In “The Rush for Second Place,” an April, 1981, essay for Harper’s magazine, Gaddis spelled out the central concern of his fictions. “The real marvel of our complex technological world,” he writes, is “that anything goes right at all.” Events seem to follow a law of entropy: The more complex the system or message, the greater the chance for disorganization or error. Thus, in a United States grown hugely complex, there is “failure so massive,” Gaddis argued, that no one is accountable, and few things seem “worth doing well” any more. From these convictions spring some of the main difficulties in reading Gaddis’s works. The initial difficulties are of style, and they chiefly involve the complex allusions woven into the fabric of his dialogues and brief descriptive passages. They also involve Gaddis’s experiments with dialogue.
The allusiveness of Gaddis’s writing was a notable trait from the beginning. The Recognitions quotes and makes other forms of indirect reference to a wide range of texts: Snippets of T. S. Eliot’s poetry appear alongside other literary allusions, but the principal field of reference is that of religious myth and mysticism. Gaddis draws from secondary works of scholarship such as Robert Graves’s The White Goddess (1948) and James Fraser’s massive The Golden Bough (1890-1915), as well as from an impressive range of primary texts by the Catholic Church fathers (Saints Clement and Ignatius), and other sources such as the Qur’n, The Egyptian Book of the Dead, and books on occult beliefs and practices.
For his second novel, JR, Gaddis once more cast a wide net, bringing into play allusions to pre-Socratic philosophy, the poetry of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Germanic mythology—especially as it was popularly embodied in Richard Wagner’s operatic cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (wr. 1848-1852; The Ring of the Nibelung). Initial reviews of The Recognitions were perhaps harshest in judging these seemingly overdone scholarly tendencies in Gaddis’s writing. Nevertheless, a first-time reader of Gaddis’s novels does well to keep in mind that this allusive quality serves his aim of satirizing the uses of Western knowledge; a number of the allusions mouthed by characters are drawn from dictionaries of quotations and clearly participate in Gaddis’s broad satire of those who pretend to learnedness.
Taken at a distance, the allusions to world mythologies are also crucial to Gaddis’s great theme. They evoke a technologized, modern world in which meaning has shattered into “sound bites” or fragments of political and social dogma or even into mere errors. It is a world in which individuals long, often nostalgically, for totalizing messages, for the very stuff that myth provides.
The second stylistic difficulty of Gaddis’s writing springs from his experiments with dialogue. Along with James Joyce, and especially American authors such as Donald Barthelme and William S. Burroughs, Gaddis has stripped his characters’ direct speech of any conventional markers. He eliminated not only the quotation marks (which is the first thing the reader notices) but also markers such as speakers’ names, details about voice inflections, gestural counterparts, or contextual details identifying the localities of speech.
All such narrative particulars may still he embedded in the characters’ direct discourse (or, as well, they may not be). A Gaddis novel thus demands a much more active reader to reconstruct these ordinary signs of narrative art; eventually, in fact, one begins to know the voices by means of identifying tics, such as Jack Bast’s expletives or J. R. Vansant’s repeated exclamations (“Well holy!”) in JR. The result is an auditory performance of human speech, in all its fragmentariness, as if recorded by some omnipresent instrument. From these minimal but very potent semblances of speech, one is able to imagine a world, including the knotted woof of the characters’ pasts as they are criss-crossed by the accelerated and very noisy warp of present events.
Gaddis began to develop these rapid-fire dialogues in The Recognitions, with chapters set in the crowded and artistically pretentious nightclubs of Greenwich Village. These scenes of his first novel, composing a minor percentage of the text, are among its most memorably ludicrous for their disconnectedness and qualities of humorous counterpoint. In JR and Carpenter’s Gothic, the technique has virtually taken over. Gaddis’s second novel even dispenses with conventional markers of scene and time change, traditionally handled in fiction by chapter endings and beginnings or by the descriptive interventions of an omniscient narrator. Instead, across its several months of story time and 726 pages of text, JR is one seamless, nonstop ride on the babbling tongues of Americans in the year 1971. To block out chronologically separate scenes, chapter divisions were restored in Carpenter’s Gothic, but they disappear again in A Frolic of His Own.
After his death, Gaddis became a central figure in an ongoing debate on the value of ambitious literary fiction versus conventional fiction. In the 2002 essay “Mr. Difficult,” novelist Jonathan Franzen expressed his ambivalence for the postmodern novel—Gaddis’s work in particular—and the demands that it places on readers, provoking a firestorm of controversy in the literary world.
In large measure, the boldness of Gaddis’s techniques may be gauged by remembering that he was, foremost, a satirist. In traditional narrative satire, it is the function of omniscient intervention both to point out clearly and to judge plainly the exemplars of folly and vice. Gaddis refused to do this. He did, however, weave into each fiction a voice that points the finger and unceremoniously judges; such are the characters named Willy in The Recognitions, Jack Gibbs in JR, and McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic, who variously served as Gaddis’s outraged mouthpieces. Yet theirs were merely other voices among the din, so the lack of an omniscient standpoint still left the task of moral judgment to the reader. It was only with the posthumous Agap Agape that the reader was addressed directly by the narrator, a fictional stand-in for Gaddis himself. However, the conclusions that the narrator reached in this highly demanding final work still leave the reader unsure of what judgment to make, what lessons to learn.
