Analysis of William Gaddis’s Novels

Critics have placed William Gaddis (December 29, 1922 – December 16, 1998) in the tradition of experimental fiction, linking him closely to James Joyce and comparing him to contemporaries such as Thomas Pynchon. Gaddis himself also indicated the influence of T. S. Eliot on his work, and indeed his books contain both novelistic and poetic structures. The novels employ only vestiges of traditional plots, which go in and out of focus as they are blurred by endless conversations, overpowered by erudite allusions and a multitude of characters, conflicts, and ambiguities.

Like Joyce and Eliot, Gaddis uses myth to create a sense of timelessness—myths of Odysseus, the Grail Knight, the Fisher King, and Christ, along with parallels to the tales of Saint Clement, Faust, and Peer Gynt. Using devices of both modern poetic sequences and modern antirealistic fiction, Gaddis unifies the diversity of parts through recurring images, phrases, and locations; a common tone; historical and literary echoes; and other nonchronological and nonsequential modes of organization. In The Recognitions, point of view is alternated to create tension between the first-person and third-person voices, and there are complicated jokes and symbolism deriving from the unexpected use of “I,” “you,” “he,” and “she.” In JR, the first-person perspective dominates through incessant talk, with very little relief or explanation in traditional third-person passages. As one reviewer wrote: “[Gaddis] wires his characters for sound and sends his story out on a continuous wave of noise—truncated dialogue, distracted monologue, the racket of TV sets, radios, telephones—from which chaos action, of a sort, eventually emerges.”

All of Gaddis’s work is about cacophony and euphony, fragmentation and integration, art and business, chaos and order. To a casual reader, Carpenter’s Gothic, JR, and The Recognitions may appear only cacophonous, fragmented, and chaotic, for their formal experimentation is so dominant. To the reader prepared for the challenge of brilliant fiction, these novels illustrate how very accurate Henry James was in predicting the “elasticity” of the novel and its changing nature in the hands of great writers.

The Recognitions
Considering the complexities of Gaddis’s fiction, it is not surprising that the earliest reviews of The Recognitions were unenthusiastic. Although they gave Gaddis credit for his extensive knowledge of religion and aesthetics, of art, myth, and philosophy, they criticized the absence of clear chronology, the diffuseness of so many intersecting subplots and characters, the large number of references, and the supposed formlessness. In the decade following the publication of The Recognitions, very little was written about this allusive novel or its elusive author. Readers had difficulties with the book, and Gaddis did nothing to explain it. Few copies of the original edition were ever sold and the novel went out of print. In 1962, Meridian published a paperback edition under its policy to make available neglected but important literary works. Gradually, The Recognitions became an underground classic, although it again went out of circulation. Not until 1970 did another paperback edition appear. Throughout the precarious life of this novel, Gaddis was probably the person least surprised by its uncertain reception and reader resistance. During a party scene in The Recognitions, a poet questions a literary critic about a book he is carrying: “You reading that?” The critic answers, “No, I’m just reviewing it . . . all I need is the jacket blurb.”

At its most fundamental level, The Recognitions is about every possible kind of recognition. The ultimate recognition is stated in the epigraph by Irenaeus, which translates as “Nothing empty nor without significance with God,” but this ultimate recognition is nearly impossible to experience in a secular world where spiritual messages boom forth from the radio and television to become indistinguishable from commercials for soap powder and cereal.

The characters, major and minor, move toward, from, and around various recognitions. Some search for knowledge of how to perform their jobs, others search for knowledge of fraud, of ancestors, of love, self, truth, and sin. Wyatt, settling in New York City, moves sequentially through time and according to place to find his own recognition in Spain. His traditional path is crossed by the paths of many other characters who serve as his foils and reflections. Wyatt paints while Stanley composes music, Otto writes, and Esme loves. Wyatt, though, does more than paint; he forges the masterpieces of Fra Angelico and of Old Flemish painters such as Hugo van der Goes and Dirck Bouts. Thus, his fraudulent activity is reflected in others’ fraudulent schemes. Frank Sinisterra, posing as a physician, is forced to operate on Wyatt’s mother and inadvertently murders her. Frank is also a counterfeiter; Otto is a plagiarist; Benny is a liar; Big Anna masquerades as a woman, and Agnes Deigh, at a party, is unable to convince people that she is really a woman, not a man in drag; Herschel has no idea who he is (a “negative positivist,” a “positive negativist,” a “latent homosexual,” or a “latent heterosexual”). In similar confusion, Wyatt is addressed as Stephen Asche, Estaban, the Reverend Gilbert Sullivan, and Christ arriving for the Second Coming.

