William Gaddis

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Michiko Kakutani (review date 4 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "Plagiarism as the Metaphor for a Litigious Era," in The New York Times, January 4, 1994, p. C20.

[In the mixed review below, Kakutani relates the plot, themes, and narrative structure of A Frolic of His Own, concluding that "Gaddis's provocative vision of modern society is purchased at a price, the price of hard work and frequent weariness on the part of the reader."]

In The Recognitions, his monumental first novel published nearly 40 years ago, William Gaddis used the story of a would-be priest turned master forger to explore the loss of authenticity in the modern world, and the shifting relationships between life and art, art and faith. Those same themes—so pertinent in this post-modern era of recyclings and regurgitations—lie at the core of his long-winded, sometimes uproarious and often exhausting new novel A Frolic of His Own. This time, however, plagiarism, not counterfeiting, serves as the presiding metaphor; and the action takes place not in the world of art, but in the world of law.

Indeed, the idea behind A Frolic of His Own is idea theft, an increasingly common phenomenon in Hollywood that gained national attention in 1990, when Art Buchwald won a court victory against Paramount Pictures, contending that the idea for the 1988 Eddie Murphy film Coming to America had been stolen from a film treatment he had written in 1983. A similar lawsuit lies at the heart of A Frolic of His Own, a lawsuit that will snowball like the interminable lawsuit in Bleak House, into mayhem and madness for nearly everyone connected with the case, a lawsuit that will leave the reader with a darkly comic vision of a litigious society run perilously amok.

The instigator of Mr. Gaddis's fictional lawsuit is one Oscar Crease, a middle-aged college teacher, who has written an unproduced play called Once at Antietam. The play is ostensibly based on his grandfather's experiences in the Civil War, and also appears to draw heavily on the works of other writers, including Plato and Eugene O'Neill.

Oscar claims that he once submitted the play to a producer named Jonathan Livingston Siegal, who subsequently changed his name to Constantine Kiester and went on to be come a world-famous movie director. It is Oscar's contention that Kiester's latest blockbuster, a Civil War epic titled The Blood in the Red, White and Blue, is based on Once at Antietam. He is suing for compensatory and punitive damages.

Of course, things never proceed smoothly in Mr. Gaddis's novels, and Oscar's lawsuit is no exception. Even as Oscar's legal bills mount, his lawyer is imprisoned, and Oscar finds himself being sued by the O'Neill estate for plagiarizing Mourning Becomes Electra. At the same time, Oscar is also trying to recover damages in another lawsuit involving his own car, which ran over him while he was trying to jump-start it. Meanwhile, Oscar's father, a famous Federal Court judge, is trying to cope with the public outcry over his ruling in a case involving the accidental death of a dog named Spot, who became trapped in a piece of outdoor sculpture, a case that has spawned further lawsuits involving the creator of the sculpture, the town where the sculpture was erected and assorted entrepreneurs who want to cash in on Spot's untimely death. Oscar's brother-in-law, Harry; his girlfriend, Lily, and friends of his step-sister Christina are fielding lawsuits of their own.

Mr. Gaddis depicts all this litigation with the manic, slapstick energy of a Marx Brothers movie, a strategy that creates a counterpoint to his...

(This entire section contains 1041 words.)

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characters' spiritual lethargy while providing him with ample opportunities for satire. As in his second novel,JR, the American preoccupation with money and money-making is parodied, this time through the characters' relentless pursuit of so-called "damages" and "fairness." As in The Recognitions, the fragmented, fragmentary nature of contemporary society is repeatedly exposed: things fall apart in Mr. Gaddis's world; the center does not, cannot, hold.

Like storytelling, the law is supposed to serve as a tool, in Mr. Gaddis's words, for imposing or rescuing "order from the demeaning chaos in everyday life", but as his characters quickly discover, the law tends to be a poor substitute for justice. In A Frolic of His Own, the law links people together in purely adversarial relationships of mistrust, promoting a Kafkaesque sense of disintegration and crisis, rather than a sense of order.

Mr. Gaddis's own narrative method—refined through his last three novels and culminating in this volume—mirrors this philosophical outlook. There is almost no conventional narrative in A Frolic of His Own; most of the book consists of nothing but voices: characters creating themselves out of words, out of conversations, asides and ruminations. Heated conversations about death and money and sex are interrupted with murmurings about lunch and tea. Petty arguments about legal proceedings are sprinkled with allusions to Shakespeare and Plato. Long, tiresome extracts from Oscar's play are carefully laid out, as are jargon-filled legal briefs and opinions.

Despite Mr. Gaddis's antic humor, this can make for laborious reading. One has the sense that nothing has been edited out of Oscar's story; unlike conventional fictions, it does not feel sculptured or shaped. Instead, Mr. Gaddis seems to suggest, the reader is supposed to make order out of disorder, discern the patterns among the repetitions, ellipses and digressions. Even his characters tend to feel amorphous and poorly defined; they exist, after all, not as the completed creations of an omniscient novelist, but as modernist symbols of people in a continuous state of becoming.

As a result of this highly oblique approach, Mr. Gaddis's provocative vision of modern society is purchased at a price, the price of hard work and frequent weariness on the part of the reader.


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William Gaddis A Frolic of His Own

Award: National Book Award for Fiction

Born in 1922, Gaddis is an American novelist.

For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 1, 3, 6, 8, 10, 19, and 43.

Emphasizing litigiousness and greed as characteristics of contemporary American society, A Frolic of His Own (1994) focuses on Oliver Crease, his family, his friends, and the various lawsuits in which they are all enmeshed. Employing elements of humor and farce, Gaddis exhaustively details the absurdities of his characters' suits and subsequent countersuits. For example, Oliver is plaintiff in a plagiarism case he has brought against Constantine Kiester, a top Hollywood producer whose real name is Jonathan Livingston Siegal. Oliver is also, paradoxically, plaintiff and defendant in a suit concerning a hit-and-run accident in which he was hit by his own car—a Sosumi ("so sue me"). Taking its title from a British legal phrase used to describe an employee's actions which, though they resulted in on-the-job injuries, do not entitle the employee to compensation, A Frolic of His Own is largely noted for its satire of justice and law in contemporary American society and for its unusual narrative structure. Except for the inclusion of excerpts from Oliver's writings, legal documents, and trial transcripts, the novel is told primarily through dialogue that is unattributed and only lightly punctuated. Critics have praised Gaddis's realistic depiction of everyday speech—complete with pauses, interruptions, and unfinished thoughts—and stressed the difficulty such a narrative technique, reminiscent of stream-of-consciousness writing, places on readers. Steven Moore observed: "A Frolic of His Own is both cutting-edge, state-of-the-art fiction and a throwback to the great moral novels of Tolstoy and Dickens. That it can be both is just one of the many balancing acts it performs: It is bleak and pessimistic while howlingly funny; it is a deeply serious exploration of such lofty themes as justice and morality but is paced like a screwball comedy; it is avant-garde in its fictional techniques but traditional in conception and in the reading pleasures it offers; it is a damning indictment of the United States, Christianity and the legal system, but also a playful frolic of Gaddis's own."

Robert Towers (review date 9 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "No Justice, Only the Law," in The New York Times Book Review, January 9, 1994, pp. 1, 22.

[Towers is an American novelist and educator. In the following highly favorable review of A Frolic of His Own, he praises the novel's humor, satire, and focus on language and the law, suggesting that the reader not be discouraged by the difficulties of Gaddis's style.]

William Gaddis is the formidably talented writer whose work—until A Frolic of His Own—has been, I suspect, more likely to intimidate or repel his readers than to lure them into his fictional world. His first novel, The Recognitions (1955), is one of late modernism's sacred monsters, a 900-page display of polymathic erudition, which, though crowded with incident and allusion, shows minimal concern for narrative movement or the in-depth portrayal of any of its myriad characters. With JR (1975) Mr. Gaddis developed and ruthlessly exploited a technique of almost nonstop, scarcely punctuated dialogue, which he continued to employ in his next two novels. It is a technique that demands unflagging vigilance on the reader's part. I found the tone of both JR and Carpenter's Gothic (1985) so high-pitched, so unremittingly aggressive, as to blunt what might otherwise have been my pleasure in their satiric exuberance and mimetic brilliance. While there is still a good deal to be endured in his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, there is far more to be enjoyed than in any of his previous work.

Its opening sentence announces both the subject and the theme of the novel: "Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." In A Frolic of His Own we do indeed have the law—and the language of litigation—in fantastic combinations and obsessive detail, materials from which Mr. Gaddis creates his harsh, misanthropic but often hilarious comedy. At the beginning, Oscar Crease, a major voice in this work composed of voices, is lying in a hospital, suffering from injuries (not very serious) inflicted by his own car, which ran over him while he was trying to hot-wire it. Oscar is thus both the owner of the car and its victim. There was no driver. What will his insurance company cover? Who can be sued? Can the maker of the car be sued for product liability since the car was in Park but slipped into Drive? Such are the issues that Oscar discusses—or rather rants about—with his stepsister, Christina, her lawyer husband, Harry Lutz, and the insurance adjuster who visits him in the hospital. Soon he is involved in a million-dollar suit for pain and disfigurement.

But this is only one of the legal matters with which the irascible Oscar is obsessed. A middle-aged community-college teacher with some inherited money and a conception of himself as "the last civilized man," Oscar has also written an unpublished play, Once at Antietam, derived from his grandfather's experiences in the Civil War. This high-minded play, he insists, has been plagiarized by a Hollywood producer-director (Constantine Kiester, a.k.a. Jonathan Livingston Siegal) who has turned it into a vulgar blockbuster movie (The Blood in the Red White and Blue) full of sex scenes and gory special effects. Obviously Oscar must sue for enormous damages, though he is warned that as a "little guy" he will face exorbitant expenses and little chance for victory.

Another—even funnier—legal carnival running through the novel involves Oscar and Christina's nonagenarian father, a distinguished Federal judge in whose awesome shadow Oscar has always lived. The case over which Judge Crease presides is worth a brief summary: A contentious sculptor called R. Szyrk has erected a towering, "site-specific" metal sculpture (Cyclone Seven) in a small Virginia village. A dog, Spot, belonging to a little boy, wanders into the intricate (and menacing) sculpture and is entrapped in its complex entrails. The village wants to rescue the dog, but the sculptor gets an injunction forbidding any tampering with his work of art. Judge Crease rules in favor of the sculptor, provoking a nationwide, televised campaign to "Save Spot." Here is Oscar talking (that is, ranting) to Christina on the subject:

"America has taken Spot to its heart, did you see it last night? Every idiot in sight down there with something to sell, dog candy, hot dogs, Free Spot! buttons, Free Spot! T-shirts, Spot dolls with huge wet eyes and that whole hideous Cyclone Seven? peddling this take apart puzzle model and a game where you try to get the dog out with magnets shaped like a dog bone? Marching around for animal rights, artists' rights, black rights, right to life, abortion, gun control, Jesus loves and the flags, Stars and Stripes, Stars and Bars and then somebody…."

"Oscar, just…."

"Yes and then somebody throws a beer bottle and they…."

"And Father right in the midst of it, that's…."

"And why shouldn't he be! Why shouldn't he Christina he started it all didn't he? with that, that decision he wrote for this awful little dog? Schoolchildren sending in donations so this cheap sentimental vision of our great republic shall not perish from the earth."

These are only the major legal issues in A Frolic of His Own. Dozens of others—some very briefly touched upon, nearly all of them rich in absurdity—emerge from the matrix of the novel's nearly nonstop dialogue. For example, Trish, a rich friend of Christina's, who finds herself pregnant by a young man she picked up, engages one set of lawyers to sue a hospital for "foetal endangerment" and another set to defend her abortion against a suit brought by the father, demanding his paternal rights. In another case, one that has "soared beyond the $33 million mark" in legal costs, the Episcopal Church has sued Pepsico Inc. for trademark infringement and "libelous intent to disparage and make a mockery of plaintiff's good name." (Reader: note the anagram in Pepsi-Cola.)

However, though his comic-satiric imagination seems endlessly fertile, Mr. Gaddis has other, more serious intentions in mind. Take the matter of language. When Christina complains that something is only a question of language, Harry cries out, "But, but damn it Christina that's what we're talking about! What do you think the law is, that's all it is, language." And when she complains that it's all a conspiracy, he replies, "Of course it is…. Every profession is a conspiracy against the public, every profession protects itself with a language of its own…. Language confronted by language turning language itself into theory till it's not about what it's about it's only about itself turned into a mere plaything." One suspects that the author's exasperation with the recent state of literary criticism is, among other things, reflected in this outburst. The novel's mockery of the legal profession, its minions and its dupes, is extended to include a wide spectrum of contemporary American culture—presented here, with corrosive Swiftian glee, as an unholy mess compounded of greed, ignorance, illiteracy, corruption and childish folly.

The major figures—Oscar, Christina and even Oscar's dopey girlfriend, Lily—reveal themselves (and are characterized by one another) with a vividness and immediacy that embrace pathos as well as comic futility. Oscar in particular is an arresting, even moving figure in the midst of farce. The big old house he lives in is in ruinous condition, the corridors full of boxes containing his "archives" (every piece of paper that's ever come his way, including illiterate student themes), and the chaos around him steadily mounts as the legal documents and outrageous bills pour in. As his fantasies of retribution and vindication soar, his condition deteriorates into a state of alcoholic childishness. Christina—herself a complex figure, at once imperious, worldly and needy—rails incessantly at her stepbrother but recognizes the quasi-tragic irony of his situation. [As she says to Harry]:

"Oscar's done it again … setting himself up with these fantasies of producing his play when he wins this appeal and if he loses, this whole desperate pose as the gentleman poet, the last civilized man I mean he's just really so different from who he thinks he is and God only knows, when he loses…."

