Gaddis, William 1922–
An American novelist, Gaddis has tackled themes of hypocrisy, greed, and alienation in two highly complex, large-scale works of fiction. Echoing Joyce, James, and Gide, he employs multiple levels of meaning and intricate allusions in his portrayal of the confusion and pain of human interaction, the despair and purposelessness of the human condition. He won the National Book Award in 1975 for JR. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
In some quarters of the literary scene today William Gaddis's novel "The Recognitions" is bound to be praised to the skies, and this reviewer keeps wondering who is being taken in. Mr. Gaddis has immense erudition; he writes in at least four languages; his use of mythology is impressive—and he shows the decay of faith in the modern world in over 900 pages of bright chatter….
[Beneath] the elaborate religious superstructure of the story, and the series of parallel invocations to the pagan gods, "The Recognitions" is really a typical art novel of the 1920s. And the fatal flaw of this genre is simply that the central figures, as in Mr. Gaddis's case too, are only half-artists, who never really engage our sympathy or interest; who never represent anything but themselves….
It is quite possible that Mr. Gaddis is not even pretending to an elementary realism, since the plot is complete fantasy….
Despite Mr. Gaddis's "irony, wit, and erudition," of which we are told, "The Recognitions" never achieves any kind of contact, not merely with modern life, but even with the biological vitality which it stresses. Or with any other kind of true human experience. Whatever is of genuine merit in the novel is drained off into a continuous verbal vaporizing; and whatever is here of genuine talent is consumed by an obsession, as I can only call it, with pretentiousness.
Maxwell Geismar, "World of the Half Artist," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 38, No. 11, March 12, 1955, p. 23.
[The Recognitions] is an immensely long first novel whose spiritual forebears are Joyce's Ulysses, Eliot's The Waste Land, and Gide's The Counterfeiters. Its theme is familiar—the modern world is hell: a place where the counterfeit is preferred to the genuine and where the presiding spirits are Fakery and Delirium. Sizable sections of the novel are set in Spain, New England, and Rome, but the dominant milieu is New York's downtown Bohemia and its prosperous uptown affiliates. Mr. Gaddis's manner, as his publisher observes, brings to mind the phantasmagorical canvases of Hieronymus Bosch. There is a similar sense of pervasive damnation; a similar combination of surrealistically imagined monstrosities and meticulous concern with detail; a similar comic grotesquerie. (p. 80)
The novel's central failure is that the characters through whom the corruption of the modern world is dramatized are inadequate for the purpose. Too many of them are drawn from Bohemia, which has always been (along with better things) the refuge of fakers, self-deceivers, and hysterics. One does not convincingly demonstrate that the world is insane by describing life in an insane asylum.
A second failing is that the theme has been elaborated before the halfway mark and what follows is further illustration rather than development. As for the resolution, it is presented too thinly and too obscurely to emerge as a...
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[In The Recognitions, the] canvas overflows with characters who are fatally infected with a malady that the author naturally attributes to decayed religious, professional and social institutions and their false values.
Mr. Gaddis himself does not escape infection. And it is significant that a novel which treats counterfeiting on such a grand scale should itself be an ambitious and impressive imitation. The Recognitions is particularly indebted to Gide, Joyce and Eliot for its theme, form, tone and symbolic use of imagery. And Mr. Gaddis does not discriminate against the past, with the result that we have such unhappy Shakespearian renderings as "age had not withered her, nor custom staled her infinite vulgarity" … and the glaring (if not inappropriate) "who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him."…
The most obvious borrowings from Joyce include a preoccupation with language—which in the Gaddis novel becomes an obsession: the Daedalus myth replete with a concern for the artist as artificer, fluttering birds and a Stephen (the name assumed by Wyatt at the end of the novel); and the Ulysses myth accompanied with allusions to Penelope and her suitors.
The influence of Eliot, however, is dominant and seeps into every crevice of the novel. We find obvious liftings, such as cruel April and depraved May, vacant lots, deserts, dry seasons and yew trees. We find dialogue that echoes Edward in The Cocktail Party…. We find Eliot's techniques of fusing disparate items for an ironic effect and joining contemporaneous fragments in the form of newspaper headlines, radio advertisements and popular songs to historical or mythological allusions. (p. 92)
Although Mr. Gaddis achieves tonal and thematic unity, he fails to provide us with either a plot or development, with the result that The Recognitions seems more like a crowded tapestry than a novel. For a plot he substitutes the conventional vehicle of a party and an omnipresent observer-eavesdropper who records bits of seemingly unrelated data. Both devices are handled with...
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William Gaddis's [JR] is a deadly serious attack on the American business ethic, the profit motive, and the materialism of contemporary life. It documents its charges in detail, and it covers the manufacturing, distributing, and advertising of shabby and often unnecessary products;… and the intricate and corrupt interrelationships between business and government. Not only does it expose the sordidness of this tangled knot of victims and victimizers, it expands to show the effect of this world on the corrupt world of art, the suborned American educational system, and the manipulable children whom it perverts into future victims and victimizers.
Nor is Gaddis content to describe merely the present state of things. A novelist within the novel is writing about F. W. Woolworth and the origin of the 5 & 10, for instance. But with Empedocles's aid, Gaddis goes back much farther than that, to the birth of the world in a chaos of fragments. These fragments, still whirling today into momentary patterns and apparent orders, also forecast—with T. S. Eliot as guide—the entropic decay of our culture into a future wasteland more horrid than even the present. Is there a way out? Gaddis offers only the faintest of hints…. [Love] and a loving communistic community of workers might save us—but nothing in this grim study of our time suggests that these are more than snowballs in hell. (pp. 523-24)
To an extraordinary extent, this is a spoken novel. Description is cut to a minimum, summary and explanation are nonexistent, while conversations—face to face and by ubiquitous telephones—chatter along interruptedly,...
