William Gaddis Gaddis, William (Vol. 8) - Essay

Gaddis, William (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Gaddis, William 1922–

Gaddis is an American novelist. Although The Recognitions initially received harsh criticism from the literary world, the novel has enjoyed a steadily growing reputation and is now considered a contemporary American classic. His second novel in twenty years, J.R., won the 1975 National Book Award. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Homogenization, confusion, intermingling of realms constitute the core of J.R. … [Gaddis is skilled] at depicting the intrusion of the corporate world into the worlds of education and the arts. Aphorism follows brilliant aphorism follows devastating image with a controlled abandon that will provide fodder for cocktail party paranoias of corruption for months to come. But that notion of corruption which rests upon the implicit acceptance of some master villain does violence to the complexity, artistic force and strand of genuine despair of Gaddis' work. An honest to God villain would make things much easier. In fact, Gaddis offers us no scapegoat, and I think his Gibbs must be taken with deadly seriousness when he says there is no wise man who vanished with the truth. (p. 29)

Gaddis has mastered the absurd logic of corporate society. Thus one of the themes of J.R. charts the accelerating deterioration of education from school as custodial institution, to televised teaching, to the packaging of communications skills, to advertisements in textbooks, to money for grades, to school personnel turning up as hospital personnel. And the novel ends with a child still trapped in a vast statue on a wind-swept cultural plaza, victim of the combined forces of purchased art and cultural-hegemony-seeking purchasing power….

Gaddis [also] plays skillfully, although never glibly, with the tortured tangle of human existences. Child and parents, husband and wife, lover and lover meet each other, pass each other, use each other, lose each other…. The confusion and pain of human contact twists through the novel, people never sure if they love or whom or why. Their love never moves directly from one individual to another; it passes inexorably through the social nexus….

This novel does not make for easy reading; nor does it end in some reassuring grand design. The 700-odd pages of almost uninterrupted conversation, unrelieved even by chapter breaks, capture the pervasive plasticity of a social experience that blends imperceptibly with mindless technological necessity. God is not in his heaven, all is not right with the world. Even the human facsimile of divine purpose, artistic creation, is fighting a desperate rear-guard action against the lack of purpose. The theme of creativity, like that of love with which it intertwines, twists in and out….

The levels of meaning defy any succinct rendering. The wider one's knowledge, the more numerous the opportunities for discrete interpretations…. At least by the second reading, if not the first, even the untrained ear will begin to pick up the haunting melodies, the phrases that recur periodically in old and newly absurd context. Gaddis has more than proved himself a master of his craft, and that craft is sheer delight. After indulging in taking the pieces apart, one must return to listening to the whole. (p. 30)

Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1976 by The New Republic, Inc.), February 7, 1976.

JR does for American business what James Joyce did for Dublin, and Joseph Heller for World War Two. The eponymous hero belongs to that peculiarly North American line of hustling go-getters which includes Milo Minderbender, Sammy Glick and Duddy Kravitz, except for the fact that JR … [is] only 11 years old!

Dreiser and Dos Passos are William Gaddis's literary brethren. He reworks their canvases in experimental, contemporary colours, producing a gigantic and overpowering jigsaw of American megalomania. A charivari of characters parades through the book as their stories cross and interweave with bewildering intricacy….

As the book is written almost entirely in dialogue—and nobody ever seems to finish a sentence—the only clue the reader has as to who is speaking is the speech pattern itself: but so finely is each character observed that, eventually, that is all one needs. The author makes very few concessions and demands careful reading: there is minimal punctuation; dialogue suddenly becomes narrative without warning, and these occasional narrative passages—at odds with the naturalistic dialogue—maunder into Faulknerian obfuscation. But, happily, the narrative accounts for a minute percentage of the book.

I am lost in admiration for Mr. Gaddis's achievement: in encompassing the worlds of business, government, education, the arts and music, journalism and public relations, while sustaining the rhythm and pace, the humour both high and low, the puns and wordplay, and counterpointing these with extremely moving scenes and romantic ones, Mr. Gaddis has marshalled enough material for half a dozen novels, fashioning a satiric vision of contemporary America that can only leave you breathless. (p. 717)

Tony Aspler, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1976; reprinted by permission of Tony Aspler), June 3, 1976.