"Not when he loses, Christina. It's when this who he thinks he is loses, what the whole thing's all about isn't it? He goes off on a frolic of his own writes a play and expects the world to roll out the carpet for…."

"A frolic! Where in God's name did you get that, I mean have you ever seen anyone more deadly serious than…."

And she concludes with a startling insight: that going off on a frolic of one's own is "really what the artist is finally all about."

One must not underestimate the obstacles that lie in the way of the appreciation, to say nothing of the enjoyment, of this remarkable novel. Some of these are inherent in the technique of nearly continuous, minimally punctuated speech (the author uses dashes to indicate dialogue). While the reader may marvel at Mr. Gaddis's powers of mimicry and his ability to evoke the distinct personalities of his characters through their spate of words, he is likely to feel bombarded, even assaulted, by the various voices clamoring for attention. The medium is exceptionally dense. The mere effort of sorting out the voices, of tracking them, can be exhausting.

Other obstacles seem gratuitous, even perverse. While old Judge Crease's legal opinions, quoted in their entirety, are perhaps witty enough to justify the stupefying legal jargon in which they are couched, there seems little excuse for subjecting the reader to 50 pages of verbatim, tiresomely repetitious testimony in one of Oscar's legal depositions. Or for quoting 40 or more pages of Oscar's high-minded, thematically significant but (in Christina's words) "long-winded" play. One could perhaps argue (perversely?) that the enduring of long stretches of tedium is a necessary part of the full esthetic experience that the book offers. In any case, I hope the reader will persevere. A Frolic of His Own is an exceptionally rich, even important novel. The payoff is more than worth the effort.

Principal Works

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The Recognitions (novel) 1955
JR (novel) 1975
Carpenter's Gothic (novel) 1985
A Frolic of His Own (novel) 1994

∗The "corrected" versions of these works were both published in 1985.

Malcolm Jones, Jr. (review date 17 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "A Legal Lampoon Loses on Appeal," in Newsweek, Vol. CXXIII, No. 3, January 17, 1994, p. 52.

[In the following review, Jones offers a negative appraisal of A Frolic of His Own, arguing that in this book Gaddis "hasn't met his own high standards" established with The Recognitions, JR, and Carpenter's Gothic.]

Time has never been kind to the novelist William Gaddis. In the '50s his first novel, The Recognitions, helped inaugurate an era where so-called difficult writers were lionized. But while the Pynchons and Gasses and Coovers—writers with similarly dark visions who forsook traditional ways of telling a story—reaped the benefits of his labors, Gaddis toiled on in relative obscurity. Two decades later he published JR, and again he was ahead of the curve. That vicious satire of American business was the perfect '80s novel. Unfortunately, it appeared in 1975. Reviews were good, but sales were meager. In 1985, a similar fate befell Carpenter's Gothic, in which he savaged fundamentalist religion.

Now Gaddis has published A Frolic of His Own, an extended satire on America's increasingly litigious ways. Surely no theme could be more timely? Surely, too, we've grown accustomed to unusual narrative strategies. A novel written almost entirely in dialogue with no quotation marks—that's not too daunting these days. As for Gaddis's gloomy vision of American life, the greed, plagiarism and self-absorption that he describes would not look out of place on an episode of Roseanne or The Simpsons.

But there's the trouble. We've seen these literary somersaults and heard these jokes too often. And while Gaddis helped break such stylistic ground, the harsh truth is that here he hasn't met his own high standards. There's something too easy about this book. Its knee-jerk cynicism sounds unearned, its complications unwarranted. Intellectually and literarily, it's a lazy book.

The story of Oscar Crease, a dilettantish academic who fecklessly sues a movie company for pirating his Civil War play, the novel piles complication upon complication, lawsuit upon lawsuit. It is an orgy of chicanery that begins in frustration and ends in despair. In between, it is a tapestry of talk. Oscar, his lawyers, his family, his friends never stop yapping, rarely listen and refuse to learn. Periodically, Gaddis inserts legal briefs and excerpts from Oscar's lousy play, Once at Antietam.

Taken page by page, a lot of the writing is brilliant. Gaddis has a wonderful ear for the way people talk at each other, and he can mimic an insurance agent's spiel or a socialite's prattle with unsettling, hilarious accuracy. Near the end, he writes of an old judge's love for the law and the language: "because when you come down to it the law's only the language after all … and what better loves could a man have than those to get him through the night." That's one of the more heartfelt passages—it jumps out because passages like it are so rare. Most of the time Gaddis busies himself making litigants look like jerks or wearying the reader with jokey monikers like Jonathan Livingston Siegal.

At a writers' conference in 1985, Gaddis sought to distinguish himself from the likes of Danielle Steel by saying that she wrote books while he wrote "literature." Such arrogance would be easier to swallow if Gaddis gave his readers more for their trouble. But when you've slogged through 586 pages with a bore like Oscar Crease and learned little more than "people will do anything," you're apt to wonder if Ms. Steel's fans don't have the better part of the bargain.

Mark Kamine (review date 17-31 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "Literary Trials and Tribulations," in The New Leader, Vol. LXXVII, No. 1, January 17-31, 1994, pp. 18-19.

[Kamine is a short story writer and film consultant. In the review below, he offers praise for A Frolic of His Own.]

William Gaddis stands alone. No other American novelist takes on the modernist challenge with comparable rigor or success. Few bother at all, beyond an easy self-reflexivity or the occasional insertion of Joycean interior monologue; most are content to explore 19th-century developments. The result is a conservative literary climate (albeit liberal politically) in which plot presides and innovation is adjunct to subject matter, not style. I don't mean to denigrate the importance of literature that breaches social barriers. I do, however, like to be reminded now and then of what drew me to literature in the first place. Gaddis, about once every 10 years (four novels since 1955), does this.

His latest work, A Frolic of His Own, challenges the reader from first page to last. Its dialogue is mostly unattributed, its descriptive passages are dense with events, allusions, everything but punctuation. Always difficult and occasionally exasperating, the novel is also immensely funny, moving and encyclopedic in its embrace of current concerns.

The central character, Oscar Crease, inhabits a dilapidated estate on Long Island. Housebound after running himself over while attempting to start his car, Oscar is nevertheless in the thick of events of national interest. The accident has made him the plaintiff in one lawsuit, and the release of a movie based on his grandfather's life has led him to file another, for plagiarism of his unpublished play. In the course of things Oscar's father, a Federal judge, hands down a couple of hilarious decisions—on a death by drowning during baptism and the fate of a dog trapped in a huge steel sculpture. And there are a dozen or so other suits, encompassing Oscar's girlfriend Lily's divorce and abortion, and his brother-in-law Harry's defense of PepsiCola's right to its name.

Gaddis jams a deposition, Judge Crease's written decisions and numerous other legal documents into the text, along with excerpts from the play Oscar had written years before and charges was ripped off. The documents are priceless pastiches. The author takes obvious pleasure in couching some of his sharpest barbs in the formal strictures of legalese. When the sculptor seeks compensation for harm he alleges the dog has done to his creation, Gaddis sneaks in the perfect rejoinder:

On the related charge of damages brought by plaintiff the standard for preliminary relief must first be addressed … the court takes judicial notice in directing such claim to be made against the Village Board and the dog's master in tandem, since as in the question posed by the Merchant of Venice (I, iii, 122) "Hath a dog money?" the answer must be that it does not.

Reading the sculptor's further (unsuccessful) charge of character defamation, one can't help feeling Gaddis has past reviews of his own books in mind: "… yet to the court's knowledge none of this opprobrium however enviously and maliciously conceived and however stupid, careless, and ill informed in its publication has ever yet proved grounds for a successful action resulting in recovery…. In short, the artist is fair game and his cause is turmoil."

The book serves in some ways as a torts primer, touching on legal concepts such as proximate cause, product liability, wrongful death, and other incarnations of negligence. Even the title, explains one of the many lawyers we encounter, derives from a legal notion holding that an employee injured while working cannot recover damages if his injury results from an action inappropriate or unrelated to the task at hand.

As with the particular fields of endeavor that marked his earlier novels—art in The Recognitions, business in JR—Gaddis turns the law here into a vehicle for comments about a broad range of issues. Thus we get keen observations on (and not-so-oblique references to) the contemporary state of literary criticism, multiculturalism, pop culture fetishism, violence in movies, religious fundamentalism, the hiring policies of corporate America, tabloid journalism, and activists of every stripe. Brother-in-law Harry might be speaking of Iran-contra:

What you see in the headlines out of Washington every day, isn't it? caught redhanded destroying evidence, obstructing justice, committing perjury off on frolics of their own and when they get off on some technicality, everybody knows they're guilty but there's not enough there to prove it so they can proclaim they've been proved innocent, wrap themselves in the flag and they're heroes because now they believe it themselves.

An ongoing dialogue about art and its audience is particularly intriguing. Gaddis, after all, has spent much of his career maligned or ignored; although recently well-reviewed, I suspect he remains little read. His protagonist seems at times a buffoonish version of himself: Oscar's play is unread (except once, by the movie producer accused of plagiarism), he is unwilling to compromise, yet he thirsts for recognition and justice. Oscar's father, meanwhile, is excoriated by the local population for prohibiting the dog owner and the township from carving up a disliked avant-garde sculpture to save an animal. Gaddis milks this case for all it's worth—even bringing in a Southern Senator named Orney Bilk who says of high art: "Product of warped sick minds, sexual deviants, degenerates and foreigners…." Sound familiar?

Not that the author comes down squarely on the side of exclusivist art. In fact, I can't help feeling he's reflecting his own goals when he has Oscar declare that Shakespeare "played to both the stalls and the pits."

That is not likely to be the happy fate of Frolic. It is tough going. Lack of punctuation ("He said he's not hungry for us to go ahead and eat. He's in there now watching some mystery with a peanut butter sandwich") is the least of its hurdles. Blink and you'll find yourself in mid-flashback, unaware of how you got there. Blink again ("And so she turned now to her guest over tea and coffee cups …") and you'll miss an indication—the "now"—that you've returned from the flashback to the novel's present. There are no chapter divisions and few page breaks to clue the reader in to shifts of time and place.

The unattributed dialogue, jammed against the rapid-fire narration composed as often as not in long and frequently runon sentences, created in my mind an effect of incessant ranting. This verbal assault would be merely an annoyance were it not full of cutting humor ("Out in the country oh I know, it restores your faith in human nature not having to see anyone") and charged with manic energy ("All that, before a bottle of Chablis smoothed their way for the lobster, butter running down his thumb onto the white tablecloth, before the light and aerator were installed and the plants submerged in the [fish] tank, before another delivery brought more bills and anonymous personalized invitations and a script indecently titled from a playwright hopeful thirsting for production…." Occasionally Gaddis even is willing to risk a dose of straightforward advice verging on wisdom, as when Oscar's brother-in-law attempts to assuage Oscar's guilt over his father's death: "Oscar can't you see!… What he tried to free you from while he was alive and now his death has finally done it, you're liberated! That's what this is all about, what a father's death is all about, any father, mine was a, when I was in law school he died…."

Frolic is also rich in mundane detail—family spats, elaborate meals, off-color exchanges. Here is Gaddis' rendering of the climax and aftermath of a sexual encounter between Oscar's sister Christina and her husband Harry:

… and his all panting earnest concentration on the burst that left his head buried on her shoulder, eyes closed, hers wide, as they slipped back in desultory concert to what remained of the day, of the lemon chicken and the shrimp in black bean sauce, the pointless flicker of dinner jackets and backless gowns on actors and actresses long dead and the papers, letters, briefs and memorandums—I mean do they have to be scattered all over the house, Harry? until at last the lights went out.

Such passages convey a sense of how time really passes, how one moment is replaced by another that gives rise to memory and complaint and on and on, unchecked and unstoppable. By novel's end I found myself thinking in the rhythms of Gaddis' prose. Although that sensation faded as well, I was glad to have experienced it. Anyone who invests the time that reading A Frolic of His Own demands will, I think, feel properly rewarded.

Further Reading

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Eder, Richard. "Literary Legalities." Los Angeles Times Book Review (9 January 1994): 3, 12.

Recounts Gaddis's comic portrait of legal issues in A Frolic of His Own.

Klawans, Stuart. "Further Frolics." The Threepenny Review XV, No. 2 (Summer 1994): 12-13.

Offers a comparative review of A Frolic of His Own and Catharine A. MacKinnon's Only Words.

McGonigle, Thomas. "Men in Suits." Chicago Tribune—Books (9 January 1994): 3.

Mixed assessment of A Frolic of His Own. Although describing A Frolic of His Own as "the wittiest novel to be published in many a year," McGonigle argues that the book's narrative structure and flawed characters may frustrate readers.

Michael Dirda (review date 23 January 1994)

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SOURCE: "Caught in the Web of Words," in Book World—The Washington Post, January 23, 1994, pp. 1, 10.

[In the following review, Dirda lauds the humorous aspects of A Frolic of His Own, calling the book "a superb comic novel."]

