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Gaddis, William 1922–

An American novelist, Gaddis has tackled themes of hypocrisy, greed, and alienation in two highly complex, large-scale works of fiction. Echoing Joyce, James, and Gide, he employs multiple levels of meaning and intricate allusions in his portrayal of the confusion and pain of human interaction, the despair and purposelessness of the human condition. He won the National Book Award in 1975 for J.R. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 3, 6, 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, rev. ed.)

Peter William Koenig

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[Few] outside of a coterie of devoted followers have read or even heard of The Recognitions…. We have now had, however, access to some of Gaddis' manuscripts, which may help The Recognitions find its rightful above-ground reputation. (p. 61)

To understand Gaddis' relationship to his characters, and thus his philosophical motive in writing the novel, we are helped by knowing how Gaddis conceived of it originally. The Recognitions began as a much smaller and less complicated work, passing through a major evolutionary stage during the seven years Gaddis spent writing it. Gaddis says in his notes: "When I started this thing … it was to be a good deal shorter, and quite explicitly a parody on the FAUST story…. (p. 64)

[When] Gaddis read James Frazer's The Golden Bough,… the novel entered its second major stage. Frazer's pioneering anthropological work demonstrates how religions spring from earlier myths, fitting perfectly with Gaddis' idea of the modern world as a counterfeit—or possibly inspiring it. In any case, Frazer led Gaddis to discover that Goethe's Faust originally derived from the Clementine Recognitions, a rambling third-century theological tract of unknown authorship, dealing with Clement's life and search for salvation. Gaddis adapted the title, broadening the conception of his novel to the story of a wandering, at times misguided hero, whose search for salvation would record the multifarious borrowings and counterfeits of modern culture…. Thus from a limited Faust parody, his novel expanded into an epical, theoretically limitless pilgrimage of recognitions parodying the immense Recognitions of Clement. (pp. 64-5)

The Recognitions examines the complex problem of salvation, a problem with Gaddis sees as stemming from the "Modernism heresy,"… the rationalist interpretation of history, which does not allow for meaningful suffering or redemption. Science, according to Gaddis, works against recognition of the need for suffering, as does its therapeutic extension, psychoanalysis. Religion tries to work toward salvation but fails, because like science, it is only a counterfeit of an earlier impulse and ability to wonder and believe. Modern art too, with its worship on the one hand of the past, and on the other of unbridled originality, has forgotten its earlier, painstaking function of recording genuine wonder and dread. Thus all of our modern occupations, institutions, and amusements seem in Gaddis' parody to be the counterfeit secrets of a pagan Egypt, where mere magic replaces true mystery and renders belief impossible. (p. 65)

Far more suggestive and full of potential, but deluded and a counterfeiter like the rest, Wyatt thinks of himself as an alchemist, recognizing that alchemy "wasn't just making gold,"… but was originally the search for the redemption of matter. For Wyatt it represents a spiritual quest such as medieval alchemists made when they saw "in gold the image of the sun, spun in the earth by its countless revolutions, then, when the sun might yet be taken for the image of God."… Gaddis' search for the ideal goes back to what he calls in his notes "those perfect forms of neo-platonism," and in The Recognitions "a time before death entered the world, before accident, before magic, and before magic despaired, to become religion."… Wyatt chooses the alchemist—part magician, part priest, part scientist—to reunite all these fragmented modern approaches and go back as far as possible to original truth. (p. 66)

Clearly, the world around [Gaddis' characters] is not conducive to the survival of any ideal, it is so full of unhealthy and dangerously impermanent counterfeits, of unordered spiritual, sexual, and creative impulses.

Through this unhealthy, uncertain world, Wyatt attempts to journey from the counterfeit to the genuine, from sin to redemption, chaos to design. The structure of Gaddis' novel symbolizes voyage and return, dislocation and reestablishment, lost recognitions and found. Gaddis felt that "It should be 'apparently' broken up, because that is the nature of the problem it attempts to investigate, that is, the separating of things today without love."… To make the novel "'apparently' broken up," Gaddis employs montage or broken narrative, skipping from place to place without connections, consciously imitating a film. But the fragmentary scenes return at strategic points in the novel, producing surprises by recurrence, and an overall sense of completeness.