In 1955 William Gaddis published his first novel, The Recognitions, a perplexing, anagramatic, massive book which speculated on the themes of forgery, falsity and cash, and the place of art in the modern technologised world. Recognition was, in fact, what the book was slow to get. But it subsequently made its way as one of the contemporary American classics of experiment, and it has some real claim to have influenced the development of the massive, modern, post-psychological novel as this has evolved latterly in the United States. John Barth and, especially, Thomas Pynchon have been running with the same baton; and Pynchon's V and his Gravity's Rainbow have shown much the same obsessions, with the creation of plot and verbal text in a world of science and technical energy which has tipped irretrievably over the edge into entropic decline. The 'technetronic' novel has indeed become an American species; highly regarded, but nonetheless requiring of its readers a certain specialised tolerance. Heavily lexical, given to massive textual proliferation, elaborated learning, and complex inner ciphering, evolving through characters who do not so much make as suffer a plot evolving itself for plot's own sake, it invites the reader to a kindness not always easily granted to fiction.

It is, then, only fair warning to say that with his second novel Gaddis has, 20 years later, come back to enjoy the salad days of the species. JR is 726 pages of decidedly hard reading, a work of minimalist conventions, heavy on inventions and play. Modern America, according to the now very recognisable conventions of this species, is metaphorised as a universe of cybernetics and capital. (p. 820)

The first word of the text is 'money,' spoken in 'a voice that rustled,' and money, spawning, interconnecting, dividing, dominates and plots the book. It is an ancient theme of fiction, but Gaddis wants it for a total vision; JR is packed with learned financial elaborations so dense that the work is surely ripe for serialisation in the Wall Street Journal…. (pp. 820-21)

Malcolm Bradbury, "Hello Dollar," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), June 18, 1976, pp. 820-21.

[JR] is about money—its power, its pervasiveness, its curious progression toward the unreal as its quantity increases; it is also and inseparably about the waste of talent, substance, love, and ultimately lives, and the base misuse and destruction of art and intelligence. The literally hundreds of materials used by Mr. Gaddis to deploy and elaborate his themes take their shape as accreted layers of data and innumerable threads, twisted and tangled. It is a magnificent work that is at once savagely comic and drenched in bitter pathos. While it is not tragic, it surely exists at the edge of despair. By a painstaking marshaling of detail, the major characters are given us finally as exhausted, beaten, and desolate. (p. 613)

[Everybody] and everything in the novel is interconnected in what might justly be called a perfect if insane logic of possibility. JR does not work on the level of a meager naturalism, but supposes a world that exists of and for itself and in which all the characters are rigidly predestined to play out their roles. It is a claustrophobic world that works, within itself, like a syllogism. The author insists on a closed system: that this system plunges, with maniacal precision, toward denouement within that greater system that we may label the "real world" makes it no less a creation of supreme effectiveness and fictional truth.

JR, a sixth grade pupil at a gadget-ridden, computerized, and flagrantly intellectually bankrupt public school on Long Island, sits at the center of the novel, a boy who is the epitome of greed, the quintessential product of twentieth-century culture run to seed, plastic, and decay; at the same time, he is vulnerable, alone, touching—a castoff of his society and of his broken family within it. From this center, he sets in motion a chain reaction of financial wheeling-dealing that touches the seats of power where the decisions that affect the structure of the world—its politics, culture, social priorities—are formulated. He is, in his precocious strivings toward acquisition for its own sake, for the sake of attaining whatever, God help him, he may take to be the good life, a perfectly formed miniature of the macrocosm that he imitates. (p. 614)

Mr. Gaddis has entwined [his] characters' lives in such subtle and elaborately complex ways that "answers" or suggestions of possible answers as to their motivations and relationships are not so much given as they are strewn across the novel's pages…. The complexities are endless and ironic and shattering. Minor characters function in odd, neurotic, yet precise ways, elements of data in this enormous investigation of avarice and waste and their casualties.

