While William Gaddis employs many of the same fictional techniques and themes in Carpenter’s Gothic that he initiated in The Recognitions (1955) and JR (1976), he brings a new limitation and control to his narrative selection and thematic development in this third novel. The Recognitions established Gaddis as the author of a cult novel, a novel that was widely respected but little read. Granted a National Book Award, JR broadened Gaddis’ reputation, particularly with university readers. Much shorter than its predecessors, Carpenter’s Gothic promises to reach a wider range of readers.
Continuing to rely heavily on dialogue to carry the plot, Gaddis has limited the number of characters in a given scene to two or three, the action to a single setting, and the time frame to a few days. These limitations provide the reader with a frame of reference from which to piece together the larger world that controls the characters and influences their attitudes and actions. The story must still be constructed from the fragmented talk of the characters, but the reduced field enables the reader to make connections more easily and perhaps more accurately.
Gaddis continues to show his characters to be inconsistent in reporting their own experience, feelings, and observations. The characters share an inability to be truthful with themselves and consequently within intimate relationships and casual encounters. The reduced scope of this novel enables the reader to catalog these variants and incorporate them in his growing understanding of the characters and the complexity of the story which they enact.
Liz Booth is the focal character in the novel. While the dramatic structuring of the novel precludes a conventional third-person point of view, her presence in all but the final scene provides an angle of vision for the reader to assume while processing the bits and pieces that represent the lives of the other characters. Each of the three major male characters in the novel is depicted either through his conversation with Liz or in telephone conversations held in her presence.
Paul Booth provides much of the dynamic energy of the novel, not only when he is in the house frantically preoccupied with sending and receiving phone messages but also when he is calling back to the house from his whirlwind public-relations efforts—this, on behalf of the charlatan Reverend Ude and his legal efforts to right alleged wrongs committed against him by countless persons and corporations.
Counterpoint to Paul’s energy is the lethargy of McCandless, the landlord who mysteriously appears and reappears to clean up his personal papers in the one room of the house which he has retained for personal use. His progress toward completion of the task is as slow and deliberate as his former work as a geologist must have been. In McCandless there is a reverence for the task as an end in itself—as opposed to Paul’s proclivity for using everything at hand for some ulterior motive or to build some external pattern.
In syncopation to the rhythms established by Paul and McCandless are the unexpected arrivals of Liz’s brother, Billy. His use of the childhood name of Bibb or Bibbs for Liz automatically pulls her into the vacuum left by her larger-than-life father and the role model provided by her ineffectual mother. This dynamic challenges Paul, causing him to lash out in defense of his own ego structure, while it awakes in McCandless the need to win a convert, to gain a following. Both responses hurt Liz: Paul becomes even more abusive to her, and McCandless becomes less attentive.
The action of the novel takes place in a rented house on the Hudson River. The...
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