How is it that the greatest fiction of our century has been so funny? Joyce and Proust, obviously; but think too of Evelyn Waugh, Catch-22, Lolita, much of Invisible Man, Pynchon, The Master and Margarita, Beckett, Borges. Nothing, it would seem, dates so quickly as the earnest. Really Serious Novels—by D. H. Lawrence, Hemingway, or Virginia Woolf—now sound tendentious, a bit histrionic, often downright embarrassing. Perhaps, to quote Lawrence himself, because ours is such a tragic age we instinctively refuse to take it tragically. There's simply no other way to keep on going when the world is so clearly a hell of fraud, phoniness and moral vacuity, a bloody arena of religious fanaticism, political bankruptcy, money-grubbing, and personal betrayal. We laugh to keep from weeping.

As a guide to this fallen world, our world, no one is better, or funnier, than William Gaddis. To his bitter, exhilarating task he brings the savage indignation of a Swift or Gogol, an insider's command of the lore and lingo of specialized groups (artists, financiers, lawyers), a drama-like approach to storytelling, and a high modernist's cunning use of leitmotifs and symbols. Oh yes, and an unwavering, rigorous artistry. Gaddis's books can be quite long, but if you shake them nothing will fall out: They are made to last.

Since his youthful masterpiece The Recognitions (1955)—a near-legendary account of in authenticity, the spectre haunting so much post-romantic writing—Gaddis has produced only three other novels, and that number includes this latest, A Frolic of His Own. A modern Dunciad striking out at the abuses of what we are obliged to call the law, it is, I think, the most accessible of all his books, vivid with comic characters, especially among its supporting cast. Take the randy and conspicuously wealthy Trish. She blithely cheats her shoe repairman, breaks her mother's will (thus impoverishing an old family servant), never pays her bills, and, in a particularly dizzying moment, hires one set of lawyers to bring a suit "for foetal endangerment and another set to defend her abortion." During the novel's most hilarious scene, a kind of updated Mad Tea Party, this amoral socialite opens an expensive picnic hamper, only to begin chattering that "they've put in these horrid little plastic forks you'd think we were Kurds or something." She's just awful—and just perfect. I could listen to her forever.

In fact, nearly any page of A Frolic will elicit a laugh, or more often a rueful smile. A white-shoe law firm lives up to its name of Swyne & Dour. A sensitive newspaper story thoughtfully begins a sentence: "Speaking on condition that he not be identified, Village official J. Harriet Ruth …" A bill before Congress promises to "restore the arts to their pristine decorative function."

Certainly A Frolic of His Own deserves lots of readers here in Washington: It's all about civil suits, lawyers, greed, company loyalty, the proper and improper use of language, plagiarism, insurance scams, parental pressure, the thoughtless rich, venal evangelists, the relationship of the artist to society, the Civil War, the tensions between blacks and Jews, television, cornpone politicians, breast implants, and much, much more. Enriching the main narrative are judicial opinions, court decrees, depositions and two-thirds of a rather high-minded play called Once in Antietam. You get a lot for your money: But, then, that's what the law's all about, isn't it? "It's the money," as over-worked lawyer Harry Lutz tells his wife Christina, "it's always the money. The rest is nothing but opera."

The novel's plot incorporates three main lawsuits, all of them touching the idealistic and innocent, pitiably ineffective, part-time American history professor Oscar Crease. In the most complicated case, Oscar is bringing suit because his car—a Japanese Sosumi—accidentally ran him over while he was hot-wiring its motor. This whole affair grows increasingly byzantine—at one point Oscar seems to be suing the owner of the vehicle, who is of course himself; ultimately he is told that "you might almost say that this is a suit between who you are and who you think you are."

The central lawsuit of A Frolic, however, revolves around Oscar's case against the blockbuster Civil War movie The Blood in the Red, White and Blue, which he maintains knowingly plagiarized his unproduced drama about his grandfather's life. In the course of this action he retains a black lawyer named Harold Basie (who turns out to be more than he seems), suffers cross-examination by a veddy high-tone Anglo-Indian attorney (who addresses people as "old sport"), and ultimately discovers the sorts of truths that Dickens made famous in the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce (in Bleak House). Against Oscar's two suits, Gaddis counterpoints an increasingly complex and farfetched case, presided over by Oscar's father, 97-year-old judge Thomas Crease, in which a small dog is trapped inside a modern sculpture and cannot be freed. The village of Tatamount wants to destroy the artwork to liberate Spot; the sculptor vehemently protests. The conflict leads to some splendid judicial humor and legal wordplay:

The court finds sufficient urgency in the main action of this proceeding to reject defendants' assertions and cross motions for the reasons set forth below and grants summary judgment to plaintiff on the issue of his motion for a preliminary injunction to supersede the temporary restraining order now in place.

Who could argue with that?

In tone A Frolic of His Own ranges from Evelyn Waugh-like farce to deep outrage, from the accidental drowning of a born-again little boy undergoing baptism in the Pee Dee river at the hands of the unspeakable Reverend Ude to Oscar's frequent cris du coeur.

All this crime, greed, corruption in the newspapers, you think they're just part of the times we're living in today? that our great Christian civilization is breaking down here right before our eyes? It's just the other way around … It's not the breakdown of our civilization that we're watching but its blossoming, greed and political corruption it's what America was built on in those years after the Civil War where it all got a start, so it's not whether corruption's a sign of decay but whether it's built into things right from the beginning.

Of course, high-tone Oscar himself succumbs to the lure of money; in fact, all the characters eventually fall prey to legal chicanery of one sort or another. "Justice?" as the novel says in its opening lines, "You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." Alas.

As in his previous novel, Carpenter's Gothic (1985), Gaddis contrives to set most of his drama in a single locale, here a run-down old family house on Long Island, where Oscar is recuperating from his injuries. In its windy rooms he shuffles about, guzzles Pinot Grigio, watches television—news programs about starving children, interrupted by inane commercials for laxatives, or specials about nature (symbolically red in tooth and claw)—and generally exasperates his sister Christina, his brother-in-law Harry, his ditzy and well-endowed girlfriend Lily, all the while fending off insurance adjusters, attorneys, scam-artists, realtors and other undesirables. The effect is a little like Dead Souls or the more humorous sections of The Possessed, where everyone seems half-crazy and no one ever plans to stop talking.

This dramatic quality is also reinforced by Gaddis's heavy reliance on dialogue (often unattributed and lightly punctuated), a technique first employed in his 1975 satiric masterpiece about America's obsession with money, JR, wherein an 11-year-old kid wheels and deals from telephone booths, and by so doing creates the world-wide JR Family of Companies. Such polyphony may seem initially confusing, but one quickly learns to recognize each character's distinctive speech patterns and verbal tics. By his "authorial absence," Gaddis once explained, "the characters create the situation," adding "it was the flow that I wanted, for the readers to read and be swept along, to participate. And enjoy it. And occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way."

This last remark makes clear that William Gaddis—now in his early seventies—wants to be read and enjoyed, not simply revered by a cult; he has never thought of himself as experimental, avant-garde or self-indulgently hermetic. Certainly A Frolic of His Own ought to earn him a wider audience, though impressed readers should go on, or rather back, to Gaddis's major works—The Recognitions and JR—which are just as enjoyable and even more ambitious in scope and accomplishment. There may be occasional longueurs to A Frolic—Oscar's play, for instance—and the book's last 75 pages seem a little anticlimactic, but on the whole this remains a superb comic novel, one in which you begin by laughing at the characters and end by caring for them deeply. Through them Gaddis reminds us that perhaps only art and love can counter both the madness of the modern world ("it can't go on forever, can it?") and the sorrows delivered by what he has famously called "the unswerving punctuality of chance."

Sven Birkerts (review date 7 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "Down by Law," in The New Republic, Vol. 210, No. 6, February 7, 1994, pp. 27-30.

[Birkerts is an American critic and educator. In the following review, he discusses the plot and structure of A Frolic of His Own, noting the volume's relationship to Gaddis's previous works.]

In recent years we hear William Gaddis spoken of in tones of breathless adoration—the outlaw late modernist, the father-figure to a generation of American novelists, the overcoat from which Pynchon, Gass and others emerged—or not at all. It is a difficult fate for the working novelist, who has not had the chance to be discussed and evaluated by readers alongside the critics. The reason is simple, and it somewhat indicts us as a culture: Gaddis is very difficult to read. In his second novel J. R., which followed the more traditionally difficult The Recognitions (1955) by two decades, he announced a prose style that earned him much esteem and, I suspect, fewer real readers than even the pessimist might suppose.

Essentially, Gaddis mated the colloquial sprawl of the conversational novel à la Henry Green with some of the elliptical techniques of modernist cinema, including ceaseless movement of the camera (or narrative focus) and rapid-fire, breath-catching and confusing transitions that have the reader constantly scrambling for orientation. To make things harder, at least in that novel, Gaddis dispensed with all section breaks and chapters. The universe of J. R., its prodigious young protagonist, spun on and on in Mamet-meets-Milken conversational vortexes in which nothing ever stabilized. In the end the reader was left with the feeling of a high-speed skid on an icy surface and a vertigo of the moral sense.

J. R. did win the National Book Award in 1975, but the prize, while raising Gaddis's critical profile even higher, did little to promote sales or shelf recognition. Unread Gaddis remained unread. It was not until another decade passed that he made a bid for at least a small share of the market. Carpenter's Gothic was cut to normal dimensions—under 300 pages—was set in chapters and featured characters in relatively comprehensible situations. The novel was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review.

Readers more familiar with the reputation than the work now have reason to be grateful. For whatever reasons, Gaddis has, in A Frolic of His Own, produced his most accessible novel. Less dizzying in its transitions, more topical in presentation, easier on the eye because of its incorporation of diverse texts—legal opinions, long sections of a play—the novel may win Gaddis some of the audience that he deserves. At the same time, it must be said, when placed in the high-altitude ranks of his other work, his new book is not his very best. Top-heavy with legalistic obsession, it skimps on character and thereby undercuts its chances of making a strong moral connection to the material. Even so—and this nicely illustrates Gaddis's anomalous position—it is, in intelligence, wit and technical follow-through, leagues ahead of most so-called "serious" novels that are published these days.

A Frolic of His Own (the title is a legal locution referring to an employer's lack of culpability when an employee commits an indiscretion while not on company business) is pitched very close to the key of black humor. It tells the escalatingly preposterous story of Oscar Crease, a middle-aged history professor, and his descent into the maelstrom of litigation. We first encounter Crease in the hospital, where he is recovering from injuries incurred when his own car, which he was jump-starting, ran over him. Visiting, commiserating and setting the stage for the relentless hash and rehash of every new turn of events are Oscar's stepsister, Christina, and her lawyer husband, Harry. (They will later be joined by Oscar's loopy consort, Lily.) Though various bit players get their moments, much of the prose that follows and follows is familial conversation between these same characters, given in the customary Gaddis way, without quotation marks or helpful attribution.

Like all his books, this too is a strict school: let the attention slip for a second and you pay by having to work back to get it all straight. Here is a relatively easy bit between Oscar and Lily:

—It's Bobbie! didn't I tell you it's always Bobbie?

—God. What, look there are tissues right there by the lamp here, sit down and tell me all about it but, ow! my leg …

—It's like a matte jersey only they have to let the skirt down with this real low-cut v-neck but I can pin it with that bunny rabbit pin you gave me that time when we went to that battlefield place where the motel had that bed with the magic fingers and you wanted me to, are you even listening to me?

—Will you just tell me what happened?

—Don't you remember? Where the bed kept jiggling and …

—To Bobbie! What happened!

—I told you didn't I? That he got this Porsche? I don't know what to do. Did you eat yet? All I had was some coffee. I'm starved, maybe it's something else feel right here, that lump? No inside, you can't feel through my clothes, did it get any bigger since last time? No, harder …

The legal action at the center of the plot, which Oscar initiates while still in the hospital, later acquiring a lawyer referred by Harry, involves the alleged theft by Constantine Kiester, a Hollywood producer, of the main idea of a play that Oscar had submitted to him years ago, when he worked as an agent by the name of Jonathan Livingston Siegal. The play itself, Once at Antietam, is loosely based on an experience of Crease's grandfather, who in later life became a jurist and a colleague on the bench of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. For complex reasons, the man had hired surrogates to fight for him in both the Union and Confederate armies, and both were, at least in the play, found dead on the battlefield, locked in one another's arms.

Kiester has used some of Crease's material in his hugely successful film, The Blood in the Red White and Blue, a film that owes a good part of its box-office appeal to its apparent repetition of controversial blood and guts footage from Kiester's previous vehicle, Uruburu. Crease's suit, which is woven through the novel, turns in part on Kiester's use of circumstances that Crease claims "belong" to him; but there is also a dispute over the playwright's own use of passages from Plato and Eugene O'Neill. Gaddis, via the nimble defense lawyer Madhar Pai (Kiester has, it turns out, retained Harry's firm, the Dickensianly named Swyne & Dour), lays open the issues involved in this increasingly volatile area of civil law. Here is Pai questioning Crease:

Q: Again, you don't claim protection for that idea do you?

A: I claim protection for the idea, too, yes, if the …

Q: You do?

A: … if the idea is copied in a vulgar, demeaning way.

Q: The way it is expressed, is that what you mean? Can we separate the idea from its expression, sir? Do we understand each other?

A: Yes, yes we understand each other. When the idea is used in the context of the expression, combined with the expression, then the idea becomes part of the abuse I'm referring to.

Q: You don't claim any proprietary interest in the Civil War, do you?

A: No, no no.

Q: In the battle at Antietam, anymore than Shakespeare could lay a claim to the siege of Aleppo?

