Last Updated on January 19, 2017, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2925
Gaddis, William 1922–
Gaddis is one of America's most prodigiously talented novelists. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)
Approximately the size of six run-of-the-mill first novels; containing passages of sustained brilliance and interest which are sometimes more than half the length of an ordinary novel; exhibiting at times a wry and unusual sense of off-beat, surrealist comedy; The Recognitions yet gives all too often the impression of having been written by someone with absolutely no sense of the ridiculous whatever, much of the time completely at sea about what he was doing, and attempting to cover up by sheer pretentiousness and hokum.
Mr. Gaddis's outstanding talent is for the reproduction of a certain kind of pseudo-cultured American party conversation with a cutting and cruel realism that could scarcely be surpassed; his most-to-be-dreaded weakness is for a certain kind of melodrama in which the characters mouth cultural references at one another in the most excruciatingly pompous way. His central situation, if it is his central situation, about an unsuccessful painter who becomes a forger of genius, gives him plenty of opportunity for both. One of his party scenes, which goes on for seventy pages, is dazzling. The whole of the forgery business, with its utterly unreal melodramatic corrupter and its pompous parade of erudition, is terrible. This, however, is not because Mr. Gaddis cannot turn his imagination to event. The sub-forgery plots (forgery is one of Mr. Gaddis's main discernible themes) concerning money and an Egyptian mummy are comically and caustically inventive in a way that makes one wonder if the book is not the product of some macabre collaboration.
Sub-plots proliferate. Mr. Gaddis has taken a collection of Greenwich Village characters, unfortunately often difficult to distinguish from one another; given us a slice of their lives, not always very interesting, and their conversation, always murderously reproduced; and brought them all together for a climax of sorts in Rome in Holy Year. He has combined all this with the forgery themes, starting with the failure of his young New Englander to please the wicked critics in Paris in the 1930s; and ending with the affair of the mummy discovered in the Spanish graveyard. He appears to have changed his mind about two-thirds of the way through about who his principal character is. He has thickened the whole thing up with some witty background material—Spain, Paris, Rome, above all, of course, New York. He has also indulged himself in what appear to be theological, philosophical, cultural and symbolical maunderings which resemble his characters' maunderings at their absolute worst.
It is possible that this gargantuan book was written over such a long period of time that Mr. Gaddis improved out of all recognition in the writing of it and yet could not see the original stuff for the rubbish it was. But a reviewer should describe, not speculate: The Recognitions is a puzzle, at times a rewarding one.
"Double Take," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), September 14, 1962, p. 685.
The Recognitions [is] a massive and brilliant work so heavily weighted with erudition and thematic ambiguity that for all but a few readers it was totally inaccessible. Gaddis had tried with an arrogance surpassed only by Joyce in Finnegans Wake to produce a satirical portrait of no less than the entire modern world, and he had done so through a most intricate 956-page exploration of such arcane matters as art forgery, counterfeiting, false religious rhetoric, ambidextrous sexuality, the fraudulence of political life, and the masquerades of intellectual and artistic society. Predictably, given the nature of the book and the times, The Recognitions was reviewed either hostilely or stupidly, and in 1956, when I wrote in its defense, suggesting that it might be comparable in quality to some of the major novels of the Twenties and Thirties, I knew that I was merely enlarging my reputation for eccentricity. Yet by slow degrees over the next decade the book became something of a cause célèbre and acquired an underground reputation sufficiently substantial to persuade various publishers to issue three paperback editions—in 1962, 1970, and 1974.
As is usually the case with abrasively original work, there had to be a certain passage of time before an audience could begin to be educated to accept The Recognitions. The problem was not simply that the novel was too long and intricate or its vision of experience too outrageous, but that even the sophisticated reading public of the mid-Fifties was not yet accustomed to the kind of fiction it represented. Curiously enough, even though the most radical experimentation had by then been made respectable by the great modernist masters, there was still a resistance to it when attempted by living novelists. The most authoritative mode in the serious fiction of the Fifties was primarily realistic, and the novel of fabulation and Black Humor—of which The Recognitions was later to be identified as a distinguished pioneering example—had not yet come into vogue. In fact, the writers who became the leaders of the Black Humor movement had either not been heard from in 1955 or remained undiscovered. John Barth did not publish his first novel until 1956, and Thomas Pynchon, whose V. seems to have been heavily influenced by Gaddis, did not emerge until 1963. John Hawkes, although already the author of several brilliant experimental novels, was almost as unknown in 1955 as Gaddis was, and he has still not received the attention he deserves. But The Recognitions anticipated the interest these and other writers were later to display in the techniques of parody and self-parody, the comic use of fictions within fiction, and in particular the themes of forgers and fabulation. Their work over the past 20 years has created a context in which it is possible to recognize Gaddis's novel as having helped inaugurate a whole new movement in American fiction. Rereading it with the knowledge of all that this movement has taught us about modern experience and the opening of new possibilities for the novel, one can see that The Recognitions occupies a strikingly unique and primary place in contemporary literature. (p. 27)
[JR] is, if anything, even more ambitiously experimental than its predecessor and almost as massive, and it is perhaps more successful in engaging the vastly complex realities and unrealities of the way of life that has overtaken us in this technocratic age.
