This novel is set thematically by the opening line, “Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” Justice is conceptual and as an abstract ideal can be perfect, while law is about language and is limited, ambiguous, bound by context. The ideal is often invoked, while the practical application is used and abused by the greedy and self-important. The novel’s title itself is a legal term, referring to a contracted worker who does something not specified in his contract and in doing so injures himself: The example used is of someone blinding himself by shooting paper clips with rubber bands at the office.
College professor Oscar Crease’s life seems to be a constant frolic of his own: Readers first meet him in the hospital, having run himself over when he hot-wired his own car. He intends to sue the car company, Sosumi, and is in the middle of another lawsuit: Oscar claims that a vulgar, best-selling film plagiarized his play about the Civil War (based on Gaddis’s own unpublished play). Returning to the deteriorating house where he grew up and continues to live, Oscar is cared for by his current girlfriend, Lily, and his sister Christina, who is suffering a strained relationship with her husband, Harry. As in other Gaddis novels, a good deal of action occurs offstage and certain characters never appear but loom heavily over those readers come to know. Oscar and Christina must deal with their father, a controversial...
(The entire section is 576 words.)