A: No.

But Oscar's suit against Kiester is only part of the vast fabric of the novel. Linked to it in complex and resounding ways is another suit, Szyrk v. the Village of Tatamount, wherein Federal Judge Thomas Crease, Oscar's nonagenarian father, must sort out a dicey issue of liability. A dog, "Spot," has gotten trapped inside a large public sculpture, made by Szyrk. Community outrage rises against the artist's rights—and Gaddis gets to survey, and to mock, yet another arena of current controversy. Up on the fine points of jurisprudence and legal semantics, Gaddis is able to expose the vein of absurdity that runs through the American legal system, perhaps through law itself. He mocks the letter on behalf of the spirit, using what is finally only the most incremental exaggeration. Thus, we read in Judge Crease's opinion:

We have, in other words, plaintiff claiming to act as an instrument of higher authority, namely "art," wherewith we may first cite its dictionary definition as "(1) Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature." Notwithstanding that Cyclone Seven clearly answers this description, especially in its last emphasis, there remain certain fine distinctions posing some little difficulty for the average lay observer persuaded from habit and even education to regard sculptural art as beauty synonymous with truth in expressing harmony as visibly incarnate in the lineaments of Donatello's David, or as the very essence of the sublime manifest in the Milos Aphrodite, leaving him in the present instance quite unprepared to discriminate between sharp steel teeth as sharp steel teeth, and sharp steel teeth as artistic expressions of sharp steel teeth, obliging us for the purpose of this proceeding to confront the theory that in having become self-referential art is in itself theory without which it has no more substance than Sir Arthur Eddington's famous step "on a swarm of flies," here present in further exhibits by plaintiff drawn from prestigious art publications.

Quite early on in the book, still chair-ridden by his injuries, Oscar returns to his home—another of the vast and shambling pieces of New York real estate known to Gaddis readers. Ministered to by Christina and Lily, interrupted constantly by phone and mail and newspapers, Oscar settles in to wage his Quixotic battle. He schemes and rants, rising to righteousness and then lapsing into stale torpor. He is often described by the others in a near-coma, sitting in front of one of his red-in-tooth-and-claw nature programs (a not so subtle counterpart to the human activities) and swilling Pinot Grigio.

Once the basic premise is established, Gaddis's novel moves forward in the swirl of its interminable discussions, with interruptions simply initiating new discussion, the momentum only breaking when the author incorporates another chunk of Oscar's play or some portion of court-room transcript or other legal business. The result is curiously surreal. Gaddis's absolute fidelity in rendering each conversational fidget, coupled with his refusal of any traditional subjective access, creates what feels like a self-contained universe of talk. Foregrounded thus, the speech displaces focus from the private to the public sphere. The reader feels trapped, every bit as much as if this were a stream of consciousness monologue. We realize how much we depend on our novelists to balance off inner and outer claims.

Frolic is claustrophobia-inducing. Not only is there no reprieve from talk, not only does the whole work unfold in the same few rooms, but the nature of the narrative itself is deeply, if not profoundly, cyclic. Same rooms, same people, different day, different day, different day, until the subliminal effect is realized and we grasp that however much things may change on the surface, the underlying law of human affairs is a recursive sameness, with day following day, season season and adaptative habit overriding all turmoils of loss and grief. A dark picture, but not the darkest possible; in Gaddis's world the wearying tow of sameness is mitigated, at least slightly, by the grumbling humor of his characters.

Unpacking the novel, we find it is wrapped in many skeins—countless encoded cross-references, myriad ironies and shimmers of sly wit. It pumps itself up with legal paradoxes and oddball twists and turns (Oscar urged to sue himself for his auto injury; Lily seeking damages for faulty breast implants; Harry arguing a case in which the anagrammatical connection between "Pepsi-Cola" and "Episcopal" is relevant; the preacher from Carpenter's Gothic being sued for drowning a child during a baptism …) and effectively turns America's legal fever into a trope for its overall spiritual and moral condition. There is outrage at the novel's heart, and Oscar is its principal conduit:

I see all around us the criminal mind at large appropriating, literally stealing the fruits of the creative mind and the dedicated labors of others without even blinking, isn't that what's at the heart of this cancerous No Fault epidemic? This license for delinquency? Society created the criminal, society's responsible and so no one's responsible, isn't that the size of it, demolishing the pillar civilization rests upon, each individual's responsibility for the consequences of his own actions?

Gaddis is so effective at spinning his web of interlocking legalities that we begin to believe that there is no free place left, no crevice where one might stand and be unimplicated, unliable. The society has, to all appearances, grown together with the legal system. And as we see the system for what it is—a monster produced by the sleep of reason, or the wakefulness of it—we must deduce that madness has at last enveloped all.

Still, for all the power of this vision—its exacting specificity, its implied totality, its savage humor—the novel does not work on us as powerfully as it ought to. There are several reasons for this. The most injurious flaw of Gaddis's book is the relative inertness of its central characters. Oscar, Christina and Lily are all thin to the point of being types. They serve as voice-boxes, appliances for the generation of spoken material. Which, as it accumulates, tends less to reveal their depths than to overpower them. What they talk about discloses Gaddis's obsession with law, not their own characters.

This is aggravated, naturally, by the author's refusal to show the inward dimension. The reader must feel disappointment, for in previous works, such as J. R. and Carpenter's Gothic, where Gaddis also deployed speech almost exclusively, the verbal interplay does gradually create some understanding of the characters' pasts and of their motivations. Perhaps this is because in these novels the thematic focus is nowhere near so monomaniacal; the inclusion of extraneous narration allows us to assemble more convincingly complex identities for the players. Here, alas, we remain unpersuaded and, on a certain vital level, unengaged. Querulous Oscar rattles on, never more or less than himself, but never much more than the content of his grumpy rattling. Gaddis has made some effort, it is true, to draw in a theme relating to fathers; Oscar's play can be seen as an attempt to uncover a generational connection, but it lies flat on the storyboard. Free speech aplenty here, but we see it as an artistic strategy that has its limits.

Oscar's play poses more, and related, problems. Gaddis has let it be known that between the publication of The Recognitions and of J. R. he wrote a play about the Civil War and that parts of that play are now embedded in Frolic. It is hard to say if the play constituted an advance intuition of this novel; perhaps Gaddis has simply sought to recycle previously written goods. But the question is finally moot. The portions of Once at Antietam included are strikingly without dramatic interest. If Oscar, Christina and Lily suffer from two-dimensionality, then the dramatis personae (identified as THOMAS, HIS MOTHER, THE MAJOR, etc.) perish of it. They speak with a kind of wooden hysteria (THOMAS: "A ram! But … by heaven! I'm being pressed for those profits now, the shareholders here … a ram! What the devil are they building a ram for!"). Their only possible reason for being is to give flesh to certain conceits that Gaddis means to echo and to play against his main narrative. Of these the most interesting are those surrogate soldiers who are found locked in a death embrace. Gaddis would seem to be giving us a figure for lawyers themselves, those proxy agents whom we hire to wage our own civil wars. The implications of self-murder (both soldiers represent Thomas) are given further, and absurd, resonance in the notion that Oscar might end up paying good money to sue himself for automotive self-injury.

Given Gaddis's extraordinary ear for dialogue, it is surprising that his dramaturgy is so weak. But maybe not. His brilliance is mimetic: he hears the dynamics of interchange at a threshold level. Drama, by contrast, requires an aptitude for symbolic condensation. Gaddis either cannot present his material this way, or he chooses not to—or maybe he wants us to judge Oscar as a second-rate talent. Looking at the whole trajectory of Gaddis's work, and recalling his own stated preoccupation with entropy as a universal and social condition (all his novels convey a sense of systems approaching the point of dissolution), I would guess that he finds drama aesthetically inadmissible, a kind of literary bad faith.

But this still does not explain the inclusion of long scenes from Once at Antietam, since they do almost nothing to further the needs of the work. If Oscar were developed as a character, if we could sound his subjective depths, then we might be able to read through the scenes, to calculate insights about the Creases from Oscar's treatment of family history. As things stand, however, we don't much care.

Finally, the whole edifice of American civil law, trenchantly as it is interrogated and mocked, is not fully exploited as a subject. We are constantly confirmed in our natural suspicions about the venality and the duplicity of it all; but we are never startled into reconsideration. Moreover, Gaddis has gotten himself stranded in paradox and irony. He is eager to point to the danse macabre of litigation, but has not, as it were, connected the superstructure to the base. The base, again, has to be the human, the personal. We see the dazzling, infuriating, insane-making whirl of litigation, but we grasp neither how it arises from, nor how it impinges upon, the individual. We have the pathology without the path.

Here the defense may object: since The Recognitions, Gaddis's whole fictional enterprise has been, after all, an exploration not only of the premise that God is dead, but also of the premise that the individual—the accountable individual of the social contract—is dead, too; and that only our fatally abstracted systems (financial in J. R., legal in Frolic) survive to orchestrate social behavior. In which case the critic must be wrong to call for more deeply coherent characters. To this I can only respond that in art, if nowhere else, the means and the ends must sometimes be separated. A novelist, no matter what his vision, has to know that the form is predicated, always has been, on the assumption of dynamic character; and that if one ceases to believe in character one had better be ready to do the honorable thing and find another expressive mode.

Still, as entertainment, A Frolic of His Own is a tour de force. It is a profound entertainment. It is scalding and Swiftian, a darkly hilarious inquest into what we have come to now that we have turned from our trust in the sufficiency of the natural human bond, have surrendered accountability to surrogates and to systems we scarcely comprehend. This is the wisdom of the novel, and of the devastating synopsis of its opening line: "Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law." Though of course we freed ourselves from the illusion of a next world long ago.

Jonathan Raban (review date 17 February 1994)

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SOURCE: "At Home in Babel," in The New York Review of Books, Vol. XLI, No. 4, February 17, 1994, pp. 3-4, 6.

[Raban is an English critic, educator, and editor. In the following review, he lauds Gaddis's characterizations, his focus on late twentieth-century life, and his use of dialogue, language, and farce in A Frolic of His Own.]

Every William Gaddis novel tells its story in such a cryptic and allusive way that it can become a cerebral torture, like a crossword puzzle whose setter is named after a famous inquisitor—Torquemada, Ximenes. Reviewing JR in the New Yorker in 1975, George Steiner called it an "unreadable book"—a remark that got him into hot water with the professional Gaddisites, a solemn crew themselves given to sentences like "Read from this perspective, The Recognition demonstrates the essential alterity of the world, the meta-ethical virtue of agapistic ethics" [Gregory Comnes, in his 1994 The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis]. Certainly Gaddis tries one's readerly patience to breaking point, strewing the foreground of his fiction with obstacles designed to trip one up, slow one down, and generally bring one face to face with the (as it were) essential alterity of the novel as a willful tissue of words. Scaling The Recognitions and JR, one keeps coming on the remains of earlier readers who lost their footing and perished in the ascent.

Yet on most of the important counts, Gaddis is an engagingly old fashioned writer. The Victorian spaciousness of his books is in keeping with their big Victorian subjects—forgery and authenticity, wills and legacies, the circulation of money, the workings of the law. His best characters, though never directly described, have a powerful fleshly presence on the page. The loutish pathos of JR, the boy capitalist, Liz and Paul Booth's burned-out marriage in Carpenter's Gothic, are examples of solidly credible realistic portraiture of the kind one feels that Trollope would have recognized and admired. More than any other writer I can think of, Gaddis really listens to the way we speak now. The talk in his novels is brilliantly rendered, with a wicked fidelity to its flimsy grammar, its elisions and hiatuses, its rush-and-stumble rhythms. When Gaddis's characters open their mouths, they're apt to give voice to sentences like car pileups in fog, with each new thought smashing into the rear of the one ahead and colliding with the oncoming traffic of another speaker's words.

If readers of Gaddis are often hard put to it to follow the novelist's drift, their difficulties are precisely mirrored by those of the characters inside the novel, as when Liz Booth sacks her Martinican cleaning woman in fractured Franglais:

—Le mardi prochain Madame?

—Next Tuesday yes will, well no. No I mean that's what I wanted to speak to you about, I mean qu'il ne serait pas nécessaire que, that it's maybe it's better to just wait and I call you again when I, que je vous téléphoner …

—Vous ne voulez pas que je revienne.

Yes well I mean but not next Tuesday, I mean I'll telephone you again I hope you understand Madame Socrate it's just that I, que votre travail est très bon everything looks lovely but …

—J'comprends Madame … the door came open,—et la clef.

—Oh the key yes, yes thank you merci I hope you, oh but wait, wait could you, est-ce que vous pouvez trouver le, les cartes … with a stabbing gesture at the mailbox,—là, dans le, des cartes …?

Madame Socrate is not so named for nothing. Like a good reader, she understands that the static interference in which the message appears to be shrouded is in fact the message itself. As for the mysterious appearance of Descartes in the morning's mail, it is one of those suggestive coincidences with which Gaddis likes to tease, and sometimes torment, his readers.