Gaddis' symbolic use of structure in fragmenting and then reuniting his fictional world is best exemplified by his treatment of the martyr-saint theme, the most important one in the novel. The major authentic martyr-saint is Wyatt, the main subplot the making of a counterfeit saint out of a dead Spanish girl. Whereas the original Recognitions of Clement describes the making of a true saint out of Clement, Gaddis shows the preposterous difficulties involved in Wyatt's becoming a saint through martyrdom in the twentieth century. He does this by creating a structural model of modern, secular chaos. (pp. 67-8)

Wyatt's father offers him a … model of sainthood in the person of the martyred Saint Clement, who died by drowning with an anchor tied to his neck. Years later Valentine cynically predicts Wyatt will be drowned …, as he is—by his guilt, and by the chaotic world in which he lives. (p. 69)

[Near the novel's end] Wyatt reveals a pair of earrings, presumably his mother's, which he wishes to give to someone, possibly to a daughter by the prostitute Pastora, whom he met in Spain. Gaddis originally planned to make this ending explicit, as his notes indicate:

I say I don't want the end to seem trite, an easy way out; because I don't want it to sound as though Wyatt has finally found his place in company with a simple stupid and comparatively unattractive woman who loves him…. I simply want the intimation that, in starting a drawing of his daughter, Wyatt, seeing her in her trust and faith (love), is beginning. He may not yet understand, but the least we can do is start him, after all this, on the right way, where the things that mattered, not simply no longer matter, but no longer exist….

Gaddis finally decided, however, that even this ending would be facile and left only hints of it in the final version. He chose instead to emphasize Wyatt's drowning, Clement-like martyrdom…. Thus in the final pages, all the suggestions of Wyatt's martyrdom and possible salvation coalesce, briefly and fragmentedly, as Wyatt believed from the first that recognitions occur. (pp. 69-70)

Gaddis considers himself "a religious person" on one hand, and a blasphemous nihilist on the other. Like his hero Wyatt, he is an artist of religious concerns in a nonreligious age. This explains what is most puzzling about The Recognitions—why Gaddis opens his novel with an epigraph about nothing being vain or without significance as concerns God, and then attacks every form of religion and faith. He believes that all their myths fail to give meaning to modern life and that he must hasten the collapse, lay bare the emptiness, "to betray the lack of pattern and still its final, if seemingly fortuitous persistence." He uses Recognitions of Clement to symbolize a lost spiritual integrity, a personal search for redemption. The Recognitions itself is a search for redemption, in which Gaddis seeks to avoid his characters' "hazardous assurance,"… and to "unfold, not the pattern, but the materials of a pattern, and the necessity of a pattern." The novel offers no final answers to the questions it raises, but its questions do penetrate "so deeply that the doubt it arouses is frightening and cannot be dismissed." The very suggestiveness and structure of his questioning constitutes a partial answer.

Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The First Circle, Gaddis seeks to produce a consciousness of Heaven through a massive recognition of Dantesque Hell. (pp. 70-1)

[In City of Words: American Fiction, 1950–1970, Tony] Tanner summarizes the importance of The Recognitions by stating that "the problems Gaddis raises and the themes he explores seem … to be at the heart of American Literature, and in looking back to Hawthorne while it looks ahead to Pynchon, his novel reminds us of the continuities which we might otherwise, perhaps, overlook." [See CLC, Vol. 3] Gaddis deals with Hawthorne's problems, permanently rooted in the American consciousness, of too much guilt and not enough morality. In showing how intertwined are the confidence men and the innocents in American life, Gaddis also places himself directly in the tradition of Melville…. Certainly The Recognitions is among the first, along with the novels of Nabokov, Nin, and Hawkes, to deal in an original way with the post-war world. It is one of the first "cold war novels," in which the hero never appears or the battle never takes place, and yet one feels that great tensions are abroad and enormous consequences at stake. In this it foreshadows the novels of Pynchon, as well as many others, a masterfully crafted prototype of contemporary American fiction as well as a satirically prophetic picture of American life. (pp. 71-2)

Peter William Koenig, "Recognizing Gaddis' 'Recognitions'," in Contemporary Literature (© 1975 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), Vol. 16, No. 1, Winter, 1975, pp. 61-72.

