Carpenter's Gothic (Magill's Literary Annual 1986)
While William Gaddis employs many of the same fictional techniques and themes in Carpenter’s Gothic that he initiated in The Recognitions (1955) and JR (1976), he brings a new limitation and control to his narrative selection and thematic development in this third novel. The Recognitions established Gaddis as the author of a cult novel, a novel that was widely respected but little read. Granted a National Book Award, JR broadened Gaddis’ reputation, particularly with university readers. Much shorter than its predecessors, Carpenter’s Gothic promises to reach a wider range of readers.
Continuing to rely heavily on dialogue to carry the plot, Gaddis has limited the number of characters in a given scene to two or three, the action to a single setting, and the time frame to a few days. These limitations provide the reader with a frame of reference from which to piece together the larger world that controls the characters and influences their attitudes and actions. The story must still be constructed from the fragmented talk of the characters, but the reduced field enables the reader to make connections more easily and perhaps more accurately.
Gaddis continues to show his characters to be inconsistent in reporting their own experience, feelings, and observations. The characters share an...
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Paul's refrain, "fit the pieces together you see how fit the . . . damn pieces together," represents Gaddis's challenge to the reader. It is not easy to carry out. Gaddis leaves readers in the dark quite often: the initials VCR are used without revealing what they stand for until the end; a letter from Thailand arrives and its contents are divulged, again, not until the end; and names are dropped but not identified for pages. A description of the house itself — as "a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions . . . a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale" — can work quite well as a description of the novel.
However, according to Steven Moore, the novel is highly symmetrical: the action takes place during one month's time (October to November 1983), and chapters are arranged sym- metrically: 1 and 7, 2 and 6, 3 and 5 are linked in various ways, while chapter 4, at the center, contains most of the climactic action of the novel.
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The most notable social aspect of Carpenter's Gothic is its all-encompassing depiction of the deterioration of society. There is no fully realized love in the novel. Nothing very positive happens to any of its characters. Even everyday activities seem to be hazardous and doomed to failure: objects are constantly knocked over, no good news comes over the radio or television, food is repeatedly burned, cars and trucks break down, clocks and newspapers provide information which proves to be false.
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The Book of Revelations is the most frequently cited biblical text, and there are long quotations from Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. Like Bronte's novel, Carpenter's Gothic both draws from and parodies the conventions of gothic fiction. Set around Halloween, the novel employs several gothic elements: the isolated mansion, the mysterious locked room, an endangered maiden, the mysterious stranger, and even a picture's moving eyes (here those on a magazine cover). Gaddis makes ample use of Shakespeare, particularly the sonnet, "That time of year thou mayst in me behold" in the context of the Liz/McCandless romance.
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Like William Faulkner and John Barth, Gaddis refers unabashedly to his previous works or characters in Carpenter's Gothic. The story line, and even some of the names (Ude and Teakell, for example) come from J R (one reviewer has said that the main plot of Carpenter's Gothic comes from seven pages of J R). Liz refers to The Recognitions twice. In its focus on writers writing, Carpenter's Gothic echoes the depiction of Jack Gibb's composition of Agape Agape in J R, and Otto's struggles to concoct his play and Esme's to write her poetry in The Recognitions.
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLVI, August, 1985, p. 92.
Best Sellers. XLV, October, 1985, p. 243.
Booklist. LXXXI, May 1, 1985, p. 1217.
Christian Science Monitor. September 17, 1985, p. 25.
Library Journal. CX, July, 1985, p. 93.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. July 14, 1985, p. 3.
The New Republic. CXCIII, September 2, 1985, p. 30.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, July 7, 1985, p. 1.
The New Yorker. XVIII, July 29, 1985, p. 51.
Newsweek. CVI, July 15, 1985, p. 64.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, May 24, 1985, p. 63.
Saturday Review. XI, July, 1985, p. 69.
Time. CXXVI, July 22, 1985, p. 68.
The Village Voice. XXX, August 13, 1985, p. 43.
The Wall Street Journal. CCVI, August 26, 1985, p. 14.
Washington Post Book World. XV, July 7, 1985, p. 1.
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