He can be very funny, in a way that pointedly recalls the exasperated laughter of Evelyn Waugh, for whom Gaddis has often expressed his admiration in articles and interviews. Waugh's favorite cloak—that of the last surviving patrician in a fallen world of thugs and philistines—has been taken over by Gaddis and trimmed to a (slightly) more democratic American pattern. Like Waugh, Gaddis is funniest when he's gunning for the barbarians at the gate—for the culture of the game show, the shopping mall, the tabloid newspaper, the matchbook cover. Waugh saw the fall of Christendom in the rise of the commercial lower orders. Gaddis sees entropy: the world is not so much going to hell as suffering from the inevitable degradation of energy in a closed system, its language wearing out from overuse. So where Waugh invoked Ecclesiastes and the Book of Lamentations, Gaddis calls in Willard Gibbs and Norbert Wiener (which might in itself be seen as a kind of entropic diminishment). His eccentric personal version of thermodynamics chimes very closely with Waugh's eccentric personal theology, suggesting, perhaps, that gods, physicists, and novelists may share a common black humor as they contemplate the experiments in chaos over which they separately preside.

A Frolic of His Own, Gaddis's fourth novel in nearly forty years, is a country-house comedy, faster in pace and lighter in texture than anything he's done before. It reassembles themes, images, and a large number of characters from the earlier books. There's fresh news of Dr. Kissinger, the globe-trotting proctologist and cosmetic surgeon, of the Rev. Elton Ude, his son Bobby Joe, and of Wayne Fickert, the boy who was drowned by the Rev. Ude at a baptism in the Pee Dee River. The huge postmodernist sculpture, Cyclone Seven, last seen in JR, in the Long Island town where a child was trapped inside it, has here been moved to Tatamount, Virginia. Its steel jaws now imprison a dog named Spot. Oscar Crease, the gentle-man-amateur playwright at the center of the story, is a reworked version of the character of Edward Bast in JR; his half-sister Christina and her friend Trish were schoolmates of Liz Booth and her friend Edie Grimes, the "Heiress Slain In Swank Suburb" of Carpenter's Gothic. Oscar Crease's play, Once at Antietam, had its first performance, in brief quotation, in JR, where it was the work of Thomas Eigen (and was dismissed by Jack Gibbs as "undigested Plato").

The Long Island house in which nearly all the action of the book takes place is (like the Bast family mansion in JR) an incongruous genteel survivor from another age. Its roof leaks, its verandah sags, and—as a visiting realtor observes—it is in desperate need of the attentions of "old Mister Paintbrush to brighten things up." Its chief asset—worth several millions in "wetlands setbacks"—is a fine view from the drawing room of American literature's most famous pond, which has been trucked in from Massachusetts for the occasion of the book. Like Walden itself, the Crease place is ringed by suburbia: the chainsaws, whose "unanesthetized aerial surgery" began in JR, are within earshot of the house, and the driveway now leads straight to the debased language of Chic's Auto Body, Fred's Foto, and the R Dan Snively Memorial Parking Lot.

The hideous red-taloned woman who sells real estate (she envisions the house torn down and replaced by a new one, to be built by "this famous postmodern architect who's doing the place on the corner right down to the carpets and picture frames it will be quite a showplace") bears a strong resemblance to Mrs. Beaver and her plans for Hatton in A Handful of Dust ("… supposing we covered the walls with white chromium plating and had natural sheepskin carpet …"). There may be another nod in Evelyn Waugh's direction in Gaddis's choice of the name of Crease. The only Crease I know of in the public domain is the Francis Crease who earned half a chapter to himself in Waugh's autobiography, A Little Learning—a neurotic calligrapher and dilettante of independent means who might be Oscar's twin.

Oscar Crease is the childish last scion of a distinguished legal family. His grandfather sat on the Supreme Court with Justice Holmes; his ninety-seven-year-old father is a judge in Virginia; in his fifty-odd years, Oscar has managed to write one unproduced play, based on what he believes to have been his grandfather's experience in the Civil-War. In a late and ill-advised bid for recognition, he sues the Hollywood producer of a Civil War epic called The Blood in the Red White and Blue for plagiarizing Once at Antietam and robbing him of his family history.

Broadly—very broadly—speaking, almost everyone in the novel is suing almost everyone else in sight for damages. Some are suing themselves—Oscar is both plaintiff and defendant in a personal injury suit involving his car, which ran over him when the ignition failed and he hot-wired it. People travel through these pages with their attorneys in tow much as people once used to travel with their maids. In the foreground are Oscar's chickenfeed pieces of litigation; in the background are the great cases of the day, like the $700 million suit, known in the tabloids as "Pop and Glow," brought by the Episcopal Church against Pepsi-Cola on the grounds that the church's good name has been stolen by means of an underhand anagram. For every suit there is a countersuit, for every judgment an appeal. Gaddis peoples the book with a throng of injured egos whose only means of asserting that they exist is to go to court. As Christina reasonably observes in the first page, "It's not simply the money … the money's just a yardstick isn't it. It's the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves."

Gaddis likes to set himself technical exercises. In JR he had to tell the story in dialogue; in Carpenter's Gothic he obeyed the classical unities of time, place, and action. A Frolic of His Own is in part an immensely skillful exercise in the mechanics of farce. It is a wonder that the ailing verandah of the house doesn't collapse under the weight of the stream of surprise exits and entrances of lawyers and litigants that it has to bear. Like all good farces, after the sound of laughter has subsided it turns out to have been in deadly earnest.

Gaddis is a mimic of genius and he runs the gamut of stylistic imitation from undetectable forgery to ribald satire. Oscar's play, for instance, of which the reader gets to see about seventy pages, is, unlike the usual text-within-a-text, a real play whose very unevenness convinces one of its authenticity. Brilliant passages, mostly in soliloquy, lead into long stilted debates, which themselves suddenly catch fire and come alive for a few minutes, then go dead again. Unlike the author of the novel, the playwright doesn't know how to move his characters on and off stage nearly fast enough. Yet the central confrontation, between Thomas, the southern heir to northern property, and Bagby, his agent, a commercial "new man" and an early example of the Barbarian genus, is engrossing enough to transcend the play's wonky stagecraft. Once at Antietam's debts to Plato, first exposed in JR, are teased out here in detail by a smart Indian attorney, Madhar Pai, in a legal deposition taken during Crease's case against the Hollywood producer; but the play's more immediate debts are to the thoughtful, talkative middlebrow theater of the 1950s, to plays like Anouilh's Antigone and Bolt's A Man for All Seasons in which large moral questions were acted out by people in period costume, and it has a lot of their dusty charm.

The same goes for the legal documents that are interleaved throughout the book. The cases on which they touch may be farcical, but the attention paid to them by Gaddis's crew of lawyers and judges is of a quality for which one might reasonably pay Mr. Madhar Pai his fantastic hourly rate. This is not Bleak House. In A Frolic of His Own the language of the law is treated with affection and respect, and the lawyers themselves are honored as the last surviving instruments (even though some of them are very imperfect ones) of order in this disorderly world. The cleverest, most likable character in the novel is old Judge Crease, who appears in written opinions that combine a waspish common-sensicality with bouts of unexpected mental acrobatics. From Crease on Szyrk [the creator of the huge piece of sculpture Cyclone Seven] v. Village of Tatamount et al.:

We have in other words plaintiff claiming to act as an instrument of higher authority, namely "art," wherewith we may first cite its dictionary definition as "(1) Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature." Notwithstanding that Cyclone Seven clearly answers this description especially in its last emphasis, there remain certain fine distinctions posing some little difficulty for the average lay observer persuaded from habit and even education to regard sculptural art as beauty synonymous with truth in expressing harmony as visibly incarnate in the lineaments of Donatello's David, or as the very essence of the sublime manifest in the Milos Aphrodite, leaving him in the present instance quite unprepared to discriminate between sharp steel teeth as sharp steel teeth, and sharp steel teeth as artistic expressions of sharp steel teeth, obliging us for the purpose of this proceeding to confront the theory that in having become self referential art is in itself theory without which it has no more substance than Sir Arthur Eddington's famous step "on a swarm of flies," here present in further exhibits by plaintiff drawn from prestigious art publications and highly esteemed critics in the lay press, where they make their livings, recommending his sculptural creation in terms of slope, tangent, acceleration, force, energy and similar abstract extravagancies serving only a corresponding self referential confrontation of language with language and thereby, in reducing language itself to theory, rendering it a mere plaything, which exhibits the court finds frivolous.

This might be William Empson in a wig and gown. It is a fierce and well-grounded attack on trivial postmodernist pursuits and, in itself, a vindication of Gaddis's own way of writing novels.

True, all his books entail a "confrontation of language with language," but the confrontation is not "self-referential" and never reduces language to theory. In Gaddis's work, language is where we live and what we are. It's all we have. So the play Once at Antietam has its own power: it may not be a very good play, but it is, we are made to feel, the best play, the best reckoning with the paradox of his own history, that its author (call him Gaddis, or Eigen, or Oscar Crease) could make under the circumstances. So, too, Judge Crease's own legal opinion, laboring as it does to say something eloquent and true within the constricting conventional frame of the legal opinion, is the best that can be done under the circumstances, which in Gaddis are always adverse. A Frolic of His Own is not another novel about narratology: its sharp teeth are genuine sharp steel teeth.

In the most realistic way possible, Gaddis's characters have to struggle to stay afloat on the flux of late-century daily life. The Crease house is under permanent siege—its verandah stormed by callers, its phone ringing off the hook, newspapers piling up in the kitchen far faster than they can be read, and the television in the drawing room pouring out a continuous unlovely medley of bomb-blast pictures interspersed with Jeopardy-style questions ("Name three African countries beginning with C…. What breed of African antelope is named after an American car?") and commercials for laxatives and hemorrhoid creams. Oscar is addicted to nature programs, filmed to prove that animal life is as red in tooth and claw as the human variety. On the screen are exhibited pictures of such familiar domestic situations as: "two acorn woodpeckers sharing a nest where one laid an egg and the other ate it"; "the Australian red-back spider jumping into the female's jaws in the midst of mating which he continued undismayed as she chewed at his abdomen"; a "battle among the notorious burying beetles over the corpse of a mouse nicely scraped and embalmed by the victorious couple for their young to eat and then eating the young when they hatched to ensure the survivors of enough food for a stalwart new generation to start the whole thing over again." The TV set is kept switched on throughout the book: it is both a loud source of colored chaos and a faithful mirror of the Crease family in action. In the refrigerator, another chaos, a cole-slaw carton holds the "jelly implants" removed from the breasts of Oscar's infantile and dippy girlfriend, Lily.

Gaddis is at his most Waugh-like in the formal grace with which he manages the wild disorder of the plot. The faster the whirlygig spins, the more one admires its ingenious workmanship. As in Waugh, the proprietor of the machine appears to be standing at some distance from it, his face perfectly impassive, while the riders scream.

Chaos is a state where the whole system of cause-and-effect appears to have given way, where everything happens by accident. In Gaddis's highly controlled version of chaos, the chance properties of the language itself, the puns, anagrams, and coincidental allusions, serve as vital connectors. So we get EPISCOPAL/PEPSICOLA—or the two brands of Japanese car that figure in this legal fiction, the Isuyu and the Sosumi—or the name, Jonathan Livingston Siegal, of the producer of The Blood in the Red White and Blue—or the way in which a negotiation over the forthcoming lunch break is recorded in a legal deposition as "Break, break, break on thy cold grey stones, O …" In a TV commercial for a diarrhea cure, a man is seen running for an airport bathroom; several hundred pages later in the novel, at an airport, an identical running figure is wrongfully accused of stealing a pocketbook belonging to Christina's friend Trish. In another chance collision, the infectious meter of Longfellow's Hiawatha, Oscar's favorite childhood poem, insidiously works its way into the later, hurrying scenes of the book, giving Longfellow the opportunity to write a description of Oscar's fishtank (where rapacious nature is again contained by glass):

neither rose Ugudwash, the sunfish, nor the yellow perch the Sahwa like a sunbeam in the water banished here, with wind and wave, day and night and time itself from the domain of the discus by the daily halide lamp, silent pump and power filter, temperature and pH balance and the system of aeration, fed on silverside and flake food, vitamins and krill and beef heart in a patent spinach mixture to restore their pep and lustre spitting black worms from the feeder when a crew of new arrivals (live delivery guaranteed, air freight collect at thirty dollars) brought a Chinese algae eater, khuli loach and male beta, two black mollies and four neons and a pair of black skirt tetra cruising through the new laid fronds of the Madagascar lace plant.

The book is full of riffs and games like this, each one designed to forge some sort of punning link between one part of the battle and another. Taken together, they have the effect of falling into a pattern that grows more and more intricate the longer you look at it, like the sequence of enlargements in a Mandelbrot set.

Readers—and reviewers especially—ought to feel a disquieting pang of recognition as the climax of the book approaches and Oscar, armed with ice cream and Pinot Grigio, settles in front of the TV set to view the screening of The Blood in the Red White and Blue, the catchpenny epic, whose plot somewhat resembles that of his own play. The titles have barely started to roll before Oscar is off, reading into the images on the screen meanings that cannot possibly be there. By the time the Battle of Antietam starts, he has fallen into the language of a demented football commentator:

—there! a man's shoulder blown off—look out! too late, the boy in butternut hit full in the open mouth, mere boys, mere boys in homespun and blue in a screaming frenzy of bayonets and shellfire—unbelievable, it's unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet we're taking the cornfield there's Meade, there's Meade in the midst of it there's Meade look at the flags, battle flags the Sixth Wisconsin, Pennsylvania regiments and three hundred of the Twelfth Massachusetts with two hundred casualties now! We're almost there, the Dunker church Georgia boys trying to get over the fence pffft! shot like laundry hung on a line listen! The Rebel yell listen to it, Hood's division counterattack makes your blood run cold they're coming through! Driving us back they're driving us back, A P Hill coming in from the East Wood I mean D H, D H Hill's division right into the, ooph! Battery B, six old brass cannon it's Battery B charging straight into it look at that! Double rounds of canister hitting them at fifty feet the whole Rebel column's blown to pieces blood everyplace, blood everyplace that's Mansfield, wild white beard's got to be General Mansfield Hooker sending him in with his XII Corps riding down the line waving his hat hear them cheering he's, yes he's hit, horse is down and Mansfield's hit in the stomach God, get him off the field!

