Carpenter’s Gothic

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Nothing seems to have gone well for Paul and Bibbs since they moved from New York to the Hudson River Valley and an old house built in the fantastic wood-carved style known as carpenter Gothic. Both are prisoners of their language, which pours out of them in torrents. The disjointed rhythms of their speech mime the fragmented, disjointed patterns of their daily lives, forever interrupted by the telephone, by occasional radio broadcasts, and by images from the television screen.

This may sound like merely another disillusioned experimental novel, but not in the hands of William Gaddis, one of America’s finest writers. The rush of words is carefully crafted and a delight to follow: In all of his books, Gaddis seems to have the ability to amuse and horrify readers simultaneously. Like Charles Dickens and more recently Umberto Eco, he does not scruple to use themes from popular fiction. The commentary on American life and language might be enough by itself, but the book gradually becomes a thriller and ultimately a mystery story as well. Furthermore, Gaddis appears to have happily borrowed some of his characters’ status and nature from sources ranging from the classic American Southern novelists to soap opera and thick paperback “beach books.” The novel is an amalgam of so many strains of American culture that it is all but impossible to separate them.

The carpenter Gothic style produces a house whose outside does not reflect its inside arrangements, and this is also true of the lives of the characters--to borrow the title of Gaddis’ first (and also major) novel, the book is a process of recognition, recognition of everything from TV evangelists to African freedom movements to huge financial deals.

This is an excellent novel, the sort that may well be recommended to good friends with confidence.