(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Gaddis’s third novel in as many decades, Carpenter’s Gothic was also his bleakest satire. Its style, as well as its theme of cultural entropy in a civilization where meaning and value are utterly degraded in a complex “media-scape,” are consistent developments for him. While no plot summary can succeed in conveying the rich tapestry of characters, events, and cultural detailing in his work, this novel is not only briefer (at 262 pages) but also more focused—and therefore more readable—than either of Gaddis’s prior works. For many readers, it therefore constitutes the best door into the writer’s work.

The story centers on the last four weeks in the life of Elizabeth Vorakers Booth, a former debutante and the daughter of a mineral tycoon. Her father’s suicide, nine years earlier, had been a desperate attempt to block the U.S. Senate’s investigation of various briberies, manipulations of the media, and monopolistic dealings in Africa that assured his company’s success. Liz’s husband, Paul, a Vietnam War veteran, transacted F. R. Vorakers’s bribes; he met (and seduced) Liz while testifying before the Congress after her father’s death.

The novel thus opens, as did Gaddis’s prior works, with complications resulting from a father’s will or lack thereof. Desperately frustrated that fortunes are either tied up in lawsuits or manipulated by a network of self-serving associates, Paul Booth rages against his fate, meanwhile goading Liz into pursuing any available tidbits the estate lawyers might give up and prodding her further into a lawsuit he has brought against an airline responsible (he claims) for his loss of Liz’s “marital services” when she was injured four years previously in a plane crash. Meanwhile, he has attached himself as a “media consultant” to the Reverend Ude, a fundamentalist preacher whose South Carolina television ministry is rapidly burgeoning into an influential social and political force.

Paul and Liz are verging on bankruptcy. She approaches their ruin with a pathetic resignation, but Paul drunkenly schemes and rages either at Liz, at the morning newspaper, or at the incessantly ringing telephone, in dialogues that unfold entirely within the Booths’ Hudson...

(The entire section is 922 words.)