Gaddis, William (Vol. 19)
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.
(The entire section is 256 words.)
Charles J. Rolo
[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...
(The entire section is 445 words.)
James J. Stathis
[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...
(The entire section is 879 words.)
J. D. O'Hara
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...
(The entire section is 682 words.)
Joseph S. Salemi
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...
(The entire section is 2450 words.)
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 he remains for the greater part of the novel in the background as a nameless, though haunting, presence, until he reappears under his new identity, Stephen Asche, merging at the very end of the novel with both his literary model Stephen Dedalus, since Gaddis changes his name Stephan into Steph en, and the dead. What seems to be suggested here is that the boundaries between the world of fantasy, the dead, and the living are illusory. The only reality is the species, humanity at large; the ultimate recognition of reality is the people—in their organized, institutionalized forms: the community, the state; and the Russians, the Chinese, will find no difficulty in agreeing. Is America to follow? Is what The Recognitions conveys a...
(The entire section is 1082 words.)