Charles Leslie Banning

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1969

In Gaddis' as well as Heller's and Pynchon's novels there is always apparent an ominous vertical structure of society, which finally appears to leave the individual completely at the mercy of its manipulative powers and with no human in control. But Gaddis, it seems, is much more of a Romantic than either Heller or Pynchon: there is individual triumph, and the inherent possibility of it, though necessarily of a very localized nature. Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions does reject finally the superficial and impersonal determinants of society, just as Edward Bast in JR rejects J R—the sixth grader who becomes a corporation tycoon—and his tyrannical financial manipulations; Bast goes off to write his opera unmindful of his material well-being. It is as though Gaddis shows us the primacy of "counterforce," whereas Pynchon wants to establish an inevitable transformation of "counterforce" into "Counterforce" into "They."

Moreover, Gaddis believes, like William James, that the world is essentially chaotic and furthermore that there is no ontological hierarchy. He sees that the multiple imposition of formal structures upon the chaos results finally in chaos, too. (pp. 153-54)

The tension which underlies Gaddis' work can be seen as one created by the antithetical perceptions of human existence by the individual and by Society. The individual is aware of his body and his bodily needs: Edward Bast tells the students, "here's [a letter Mozart] wrote to a girl cousin about the time he was writing his Paris symphony he says, he apologizes to her for not writing and he says "Do you think I'm dead? Don't believe it, I implore you. For believing and shitting are two very different things." Society, operating as it does in an abstract and inhuman realm, is interested in individuals in only a formal manner. Society in our time has tended toward technological efficiency, in the course of which it has demanded that we ourselves become technologically efficient—that we be predictable, that we be consistent…. It is within [the] framework of the institutionalization of inhumanism that Gaddis creates his fiction. He wants to place the onus of our inhumanness squarely on the shoulders of Society, specifically "masculine" society.

Gaddis in both The Recognitions and JR sees the rejection of physicality and the repression of physical needs as a culturally induced situation. In his first novel he saw the dynamics as inherent in New England Calvinism and the Pauline doctrine as enunciated in Galatians 5.24: "And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires." The world of New York and Paris, of business and jurisprudence, is seen as the direct result of this; it is the world prophesized by God through "the Greek Clement: I am come to destory the work of the woman, that is, concupiscence, whose works are generation and death." Thus The Recognitions is a sterile and impersonal world of "poses become life." Fortunately there is a more balanced assortment of characters in JR—a result, I believe, of the more "restricted" vision of the book. (pp. 154-55)

In JR … we see the demands of society that bodily passion and desire be rejected; only this time rather than developing these demands in terms of the metaphysical and religious tenets of the American experience, Gaddis simply drops us into the American educational system, a system operating within a technological imperative to teach skills, viewing human beings as little machines. The running look at J R Vansant's school provides the backdrop for the future structure which will result from the programmatic demands of business and industry for persons who are "trained" and "taught" the proper answers, not how to think. (p. 155)

Coach Vogel … is one of the prize teachers in the school; he has come out to this Long Island institution from New York City. Asked to create a create a sex-education film for the students, the future inventor of the Frigi-Com and Teletravel processes for a subsidiary of J R Corp. comes up with a show befitting the "man: the incredible machine" metaphor. (pp. 156-57)