As Wyatt matures from childhood to adulthood, his notions of emptiness and significance, of fraud and authenticity, undergo change. While his mother Camilla and his father are on an ocean voyage across the Atlantic, his mother has an appendicitis attack, is operated on by Sinisterra, and dies. Wyatt is reared by his father but essentially by his Aunt May. She is a fanatical Calvinist who teaches the talented boy that original sketches blaspheme God’s original creation, so Wyatt eventually turns to copying from illustrated books. The distinctions between original work and forgery break down.

When he is a young man, Wyatt becomes a partner with Recktall Brown, a shrewd art dealer who finds unsuspecting buyers for the forgeries that Wyatt produces. Wyatt is so convinced that “perfect” forgery has nothing to do with sinning, much less with breaking the law, that he has only scorn for the nineteenth century Romantics who prized originality above all else, often, he thinks, at the expense of quality. It takes many years of disappointments and betrayals for Wyatt to recognize that perfection of line and execution are empty and without significance. The first and crucial step of any great work of art must be the conceptualization behind it, the idea from which the painting derives; there is otherwise no meaningful distinction between the work of the artist and that of the craftsman. Wyatt’s abnegation of any original conception implies abnegation of self, which in turn affects his efforts to communicate and to share with his wife Esther and his model Esme. Wyatt’s many failures are reflected— in bits and pieces—in the subplots of The Recognitions. Characters miss one another as their paths crisscross and they lose track of their appointments. They talk but no one listens, they make love but their partners do not remember, and finally, they are trapped within their useless and pretentious self-illusions.

The need for love, forgiveness, purification, and renewal emerges from this frantic activity motivated by greed and selfishness. Thus, Gaddis includes in the novel archetypal questers, priests, mourning women, arid settings, burials, dying and reviving figures, cathedrals, and keepers of the keys. These motifs bring to mind many mythic parallels, though it is hard not to think of specific parallels with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1833) and Eliot’s TheWaste Land (1922) and Four Quartets (1943). Toward the end of his pilgrimage, as well as the end of the novel, Wyatt achieves his recognition of love and authenticity, yet Gaddis does not succumb to the temptation to finish with a conventional denouement but keeps the novel going. In this way, the formof The Recognitions reflects its theme, that truth is immutable but exceptionally well hidden. After Wyatt’s success follow chapters of others’ failures. Anselm castrates himself and Esme dies; Sinisterra is killed by an assassin and Stanley, while playing his music in a cathedral, is killed as the walls collapse.

Just as The Recognitions is rich in meaning, so it is rich in form. The forward movement through chronological time is poised against other combinations of time, primarily the juxtaposition of past and present. The immediate effect of juxtaposition is to interrupt and suspend time while the ultimate effect is to make all time seem simultaneous. For example, in chapter 2, part 2, Wyatt looks out the window at the evening sky as Recktall Brown talks. Brown begins speaking about ancient Greece and Rome but is interrupted by a description of the constellation Orion, by an advertisement for phoney gems, by instructions for passengers riding a bus, by a passage about Alexander the Great, by a quotation from an English travel book of the fourteenth century. The result is that the reader temporarily loses his or her orientation, but the reader need not lose orientation completely. Unity for these disparate time periods is provided by a quality that is part of each passage—glittering beauty marred by a flaw or spurious detail. Thus, organization is based on concept, not on chronology.

Other nonchronological modes of organization include recurring patterns. Specific words become guides for the reader through difficult sections and also repeat the essential concepts of the novel. For example, “recognitions,” “origin,” “fished for,” “design,” “originality,” and “fragment” can be found frequently. Larger anecdotes may also be repeated by different speakers, and opinions or metaphysical arguments may be repeated unknowingly or even stolen. The recurring images, words, and stories constitute an internal frame of reference that creates a unity apart from the plot.4

In The Recognitions, it is possible, though not easy, to discover what activities Gaddis believes to be of enduring value. Deception and fraud are everywhere, but they cannot destroy the truth that is hidden beneath these layers of deception. A first-time reader of this novel will probably have an experience similar to that of firsttime readers of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) in the years soon after its publication—before full-length guides extolled its merits and explained its obscurities. Like those readers of Joyce’s masterpiece, readers of The Recognitions will be amply rewarded.

