William Gaddis Gaddis, William (Vol. 86) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Michiko Kakutani (review date 4 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Robert Towers (review date 9 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark Kamine (review date 17-31 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Dirda (review date 23 January 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sven Birkerts (review date 7 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jonathan Raban (review date 17 February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Gary Amdahl (review date Spring 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steven Moore (review date 25 April 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Wood (review date 12 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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Zachary Leader (review date 3 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 141 words.)