J R, the sixth-grade mastermind of J R Corp., is a product of this environment; he is himself as dehumanized and mechanical as the various images that barrage him throughout the day at school—it doesn't seem illogical to him that the museum diaramas of Eskimo life should have "stuffed Eskimos." Having no appreciation of even the forms he is seeking out and copying in order to succeed in the American Way, it is not surprising that he has no appreciation for nature or music (or literature or painting). (p. 157)

Edward Bast … is never really interested in playing the game in the first place; he gets drawn in by a seemingly innocuous meeting he has for J R with the stock broker Mister Crawley…. Bast just floats around; unable to decide what to do next, he does what J R arranges for him. (pp. 158-59)

In a sense, their relationship epitomizes the numerous relationships throughout the book, for those whose only satisfaction is playing the game and following the rules are supported by those who lower themselves to their level and support the game through the suppression of their own creative efforts and desires. The novel actually ends on a note of rejection by some of the characters, such as Edward Bast, Jack Gibbs and Thomas Eigen, of the meaningless games being played by the others. (pp. 159-60)

The various formalizations of human activity which society imposes on the individual rest upon language. The areas of human activity such as school administration or the stock market perpetuate themselves by creating discourse which not only establishes the rules for moving within the game, but which finally becomes itself the object for manipulation. The most important individuals in the company structure are the lawyers and the public relations personnel because they know how to use language most abstractly and, hence, most meaninglessly. Every statement and every transaction coming out of J R Corp. offices must go through the hands of the company lawyer, Piscator.

The resulting disembodiment of language from meaning—induced especially by advertising—which appears to be the "absolute" result of the swelling discourses, was a central concern for Gaddis in The Recognitions. Though the constant mimicry and repetition of each other's speech may have certain prescriptive foundations in the Calvinist deprecation of originality as articulated by Aunt May, there is a general atmosphere of meaninglessness which plagues both Otto the playwright and Esme the poet. Otto is reduced to writing his play by putting together the scraps of conversation he collects from those around him; whereas Esme retreats to "intuition," using words for their sound and shape only—"What does it mean. It just is," she tells Otto about her using "effluvium" in a poem.

The dialogues at the parties and on the Paris sidewalk throughout The Recognitions are reduced to images of what Piaget has termed "collective monologue." There is no desire to communicate with one another, rather the individuals just seek to be part of the cacaphony, thereby affirming their own existence. Moreover, the general problem of the meaninglessness of language is not restricted to the characters themselves; due to Gaddis' own existence in such a community of discourse, and given his penchant for philosophizing, The Recognitions itself-became a search on the part of the author/narrator for meaning and significance and answers to meaningless questions.

Gaddis in seeking, or in seeking to expose, the symbolic nature of words and images in the text itself, was caught up in a necessarily frustrating search through all realms of discourse. Like Melville's futile search for the "meaning" of the whale's whiteness, Gaddis in his first novel proceeded to reduce semantics to syntax, to hide meaning behind structures. Not only the words of the text but the characters as well become merely the sum total of their possible contextual definitions; not only do the characters deny their physicality, but Gaddis' manipulations tend to deny the characters their necessary physicality. We are left, often, with caricatures and types which exist only within a general abstract framework, the novel. The characters in The Recognitions become player-piano players with no possibility of being pianists—they are simply role-players.

This is not the case for JR. Here, Gaddis has not tried to elucidate recurring images or to encompass them in a general abstract system. He allows them to simply exist in all their ambiguity and meaningfulness within the various discourses established by the characters themselves. Furthermore, the characters' discourses rather than being speculative and metaphysical are the discourse of everyday life. The characters are, for the most part, not concerned with impressing others with their knowledge of arcana or in pondering philosophical truths; they use language as "communication."