Doubtless, this is exactly the point. As immensely complex “messages” in narrative, and charged as they are on the hyperspeeds and incompletions of contemporary technological culture, Gaddis’s novels ask the reader to confront forms of “failure so massive” that they would initially seem to defy order or meaning. Having confronted them, though, the reader’s next task is to begin tracing lines of organization and eventually to see that someone can indeed be held “accountable.” In The Recognitions, Gaddis holds up before readers a massive indictment of fakery in all reaches of American culture; in JR, his target is the failure of democratic capitalism as an American ideal; in Carpenter’s Gothic, his subject is the degrading of American millennial ideals by popular media, religions, and politics; and in A Frolic of His Own, it is the abuses of the American legal system under the false pursuit of justice. Defined by thematic intentions such as these, Gaddis’s novels make literary claims of major importance.
First published: 1955
Type of work: Novel
An artist searches for authenticity and order in a culture defined by its myriad counterfeits and its decline into disorder.
The Recognitions takes its title from a third century theological romance inscribed by Saint Clement, whose story concerned a neophyte’s search for true religious experience in the midst of a corrupted empire. Set in the 1950’s in the United States, and mainly in New York City, Gaddis’s novel nevertheless finds parallels (as one character notes) with “Caligula’s Rome, with a new circus of vulgar bestialized suffering in the newspapers.” Across 958 densely written pages, the text narrates the story of Wyatt Gwyon’s maturation, both aesthetic and spiritual.
Like most of Gaddis’s novels, this one begins with contested lines of descent. From the side of his mother, Camilla (who wanted to name him Stephen), Wyatt has inherited an artistic temperament. From his father, a Calvinist minister, he inherits a severe sense of the damnation of humankind and of his own guilt in particular. During a sojourn in Spain, Camilla dies mysteriously when Wyatt is three, and later the raging fevers of a mysterious childhood illness (drawn from memories of Gaddis’s bout with erythema grave) seem to confirm what he has been taught as a Calvinist.
It is Wyatt’s gift for drawing, however, that seems to pull his spirit back to health. Wyatt opts for divinity school, as had his father, but he paints in secret and eventually leaves the United States for Europe to study painting. There Wyatt is oblivious to styles of modernist art, and his best works are “recognitions” of the Flemish masters of the late middle ages. Disparaged by fashionable critics for this work, Wyatt gives it up, returns to the United States, and settles for draftsmen’s work and a mindless marriage.
Lapsing into cynical despair over his failures, Wyatt is discovered by an art dealer, Recktall Brown, who proposes to employ the young man’s talents in creating almost faultless forgeries of the Flemish masters, which he moreover proposes to have “authenticated” by his associate, a corrupted art critic named Basil Valentine. The circle of this plan closes when Wyatt’s canvases bring spectacular prices and, indeed, even a perverse recognition of his talents. Plunged into the relentless work demanded of him by this counterfeiting ring, Wyatt also falls into the pretentious bohemian demimonde of Greenwich Village. These chapters provide Gaddis opportunities for some of his most corrosive satires of an art world driven by egotism and profit motives. In this middle portion of the novel, Wyatt is virtually surrounded by frauds: Frank Sinisterra, a counterfeiter; Otto Pivner, a failed playwright who fakes a war injury, and whose only artistic motive is pecuniary gain; and Agnes Deigh, an overweight matron of the art world who encourages artists by feeding their conflicting physical and spiritual needs.
Increasingly depressed because of his corruption by money and the semblances of fame in this society, Wyatt considers resuming his divinity studies. The break finally comes after he witnesses Brown’s ludicrous death, in a fake suit of medieval armor. He also causes—or so he mistakenly thinks—the death of Basil Valentine. Wyatt flees America once again, on the same boat which had evidently brought his father home from Spain after Camilla’s untimely death. Wyatt eventually winds up at the same Spanish monastery, at Estremadura, where his mother is buried. Here Wyatt closes a different kind of circle. Not only does he change his name to Stephen, as his mother intended; he also leaves behind the seemingly ceaseless guilt about the conflict of matter and spirit which is his inheritance from his father.
Wyatt resumes a relationship with a Spanish mistress from his first European trip and commits himself to raising a child of that union. He also resumes his theological studies. He accepts the need for earned income, yet he continues with the painting which had been so corrupted by greed. The novel thus ends with tenuous assertions of balance, though on a very small scale. Wyatt/Stephen, his tiny family, their meager belongings, and few paintings suggest a balance achievable only in minimalist forms—a recurring theme in Gaddis’s later work.
Wyatt/Stephen’s solution stands opposite the enormously detailed world that Gaddis realized in this very large tapestry. Gaddis’s satirical target was a society in which, as Frank Sinisterra notes, “Everything’s middlemen. Everything’s cheap work and middlemen wherever you...
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