Painters are cheated of their money, used and exploited as producers of saleable goods; writers are blocked, thwarted, duped, or twisted into shiny and agreeable hacks; lovers are sacrificed to fates that function as cosmic jokes; a school is perverted, drained, and finally sold; groves of ancient trees are paved over in a "deal" and in another a house is moved; marriages are smashed and soldiers sent to their slaughter carrying toy guns; and all of this (and dozens of more instances of perversion and corruption) is not only inevitable, it is logical, legal, and normal. The cause for this socially acceptable devastation is the quest for profits. On its simplest and most obvious level, JR is a compendium of those things that have been done, over the past half-century, to the people of the world by their governments and those whom governments truly serve. It is also, as I hope I have suggested, an investigation of the artist in a society that not only has no need for him but that despises him, and a mordantly limned picture of the "common man"—armed with his manipulated opinions and his jest of a "voice" in public affairs. (pp. 614-15)

Mr. Gaddis's ear is the perfect one of all first-rate novelists, by which I mean his speech as here recorded is beautifully crafted so as to appear to be "real" speech. His characters speak in cadences as precisely stylized as those of, say, Hemingway or Henry Green. It is not the product of the tape recorder that we are given, but the carefully selected and shaped materials that reveal each character as definitely as physical description. The patterns and tics of each character's speech are so brilliantly molded, so subtly and yet totally different one from the other, that the reader, after his first introduction to a character, has no difficulty in identifying that character in subsequent passages. It is a remarkable achievement and, I think, a stroke of genius on Gaddis's part to have structured his novel [mostly in dialogue]. Not only do we stay in absolute touch with what is being said by everybody, we begin to hear not only what is said, but what is meant. The "time" of the novel is of course rigorously restricted to the actual time it takes the characters to say what they have to say. Perhaps most importantly, this method of composition allows us to see the surfaces of things—what is really there, what people really appear to be to each other and to eavesdroppers (like the reader). This jettisoning of tawdry and banal "psychological" probing and the "hidden motivations" of characters allows Mr. Gaddis a clean surface, blessedly free of bunkum masquerading as the profound. What we know is what we hear.

JR strikes me as one of the very few distinguished and written American novels published in the last decade; indeed, it makes most other novels of this period seem watery or pretentious or both. Its comedy is that of all excellent comic artists—it conceals the ultimately absurd hopes and pretensions of life. It is a brilliant work—a great novel. (pp. 615-16)

Gilbert Sorrentino, in Partisan Review (copyright © 1976 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLIII, No. 4, 1976.

Winning the 1975 National Book Award for his second novel, JR, partially compensates William Gaddis for the neglect and incomprehension accorded his first novel, The Recognitions. Perplexed readers needing a guide and hesitant readers needing a goad will do well to realize that Gaddis, far from being a long-winded aberration, is a worthy follower of a tradition begun, say, by James Joyce and continued by many others, including Thomas Pynchon. Like his cohorts, he employs vast erudition to clarify inchoate but interesting reality, thereby contrasting the intellectual life with the quotidian. Gaddis, like the others, is fascinated by language and his own literary patterns. He also tries to find an ethical theory that will make sense in the contemporary world and to see whether love can still endure. He addresses these issues with a skill sufficient to justify the effort required to read his two thick books.

The Recognitions is difficult partly because its characters are slightly peculiar. Its hero, Wyatt Gwyon, slips away like a Cheshire cat, leaving behind only his grimace. For hundreds of pages, that is, he has no name, and at the end he is called Stephan Asche. Many of the minor characters, like those in such works as Candide, Gulliver's Travels and Gargantua and Pantagruel, are little more than vaguely dramatized intellectual positions. The action of The Recognitions is comprehensible section by section, even though it does not proceed coherently throughout. Accounts of Sinisterra, a counterfeiter of money, and Wyatt, a counterfeiter of paintings, alternate with satiric vignettes of pseudo-intellectual life. All these scenes work like mirrors to reflect light on Wyatt's search for understanding, which, because of the important religious theme, appears to be a search for salvation. Wyatt finds it in Spain as The Recognitions ends. (pp. 1-2)