No critic with a bee in his bonnet could be more capriciously inventive than Oscar as he deconstructs the blockbuster on the TV screen and reassembles it into a Super Bowl version of the Civil War. What Oscar sees here is neither the movie nor Antietam itself, but his and Gaddis's chief source of information on the battle, Bruce Catton's 1951 book, Mr. Lincoln's Army. Oscar's passionate explication of The Blood in the Red White and Blue turns out to be Gaddis's devastating parody of Catton's blow-by-blow, newspaperman's prose. (It's strange to turn to Catton's book after reading Gaddis: Mr. Lincoln's Army reads exactly like an overexcited football commentary …)

So it is with the silent pond beyond the window, whose prospect haunts the book. Again and again Christina (who is most nearly the reader's representative in the story) turns to it: while people fight in the drawing room, and animals dine off one another's carcasses on TV, and fish chase fish around the fishtank, life on the pond is orderly and serene. Things there happen in their seasons. The passage of time in the book, as autumn deepens into winter, is marked by the noiseless flight of wild duck, geese, and swans over the water. Each time the pond is sighted, it provokes a burst of beautiful, descriptive prose:

And where they looked next morning the frozen pond was gone in an unblemished expanse of white under a leaden sky undisturbed by the flight of a single bird in the gelid stillness that had descended to seize every detail of reed and branch as though time itself were frozen out there threatening the clatter of teacups and silver and the siege of telephoning that had already begun with—well when, just tell me when I can talk to him, will you …

—beautiful, but anachronistic. To write like a contemporary of Thoreau (even a commaless contemporary of Thoreau) is something that can be managed only for a few clauses at a time, before the words are drowned out by the noisy desperation of the present moment. We're separated from the tranquility of the pond by a panel of glass and roughly 150 years.

Gaddis builds around the reader a magnificently ornate and intricate house of words. Every room is furnished in a different style, and one quickly loses count of the competing dialects and idiolects, archaic and modern, literary, legal, vernacular, that are represented here. Christina snaps at her husband: "I mean you talk about language how everything's language it seems that all language does is drive us apart" (which, of course, does exactly what it says). That Gaddis's tall building is Babel, where the Lord did confound the language of all the earth, hardly needs to be spelled out. What makes the novel so enjoyable is how very homely and familiar Babel is made to feel. There's a bed for us all in this oppressively realistic, beautifully designed Long Island madhouse.

Gary Amdahl (review date Spring 1994)

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SOURCE: "Courting Lawyers and Whores," in The Hungry Mind Review, No. 29, Spring, 1994, pp. 34, 42-3.

[In the excerpt below, Amdahl offers praise for A Frolic of His Own.]

Adventure! How may one avail oneself of it in a culture gone mad with comfort and dreams of safety? I think there are two broad avenues radiating from the modern American self toward the perpetually fluorescent horizon of modern American adventure: one is law and the other is medicine. White-water rafting, mountaineering, alligator wrestling—certainly these activities are exciting and put one at risk, but they seem hobbylike compared to the harrowing, soul-chilling thrills of engaging in multiple lawsuits, or of contracting a fatal, high-profile disease and being at the mercy of the dark gods of insurance and technology. American adventures are adventures of money.

Two extraordinary novels, A Frolic of His Own, by William Gaddis, and Butterfly Stories, by William Vollmann, are dramatic cases in point, and constitute, in themselves, genuine (if literary) adventure. Resembling each other in almost no way (subject matter, structure, style, voice), the two novels share a great deal fundamentally. They are both sui generis, unmistakably and uncompromisingly original. They are technically innovative. They are dark, rich, solid, and occasionally sordid (especially the casually provocative Butterfly, but Frolic too, in a kind of helter-skelter subtext), comedies that make tragedies, even the best ones, seem lugubrious, lurid, and lead-footed, altogether the more pretentious and ineffective vehicles for transformation of human woe and catastrophe. And, most importantly, they are both, to quote one of Gaddis's characters, "trying to rescue the language."

A Frolic of His Own (the title is taken from English common law and refers to a deed committed by a servant that is not within the scope of his employment, that is not in the service of or at the behest of his master; e. g., an office worker shooting paper clips and putting out an eye, or, more broadly, writing a novel) is the story of one man and a handful of connected lawsuits. They range from personal injury and accidental death to divorce, plagiarism, and infringement. The lawsuits are initiated by a variety of plaintiffs: a small boy whose dog has been trapped in a horrific, menacing modern outdoor "public art" sculpture; the artist who created the sculpture and gets an injunction against its dismantling/destruction to save the dog; and the city, which wishes it to be removed permanently (these parties will reverse their positions 180 degrees before the novel is over). In another case, the Episcopal Church sues Pepsico, Inc., whom they claim is infringing on their trademark name with an anagram of it: Pepsi-Cola. The cases are conducted by a swarm of lawyers, from those who advertise on matchbook covers, to those on the run from the law themselves, to lawyers who are not really lawyers at all, to partners in prestigious "white shoe" firms and judges on the U.S. District Court.

The primary suits revolve around Oscar Crease, a playwriting professor of history at a community college on Long Island, whose father is a federal judge and whose grandfather sat on the Supreme Court. The first suit goes like this: Trying to hot-wire his car (a "Sosume"), Crease runs himself over. He then decides, since he is both the accident victim and the owner of the car, that the best course of action is to sue himself.

At first glance merely a bit of parody and slapstick, the ironic whine of the episode is amplified by the turn of nearly every page so that by the end of the novel it has become a howl of madness and despair. Crease wants "justice"; he wants his hospital bills paid, he wants a new car, he wants compensation for his injury and incapacity, he wants wants wants and believes that justice is getting getting getting. The irony, of course, depends on Crease's unwillingness to acknowledge his culpability. But this is precisely the acknowledgment that cannot be made in America. This is a no-fault world, a world of remote anonymous third-party reimbursement (someone else is paying, slice off a hunk, pad it, jack it up, put it on the tab), a world of money growing on trees and magician gardeners in those trees wearing suits and ties, hooting and rustling the leafy bills and keeping the branches just out of reach of frothing, leaping, wild-eyed victim/perpetrators. This is Frolic's central image and base melody (as I see and hear them).

The second suit has to do with Crease's play Once at Antietam, in which he tells the story of his famous grandfather, a Southerner who inherits a lucrative mine in the North and who ends up paying men to be his substitute in both the Union and Confederate armies (a common practice). The play, submitted years before to a TV producer in New York, turns up as a monster-budget Hollywood extravaganza, featuring state of the art sex acts and special-effects gore: The Blood in the Red White and Blue. Similar in many ways to his play, Crease charges its makers with a variety of crimes. Once at Antietam is a work of art, he insists over and over again; he wrote it because he is a civilized man who values philosophy and poetry, and all he wants is justice, as symbolized by lots of money.

A goodly portion of the play is reproduced in the novel (it may seem a little stately to readers used to Rabe, Shepard, Mamet, and Guare, but its counterpoint is both pleasing and necessary), and suffers close reading in one of the book's many tour de force legal parodies, a deposition of some fifty pages that raises a number of interesting questions about art, commerce, and ownership of intellectual property. Claiming that his work has been stolen and travestied, Crease, we soon realize, has himself borrowed from O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra, who in turn borrowed from Euripides, and owes a good deal to Plato, too, a lot of whose Republic pours (unattributed) from one of his character's mouths.

The complexity, depth, and range of Frolic are, I hope, clear enough. One of the marks of the great novel is its resistance to summary description, and Frolic (like all Gaddis's masterpieces) is overpowering in this regard. With its incredibly intricate weave of dramatic text, legal documents, and virtuoso dialogue, all connected with feverishly beautiful passages—or sinews of description—reading Frolic is something like listening to a life insurance salesman and biblical prophet—one who knows world literature forward and backward—interpret your wildest dreams.

Steven Moore (review date 25 April 1994)

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SOURCE: "Reading the Riot Act," in The Nation, New York, Vol. 258, No. 16, April 25, 1994, pp. 569-71.

[An American critic and educator, Moore is author and editor of several works on Gaddis. In the following highly laudatory review, he discusses the experience of reading A Frolic of His Own and questions the validity of critical assessments that denigrate the novel for its ostensible "difficulties."]

The phrase "literary event" has been dulled by years of misuse by glib publicists; but no other phrase describes the appearance of a new novel by William Gaddis, one of this country's true literary giants. The review media's response to this literary event [the publication of A Frolic of His Own] has been disheartening, however, as if nothing has changed in the forty years since Gaddis's first novel, The Recognitions, was panned. Then as now, the main charge is "difficulty," yet only in literature does this seem to be a sin. One rarely sees a music critic complain that Philip Glass expects too much of his listeners, or reads that Merce Cunningham expects too much from his audience. In diving competitions and magic acts the degree of difficulty is admired. But let a writer execute a difficult task with breath-taking technique, and mostly what's heard is heckling—whining and moaning about how much effort is involved in watching the artist work. What should be a privilege is treated like an affront.

In her review for the daily New York Times, the usually hardy Michiko Kakutani said the novel made for "laborious reading" and that "Mr Gaddis's provocative vision of modern society is purchased at a price, the price of hard work and frequent weariness on the part of the reader." In the Sunday New York Times Book Review, Robert Towers also felt compelled to warn the unsuspecting reader that "One must not underestimate the obstacles that lie in the way of the appreciation, to say nothing of the enjoyment, of this remarkable novel," going on to call some of the obstacles "gratuitous, even perverse," (It's always the author's fault.) Sven Birkerts used the d-word as well in his New Republic review, though he was sharp enough to note that the neglect of Gaddis because of his alleged difficulty "somewhat indicts us as a culture." But he makes Gaddis sound like the strictest kind of taskmaster: "let the attention slip for a second and you pay by having to work back to get it all straight." Frank McConnell in the Boston Globe warned of "the holy arrogance of the demands it makes on the reader. The book dares you to struggle with it, and on every page taunts you that you may, after all, not be up to the fight." Toward the end of his review McConnell says, "This is a very hard book to read, but it works," though by that point most readers have probably been scared off. Running against the grain was a rather snotty squib in Newsweek by Malcolm Jones Jr., who took the opposite tack and complained that the book was too easy, too lazy, and chided Gaddis for not giving "his readers more for their trouble."

Is A Frolic of His Own that difficult, that exhausting? I devoured it in a weekend in a state of exhilaration and delight. Yes, you do have to keep your wits about you when reading Gaddis, but it's a rare privilege these days to be taken this seriously as a reader. Like Henry James, William Gaddis wants the kind of reader on whom nothing is lost. He doesn't talk down or assume you can't make connections. He expects that you've read a few books in your time, read the papers. This is literature, not a TV sitcom.

The point is not whether Gaddis is difficult or not but whether difficulty is such a bad thing in literature. Those who prefer easy listening may want easy reading, but others should find a novel bracing, challenging. In Gaddis's second novel, JR, Jack Gibbs is asked if his work in progress on technology and the arts is difficult, and he answers, "Difficult as I can make it." The difficulties Gibbs undergoes to get this book written, the breadth of his research and length of time he devotes to the task (after seventeen years he still isn't finished), show what sort of pact should exist between serious writers and serious readers.

Gaddis knows he's difficult (Gibbs is one of his personas in JR), and consequently lightens the task somewhat by making his books very funny, filling them with all forms of humor, from limericks and low puns to learned wit and Olympian ironies. The absence of a comic element can make some difficult literary works a real grind—Pound's Cantos, say, or Broch's Death of Virgil—despite their other virtues. On the other hand, the comic element is what makes extremely difficult novels like Joyce's Finnegans Wake and Julián Rìos's Larva such a pleasure to wrestle with. And yet few reviewers convey the idea that Gaddis is essentially a comic novelist and that his books can be great fun—rather than an exercise in masochism—to read.

The charges of difficulty have plagued Gaddis all his career. In Fire the Bastards! (1962), a scathing attack on the critical reception of Gaddis's first novel, Jack Green has a section called "The 'Difficult' Cliché" in which he quotes half a dozen reviewers voicing the same complaints about Gaddis as the current crop. (Green points out that a novel is difficult only if you read it like a textbook, in which each paragraph has to be mastered before moving on to the next. He also argues that a rich novel is always difficult, and asks "unless you hug impoverishment why worry?") Gaddis's JR, which is indeed his most difficult (though it is also the great American novel if ever there was one), seemed to prove most difficult for sophisticated mandarin reviewers like George Steiner in The New Yorker; those in the provinces, like Alicia Miller in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, had a wonderful time with it. Because of its shorter length, Gaddis's third novel, Carpenter's Gothic, got off comparatively easy, though there were those who complained of the close attention the novel demanded. The new book may be Gaddis's best mixture yet of complex and hilarious matters, of high art and good entertainment.

A Frolic of His Own is both cutting-edge, state-of-the-art fiction and a throwback to the great moral novels of Tolstoy and Dickens. That it can be both is just one of the many balancing acts it performs: It is bleak and pessimistic while howlingly funny; it is a deeply serious exploration of such lofty themes as justice and morality but is paced like a screwball comdey; it is avant-garde in its fictional techniques but traditional in conception and in the reading pleasures it offers; it is a damning indictment of the United States, Christianity and the legal system, but also a playful frolic of Gaddis's own.

