William Thomas Gaddis is regarded as one of the most brilliant and difficult American writers of the twentieth century, the creator of works that are extraordinarily complex in design, language, and vision.
After graduating from Harvard University Gaddis lived in Latin America, Europe, and North Africa between 1947 and 1955, and he was a freelance speech writer and screenwriter between 1956 and 1970. He received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation as well as several prestigious awards, including the 1976 and 1994 National Book Awards for fiction.
The Recognitions, nearly one thousand pages in length and dealing “with such matters as art forgery, counterfeiting, false religious rhetoric, ambidextrous sexuality, the fraudulence of political life, and the masquerades of intellectual and artistic society,” is a Menippean satire on the entire modern world. The largely comic novel is encyclopedic, dense in style as well as content, and it has little traditional plot. There are fifty characters whose lives—their pasts and presents, as well as their anticipated conversations—cross and parallel one another. The story, which covers a thirty-year period, takes place in France, Italy, Spain, New York, and New England.
The central figure, Wyatt Gwyon, rejects his father’s calling as clergyman and instead becomes an artist. Wyatt’s efforts at understanding art in relation to life and true art in relation to counterfeit art involve discoveries regarding the shams and counterfeits of modern life. At the end of his pilgrimage he experiences an epiphany at a Spanish monastery, realizing that art and the preoccupations of the ordinary life are human structures created to save human beings from ultimate chaos. It is during this great spiritual and creative experience that Wyatt gains a recognition of the unity of all living and nonliving things and extends himself beyond the temporal and artistic to a sense of the intermingling of life and death.
(The entire section is 854 words.)