To call their speech "communication" requires some explanation. It is to a great extent like the collective monologues in The Recognitions; however, there is an underlying illusion that their speaking will have an effect upon other people, which is lacking in Gaddis' earlier novel. Whereas in Gaddis' earlier work there were few people (notably Esther) who believed that speech could somehow effect things, in JR the dialogue again and again moves with the illusion on the part of the speakers that somehow what they say will have ramifications elsewhere, that speech is communication even though it gets permuted and lost along the way. Like the man sent by the Teletravel process through the telephone lines, however, there is no guarantee that what was sent will ever be located, let alone be recovered, again. Thus language becomes tyrannical. It is only a "writer" like Jack Gibbs—or an artist like Bast—who recognizes that the discourses are all incomplete attempts to control the underlying chaos of reality. With such recognition, Gibbs is able to easily move from one language game to another; he can carry on the discourse of the classroom or of the adminstration or of the financial world with equal ease without getting sucked under and drowned in the detritus of language with its nonexistent goals and meaningless valuations. (pp. 160-62)

Yet the vast majority of the characters cannot get out of the discourses they are caught in; they cannot see how life is other than the abstract concepts controlling the discourse they have been raised in. They subjugate themselves to such non-entities as "patriotism," "the American way," "profit," and "business" without realizing that the terms only have meaning (and the game only exists) while they are repeating and utilizing them, that the terms and games are inherently vacuous.

But, what does have meaning then? Briefly stated: physical action or the possibility of it is the meaning of language. Those terms which cannot and do not signify possible action by human beings can (and do in The Recognitions) float away in abstract meaninglessness. Meaning is restored to language through its direct connection to a sensible reality, and it is this connection of the dialogue to human action and to the objects of such action which makes it meaningful, and which gives the characters such immediacy and physicality. Gaddis, for whom the meaninglessness of language was such a problem in his earlier novel, avoids the dilemma altogether by relying upon the failure of others to communicate for his own communication. Gaddis has, in JR, overcome the ambiguity of language not, as some writers would, through parody but by making such discourse the object (or constituent) of his discourse. By reposing narrative within the characters' discourses rather than trying to formalize the chaos himself, Gaddis not only avoids the semantic dilemmas which plagued him earlier but succeeds in creating a viable and intense reality of human action. (pp. 162-63)

Charles Leslie Banning, "William Gaddis' 'JR': The Organization of Chaos and the Chaos of Organization," in Paunch (© 1975 by Arthur Efron), December, 1975, pp. 153-65.

Jay L. Halio

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 215

William Gaddis' tour de force, JR, attacks many … perversions of the American Dream, above all the materialism of Franklinian man. Adapting a stream of consciousness technique borrowed from Joyce and contemporary telephone conversation, Gaddis mercilessly lays bare the greed and essential mindlessness of those for whom wealth has become and end in itself—an obsessive end. His satire is particularly effective since he uses as his primary vehicle a twelve-year-old school boy who has mastered all of the jargon and methods of a Wall Street wizard constructing immense paper empires inevitably and fatally vulnerable to strangulation by the very tape which once held it together. But missing from Gaddis' overlong satirical saga, and its radical defect, is any sense or hint of a redeeming virtue. There is no music in his America, no poetry, despite the fact (or rather revealed by it) that one of his major characters is a composer desperately trying to finish a cantata. The world's distractions, epitomized by stock options, puts and calls, tax loopholes, telephone calls, educational TV, legal suits, and all the other paraphernalia of today's urban centers, are triumphant. The poet or artist cannot cancel them; he is canceled by them. (p. 840)

Jay L. Halio, in The Southern Review (copyright, 1977, by Jay L. Halio), Vol. XIII, No. 4, Autumn, 1977.

Susan Strehle Klemtner

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While the fictional achievement of William Gaddis is massive, both in importance and in sheer volume, the critical reception of his two novels has been skimpy and uncertain. (p. 61)

The uncertain reception of Gaddis's novels is understandable; the reviews indicate common problems in both for a casual reader: complexity of event and structure, unusual treatment of character, a difficult narrative surface. Gaddis self-consciously anticipates his lack of an audience in both works…. If Gaddis's novels have achieved only a very small audience because of their difficulties, they deserve a much larger one because of their importance. In particular, JR is an extraordinary achievement—richly funny and powerfully accurate; it is more successful in several ways than The Recognitions. (pp. 61-2)