Gaddis, like T. S. Eliot, looks to Dante for a viable system of ethics, hoping that in the past he can find an order transferable to the chaotic present. His method of using Dante is Joycean, however; in his novel The Inferno reverberates with contemporary life, as The Odyssey does in Ulysses. (p. 2)

[A] series of clues identifies the section of The Inferno that is most relevant to The Recognitions. Gaddis refers occasionally to an elderly art collector, the Conte di Brescia, and at the end of the book Stanley sails to Italy on the Conte di Brescia. Gaddis thus alludes to Dante's passage about Adamo di Brescia, a counterfeiter who resides in the tenth and last Bolgia of the eighth circle of hell. Here suffer persons who have committed four types of simple fraud: alchemy, false witness, counterfeiting and evil impersonation. Analysis of these four sins is the most important compenent of the ethical theme in The Recognitions….

Valentine is guilty of fraud, although not of alchemy specifically, because he sells Wyatt's counterfeit paintings and because he plagiarizes. Like other characters, Valentine for his own advantage desecrates things by transforming them and rejects transcendental judgment for a paltry kind of rationalism, mystery for magic, and art for profit. Some of the false witnesses, the fraudulent with words, in The Recognitions are the reviewers whom Gaddis mocks. Here his borrowing from Dante resembles using a cannon against gnats…. The counterfeiters, particularly Sinisterra and Wyatt, require little comment. Gaddis' meticulous description makes them the most vivid instances of fraudulence. (p. 3)

The other sinners in Dante's tenth Bolgia are evil impersonators. Gaddis, like Dante, includes literal examples. Sinisterra sometimes poses as a Rumanian, Mr. Yák, and he induces Wyatt to call himself Stephan Asche. Most of the instances, however, are figurative and contribute to the satire of pseudo-intellectuals: persons who impersonate real intellectuals…. On the topic of pseudo-intellectuals Gaddis … drifts away from his Dantean perspective and writes conventional satire against easily ridiculed targets.

Recktall Brown, the wealthy leader of the art counterfeiters, is the Satan who presides over this hell and thus Gaddis' embodiment of contemporary evil. His name is a scatological pun that recalls the medieval belief in the devil's association with the anal regions. Brown's name also reminds one of Freud's and Norman O. Brown's analyses of the anal-retentive character type. Revealing another source of his satanism, Brown appears in circumstances like those in which Mephistopheles appears in Goethe's Faust. A dog runs in circles around Otto and Wyatt, gradually moving closer, and a dog circles Faust and Wagner. Wyatt inadvertently identifies it when he says, "'damned … animal out of hell'." Brown, the dog's owner, soon appears, as Mephistopheles does in Faust. According to his notes, Gaddis originally intended this novel to be a parody of Faust, apparently with Brown trying to win Wyatt's soul, but the echoes of Freud and Brown seem more relevant to Gaddis' purposes, because they indict materialism as a cause of moral squalor. (p. 4)

Alive in a hellish world, denied the traditional comforts of art and religion, which have their own troubles, Gaddis' sensitive characters suffer. As an analogue of their suffering, several times Gaddis mentions Rilke's suffering. Even one of the pseudo-intellectuals claims, "'I understand Rilke, I understood him because he understood suffering, he respected human suffering, not like these snotty kids who are writing now'."… Gaddis' references to Rilke show his recognition of suffering, but when he is examining contemporary problems he uses most of his energy for satire, not for empathy….

Although some reviewers have accepted Valentine's comments [connecting Faust with the Clementine Recognitions] … they are misleading. Gaddis has said that he discovered Faust's connection with the Clementine Recognitions by reading The Golden Bough, but the closest relation I can find with that legend is that three of the characters have names that sound like Faust. Gaddis probably did discover the Clementine Recognitions while he was writing a parody of Faust and then began to write a different kind of book, a more serious one, to which Valentine's comment is not a reliable guide.