The most radical feature of JR (and the one that may limit its audience to readers possessing powers of superhuman endurance) is the form in which it is presented. The book consists of 736 pages of virtually uninterrupted monologue and dialogue, and almost continuous outpouring of language embellished scarcely at all by descriptions of character and setting. People by the dozens move back and forth through thick mists of verbiage, talking to and at and around and behind one another. Yet somehow nobody really listens or quite understands what is being said. This, as it turns out, is entirely appropriate to the subject, which is the debasement of language as both cause and symptom of the corruption of a society which has been abstracted by technology from the concrete realities of feeling and being, and in which the totalitarian obfuscations of bureaucratese, the gibber and jargon of the computer, and the lying Newspeak of Watergate politics, corporate finance, and multimedia education have severed the connection that is supposed to exist between words and the truths they are intended to describe. It is a society suffering from precisely the sickness Orwell discussed in relation to political language, the decadence of which, in any culture, is a direct reflection of the decadence of thought, the totalitarian need to obscure the meaning of certain politically sensitive ideas by expressing them in pseudo-scientific euphemisms or in dead metaphors that no longer have any specific evocative function. Carried far enough, this kind of semantic perversion ends in the creation of a world of fictions and forgeries in which words can be used to signify anything or nothing or are strung together to form a cathechistic mumble of sounds without relation to meaning. Reality, having become whatever one wishes to name it, soon disappears behind the words employed to misname it….
Gaddis depicts with very great ingenuity the forgeries of language in their connection with the counterfeiting of bureaucratic realities, and his emphasis is on two particular manifestations of the problem: the corporate structures of education and Wall Street finance. (p. 28)
The absurdity [of the plot, that is,] of an 11-year-old boy's gaining control of a huge financial empire is the ultimate burlesque expression of an idea dramatized everywhere in this remarkable novel: that in a society such as the one depicted, absolutely anything can happen because no one is effectively in charge and no one can control what is going on. Certain assumptions about the fundamental coherence and value of human existence have somehow been lost. There is simply no discoverable rational structure in anything; hence, nobody makes sense either to himself or in his efforts to communicate with others. The spoken language, with its endlessly reiterated ambiguities, its steady dissolution into streams of utterance signifying nothing, stands as the index of the berserk sensibility of the modern corporate state.
It is undoubtedly inevitable that the novel promises at almost every point to fall victim to the imitative fallacy, that it is frequently as turgid, monotonous, and confusing as the situation it describes. Yet Gaddis has a strength of mind and talent capable of surmounting this very large difficulty. He has managed to reflect chaos in a fiction that is not itself artistically chaotic because it is imbued with the conserving and correcting power of his imagination. His awareness of what is human and sensible is always present behind his depiction of how far we have fallen from humanity and sense. His vision of what is happening in our world is profound and extremely disturbing. If it should ever cease to disturb, there will be no better proof of its accuracy. (p. 30)
John W. Aldridge, "'The Ongoing Situation'," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), October 4, 1975, pp. 27-30.
JR is William Gaddis' first novel since The Recognitions, a critical success and underground classic, appeared twenty years ago. The publishers seem to be soliciting a broader audience this time around, hyping JR as a raunchy satire of big business. The come-on is misleading, however, for business provides the book with its dullest moments (does anyone hold Wall Street sacred these days?).
In a truer sense, JR is about the texture of modern living. Gaddis does not simply describe anomie; he adopts it as a prose style. In this epic of money and moneymaking, success and failure, Gaddis has rejected all narrative conventions. In their place, he wires his characters for sound and sends his story out on a continuous wave of noise—truncated dialogue, distracted monologues, the racket of TV sets, radios, telephones—from which chaos action, of a sort, eventually emerges.
Characters emerge as well, and though many of them merely serve the larger notions of the book, others are full and poignant enough to transcend the self-consciousness of the project and temper the calculation of Gaddis' style. These characters are, for the most part, failed artists, writers, composers. Their work is stalled, unappreciated. They hold jobs that depress them. Their marriages dissolve. They're drowning in the tide of noise and moneymaking that is the element the other characters thrive in. They can't make art for all the distraction, but they can't stop trying, either. It's hard to suppress the suspicion that these characters and their desperation and the way they express it come from the author's heart.
JR is one of that specialized type, a novelist's novel. It will be read with great curiosity by people deeply interested in the direction of modern writing. The more casual reader, though, the reader who would rather read a novel than a concept, is likely to be bored. (p. 118)
Amanda Heller, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1975 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), November, 1975.