Although JR may be even more difficult than Gaddis’s first novel, it met with a more positive reception. Critics pointed to its imposing length, diffuse form, and lack of traditional narrative devices, but they believed that it was a novel that could not be ignored by people seriously interested in the future of literature. Reviewers included John Gardner, George Steiner, Earl Miner, and George Stade, further evidence of Gaddis’s growing reputation.

Like The Recognitions, JR is concerned with distinguishing between significant and insignificant activities, all of which take place in a more circumscribed landscape than that of The Recognitions. There are no transatlantic crossings and no trips to Central America, only the alternating between a suburb on Long Island and the city of Manhattan. Gaddis shifts his satirical eye to contemporary education through the experience of his protagonist, JR, who attends sixth grade in a school on Long Island. Amy Joubert, JR’s social studies teacher, takes the class to visit the stock exchange, and JR is sufficiently impressed by it to interpret the lesson literally. He is fascinated by money and uses the investment of his class in one share of stock to build a corporate empire. Although his immense profits are only on paper, the effects of his transactions on countless others are both concrete and devastating.

Despite the centrality of this obnoxious child, JR remains a shadowy figure. The events he triggers and the people he sucks into his moneymaking whirlwind are more visible. Edward Bast, JR’s music teacher and composer, Jack Gibbs, Thomas Eigen, and Shepperman are all artists of some kind, and their realm of activity is quite different from JR’s. Bast is forever trying to finish his piece of music, even as he works reluctantly for JR in the Manhattan office that is broken down, cluttered, and chaotic. Thomas Eigen has been writing a play, and Gibbs has tried for most of his life to write an ambitious book, but he is always losing pages he has written. Although some of Shepperman’s paintings have been finished, they remain hidden from sight. The world of art is, however, at odds with the world of business. Bast wants nothing to do with his student’s megalomania but proves to be no match for JR. The creative people cannot persuade others to leave them alone to their paper, oil paints, and canvases, and as a result they are used and manipulated by those who serve as their liaisons to others who buy, maintain, or publish their efforts.

The primary device for communication is not art but rather the telephone. The world that technology has created is efficient and mechanical since its purpose is to finish jobs so that money can be paid, at least symbolically on paper, and then be reinvested, again on paper. The artist is replaced by the businessman, and it is not even a flesh-and-blood businessman, but only his disembodied voice issuing orders out of a piece of plastic (JR disguises his voice so that he sounds older). The central “authority” is invisible, ubiquitous, and, at least while the conglomerate lasts, omniscient. The triumph of the telephone affords Gaddis endless opportunities for humor and irony, and the failure of art is accompanied by the failure of other means of communication— notably of love. As in The Recognitions, lovers miss each other, do not understand each other, and end their affairs or marriages unhappily.

The real tour de force of JR is its language. There is almost no third-person description to establish location and speaker and few authorial links or transitions between conversations or monologues. Originally, Gaddis did not even use quotation marks to set off one speaker from the next. JR is nearly one thousand pages of talk. The jargon, speech rhythms, and style of those in the educational establishment and in the stock market are perfectly re-created, but their language is a self-perpetuating system; regardless of their outpouring, the expressive power of words is obliterated by the sheer noise and verbiage. One early reviewer said of JR that “everything is insanely jammed together in this novel’s closed atmosphere—there’s no causality, no progression; and the frantic farcical momentum overlies the entropic unravelling of all ‘systems.’” The words pile up as the structures of the culture collapse; the reader is faced with a formidable challenge in making his or her way through it all.

There can be no doubt that JR, probably even more than The Recognitions, poses serious difficulties for the reader. Despite them, and even perhaps because of them, JR is an extraordinary novel. Gaddis captures the dizzying pace, the language, and the absurdities of contemporary culture and mercilessly throws them back to his readers in a crazy, nonlinear kind of verisimilitude. The novel operates without causality, chronology, and the logical narrative devices upon which many readers depend. The cacophony of the characters and the lack of clarity are certainly meant to be disturbing.