A better understanding of this ancient book will clarify Gaddis' novel. Two of the Clementine books, The Homilies and The Recognitions, tell essentially the same story. Clement, a non-Christian, hears Barnabas and follows him to Palestine, where he meets Peter and becomes his secretary. The members of Clement's family have become separated, he tells Peter, who later finds them. A standard history of early Christian literature calls these works Ebionite: heretical because they emphasize the Mosaic covenant and Peter at the expense of Pauline Christianity. Of the two kinds of Ebionism—Essene and Gnostic—the latter is evident in the Clementine Recognitions, which advocates "gnosis" (intuitive knowledge or recognition) and direct religious experience unencumbered by the theology of Paul, the fathers of the church and later thinkers. Like the Clementine Recognitions, Gaddis' book extols direct experience and intuition and denigrates experience mediated by so much knowledge or artificial behavior that it provides neither meaning nor comfort. (p. 5)

Gaddis' frequent allusions to James Joyce suggest that recognition is analogous to Joyce's idea of epiphany. One can also define recognition as transcendence of ordinary perception, about which Esther thinks like a scholastic philosopher: "substance the imperceptible underlying reality, accident the properties inherent in the substance which are perceived by the senses." In these terms, perceiving substance is thus recognition.

Some characters understand recognition by creating and theorizing about art…. Statements about painting, about copying painting, and about counterfeiting painting—the most important threads in this plot's tangled skein—illuminate the meaning of artistic originality and thus illuminate recognition in both the aesthetic and general senses.

By all these means Gaddis clarifies recognition, but the things that his characters recognize are more important. Wyatt arduously learns the most important lesson near the book's end, although hints about it appear much earlier. At first he, like Otto and other characters, admires Flemish painters of the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries—Memling, Van der Goes, the Van Eycks, and others—because they filled their canvases with accurately portrayed discrete objects. At that time Wyatt attributes their completeness and meticulousness to faith in God's concern for all things. In contrast, Basil Valentine argues that medieval painters and Van der Goes demonstrate by their obsession with separate details not faith but doubt. Wyatt later agrees with Valentine and attacks separation in painting and in other things…. He attacks science's analytic method, the method of separation, and he praises Titian, who taught Navarette, and another of Titian's students, El Greco, because they "'learned not to be afraid of spaces, not to get lost in details and clutter, and separate everything'." Wyatt later echoes Valentine's critique of the Flemish painters and says that separation is "'what went wrong'."

Wyatt finally accepts unity as a way of life, not only as an aesthetic principle…. [He] eats bread that because of a peculiar series of circumstances contains his father's ashes. This bizarre symbolism signifies a union of father and son. The reality that Wyatt through tortuous ways had sought in art lies open to him in love's unification. About half way through the book he mentions love's relation to reality: "'it's as though when you lose someone … lose contact with someone you love, then you lose contact with everything, with everyone else, and nobody … and nothing is real anymore'." He quotes to Ludy some advice that puts more positively and succinctly love's importance: "'dilige et quod vis fac'" (love, and do what you want to). This conversation so moves the obtuse Ludy that he becomes "a man having, or about to have, or at the very least valiantly fighting off, a religious experience." Gaddis thus, by means of a long, learned explication of aesthetics and ontology, arrives at a traditional advocacy of love.

If Wyatt had pondered something his wife said to him, he could have discovered much earlier that love connects people with reality. Otto tells Esther about Fichte's belief that "'we have to act because that's the only way we can know we're real, and … it has to be moral action because that's the only way we can know other people are. Real I mean'." Esther paraphrases this idea for Wyatt: "'because this is the only way we can know ourselves to be real, is this moral action, you understand don't you, the only way to know others are real'." The characters whom Gaddis satirizes do not understand this simple principle; they neither act morally nor acknowledge the reality of others. Indeed, they act little in the sense of performing functions, though very much in the sense of performing roles, so they do not have much reality. Gaddis' methods of characterization—his dependence on speech habits, his caricatures and his occasional decisions not to identify and distinguish characters—support his point that these people are barely real. Here is the nexus between Gaddis' satiric methods and his theme of love.