The plot is too wonderfully complex to summarize here; suffice it to say, it concerns an interlocking set of lawsuits involving the Crease family: Oscar, a historian and playwright; Christina, his stepsister, married to a lawyer named Harry Lutz; and their father, Judge Thomas Crease, presiding over two cases in Virginia during the course of the novel. The story unfolds by way of Gaddis's trademark dialogue, so realistic it reads like unedited transcripts but which artfully conveys much information that normally would be consigned to expository narration. Here, for example, is how Oscar's flaky girlfriend, Lily, is introduced. Oscar asks her where she got the new BMW that Christina saw her driving, and she responds: "—It's just this person I borrowed it from Oscar. To come over and see you, I only wish she didn't dislike me so much. She just always makes me feel like a, she's so superior and smart and her clothes, she's just always so attractive for somebody her age and …" This occurs early in the novel, before Gaddis has described Christina, and now he doesn't need to: Lily has. JR was conveyed entirely in dialogue, but in A Frolic Gaddis includes passages from Oscar's play—necessary for the plot, but often tedious reading—and various legal opinions, brilliantly rendered in the majestic language of the law. One of them, first published a few years ago in The New Yorker as "Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al.," is especially dazzling and contains one of the most eloquent defenses of venturesome art in our time. Noting that "risk of ridicule, of attracting defamatory attentions from his colleagues and even raucous demonstrations by an outraged public have ever been and remain the foreseeable lot of the serious artist," Judge Crease is another of Gaddis's personas, and it is this sense of artistic mission that makes Gaddis essential reading for our culture. He is the oldest of that generation of meganovelists that includes John Barth, Thomas Pynchon and Robert Coover, and while his artistry is as relentlessly inventive as theirs, he is more adept than they at cracking the whip of corrective satire, more concerned with rescuing American culture from itself by exposing its inherent contradictions and weaknesses. The next century's historians and sociologists will learn more from Gaddis than from any other American novelist of our time what went wrong with this century.

Despite its preoccupation with the law, A Frolic of His Own has nothing in common with the current crop of legal fictions. There are no courtroom scenes: Gaddis isn't interested in the histrionics of courtroom drama but rather in the role the law plays in attempting to impose order on disorderly conduct.

Justice, order, money and the law: Each of these nouns appears on the first page and together they form the compass points of the novel. The same concepts were at the heart of JR, but while there the emphasis was on money, here it is on the law. In the world according to Gaddis—made up of that devastating barrage of malice, madness and malfeasance reported nightly on the news—the law is less a system to insure order than a weapon that ridiculous, greedy people use to make "other people take them as seriously as they take themselves" (also quoted from the first page; like an opera composer, Gaddis announces all his themes in the overture). Justice, order and the law are not synonymous terms, nor are they enough: The missing term (and thus absent from the first page but appearing later) is, simply, what is "right."

The novel is a stupendous achievement, filled with so much outrage, wit, wisdom and artistry that it makes other novels published in the past ten years look tepid and underachieved. (Despite his reservations, Sven Birkerts admitted that it is "leagues ahead of most so-called 'serious' novels that are published these days.") If you find it difficult you should be grateful, for you'll be engaged at the top of your abilities, discovering reading muscles you'd forgotten you ever had. And any exhaustion you feel afterward will be the good kind, as after sex or an invigorating workout. Go for the burn.

Michael Wood (review date 12 May 1994)

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SOURCE: "So Sue Me," in London Review of Books, Vol. 16, No. 9, May 12, 1994, pp. 20-1.

[Wood is an English-born critic, screenwriter, and educator. In the following review, he examines Gaddis's use of dialogue, wordplay, and humor in A Frolic of His Own.]

It's hard to think of a writer who publishes a book every ten or twenty years as garrulous, or of a person who produces his fourth novel at the age of 72 as prolific; but we need some such terms if we are to begin to describe the extraordinary work of William Gaddis, born 1922, the author of The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985) and now A Frolic of His Own.

Everyone talks in these novels, all the time and at length. They don't listen, or they barely listen; or they listen too late, so that what they finally hear confounds everything they have been saying. Their style, at least in the last three novels, is breathless and jumbled, often pronounless, dedicated to the present participle. From JR:

See life draining out of everything in sight call that beautiful? End of the day alone on that train, lights coming on in those little Connecticut towns stop and stare out at an empty street corner dry cheese sandwich charge you a dollar you wouldn't even put butter on it, finally pull into that desolate station scared to get off scared to stay on.

From Carpenter's Gothic:

Trying to get things together here look, getting things lined up everything's just about ready to fall in place so God damn many pressures, why I don't try to tell you everything I don't want to upset you. Try to give you the big picture you take one corner of it and run, jump like I said you jump to some conclusion the whole God damn thing falls to pieces like these flowers, I send these flowers you jump to some conclusion we end up arguing about flowers, see what I mean?

From A Frolic of His Own:

Like we just witnessed here right before our eyes how this Federal US judge just steps in there to suit his fancy and throws out a verdict reached after calm deliberation by a jury of you honest citizens black folk and white, right there in the Fourteenth Amendment in black and white, the jury that's the bulwark and cornerstone of American justice like you don't see in these dictator atheist countries.

And it's not just the characters who talk. The novels themselves are driven by a compulsion to discuss and argue, to let all these words out of the bag. Monologues merge into hectic narrative, often without warning; the narrators have purple passages, usually parodying some sort of fine writing, including Gaddis's own; texts are inserted into texts—handwritten homework and lists in JR, a play and sundry legal documents, with typescript to match, in A Frolic of His Own. There is a need for words here, a sense of things to be said, of a world waiting for our wisdom, of ourselves needing to make an extended verbal mark on our habitat; and there is also—this is what makes these novels so brilliantly funny—a lucid and ironic awareness of how pointless and manic and self-centred this talk is. Talk is a kind of doomed buffoonery, wearing funny clothes and taking tumbles because it doesn't know how to get another job, or if there is another job, anywhere.

The books are crowded with voices and short on punctuation, but are they then unreadable? Some sort of late Modernist nightmare, experimental art at the end of its tether? This is what many hostile critics have said, and even a friendly critic, like William Gass (no relation, I think, except through the alphabet), introducing The Recognitions as a Penguin 20th-Century Classic, suggests we don't need or are not likely to finish reading the work. "Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed Finnegans Wake? What does it mean to finish Moby Dick, anyway? Do not begin this book with any hope of that. This is a book you are meant to befriend.' The idea of befriending a book is attractive, but these are all the wrong comparisons, surely. Gaddis is not difficult or unapproachable, once we get the hang of his shifts from monologue to dialogue, and from dialogue to narrative. We pick up a habit, realise that the puns and misunderstandings and false starts that litter our reading are an unshakeable part of his and our world; that we are not missing things, just getting too much. If you say 'suit', to take an example from A Frolic of His Own, do you mean law-suit or clothes? What if the point is the chance of slithering from one world to the other? If reference is always getting away from you; if it's not meaning that's the problem, but our not knowing where to hang it, or hanging it too soon in the wrong places?

There are lots of shifts of plot, always surprising, often hilarious; plenty of knockabout gags; endless amounts of shrewd observation of contemporary America, with its particular, self-consuming madnesses. The trouble with Gaddis is not his prose or the ambitions of his works. It's time. Our time, the time we haven't got. The books are wonderfully readable but you feel you need another life, or nothing else to do in this one, in order to read them. This feeling can be overcome.

The term 'a frolic of one's own', we learn in this new novel, is an ancient legal technicality. It describes the activities of an employee who is at work but engaged in private pursuits. The inference is that the employer is not liable for any damage that arises. It looks like a let-out, and Gaddis has a fine time applying it to God, as the always absent boss of people who say they are doing His work. American fundamentalism is one of Gaddis's favourite targets, and he develops here a black joke he started to sketch out in Carpenter's Gothic, where the Reverend Elton Ude inadvertently drowns a child he is trying to baptise. The case now comes to trial.

There can be no question that, in bringing a new soul into the fold through the baptismal ceremony, he was engaged on his master's business much as, we may recall in Luke 2.49, this selfsame master at age 12 found lagging behind at the temple in Jerusalem by his anxious parents, rebuked them saying 'Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?' and not, in the word of a later English jurist, 'going on a frolic of his own'. In carrying out this solemn assignment, even were there reliable testimony that this omniscient master must have been aware of the risk and told his servant to act carefully, the law still holds him liable for a prevailing share in the consequences. In other words, the master may not delegate responsibility for the servant's acts to him, since under terms of their relationship he remains ultimately responsible for protecting his servant. This must hold all the more true where the instrument of imminent catastrophe is the master's to control, as must the crest and current of the Pee Dee River have been for one who had shown himself capable of stilling a great tempest to save a ship from foundering by merely rebuking the winds and the sea in Matthew 8.26, with which I am sure you are all familiar.

This is a piece of the judge's instructions to the jury, and it is full of sarcasm and mischief, fundamentalism turned against the fundamentalists. He is about to grant the unfortunate boy's father compensation in the amount of $19.76. But he (and Gaddis) are having fun with the idea of an act of God; and elsewhere Gaddis sets up the frolic of one's own as a definition of the artist. He or she is at work, and working, but not doing the job they are supposed to do; defecting even from their own projects. Does this make them deviant professionals, or just amateurs? Gaddis probably wants to say that it makes them unclassifiable. There is something sentimental and mystified about this claim, which implies an old romance of the ornery individualist, all rebellion and refusal. Still, Gaddis's world offers us plenty to refuse, and in context the frolic represents an escape not just from conformity but from the law itself, and from the idea that the law is ubiquitous and sufficient, 'all laws, and laws, and everything's laws', as a character says.

The chief frolickers in the novel are Oscar Crease, a (one-time) playwright and (casual) history instructor, described in the newspapers as 'a wealthy recluse living on Long Island'; and his 97-year-old father, the judge giving the instructions to the jury in Virginia. Oscar's girlfriend Lily thinks the papers have called him 'a wealthy excuse', which is perhaps more appropriate. He watches nature programmes on television, drinks a lot and broods over his various litigations. He is suing a car firm because his own car started while he was standing in front of it, and ran him over; and a movie company for plagiarising his play about the Civil War, a work which is in turn a rambling rip-off of O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms, with dashes of Plato and Rousseau and Camus thrown in. We have legal opinions, complaints, answers to complaints, depositions, more opinions, all done with admirable, patient attention to the detail and manner of the language of the law, touched with parodies and escapes, frolics of Gaddis's own, only in the lightest possible way. Oscar's case at first seems ludicrous, then plausible, then absolutely convincing: the movie took all of its essential plot and character features from him. It looks as if he's won, but then an appeal, accepting this indebtedness, gets a court to quantify. How large was Oscar's contribution to the financial success of the film, in comparison to that of the stars, the studio, the movie medium, salacious advertising, lots of nudity, bloody battles etc? You can hear Oscar's imagined money trickling away.

Meanwhile the judge has problems of his own, 'a lot on his plate', as the resentful, father-haunted Oscar keeps saying, with some satisfaction. Gaddis has really outdone himself in macabre humour here. A dog belonging to a black boy in the village of Tatamount, Va, runs into a large free-standing modern sculpture, called Cyclone Seven, and can't get out. The fire brigade is all set to release him with the aid of acetylene torches, when the artist, a fellow with a foreign name living in New York, gets an injunction to stop the village interfering with his masterpiece in any way. The judge, in another sarcastic opinion, upholds this injunction, the media arrive, and everyone wants a piece of this act, animal rights and artists' rights, local law and federal law, people making T-shirts, toys, the lot.

There is much malarkey along these lines, until the dog is killed by a bolt of lightning—an act of God or one of God's frolics—and the dispute now centres on the dog's remains, and the question of compensation for the bereaved boy. Most of the parties change sides several times, and at one point the village is anxious to keep the sculpture as it is because of the revenue it creates, while the artist wants to dismantle it and take it away. The judge is infuriating everyone, and there are calls for his impeachment.

The plot also involves Oscar's stepsister Christina and her husband Harry, a lawyer; a socialite friend of Christina's and her dog; a supposed lawyer who turns out to have forged his credentials; another lawyer with unbearable British manners and mannerisms. Oscar's father anonymously helps him out with his case, writing a brief that someone else presents; and dies. Oscar learns about this help, so there is a reconciliation, but only in two separate minds, and the judge did it for love of the law anyway. There are suits everywhere, bills mount up, careers are made and broken, but no one actually seems to win or lose. It's as if the Marx Brothers had rewritten Bleak House.

—It's garaged at your, at the place of the accident I can't find the, what kind of car is it?


—I'm being quite serious, Mr Crease.

—So am I! It's a Japanese car, a Sosumi.

—Oh. Oh dear, yes I'm sorry, it's so hard to keep track of them all nowadays. We had a whole family killed last week in an Isuyu and I made a similar error.

Some of Gaddis's jokes are pretty broad—even broader than the above, like the name of the actor Robert Bredford, or the career of one Clint Westwood and his film A Hatful of Sh∗t—and there is one long argument about the follies of organised religion that feels as if Gaddis, and not his characters, were indulging a bee in a bonnet. But the ingenuity and the intelligence of the comment on the law, and the speed with which people talk and things happen, take us into something beyond satire. In the following passage about a US Senator for North Carolina (the one we've already heard talking about dictator atheist countries), almost every clause has a fresh sting or gag:

The latest disturbance centred about an outdoor pork barbecue rally for US Senator Orney Bilk, who is visiting the area on a campaign swing for the first time since he left his boyhood home in nearby Stinking Creek to enlist in the army following the end of hostilities in Southeast Asia. After graduating from army cooking school he was placed in charge of a field oven unit at Fort Bragg, NC.

