Gaddis, William (Vol. 86)
William Gaddis A Frolic of His Own
Award: National Book Award for Fiction
Born in 1922, Gaddis is an American novelist.
For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 19, and 43.
Emphasizing litigiousness and greed as characteristics of contemporary American society, A Frolic of His Own (1994) focuses on Oliver Crease, his family, his friends, and the various lawsuits in which they are all enmeshed. Employing elements of humor and farce, Gaddis exhaustively details the absurdities of his characters' suits and subsequent countersuits. For example, Oliver is plaintiff in a plagiarism case he has brought against Constantine Kiester, a top Hollywood producer whose real name is Jonathan Livingston Siegal. Oliver is also, paradoxically, plaintiff and defendant in a suit concerning a hit-and-run accident in which he was hit by his own car—a Sosumi ("so sue me"). Taking its title from a British legal phrase used to describe an employee's actions which, though they resulted in on-the-job injuries, do not entitle the employee to compensation, A Frolic of His Own is largely noted for its satire of justice and law in contemporary American society and for its unusual narrative structure. Except for the inclusion of excerpts from Oliver's writings, legal documents, and trial transcripts, the novel is told primarily through dialogue that is unattributed and only lightly punctuated. Critics have praised Gaddis's realistic depiction of everyday speech—complete with pauses, interruptions, and unfinished thoughts—and stressed the difficulty such a narrative technique, reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness writing, places on readers. Steven Moore observed: "A Frolic of His Own is both cutting-edge, state-of-the-art fiction and a throwback to the great moral novels of Tolstoy and Dickens. That it can be both is just one of the many balancing acts it performs: It is bleak and pessimistic while howlingly funny; it is a deeply serious exploration of such lofty themes as justice and morality but is paced like a screwball comedy; it is avant-garde in its fictional techniques but traditional in conception and in the reading pleasures it offers; it is a damning indictment of the United States, Christianity and the legal system, but also a playful frolic of Gaddis's own."
SOURCE: "Plagiarism as the Metaphor for a Litigious Era," in The New York Times, January 4, 1994, p. C20.
[In the mixed review below, Kakutani relates the plot, themes, and narrative structure of A Frolic of His Own, concluding that "Gaddis's provocative vision of modern society is purchased at a price, the price of hard work and frequent weariness on the part of the reader."]
In The Recognitions, his monumental first novel published nearly 40 years ago, William Gaddis used the story of a would-be priest turned master forger to explore the loss of authenticity in the modern world, and the shifting relationships between life and art, art and faith. Those same themes—so pertinent in this post-modern era of recyclings and regurgitations—lie at the core of his long-winded, sometimes uproarious and often exhausting new novel A Frolic of His Own. This time, however, plagiarism, not counterfeiting, serves as the presiding metaphor; and the action takes place not in the world of art, but in the world of law.
Indeed, the idea behind A Frolic of His Own is idea theft, an increasingly common phenomenon in Hollywood that gained national attention in 1990, when Art Buchwald won a court victory against Paramount Pictures, contending that the idea for the 1988 Eddie Murphy film Coming to America had been stolen from a film treatment he had written in 1983. A...
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SOURCE: "No Justice, Only the Law," in The New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1994, pp. 1, 22.
[Towers is an American novelist and educator. In the following highly favorable review of A Frolic of His Own, he praises the novel's humor, satire, and focus on language and the law, suggesting that the reader not be discouraged by the difficulties of Gaddis's style.]
William Gaddis is the formidably talented writer whose work—until A Frolic of His Own—has been, I suspect, more likely to intimidate or repel his readers than to lure them into his fictional world. His first novel, The Recognitions (1955), is one of late modernism's sacred monsters, a 900-page display of polymathic erudition, which, though crowded with incident and allusion, shows minimal concern for narrative movement or the in-depth portrayal of any of its myriad characters. With JR (1975) Mr. Gaddis developed and ruthlessly exploited a technique of almost nonstop, scarcely punctuated dialogue, which he continued to employ in his next two novels. It is a technique that demands unflagging vigilance on the reader's part. I found the tone of both JR and Carpenter's Gothic (1985) so high-pitched, so unremittingly aggressive, as to blunt what might otherwise have been my pleasure in their satiric exuberance and mimetic brilliance. While there is still a good deal to be endured in his fourth novel,...
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SOURCE: "A Legal Lampoon Loses on Appeal," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIII, No. 3, January 17, 1994, p. 52.
[In the following review, Jones offers a negative appraisal of A Frolic of His Own, arguing that in this book Gaddis "hasn't met his own high standards" established with The Recognitions, JR, and Carpenter's Gothic.]
Time has never been kind to the novelist William Gaddis. In the '50s his first novel, The Recognitions, helped inaugurate an era where so-called difficult writers were lionized. But while the Pynchons and Gasses and Coovers—writers with similarly dark visions who forsook traditional ways of telling a story—reaped the benefits of his labors, Gaddis toiled on in relative obscurity. Two decades later he published JR, and again he was ahead of the curve. That vicious satire of American business was the perfect '80s novel. Unfortunately, it appeared in 1975. Reviews were good, but sales were meager. In 1985, a similar fate befell Carpenter's Gothic, in which he savaged fundamentalist religion.
