(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Surrounded by the documents and papers accumulated over the course of his life, the dying man who narrates Agap Agape is desperate to convey what he can of his work. The title is a pun: agap 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 computer age), 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.