In short, despite the overwhelming theological allusions, the impossibility of separating and distinguishing all the characters and the often anonymous or pseudonymous hero, The Recognitions makes sense. Gaddis' characters sometimes make testy remarks about less intellectually ambitious writers, such as "'they write for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them, people brought up reading for facts…. Clarity's essential'." Here he sounds like many modernist writers. Gaddis does sometimes seem too intent on dazzling his readers, on exercising his technical skills, but he deserves considerable credit for attacking important moral issues, recognizing suffering and seeking ways to alleviate it and to bring order out of chaos. (pp. 6-7)

In many ways JR is more accessible than The Recognitions, so readers may be wise to begin with it. One should realize that in addition to the moral centers of this book—most notably Amy Joubert, Edward Bast and Isadore Duncan—Jack Gibbs is the intellectual center, because he knows a principle vital to its meaning. This is the concept of entropy that Clausius formulated in the Second Law of Thermodynamics: entropy is a measure of the energy inevitably lost in closed systems…. JR is filled with conversations that communicate nearly nothing and thus illustrate entropy. The primary inhibitor of communication in JR is jargon, such as "'in terms of tangibilitating the full utilization potential of in-school television'."

Thermodynamic analysis is appropriate for Gaddis' characters because many are virtually mechanical. Vogel teaches about the human body by making an interminable analogy with a machine, and he later quits the school to try to freeze and transmit human speech and to ship people by cable. Gibbs cites a German anatomist who attempted to make sounds by blowing through human larynxes with strings and weights attached, and Cates has had so many transplants that he is nearly a mechanical man. Gibbs, too, has noticed this fearful dehumanization and is writing a book about "'order and disorder more of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element'." The insights that Gibbs includes in his book do not explain very well the rest of Gaddis' novel, but his main theme is revealing. He is attempting, in fact, to write the kind of book that Gaddis accomplishes.

The pathetic school and disastrous marriages indicate the rapid deterioration of the society that Gaddis depicts. In this novel the concept of entropy seems to apply to society as well. J. R.'s school is easy prey for the corrupt, full of costly but unused equipment, run by administrators unable to clear their minds of cant, the scene of violence and drug dealing but of little education…. Gaddis' satire on the school attacks obvjous targets, but his use of a child-tycoon as the central character is ingenious and puts the adults' machinations in a revealing context…. Gaddis' accounts of educational and domestic failures are often humorous. The large number of instances, however, suggests that fraudulent education and marital failures are pervasive, and their cumulative effect is tragic. Gaddis' comedy thus gradually turns into moral indictment and an expression of pity for contemporary humanity. (pp. 8-10)

[The] situation sounds even more desperate than the situation in The Recognitions. Art offers relief to some, but it is no panacea: a boy trapped in a sculpture waits days for release not only because of the insurance companies' entanglements but also because some art lovers object to breaking it. As in The Recognitions, love is the most effective solution that the characters find. Unfortunately, however, they rarely make it work. (p. 11)

[The] confusion about Amy's marriage is by no means the only one in JR. It takes some ingenuity to discover that Cates is the executive whose monologues comprise a large part of the book, and the business transactions constitute an enormously twisted web. One does not need to unravel them, however, in order to realize that according to Gaddis business is inhumanly complex. At other times he toys with the reader…. Gaddis often does not identify or distinguish characters, thus making them disturbingly non-separable and in consequence attacking the faith in unity he expresses in The Recognitions.

A reader can easily endure some confusion, even some useless confusion, if he or she finds redeeming qualities in a book. By now Gaddis' insights should be evident, and in this novel his wit is diverting. J. R., for example, is an amusing combination of the quintessential schoolboy—sneakers perpetually untied, arms full of free pamphlets, nose running—and a hard-driving tycoon….

Unlike many contemporary writers, especially experimental ones, [Gaddis] knows and cares that people suffer. His two books provide considerable evidence that he spent so much time writing them, and wrote the second even though the first sold poorly, in large part to work out for himself and others the reasons why human suffering occurs and the means for alleviating it. His expenditure of more time documenting dehumanization and suffering than describing the traditional—but now severely threatened by rampant dehumanization—antidote of love indicates his pessimism. His literary prestidigitations, however, suggest that he, like many other modernists, finds solace in literary creation. (p. 12)

John Stark, "William Gaddis: Just Recognition," in The Hollins Critic (copyright 1977 by Hollins College), April, 1977, pp. 1-12.