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Despite the intricacies of structure and design that have gone into the making of The Recognitions, there is apparent in the work, as in the flamenco music so loved by Wyatt, "the tremendous tension of violence all enclosed in a framework," Much of what strikes the casual reader as "excessive" in the book—its length, the virulence of its satire, the wide and esoteric range of its allusiveness, the improbability of certain incidents—suggests the extreme lengths to which William Gaddis was prepared to go to create an art commensurate with all reality rather than some limited aspect of it. As with Moby Dick, the novel's implications move in wider and wider circles from the bobbing coffin of Queequeg, or the catastrophic final harmony at Fenestrula.
The Recognitions is an obsessive book, in that both author and characters seem driven to extremities of experience, perception, and thought…. [It] is through the focal character of Wyatt that The Recognitions carries on a continual and insistent debate. That debate, which might be termed the obsession of the novel as a whole, revolves around the following double question: What is the nature of, and what are the conditions for, genuine art?
That in The Recognitions "reality" and "art" are interchangeable metaphors for each other is, I think, clear to every thoughtful reader. The cheap tourist art of Montmartre, the upside-down painting of Max, the distorted portrait of Recktall Brown—each symbolizes and epitomizes the context of life that surrounds it. For Gaddis, art is the touchstone by which the genuineness of life is judged, and the purity of human motives measured. Wyatt is not only an individual artist, but an Everyman whose concerns are universal; his art—and art in general—is no mere adornment or addition to life, but life itself in the deepest and truest sense. This is part of the achievement of the novel: it succeeds in turning the simple analogy of art and life into a baffling and frightening identity. In The Recognitions questions that ostensibly deal with aesthetics actually are questions that probe to the very core of the human condition.
The Recognitions is remarkably self-reflective, in that the novel abounds in authorial comments about itself, its style, its difficulties—even its probable reception by critics. Part of the parody of the book is directed at itself, as if Gaddis were holding up a mirror to his work as it progressed. The comparison is an apt one, I think, for Wyatt uses mirrors in his work to obtain deliberate effects, and a sense of "the obscure reveries of the inward gaze" is sustained throughout the novel. This kind of conscious self-scrutiny, which unlike a conventional prologue or epilogue is intrinsic to the work itself, indicates that Gaddis's own art as a novelist, as well as Wyatt's as a painter, is a thematic and structural concern. The Recognitions is a first novel, and as such displays more than its share of self-consciousness, but the author's insistent scrutiny of his protagonist's aesthetic may well have served as a personal exorcism of similar demons troubling his own art. (pp. 127-28)
[Wyatt's] aesthetic is one of precise and severe laws that aim at the creation of … genuine art. I have used the word genuine here deliberately. It must be carefully distinguished from original, which in the lexical context of The Recognitions has a slightly pejorative connotation. The quest for originality is denigrated in the novel more than once as a misunderstanding of the artistic task…. [Genuine art] respects the achievements of the past and consciously builds upon them. It is concerned not with the vagaries of period style, but with transfigured reality, with that captured moment of luminous significance that Wyatt calls recognition. Such art is only secondarily original in the Romantic sense, but primarily seeks out, as Stanley puts it, "the origins of design," the archetypes of formal perfection which art can only reproduce in a reflected image. (pp. 128-29)
Wyatt's aesthetic is typically that of a certain kind of "melancholic" artist, if we might use that term in its full traditional significance as a humor. It is an aesthetic which is extremely conscious of technique and manner, often to the extent of forcing creativity into a Procrustean bed of preconceived forms. It sees itself as supremely serious, tending to a rejection of frivolity and play as inappropriate or unworthy of the truly artistic. It cherishes a personal piety (whether religious or secular) that invests reality with numinous, even mystical significance. It is an art of distillation rather than the wide swath, of the delicate jewel rather than the roughhewn stone. Moreover, it tends to exalt suffering as the origin and subject matter of all truly great creation, choosing themes and motifs reminiscent of Virgil's Sunt lacrimae rerum, mentem et mortalia tangunt.
At its worst, this art lapses into stiltedness and preciosity; at its best, it is subtle, refined, and capable of piercing discernment and sensitivity…. The drawback to perfection in small, limited forms (the "separate objects" that so intrigue Wyatt) is the danger of stagnancy and hyper-refinement, just as the danger in wide "epic" vision is banality and inflation. A healthy tension between the two modes is ideally desirable, although individual artists and periods lean to one or the other. In The Recognitions Gaddis is acutely conscious of the simultaneous polarity and complementarity of these two modes, and it might be a useful point of departure for structural criticism to consider the novel as a continuing counterpoint between them. Gaddis shows his love for (and skill with) fine detail and suggestion in the finely woven texture of his description and the labyrinth of his allusions; he reveals an impulse to epic scope in his effort to tie a welter...
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In a world in which people cling to their separateness, originality as a justification of their claim to individuality is of prime importance. But what if they lack originality, and are unable to accept it? They resort to fakery….
That there is something alarming about a world in which the compulsion to cling to one's separateness degenerates into … perverse and bizarre antics, not only enables Gaddis to provide the … rich texture [of The Recognitions] and much of its hilarity, but also engages him in an extensive exploration of the notions of individualism and originality. (p. 287)
Wyatt himself is only the centre of consciousness in the first few chapters; after that...
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