William Gaddis is a demiurge. His first novel, The Recognitions,… proved his awesome power to create and people a vast and various universe, but even that towering achievement cannot entirely prepare a reader for the triumphant virtuosity and technical mastery of JR, his second novel and only other work of fiction. Here, he has fashioned a world so seamless that even chapter divisions have been banished. The narrative flows uninterrupted (and, in its perfectly linking mesh, uninterruptible) the full length of its 726 pages.
Narrative? JR consists almost solely of speech. The novel's intricate nexus of events is conveyed—and with total clarity—by the spoken word alone, a doubly dazzling feat since Gaddis frequently omits one or more sides of a conversation and assigns no speeches….
Openings for satire abound, and Gaddis makes much of them. Indeed, the first two-thirds of the novel are devoted to a satiric dissection of the worlds of American education and trade, and the relentless, scrannel bitterness that predominates grows almost unendurable. But Gaddis's range comprises infinitely more, of greater potency. Where the world he has brought into being to comment on our own evinces nothing but greed and vanity, he treats it with contempt. Where kindness and tenderness make their few and precious appearances, they have his deep and unsentimental compassion. The surprise of love and the fear of death pierce elaborate masks of romantic agony. Monsters of self-regard, separated from their children and transformed by their fierce affections, briefly assume a kind of tragic grandeur. JR himself, justly accused of defiling and destroying everything he touches, rises to heights of illiterate eloquence in his plea for respect for the values of others and in his disappointment over broken personal loyalties. As the novel closes, he alone faces the future with undimmed hopes and expectations. The world around him has retreated into mediocrity, indifference, sickness, madness, and desperation. With its inexhaustible verbal wit and invention, JR mounts a spectacle of an exorbitant waste of feelings and energies that strikes deep, wounds, and grieves the heart.
M. Anatole Gurewitsch, "Gaddis's Sixth-Grader," in Harvard Magazine (copyright © Harvard Magazine; reprinted by permission), January, 1976, p. 69.
The Recognitions, an enormous, ambitious novel exploring the theme of forgery in art and in life, appeared in 1955 to generally poor reviews. Anyone looking back at those reviews now would be surprised to discover how badly this somewhat difficult but by no means impenetrable book was treated by supposedly sophisticated critics. Gaddis' inventive style and philosophical concerns seemed, quite simply, to mystify them. Since that time, however, The Recognitions has come to be regarded as something of an underground classic. And recently the British critic Tony Tanner, who included an appreciative article on the novel in his unique City of Words [see CLC-3], again described the book as a work of major importance.
This type of response to a neglected work is not uncommon—underpraised when it first appeared, it is widely over-praised when re-discovered and re-evaluated. For while one admires all of the invention, wit, and thought that went into The Recognitions, one is disturbed by the pretentiousness and inordinate length of the book, its lack of concision and color, and its seemingly endless variations on a single theme. What begins as a fascinating, potentially major work, eventually becomes a tiring minor one.
Still, throughout The Recognitions the reader was aware of a strong guiding intelligence. The novel was overdrawn and overblown, but at least it possessed a sense of direction and purpose. That sense is conspicuously absent from Gaddis' huge, long-awaited, and already widely hailed second novel. What makes JR such a frustrating experience is that the reader realizes quite early on that the book is a failed experiment, that it is not going to change or improve or become meaningful. (pp. 104-05)
Admirers of JR have pointed to Gaddis' dialogue, which they find amazingly accurate. And, admittedly, it often is. Gaddis renders the patterns and idiosyncrasies of speech very well, and he does give us a strong sense of how PR, advertising, corporate, and legal mumbo-jumbo has entered our language. Unfortunately, though, he does not exercise enough control over his talent. He allows his characters to ramble on ad nauseam. Yes, the talk is accurate, but it is also dreadfully boring and tedious. The effect is akin to listening to hours of worthless conversation that has been recorded by a tape fanatic. After a while the only significant point the novelist seems to be making is how well he can capture chatter. His characters are buried under their own towers of babble. And as a result, the novel they inhabit appears to have no focus or direction.
Gaddis simply markets chaos. He makes few, if any, attempts to illuminate it. His method is not unlike that used by Pynchon in Gravity's Rainbow, but at least Pynchon's madness was inspired and often poetic. Gaddis' satire, such as it is, comes across as labored and strained, with all too many obvious tries at relevant, topical humor….
Perhaps I am severely underestimating JR, as critics similarly underestimated The Recognitions some twenty years ago. But at this point I am absolutely certain of two things: that the book is a terrible chore to read, and that Mr. Gaddis demands much from the reader while rewarding him with very little. (p. 105)
Ronald De Feo, "The Shock of Recognition," in National Review (© National Review, Inc., 1976; 150 East 35th St., New York, N.Y. 10016), February 6, 1976, pp. 104-05.
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