Now Gaddis has published A Frolic of His Own, an extended satire on America's increasingly litigious ways. Surely no theme could be more timely? Surely, too, we've grown accustomed to unusual narrative strategies. A novel written almost entirely in dialogue with no quotation marks—that's not too daunting these days. As for Gaddis's gloomy...
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SOURCE: "Literary Trials and Tribulations," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, January 17-31, 1994, pp. 18-19.
[Kamine is a short story writer and film consultant. In the review below, he offers praise for A Frolic of His Own.]
William Gaddis stands alone. No other American novelist takes on the modernist challenge with comparable rigor or success. Few bother at all, beyond an easy self-reflexivity or the occasional insertion of Joycean interior monologue; most are content to explore 19th-century developments. The result is a conservative literary climate (albeit liberal politically) in which plot presides and innovation is adjunct to subject matter, not style. I don't mean to denigrate the importance of literature that breaches social barriers. I do, however, like to be reminded now and then of what drew me to literature in the first place. Gaddis, about once every 10 years (four novels since 1955), does this.
His latest work, A Frolic of His Own, challenges the reader from first page to last. Its dialogue is mostly unattributed, its descriptive passages are dense with events, allusions, everything but punctuation. Always difficult and occasionally exasperating, the novel is also immensely funny, moving and encyclopedic in its embrace of current concerns.
The central character, Oscar Crease, inhabits a dilapidated estate on Long Island. Housebound after...
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SOURCE: "Caught in the Web of Words," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 23, 1994, pp. 1, 10.
[In the following review, Dirda lauds the humorous aspects of A Frolic of His Own, calling the book "a superb comic novel."]
How is it that the greatest fiction of our century has been so funny? Joyce and Proust, obviously; but think too of Evelyn Waugh, Catch-22, Lolita, much of Invisible Man, Pynchon, The Master and Margarita, Beckett, Borges. Nothing, it would seem, dates so quickly as the earnest. Really Serious Novels—by D. H. Lawrence, Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf—now sound tendentious, a bit histrionic, often downright embarrassing. Perhaps, to quote Lawrence himself, because ours is such a tragic age we instinctively refuse to take it tragically. There's simply no other way to keep on going when the world is so clearly a hell of fraud, phoniness and moral vacuity, a bloody arena of religious fanaticism, political bankruptcy, money-grubbing, and personal betrayal. We laugh to keep from weeping.
As a guide to this fallen world, our world, no one is better, or funnier, than William Gaddis. To his bitter, exhilarating task he brings the savage indignation of a Swift or Gogol, an insider's command of the lore and lingo of specialized groups (artists, financiers, lawyers), a drama-like approach to storytelling, and a high modernist's cunning use of...
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SOURCE: "Down by Law," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 6, February 7, 1994, pp. 27-30.
[Birkerts is an American critic and educator. In the following review, he discusses the plot and structure of A Frolic of His Own, noting the volume's relationship to Gaddis's previous works.]
In recent years we hear William Gaddis spoken of in tones of breathless adoration—the outlaw late modernist, the father-figure to a generation of American novelists, the overcoat from which Pynchon, Gass and others emerged—or not at all. It is a difficult fate for the working novelist, who has not had the chance to be discussed and evaluated by readers alongside the critics. The reason is simple, and it somewhat indicts us as a culture: Gaddis is very difficult to read. In his second novel J. R., which followed the more traditionally difficult The Recognitions (1955) by two decades, he announced a prose style that earned him much esteem and, I suspect, fewer real readers than even the pessimist might suppose.
Essentially, Gaddis mated the colloquial sprawl of the conversational novel à la Henry Green with some of the elliptical techniques of modernist cinema, including ceaseless movement of the camera (or narrative focus) and rapid-fire, breath-catching and confusing transitions that have the reader constantly scrambling for orientation. To make things harder, at least in that novel,...
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SOURCE: "At Home in Babel," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 4, February 17, 1994, pp. 3-4, 6.
[Raban is an English critic, educator, and editor. In the following review, he lauds Gaddis's characterizations, his focus on late twentieth-century life, and his use of dialogue, language, and farce in A Frolic of His Own.]
Every William Gaddis novel tells its story in such a cryptic and allusive way that it can become a cerebral torture, like a crossword puzzle whose setter is named after a famous inquisitor—Torquemada, Ximenes. Reviewing JR in the New Yorker in 1975, George Steiner called it an "unreadable book"—a remark that got him into hot water with the professional Gaddisites, a solemn crew themselves given to sentences like "Read from this perspective, The Recognition demonstrates the essential alterity of the world, the meta-ethical virtue of agapistic ethics" [Gregory Comnes, in his 1994 The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis]. Certainly Gaddis tries one's readerly patience to breaking point, strewing the foreground of his fiction with obstacles designed to trip one up, slow one down, and generally bring one face to face with the (as it were) essential alterity of the novel as a willful tissue of words. Scaling The Recognitions and JR, one keeps coming on the remains of earlier readers who lost their footing and perished...