Carpenter’s Gothic
In Carpenter’s Gothic, this cultural cacophony runs headlong toward a global apocalypse. Again, there is the confused eruption of voices into the narrative and the forward spinning blur of events common to Gaddis’s earlier fictions. Gaddis’s third novel, however, is not only more focused and brief, at 262 pages, but therefore the most readable of his works. Its story centers on Elizabeth Vorakers Booth and her husband Paul, renters of the ramshackle “Carpenter’s Gothic” house, in which all of the action unfolds. Daughter of a minerals tycoon who committed suicide when his illegal business practices were exposed, Elizabeth married Paul Booth, a Vietnam War veteran and carrier of Vorakers’s bribes, after Paul lied in testifying before Congress.

All the novel’s complexities unfold from these tangled business dealings. The Vorakerses’ estate is hopelessly ensnarled in lawsuits, manipulated by swarms of selfserving lawyers. Paul is suing or countersuing everyone in sight (including an airline, for an alleged loss of Liz’s “marital services” after she was a passenger during a minor crash). Meanwhile, Paul’s earlier testimony before Congress has landed him a job as “media consultant” for a Reverend Ude. Ude’s fundamentalist television ministry, based in South Carolina, has mushroomed into an important political interest group, and Paul’s meager pay from this group is the only thing keeping him and Liz from bankruptcy. Paul drunkenly schemes and rages at Liz, or at his morning newspaper; as in JR, the telephone intrudes with maddeningly insistent threats, deals, wrong numbers, and ads.

Events are intensified with the entry of McCandless, owner of the Carpenter’s Gothic house. A sometime geologist, teacher, and writer, McCandless happens to have surveyed the same southeast African mineral fields on which the Vorakers company had built its fortunes. It also happens to be the same African territory in which Reverend Ude is now building his missions for a great “harvest of souls” expected during “the Rapture” or anticipated Second Coming of Christ. McCandless is being pursued by U.S. government agents for back taxes and for information about those African territories. He appears at the door one morning, a shambling and wary man, an incessant smoker and an alcoholic, but nevertheless an embodiment of romantic adventure to Liz, who promptly takes him to bed.

Events spin rapidly toward violence. During an unexpected visit, Liz’s younger brother, Billy, hears McCandless’s tirades against American foreign policy and promptly flies off to Africa—where he is killed when his airplane is gunned down by terrorists. The U.S. Congress has launched an investigation of Ude for bribing a senator to grant his ministry a coveted television license, a bribe that Paul carried. Ude has also managed to drown a young boy during baptismal rites in South Carolina’s Pee Dee River. All of Liz and Paul’s stored belongings, comprising her last links to family and tradition, have been auctioned off by a storage company in compensation for unpaid bills. Liz’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic.

The apocalypse comes when all these events and forces collide. McCandless takes a payoff from the Central Intelligence Agency for his African papers and simply exits the novel, after Liz has refused to accompany him. She dies of a heart attack, the warning signs of which have been planted from the first chapter. Paul immediately files a claim to any of the Vorakerses’ inheritance that might have been paid to Billy and Liz, and he too simply exits the novel—notably, after using the same seduction ploy on Liz’s best friend as he had originally used on Liz herself. In Africa, though, events truly explode: U.S. forces mobilize to guard various “national interests,” and a real apocalypse looms as newspapers proclaim the upcoming use of a “10 K ‘DEMO’ BOMB OFF AFRICA COAST.

Liz Booth’s heart attack symbolizes the absolute loss of empathy and love in such a cynical and careless world. Indeed, her death is further ironized when it is misinterpreted, and also proclaimed in the newspapers, as having taken place during a burglary. As with his earlier works, Gaddis’s message involves this seemingly total loss of charitable and compassionate love in a civilization obsessed by success, as well as by the technologies for realizing it. Once again, his satire targets the counterfeiting of values in American life, and the explosive force of mass society on feeling individuals.

The explosion of words that Gaddis re-creates is also a warning. As the efforts of painters, writers, musicians, and other artists are increasingly blocked, unappreciated, and exploited, those urges will be acknowledged by fewer and fewer people. Without an audience of listeners or viewers and without a segment of artists, there will be no possibilities for redemption from the chaos and mechanization. There will be neither sufficient introspection nor a medium through which any introspection can take concrete form. Gaddis’s novels are humorous, clever, satiric, and innovative. They are also memorable and frightening reflections of contemporary culture and its values.

A Frolic of His Own
A Frolic of His Own could be seen as the culmination of Gaddis’s career, applying to the world of law the same combination of acute detailed observation and merciless satirical invention that he gave the business world in JR and that of art in The Recognitions.