One of the most extraordinary qualities of The Recognitions is its ambitiousness. It is vast in scope, covering a span of some thirty years and ranging from New York to Europe. It is encyclopedic in knowledge; the literary sources and references include not only Joyce but Augustine, Saint John of the Cross, Thoreau, Melville, T. S. Eliot, and dozens more. In tracing its religious themes, the book explores Catholicism, Calvinism, various forms of mysticism, and Mithraism, the worship of the sun. The scientific lore contained in the novel ranges from counterfeit mummy-making to counterfeit money-making to the method for analyzing the date of a painting. Several levels of discourse are included: from graffiti to sermons, from inebriated party chitchat to serious debates of aesthetic principles. The novel left several reviewers with the uncomfortable sensation that Gaddis had poured everything he knew into it…. (pp. 62-3)

One reason for the heavy literary allusiveness of the novel is its presentation of artistic creation as an act of atonement; art has metaphysical significance in The Recognitions. Several characters experience artistic creation as a kind of transcendental perception of truth. The recognitions evoked in the title are revelations of religious certainty, when the fragmentation and chaos of modern culture are stripped away to reveal simplicity, necessity, and love…. Art, as the fragments of past creations, the creations of the characters, or Gaddis's novel itself, has redemptive power in The Recognitions.

Gaddis's first novel is a profoundly serious exploration of aesthetics and religion, with some moments of comic relief. As recognitions are treated with earnest respect in the novel, failures of recognition become ridiculous…. Rich in humor as it is, the novel is primarily concerned with an earnest exploration of aesthetic recognition, and the comic failures form a minor counterpoint to the dominant theme.

While JR shares a similar preoccupation with art, it is a very different novel in several respects. Its protagonist, Edward Bast, is not as heroic as Wyatt Gwyon; while he shares Wyatt's innocence, he is successfully manipulated throughout the novel. (pp. 63-4)

JR is far more limited in scope than The Recognitions. The time covered in the narrative is only three or four months…. The novel opens as the leaves have begun to turn and closes before Christmas; the seasonal decline with no Nativity reflects the sterility of the natural and civilized world in the book…. Relatively few … allusions … are used; while aesthetic fragments could redeem the damaged world of The Recognitions, the world of JR is ruined past redemption.

The creation of art appears in JR as a worthy action, with no ability to save or redeem the world. Like The Recognitions, the novel includes a great many plagiarists and failed artists…. Unlike The Recognitions, however, JR includes no truly successful artists…. (pp. 64-5)

Art fails to redeem in the novel because its audience is incapable of exaltation—or even appreciation…. Because American culture as it is presented in the novel is incapable of awakening or exaltation, the artist's problem becomes one of motivation: if his creation is considered worthless by his audience, can it have any worth? In JR art has no culturally redemptive power, but it can achieve worth "for a very small audience."

JR is far more concerned with failures of recognition than with moments of religious or aesthetic perception; thus the novel assumes a tone of sustained black humor. Where Gaddis's first novel suggested solutions to the problem of despair in the perception of simplicity, necessity, and love, his second novel admits, in a tone of desperate glee, that the problem cannot be resolved. (p. 65)

Gaddis jokes about the destruction of language and ideals, about human inadequacy and death, about the cosmic absurdity of his characters' quest for order and beauty in a world of squalor and chaos. His jokes suggest that he finds neither a solution nor a fully adequate response to despair.

While both of Gaddis's fictional worlds are characterized by a "sense of disappointment, of something irretrievably lost,"… Gaddis radically shifts the way he defines the problem. The source of loss and despair in The Recognitions appears as the fragmentation and separation of a once-unified world; in JR these symptoms are traced to the entropic decline of a chaotic and random world. While fragments can be collected and ordered, to reverse the enervating process described in the second law of thermodynamics is impossible: Stanley manages "to get all the parts together into one work," but Bast cannot turn off the flow of hot water that represents a pointless loss of energy…. As the loss of energy, the decline toward inertness, and the increase of disorder, entropy dominates the world of JR.