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SOURCE: "Courting Lawyers and Whores," in The Hungry Mind Review, No. 29, Spring, 1994, pp. 34, 42-3.
[In the excerpt below, Amdahl offers praise for A Frolic of His Own.]
Adventure! How may one avail oneself of it in a culture gone mad with comfort and dreams of safety? I think there are two broad avenues radiating from the modern American self toward the perpetually fluorescent horizon of modern American adventure: one is law and the other is medicine. White-water rafting, mountaineering, alligator wrestling—certainly these activities are exciting and put one at risk, but they seem hobbylike compared to the harrowing, soul-chilling thrills of engaging in multiple lawsuits, or of contracting a fatal, high-profile disease and being at the mercy of the dark gods of insurance and technology. American adventures are adventures of money.
Two extraordinary novels, A Frolic of His Own, by William Gaddis, and Butterfly Stories, by William Vollmann, are dramatic cases in point, and constitute, in themselves, genuine (if literary) adventure. Resembling each other in almost no way (subject matter, structure, style, voice), the two novels share a great deal fundamentally. They are both sui generis, unmistakably and uncompromisingly original. They are technically innovative. They are dark, rich, solid, and occasionally sordid (especially the casually provocative...
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SOURCE: "Reading the Riot Act," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 258, No. 16, April 25, 1994, pp. 569-71.
[An American critic and educator, Moore is author and editor of several works on Gaddis. In the following highly laudatory review, he discusses the experience of reading A Frolic of His Own and questions the validity of critical assessments that denigrate the novel for its ostensible "difficulties."]
The phrase "literary event" has been dulled by years of misuse by glib publicists; but no other phrase describes the appearance of a new novel by William Gaddis, one of this country's true literary giants. The review media's response to this literary event [the publication of A Frolic of His Own] has been disheartening, however, as if nothing has changed in the forty years since Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions, was panned. Then as now, the main charge is "difficulty," yet only in literature does this seem to be a sin. One rarely sees a music critic complain that Philip Glass expects too much of his listeners, or reads that Merce Cunningham expects too much from his audience. In diving competitions and magic acts the degree of difficulty is admired. But let a writer execute a difficult task with breath-taking technique, and mostly what's heard is heckling—whining and moaning about how much effort is involved in watching the artist work. What should be a privilege is treated like...
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SOURCE: "So Sue Me," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 9, May 12, 1994, pp. 20-1.
[Wood is an English-born critic, screenwriter, and educator. In the following review, he examines Gaddis's use of dialogue, wordplay, and humor in A Frolic of His Own.]
It's hard to think of a writer who publishes a book every ten or twenty years as garrulous, or of a person who produces his fourth novel at the age of 72 as prolific; but we need some such terms if we are to begin to describe the extraordinary work of William Gaddis, born 1922, the author of The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985) and now A Frolic of His Own.
Everyone talks in these novels, all the time and at length. They don't listen, or they barely listen; or they listen too late, so that what they finally hear confounds everything they have been saying. Their style, at least in the last three novels, is breathless and jumbled, often pronounless, dedicated to the present participle. From JR:
See life draining out of everything in sight call that beautiful? 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 dry cheese sandwich charge you a dollar you wouldn't even put butter on it, finally pull into that desolate station scared to get off scared to stay on....
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SOURCE: "Jarndyce USA," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4757, June 3, 1994, p. 22.
[In the following, Leader favorably reviews A Frolic of His Own.]
William Gaddis is now only obscure in one sense. At seventy-two, after long years of neglect, he has become a visible presence in American fiction, a modern—postmodern? modernist?—master. Gaddis has written four fiendishly clever and demanding novels: The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985), and now A Frolic of His Own, itself a comparative frolic at 586 pages. JR (726 pages) won the National Book Award in 1976, and last year, along with The Recognitions, was reissued as a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic. Both volumes contain extravagantly admiring critical introductions and an impressive list of "suggestions for further reading". Gaddis himself, meanwhile, has won a MacArthur Fellowship, been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was recently appointed official state author of New York, recognition that might well account for the new novel's relative accessibility.
Still, A Frolic of His Own is no day at the beach. As Gaddis himself puts it towards the end of JR, in words that apply to all his work: "Don't bring a God-damned thing to it can't take a God-damned thing from it", a message extracted from the following not-atypical...
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Eder, Richard. "Literary Legalities." Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 January 1994): 3, 12.
Recounts Gaddis's comic portrait of legal issues in A Frolic of His Own.
Klawans, Stuart. "Further Frolics." The Threepenny Review XV, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 12-13.
Offers a comparative review of A Frolic of His Own and Catharine A. MacKinnon's Only Words.
McGonigle, Thomas. "Men in Suits." Chicago Tribune—Books (9 January 1994): 3.
Mixed assessment of A Frolic of His Own. Although describing A Frolic of His Own as "the wittiest novel to be published in many a year," McGonigle argues that the book's narrative structure and flawed characters may frustrate readers.
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