The protagonist, middle-aged college professor Oscar Crease, is suing film producer Constantine Kiester for theft of intellectual property, claiming that Kiester’s film The Blood in the Red, White and Blue was plagiarized from Crease’s unpublished and unproduced play, Once at Antietam. He is also suing himself (actually his insurance company) because he was run over by his own car while he was attempting to jump-start it.

Meanwhile Oscar’s father, ninety-seven-year-old judge Thomas Crease, is deciding two even more bizarre cases, a wrongful-death suit against an evangelist (the Reverend Ude from Carpenter’s Gothic) for the drowning of an infant he was attempting to baptize, and a case in which a dog has become trapped in a large nonrepresentational sculpture whose creator, R. Szyrk, is demanding an injunction to forestall any attempt to damage his work in order to free the dog.

Gaddis uses these cases to spotlight the increasingly Byzantine nature of the legal process, as well as some of the artistic issues dear to his heart. The intellectual property suit focuses attention on issues of plagiarism with the same thoroughness with which The Recognitions looked at counterfeiting. The heirs of American dramatist Eugene O’Neill, seeing similarities between Once at Antietam and O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra (1931), sue Oscar in turn, and elements of both are traced back to Plato, reminding us of the complexity of determining just what constitutes an original idea. The Szyrk case opposes artistic freedom to animal rights, among other issues, and both Szyrk and Oscar can be seen as somewhat ironic versions of that recurrent Gaddis character, the unappreciated “difficult” artist. In the end, as in most of Gaddis’s work, the characters are ground down by the chaos and complexity of the modern world, granted only a few Pyrrhic victories. Oscar’s winnings in the plagiarism suit are sharply reduced on appeal, and the father of the baptism victim is awarded fewer than twenty dollars.

With A Frolic of His Own, the creator of Recktall Brown now gives us the law firm of Swyne and Dour and the Japanese car brands Isuyu and Sosumi. The reader’s already strained suspension of disbelief may stop altogether at a suit by the Episcopal Church against the makers of Pepsi-Cola for using a brand name that is an anagram of theirs. Again the dialogue is sparsely annotated and often as vague and garrulous as actual conversation. Trial transcripts and depositions are presented in all their verbosity and redundancy. At least enough of Once at Antietam is presented to convince us that it is a tedious play. Those who criticized Gaddis’s previous works for being difficult and tedious can make the same charges against this one. Even more than his previous works, A Frolic of His Own displays the wit, inventiveness, and complexity of Gaddis at his best, but also the qualities to which readers have objected.

Agapé Agape
Surrounded by the documents and papers accumulated over the course of his life, the dying man who narrates Agapé Agape is desperate to convey what he can of his work. The title is a pun: agapé is a Greek word referring to unconditional brotherly love and community, now most commonly used by Christians. For such love to be agape may mean that it has been torn apart, or caught off-guard and surprised. Indeed, in tracing the history of the player piano to other developments in the modern world—including the rising use of binary (which in turn led to the computerage), as well as changing attitudes about the individual’s relationship to art—the narrator is filled with frustration at how the significance of his work is not appreciated by the world at large.

There is a strong autobiographical element to the narrator, as Gaddis was also aware of his impending death and had decades of notes regarding his own history of the player piano. The writing is dense and intimidating. The syntax is more complex than any previous Gaddis harangue, with no paragraph breaks in the novella to help guide one’s reading. There are frequent lapses into other languages, as well as a constant stream of historical and artistic allusions. As an example, the narrator returns again and again to the philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous observation that pushpin (a pub game) is as good as poetry if the amount of pleasure is equal, and from there tends to link the word “pushpin” to Pushkin, referring to the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin.

The narrator compares himself to his own documents, his skin parchment thin from medicine and held together by staples. His only refuge is the work that he is trying to complete: “hallucinations took place in the head, in the mind, now everything out there is the hallucination and the mind where the work is done is the only reality.” The novella ends much as it began, but the very act of communicating—the direct address to the reader, something Gaddis never attempted in his earlier novels—becomes its own message, its own grasp at hope and continuity in the face of bitter finality.

Major works
Long fiction:
The Recognitions, 1955; JR, 1975; Carpenter’s Gothic, 1985; A Frolic of His Own, 1994; Agapé Agape, 2002.
Nonfiction: The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings, 2002 (Joseph Tabbi, editor).

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.


Categories: Literature

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