One important manifestation of the entropic process, as it appears in the fiction of both Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon, is the loss of communication. JR is made up almost entirely of spoken words, with very little narrative description or authorial comment, yet for all the speaking that occurs, little communicating is accomplished. Most of the dialogues in the novel become monologues because one character dominates and cuts the other off; JR is full of interruptions and sentence fragments. But even when both characters manage to complete their sentences, misunderstandings proliferate. (pp. 66-7)

As human communication is lost and energy declines, inert things come to dominate the settings of JR. Two of the most important locales in the novel, the Long Island school and the Ninety-sixth Street apartment, literally fill up with objects so that people can no longer move about….

Several recurring motifs reinforce the notion of entropic decline and also unify the novel. Among these, the most significant is a repeated pattern of spilling, falling, and scattering; these actions increase randomness and disorder. (p. 68)

All of the spilling and scattering underscores Gaddis's more explicit suggestion that order is imposed perilously "on the basic reality of chaos."

People are similarly afflicted by the manifestations of chaotic randomness in another recurring motif: injuries and accidents are prevalent throughout JR….

[The numerous] "walking wounded" reinforce the accidental quality of experience in an advanced entropic state.

Because they live in a chaotic world without a sense of history or culture, most of the characters respond by seeking the ordering power of money. Money lifts one about the entropic process; it gives one the power to control inert objects, to manipulate other people, and to create constellations of order around one's own central importance. (p. 69)

JR himself is at once the chief symbol and the most pathetic victim of the drive for money and power. (p. 70)

But for all his undeniable greed, JR is also a touchingly helpless product of the world around him…. In all his corporate exploits, he has simply been trying to find a purpose, "trying to find out what I'm suppose to do," and he has quite naturally looked to the adults around him and imitated them. At several points he has even quoted from John Cates, Whiteback, Hyde, and others in justifying his actions. While we never learn what his initials actually stand for, they clearly suggest "Junior," as his character clearly suggests a junior reflection of his elders. If this eleven-year-old's obsession with money is ominous, it is also typical of every one of his peers…. (pp. 70-1)

JR's empire is constructed of paper, and while he becomes a millionaire on paper he never appears one in reality. He never uses his paper money, not even to replace the torn sneakers or sweater. By the novel's end, money is clearly not only lifeless but an agent of lifelessness; its worth is called into question at the beginning, and its worthlessness firmly established by the end.

The search for some form of worthy activity preoccupies most of the sympathetic characters in the novel; like Wyatt Gwyon in The Recognitions, they realize that "looking around us today, there doesn't seem to be much that's worth doing."… For Schramm, Eigen, and Gibbs, worthy art must redeem the insignificance of the artist and the illiteracy of the audience; their efforts are doomed to failure. For Bast and for Gaddis, art may be worthy without being able to redeem anything; JR creates its worth out of the tacit admission that experience cannot be turned "into something more than one more stupid tank battle." (pp. 71-2)

For Bast, as perhaps for Gaddis, his art was and continues to be worth creating, whatever the condition of his audience. He does not expect to win fame or money, as he does not expect others to recognize the worth of his creations. In a conversation with Eigen as the novel ends, Bast says of his new composition, "I mean until a performer hears what I hear and can make other people hear what he hears it's just trash isn't it Mister Eigen, it's just trash like everything in this place."… Bast's heavily ironic statement can also be taken as a final comment on JR; the audience of both works may be small, but neither creation is "just trash." Both works stand on their own, with or without recognition, proving the worth of the art and the artist. (p. 72)

Susan Strehle Klemtner, "'For a Very Small Audience': The Fiction of William Gaddis," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction (copyright © by James Dean Young 1978), Vol. XIX, No. 3, 1978, pp. 61-72.


Gaddis, William (Vol. 1)


Gaddis, William (Vol. 19)