The start of his senatorial career, no doubt. The language here is a trail of clues and disguises, and A Frolic of His Own is a book about language and desire; about how language misnames desire, perhaps must misname it; how a language like that of the law lives its own expensive life. 'I mean you talk about language how everything's language it seems that all language does is drive us apart.'

What people in this book think they want is money and fame and prestige, and they regard the law as the road to those things. But it's not even the road away from those things. It's what promotes those goals and consumes them, continues to dangle them ahead of every eager nose.

A distinction is made several times between who Oscar is and who he thinks he is, and perhaps only the person he thinks he is can be made intelligible, to himself or others. Only the imagination can sue.

What people want, the novel strongly suggests, is attention. Harry the lawyer claims they want order, a form of fascism; but his wife Christina says they're just 'trying to be taken seriously'. That's what money is, she suggests: 'It's the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves, I mean that's all they're really asking for isn't it?' It's a generous estimate, and Christina, in her scatty, loquacious way, is a generous person. But it's also too much; more than anyone can expect in the world Gaddis elaborates for us.

Zachary Leader (review date 3 June 1994)

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SOURCE: "Jarndyce USA," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4757, June 3, 1994, p. 22.

[In the following, Leader favorably reviews A Frolic of His Own.]

William Gaddis is now only obscure in one sense. At seventy-two, after long years of neglect, he has become a visible presence in American fiction, a modern—postmodern? modernist?—master. Gaddis has written four fiendishly clever and demanding novels: The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985), and now A Frolic of His Own, itself a comparative frolic at 586 pages. JR (726 pages) won the National Book Award in 1976, and last year, along with The Recognitions, was reissued as a Penguin Twentieth-Century Classic. Both volumes contain extravagantly admiring critical introductions and an impressive list of "suggestions for further reading". Gaddis himself, meanwhile, has won a MacArthur Fellowship, been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and was recently appointed official state author of New York, recognition that might well account for the new novel's relative accessibility.

Still, A Frolic of His Own is no day at the beach. As Gaddis himself puts it towards the end of JR, in words that apply to all his work: "Don't bring a God-damned thing to it can't take a God-damned thing from it", a message extracted from the following not-atypical passage of dialogue, part of a discussion of an unfinished novel "about random pattern and mechanization", entitled "agapē" agape":

—Man I mean that's what I mean, like I mean if it says it why doesn't it say it? And I mean this is the name of the book agapē agape? that's the name of it?

—Can't, look pē mark right over the God damned e pi eta pē agapē can't see God damn it? pi eta pē?

—Man like who's supposed to know piéta I mean….

—Didn't Christ! didn't say pietà who God damned different Christ any God damned use look, book don't bring a God-damned thing to it can't take a God-damned thing from it don't know something look it up no God damned obligation encyclopaedia right here look it up ag, ag, glass golf wrong God damned volume …

This is not gibberish. It makes perfect sense, but you need patience to work it out, and time; once you've done so, you realize it's funny, or mildly funny, self-deprecating too, as at the end where looking things up isn't so easy. The new novel yields comparable rewards, but less grudgingly, being lighter, less clotted and clenched.

At the centre of A Frolic of His Own, lies Oscar Crease, all but prone in his defective motorized wheelchair, down but not out. Oscar's problem—it is only one of Oscar's problems—is that he's run himself over trying to hot-wire his Sosumi, another defective or "damage-feasant" motorized vehicle, close rival of the comparably priced Isuyu. So who do you sue? Usually in cases of defective vehicles, as in suits of all sorts, I sue you. Or you sue me. In Oscar's case, it is suggested, I sue I. Or, if you prefer, I sue me.

And why not, since Oscar's suing everyone else, often only seconds before everyone else countersues. Most importantly, Oscar is suing the film producer Constantine Kiester, née—or so he says—Jonathan Livingston, cannily customized for Hollywood to Jonathan Livingston Siegal. Siegal/Keister's blockbusting Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red White and Blue, a film with "the most widely discussed mass rape scene in screen history", lifts important ingredients, Oscar is convinced, from his unpublished play, Once at Antietam, based on what appear to have been his grandfather's Civil War experiences. This play is the only thing poor Oscar, a middle-aged college history teacher, failed offspring of a distinguished legal family, has managed to produce in a lifetime's amateurish dabbling (though, in fact, it never has been produced). The play is Oscar's last hope: for fame, fortune, fatherly favour or respect; it's a serious work, full of high-minded Socratic dialogue, much of it about justice, much of it lifted (in homage, Oscar insists, a quite different matter) from Book One of The Republic, from The Cratylus, The Crito, from Rousseau, from Camus. We know this because Oscar is forever subjecting his lawyers to long and not always riveting readings from it (amounting to some seventy pages). Oscar wants justice, and he could do with the money.

Oscar's real problem, though, is everyone's problem, according to his perpetually exasperated step-sister, Christina: he wants recognition, attention, "to be taken seriously", principally by his father, a justice of another variety, though comparably absent, elusive, unstable. As Oscar keeps repeating, though, sometimes maliciously, sometimes pathetically, this father, ninety-seven-year-old Federal Court Justice Thomas Crease, has himself "a lot on his plate"—beginning with the inhibiting example of his own father, Supreme Court Justice Thomas Crease (this is a novel of entropy, of epic degeneration), Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr's great antagonist, a jurist "as obsessed with justice as Holmes was with the law", and no less absent, elusive, unstable, particularly at the bloody battle of Antietam. The grandfather's non-appearance, his shameful purchase of substitutes or surrogates in the battle, is the central action, or non-action, in Oscar's play.

More immediately, Oscar's father is busy—won't call, write, read his play—ruling on two mind-bogglingly complicated cases: the controversial Cyclone Seven trial, involving a massive free-standing civic sculpture, Cyclone Seven, located in the village of Tatamount, Virginia, and the no-less-convoluted and headline-grabbing trial of the Reverend Elton Ude of Mississippi, accused of negligence in the baptismal drowning of an infant named Wayne Frickert in the Pee Dee River. Ude, as it happens, is obliquely connected to the father of Oscar's dim-witted but well-endowed girlfriend, Lily, herself in litigation over defective breast implants. He also, as it happens, like a number of other characters, themes, incidents, and plot-points in the novel, appears elsewhere in Gaddis's work; in Ude's case, in Carpenter's Gothic. It is not enough, in other words, to attend with unwavering concentration (and unless you do, you'll soon be lost) to the spiralling complexities of this plot; to do the novel's artfulness justice, you must know something of the plots of its notoriously inaccessible predecessors. This is a task that might daunt even Oscar's father, who rules on his cases impeccably, in long, carefully crafted and authentic-sounding judgments. These judgments, presented as typescripts or facsimiles, are full of acerbic good sense; they also provide the novel's only moments of stability, illusory flickers of presence, agency, closure, respite, justice even.

And then we're off again, appealing and countersuing, whittling down damages, running up costs, deposing, proceeding, filing, disclaiming. Christina's lawyer-husband, Harry, soon-to-be-senior-partner at the white shoe firm, Swyne and Dour, works himself to death on a trademark infringement case involving serious money, $700 million. Christina's socialite friend, Trish, also seriously rich (and the funniest character in the book, though her boyfriend, the fantastically clever and affected anglophile Jawaharlal "Jerry" Madhar Pie, Kiester's attorney, runs her a close second), hires one set of lawyers to bring damages "for foetal endangerment" and another "to defend her abortion", defrauds a devoted family retainer by breaking her mother's will ("I only wanted justice didn't I?"), ruins shopkeepers, never pays Swyne and Dour, then sues for its "abominable" behaviour over her bill.

Exaggerated? Fantastical? "If you permit the president of the United States to be sued and permit the case to go forward," warns President Clinton's lawyer, Richard S. Bennett (as reported in the Washington Post of May 6 1994), "there could be thousands of lawsuits. Your president would be tied down for 365 days a year being asked questions by lawyers." This sentence might almost have come from one of Oscar's lawyers. But lawyers alone aren't the problem; the novel's satire is only partly social or institutional. As Trish's example shows, lawyers too get used; or fired (if, say, they don't bill 2,000 hours); or driven into the ground with overwork, like poor Harry, whose entire estate is gobbled up by his employers, Swyne and Dour. The unscrupulousness of lawyers reflects a universal unscrupulousness, one the novel registers in tiny, casual details. "Speaking on condition that he not be identified," Oscar reads, "Village official J. Harret Ruth…." So, too, with lawyerly heartlessness. "You'd think we were Kurds or something", wails Trish, outraged to discover "horrid little plastic forks" in her expensive picnic hamper. Oscar likes to spend hours in his darkened living-room drinking Pinot Grigio and watching nature programmes: insects devouring their mates, wild birds devouring their young. Who expects justice in such a world? We learn in the novel's opening sentence: "you get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law."

Which is doubly unfortunate, since just about the only sure thing in the novel is that there is no next world. This conclusion can be derived, with characteristic indirection, from the novel's title. "A frolic of his own", it turns out, is a legal phrase used in cases of imputed negligence: "the servant gets injured or injures somebody else on the job when he's not doing what he's hired for", explains Harry, "like an office worker puts out an eye shooting paperclips with a rubberband they say he's on a frolic of his own." When little Wayne Frickert drowns during baptism, according to Oscar's father, Reverend Elton Ude is "engaged on his master's business … and not, in the words of a later English jurist, 'going on a frolic of his own.'" The drowning, Justice Crease gloatingly instructs his redneck jury, is thus the "master's" (that is, God's) fault, especially since in this case "the instrument of imminent catastrophe is the master's to control, as must the crest and current of the Pee Dee river have been". God is indited in the novel for negligence—is absent, elusive, unstable.

Like "meaning" in general, and not just in the language of law. This is in part the message of Gaddis's neckwrenching prose style, with its unattributed dialogue, absent or unstable punctuation, elusive syntax, hit-and-run transitions, as in the following near-miss: "Did you see that? his knuckles gone white on the wheel,—steps right in front of the car and holds up his hand, did you see that?" The chaotic style reflects a social condition, one marked by lack of control (as when Oscar suddenly veers into the rhythms of his favourite boyhood poem, Hiawatha, a wonderful effect), greed (being a sort of gabbling, like gorging), egomania and isolation (everybody talking, nobody listening); but it also reflects something deeper, a condition of language per se. "It all evaporates into language confronted by language turning language itself into theory till it's not what it's about it's only about itself." This is of a piece with the novel's wearying repetitions of scene and incident, its refusal to settle. What it suggests is a world of contingency, plurality, indeterminacy, a postmodern world.

Hence Gaddis's frequent association with Thomas Pynchon, whose novels are comparably cryptic, multivocal, centrifugal, entropic, and thus, it is argued, postmodern. But Gaddis also has strong modernist tendencies, in particular the modernist's nostalgia for lost value and unity. A Frolic of His Own is punctuated by brief, spare passages of natural description: time and again, Christina withdraws from the babble of Oscar's living-room, where most of the novel is set, to peer out of a window at the wintry landscape. This landscape, the chief selling point of the dilapidated Long Island estate Oscar has inherited, is dominated by what Jonathan Raban has wittily identified as "American literature's most famous frozen pond … trucked in from Massachusetts for the occasion of the book". Oscar's Long Island Walden functions in the novel as does, say, the remembered moment in the rose garden in Eliot's Four Quartets, every line of which Gaddis at one point considered incorporating into The Recognitions. The wintry landscape, "as though time itself were frozen out there", recalls the cold afternoon light of Little Gidding; the country house milieu recalls Evelyn Waugh, an acknowledged influence, or the Shaw of Heartbreak House. What once was grand is falling to bits, doomed: the wind wraps Oscar's house "like shipwreck"; the veranda sags ominously, a lawsuit waiting to happen; predatory realtors loiter around the front drive; chainsaws whine from the adjoining development.

The barbarians, in other words, are at the gate, a modernist motif that connects to the novel's most prominent defect, its snobbishness. How else explain the slackness of "Clint Westwood", star of A Hatful of Sh∗t, or his fellow star "Robert Bredford", or a senator named "Bilk", a southerner, from the town of "Stinking Creek". This is easy, unfunny, old-hat, quite unlike the legal satire, which derives its power in part from affection as well as knowledge. Gaddis makes fun of Oscar's delusions and pretentions, his uncool, antique organicism ("The whole thing builds towards the last act that's what any play is about isn't it?"), his disdain for massed America, for "the whole insignificant meaningless swarm", but at times Oscar's revulsion seems Gaddis's as well. This shared contempt recalls a shared background: Gaddis, too, grew up on Long Island in a small town swamped by development, suffered long years of neglect, wrote an unpublished play in the 1950s entitled Once at Antietam. Oscar, though, can't write, judging by his play (though it has its moments); could never, for instance, create a character like himself, one he then gleefully mocked. The happier resemblance is with Christina: funny, bitter, affectionate, up to her elbows in the world, yet also drawn, with blank solemnity, to the chilly beauty of the pond. In the end, it is Christina's spirit which dominates and redeems this bleak, brilliant, exhausting novel.


Gaddis, William (Vol. 8)