of the novel will take its starting point from a more pointed and seemingly narrower question, a fitting method for a novel in which the figure of Socrates looms so largely: Why does Gaddis recapitulate the story line of Once in Antietam so often?
We are initially given the story of the play in its original form, Oscar's manuscript. About a third of the novel's first hundred and fifty pages is given over to direct quotation of the play, as Oscar contrives to have Lily and his students read it to him. While we are thrust into the prologue of the play in medias res, a characteristic Gaddis technique, by the end of this section we have been introduced to virtually all the play's major characters (though we never see Thomas's wife Giulielma) and learned the outlines of Thomas's story. The play is discussed next in Oscar's deposition, during which Madhar Pai and Oscar agree that Kane is a figure for Socrates. In the course of this line of questioning, several new, briefer passages from the play are quoted, including Bagby's parodic retelling of the story of Gyges. After his case is initially dismissed, Oscar is surprised to find Madhar Pai accompanying Christina's friend Trish on a visit to the Crease estate. Madhar Pai and Oscar discuss the play further during this visit. The lawyer subtly reminds us of the roles of the various characters, while engaging in a racialist reinterpretation of the play. Soon afterward, Judge Bone's decision, overturning the lower court's dismissal, is quoted in full. The first half of this case contains a detailed retelling of the story of the play, complete with the third act we have not yet seen, along with a comparison of the play to the film The Blood in the Red White and Blue. When Oscar, Harry, Lily, and Christina watch the film on televison, a narrative commentary provides our final encounter with this by now familiar story.
Gaddis's use of the play provides one more example of the omnipresent technique of repetition which we saw at work earlier in The Recognitions. But the recapitulations of the play differ in two respects from these earlier repetitions. There is a genuine article at the origin of this series of repetitions: the text of Oscar's play. And in each encounter with the play, a new dimension of its meaning is revealed; we are really given not repetitions, but reinterpretations. Some of these reinterpretations are more successful than others. For instance, Jerry Madhar Pai reveals the layers of allusion in the play in his deposition of Oscar, conclusively demonstrating its lack of novelty. In his later interpretation, Madhar Pai suggests that Kane is Jewish, because he is a peddler, and that the play anticipates contemporary strife between African Americans and Jews. This interpretation seems capricious, revealing more about the reader than the play, and perhaps confirming Harry's judgment that Madhar Pai is clever but narrow.
Through this process of successive interpretation, the novel comes to resemble the institution which is its central concern: the law. It is appropriate, then, that Judge Bone's legal opinion takes up a question left open in our earlier encounters with Once in Antietam: How does the play end? The play's last act seems an object of oddly general disregard. Oscar doesn't ask his students to read it, Madhar Pai has not read it, and the filmmakers have not used it. In a striking parallel, neither Oscar nor Harry are quite sure how the film ended after watching it on television. Bone briefly describes the endings of both the play and the film. While we learn that much of the last act is a replica of Plato's Crito, the final scene is described vaguely as "claw[ing] for the heights of Greek tragedy." (352). The description of the film's ending, no less vague, is nevertheless extremely suggestive: "The rest of the picture seeks simply to lend dramatic credibility to Randal's eventual self destruction with his discovery of certain letters drawn by defendants from the public domain" (354). This description bears little resemblance to the end of the televised film, but it closely resembles the end of A Frolic of His Own. Oscar's final retreat into the world of childhood is triggered by his discovery of certain old family letters. He learns from these letters that his interpretation of his family's history is largely false. Once in Antietam itself is revealed as just one more step in the series of provisional, fallible interpretations.
Of course, the discovery of the letters on its own cannot make the play a failure. It is Oscar's intention in writing the play that makes him vulnerable to this final blow. He writes the play in order to lay claim to his family's history and prove himself to his father. Artistic considerations are entirely secondary, as is indicated by Oscar's lack of apparent interest in writing anything beyond his single play. As a result, he is held hostage to the essential contingency of human life: like his play, Oscar's relationship to his father never attains closure, particularly given Judge Crease's instructions that he have no funeral. Oscar, in the end, can only retreat into a world of his own creation, because he lacks that essential quality of his creator: the tenacity to persevere, and finally to succeed, at something worth doing.
American fiction itself has seemed at times during the past two decades to suffer from the same crippling lack of self-confidence or its counterpart, a blustery posturing, that assails Gaddis's failed artists. In recent years, though, work by writers including, though by no means limited to, Colson Whitehead, Joy Williams, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo has demonstrated a renewed commitment to fiction of ambitious scale, experimental form, and deeply serious ethical and political content. Predicting the future, aesthetic or otherwise, is a charlatan's game; countless contingencies conspire to veil the art of tomorrow. But one can at least hope that trends detectable in contemporary writing will continue to make two things clear: in the twentieth century the experimental strain has been the most vital in American fiction, and few of its practitioners have written with the vigor, courage, and mastery of William Gaddis.
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Leverence, John. "Gaddis Anagnorisis." In Recognition of William Gaddis. Ed. John Kuehl and Steven Moore. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984. 32-45.
Moore, Steven. A Reader's Guide to William Gaddis's "The Recognitions." Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1982.
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Shakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington. Rev. ed. Glenview: Scott, Foresman, 1973.
Smith, Dinitia. "Gaddis in the Details." New York 3 January 1994: 34-40.
Weisenburger, Steven. "Paper Currencies: Reading William Gaddis." In Recognition of William Gaddis. Ed. John Kuehl and Steven Moore. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1984. 147-61.
JOHN BEER teaches English and humanities at Robert Morris College in Chicago. He has published poems in Colorado Review, Iowa Review, and Fine Madness.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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