William Gaddis Gaddis, William (Vol. 1) - Essay

Gaddis, William (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gaddis, William 1922–

An American novelist, Gaddis is the author of The Recognitions, a novel incredibly rich in its language and imagery. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 19-20.)

I'm tempted to risk weaving a tangled web by trying to lure you into this difficult novel [The Recognitions] through a description of the character relationships and of the story that gradually evolves from those relationships. Readers who stop too early miss contemplating one of the richest tapestries of character relationships in modern literature. But while it's not impossible to disentangle the numerous nexuses of relationships among the more than fifty characters, ten of whom are major, and to trace and link up the disconnected strands of narrative, the novel's genius derives partly from a form that defies the kind of plot parsing one must do in discussing a book few people have read. Extracted out of Gaddis's carefully prepared contexts, the episodes make little sense….

Galaxies of minor characters cluster around and enhance the major figures, providing a many-faceted series of parallels and contrasts: characters associated with religion; the variegated group of Greenwich Village artists, writers, editors, intellectuals, impostors who hang out at the Viareggio Bar; "queers and lesbians," who throng every avenue of the novel. And Gaddis turns loose in his demonic world several innocent half-wit women and hapless children. Numerous characters wander in and out of the book with no direct relationship to the others. The Recognitions is probably a roman à clef, but I don't recognize anyone except myself (though not literally, I hope)….

Despite its geographical range (New England, Paris, Spain, Italy, but mostly New York), The Recognitions often induces a feeling of claustrophobia, for much of it is set in rooms: "They arrived at a room full of people who spent their lives in rooms." And we experience time in fragments that are in the process of being ordered by the mind—Gaddis's, ours.

Like Ulysses, The Recognitions is an encyclopedic novel, full of expertise on a wide range of subjects, many of them obscure. I suppose some readers got mired down in the surface stuff of the novel. But possessing this expertise, Gaddis was naturally impelled to create characters who use it; as the god-like creator, he dispenses a great deal of it himself. His omniscient commentary (sometimes as aggressive as Thackeray's or Fielding's) enables him to suggest the pagan origins of modern Christian beliefs and to evoke every major era of man's history, with an emphasis on medieval times. There are numerous anecdotes of the customs, past and present, of foreign places; he occasions quotations from most of the major languages; a list of historical personages, secular and ecclesiastical, alluded to would take ten pages…. For all its sophistication and aura of ostentatious genius, Gaddis's novel has … a redeeming air of naïveté and faith. And it is a prophetic book, depicting horrors of the fifties that, rooted in the past, anticipate realities of the seventies….

The Recognitions's main theme is religion…. In constant contrast to religion today, the novel is full of ancient Christian lore, each item as relevant in one place as in another. The question "Is God watching?" haunts the book. Gaddis deliberately exaggerates the Christ symbolism, which was at the height of popularity in the fifties; it is complex, pervasive—he gives even minor characters the "Christlike" tag—and deliberately arbitrary….

Chance, coincidence, accident, and repetition reign in Gaddis's field of vision; eventually each of the characters, with the "unswerving punctuality of chance," encounters or unknowingly crosses paths with most of the others. Acts of a supposed great magnitude recur on a minor scale, and minor acts are enlarged, in a new context, to a scale of great magnitude, with seeming comic absurdity. Civilization is composed of trivia. Both fascinated and repelled himself, Gaddis makes us feel the mystery of the ordinary. He stresses the triviality of the present by juxtaposing great insights and extraordinary events from the past with the mouthings and the random pseudo-events of today. Simultaneously, he implies the existential absurdity of all culture. Nothing in The Recognitions is gratuitous, because the abstract terror of gratuitousness is, as in Gide, one of the major experiences this novel induces. Still, this is not a random book in the negative avant-garde sense; these experiences are controlled, making the repetitions and returns all the more exhilarating. Whether there is a specific cause or not, everything seems familiar; Gaddis demonstrates that we are damned to experience familiar patterns and people over and over….

The high incidence of chance, coincidence, accident, and repetition in the book is a compulsive consequence of Gaddis's vision. The reader's attentiveness to the crossed-paths pattern, for instance, emphasizes simultaneously a primitive sensory delight and an intellectual excitement in these recognitions, and the reader finally comes to see that where he started—with the title—is where the theme is relentlessly going: the way of recognitions. With so many complexities thrown out into space, Gaddis leaves the time sequence chronological, though fragmented; always in the present, we move from episode to episode toward the future, assessing the past. In the method and organization of The Recognitions, Gaddis enables us to "redeem time"—if we will…. Poetic juxtaposition is Gaddis's most effective technique, and with the reader's complicity, he comes as close as any writer ever has to pulling his fragments together, to shoring them against his, and our, ruins. The achievement of the orchestration of Gaddis's technical devices is the creation, for the most attentive reader, of a sense of simultaneity, cohering not, as for most works of art, in a compressed, poetic image, but in a mental, and perhaps spiritual, state of recognition.

David Madden, "William Gaddis's The Recognitions" (© 1971 by Crown Publishers, Inc.; used by permission of Crown Publishers, Inc.), in Rediscoveries, edited by David Madden, Crown Publishers, Inc., 1971, pp. 291-304.