In JR, the society of “middlemen” has spread, virus-like, and the resulting depreciation of all values is Gaddis’s main theme. The characters’ desires for commercial and aesthetic success highlight a crisis in values: Artistic significations (words and musical sounds, for example) are conflated with money, and a monetized culture further governed by the principal of usury (the extracting of “interest”) diminishes things all around. In this novel, therefore, money almost literally talks—and does so in relentless, rapid-fire sentences that threaten to drown out meaning. Edward Bast, the artist figure of this novel, must struggle relentlessly to free himself from these conditions. Mostly he struggles with a vastly institutionalized usury that drives him, at novel’s end, into a feverish delirium (brought on by exhaustion and pneumonia) that recalls Wyatt’s at the beginning of The Recognitions.
JR opens in the Long Island home of Bast’s two aging aunts, who are engaged with a lawyer in discussing the settlement of the estate of Thomas Bast—their brother, Edward’s father, and the owner of a business that manufactures player piano rolls. Thomas has died intestate, and thus, as in Gaddis’s first novel, the constituting theme is inheritance. Edward’s appears to be a purely financial legacy, but the characters’ dialogues unfold complications: Thomas’s first wife bore him a daughter, Stella, with claims on the estate; it also becomes evident that Thomas’s second wife, Nellie, may have conceived Edward during an adulterous affair with Thomas’s brother, James. Edward might therefore lay claim to the Bast wealth through either, or both, of these potential fathers. The overriding question, however, is whether he will choose to inherit the gifts of art or money.
Enter J. R. Vansant, a sixth grader at the Long Island school where Bast has been hired to teach music—absurdly, he is teaching Wagner’s The Ring of the Nibelung for an upcoming performance. JR’s part of the opera is, significantly, that of Alberich, the grotesque gnome who renounces love for money and sets out to enslave men by possessing the golden ring of the Nibelung. Having just returned from a field trip to a Wall Street brokerage house, JR is filled with dreams of unlimited financial success.
A bit of epithetic advice proferred by one of the...
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