Fakery and Stony Truths
New York Times
July 7, 1985
by Cynthia Ozick
© 1997 The New York Times Company 

by William Gaddis
262 pp. New York: Elisabeth Sifton Books/Viking. $16.95.

THIS is William Gaddis’s third work of fiction in 30 years. That sounds like a sparse stream, and misrepresents absolutely. Mr. Gaddis is a deluge. “The Recognitions,” his first novel, published in 1955, matches in plain bulk four or five ordinary contemporary novels. His second, “JR,” a burlesquing supplementary footnote appearing two decades later, is easily equivalent to another three or four. For those whom tonnage has kept away, “Carpenter’s Gothic” - a short novel, but as mazily and mercilessly adroit as the others - should disclose Mr.  Gaddis’s terrifying artfulness once and for all. “Carpenter’s Gothic” may be Gaddis-in-little, but it is Gaddis to the brim.  With fewer publications so far than he can count on one hand, Mr. Gaddis has not been “prolific” (that spendthrift coin); instead he has been prodigious, gargantuan, exhaustive, subsuming fates and conditions under a hungry logic. His two huge early novels are great vaults or storehouses of crafty encyclopedic scandal - omniscience thrown into the hottest furnaces of metaphor. Mr. Gaddis knows almost everything: not only how the world works - the pragmatic cynical business-machine that we call worldliness - but also how myth flies into being out of the primeval clouds of art and death and money.

To call this mammoth reach ambition is again to misrepresent. When “The Recognitions” arrived on the scene, it was already too late for those large acts of literary power ambition used to be good for. Joyce had come and gone. Imperially equipped for masterliness in range, language and ironic penetration, born to wrest out a modernist masterpiece but born untimely, Mr. Gaddis nonetheless took a long draught of Joyce’s advice and responded with surge after surge of virtuoso cunning.

“The Recognitions” is a mocking recognition of the implausibility of originality:  a vast fiction about fabrication and forgery, about the thousand faces of the counterfeit, and therefore, ineluctably, about art and religion. In the desert years of long ago, when I was a deluded young would-be writer tangled up in my own crapulous ambition, “The Recognitions” landed on my grim table (and on the grim tables of how many other aspirants to the holy cloak of Art?) and stayed there, month after month, as a last burnished talisman of - well, of Greatness, of a refusal to relinquish the latter-day possibilities of Joyce, Mann, James, Woolf, Proust, the whole sacral crew of those old solar boats.  That, I think now, was a misreading of Mr. Gaddis’s chosen ground. He knew what monuments had gathered behind him. He willingly moved on. He was not imitating a received literature; he was not a facsimile Joyce.  Mr. Gaddis was, in fact - and is - new coinage: an American original. To claim this is to fall into his own comedy of “enamored parodies weighed down with testimonial ruins.” Originality is exactly what he has made absurd; unrecognizable. Yet if it is ob-ligatory to recapitulate Mr.  Gaddis’s mockery through the impact - the dazzling irruption - of his three-decades-old first novel, it is because “The Recognitions” is always spoken of as the most overlooked important work of the last several literary generations. Tony Tanner: “The critical neglect of this book is really extraordinary.” David Madden: “An underground reputation has kept it on the brink of oblivion.” Through the famous obscurity of “The Recognitions,” Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough.

“Carpenter’s Gothic” should mark a turning. The title itself, the name of an architectural vogue, is a dangerous joke. It alludes to a style of charm that dissembles - that resplendent carved-wood fakery seductively laid out along the Hudson a century ago, “built to be seen from the outside,” its unplanned insides crammed to fit in any which way - “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions,” according to McCandless, the owner of one of these “grandiose visions . . . foolish inventions . . . towering heights and cupolas.” McCandless is a geologist, a novelist, a heavy smoker with a confusing past. He has locked up one room containing his papers, reserving the right to visit it, and rented the house to a young married couple, Paul and Elizabeth Booth. Paul, like the house, has grandiose visions. He works as a public relations man for Reverend Ude’s evangelical operations, which reach as far as Africa; when Ude drowns a boy while baptizing him, Paul in his inventive fecundity - he is a desperately hollow promoter - twists this into a usable miracle. Liz, Paul’s wife - wistful, abused, hopeful, humble, herself quietly deceitful - is, along with her ne’er-do-well brother, Billy, heir to a mining combine intent on scheming itself back into a business empire’s version of African colonialism. Paul, a combat veteran, was formerly bagman for the company under the chairmanship of Liz’s father, a suicide; the company is now in the hands of Adolph, the trustee. Adolph keeps Liz, Billy and Paul on short rations. Obedient to Paul’s several scams, Liz goes from doctor to doctor, patiently pursuing an insurance fraud. McCandless reveals himself as the discoverer of the African gold the company is after, and seduces Liz. But there is no gold; McCandless is a lunatic impostor. In the end, brother and sister die of too much imposture. A LL this crammed-in conspiring, told bare, is pointless soap-opera recounting. We have run into these fictional scalawags before, rotted-out families, rotted-out corporations, seedy greedy preachers and poachers, either in cahoots with or victims of one another, and sometimes both. They are American staples; but “plot” is Mr. Gaddis’s prey, and also his play.  Triteness is his trap and toy. He has light-fingered all the detritus that pours through the news machines and the storytelling machines - the fake claims, fake Bible schools, fake holy water out of the Pee Dee River spreading typhus, a bought-and-paid-for senator, an armed “Christian survival camp,” fake identities (Paul, pretending to be a WASP Southerner, is probably a Jew), the mugger Paul kills. Plot is what Mr. Gaddis travesties and teases and two-times and swindles.  Yet these stereotypical illusions, these familiar dumping grounds of chicanery, harden into stony truths under Mr. Gaddis’s eye - or, rather, against his ear. He is a possessed receiver of voices, a maniacal eavesdropper, a secret prophet and moralizer. His method is pure voice, relentless dialogue melting off into the panning of a camera in the speaker’s head. It is dialogue that does without quotation marks, preceded instead by a serenely poised dash - a brilliantly significant Joycean smudge that allows no closure and dissolves voices into narrative, turning the clearest verisimilitude into something spectral.  Speech is fragmented, piecemeal, halting and stunted, finally headlong - into telephones continually, out of radio and television. Through all these throats and machines the foul world spills. The radio is a perpetual chorus of mishap and mayhem, pumping out its impassive dooms while the human voice lamenting in the kitchen moans on:

“—Problem Liz you just don’t grasp how serious the whole God damn thing is . . . the bottle trembled against the rim of the glass, - after him they’re after me they’re after all of us . . . He’d slumped back against word of two tractor trailer trucks overturned and on fire at an entrance to the George Washington bridge, - fit the pieces together you see how all the God damn pieces fit together. SEC comes in claims some little irregularity on a Bible school bond issue next thing you’ve got the IRS in there right behind them with misappropriation of church funds for openers, problem’s their new computer down there’s just geared to their mailing list if they don’t build their mailing list there won’t be any funds what the whole God damn thing is all about, you get these Bible students they’re smart enough digging up Ephusians but they count on their fingers nobody knows where in hell the last nickel went. . . .”

And on and on: fire, death, fraud, money, voice voice voice. The voices are humanity seeping out, drop by drop, a gradual bloodletting. It isn’t “theme” Mr. Gaddis deals in (his themes are plain) so much as a theory of organism and disease. In “Carpenter’s Gothic” the world is a poisonous organism, humankind dying of itself.  The process is gargoylish: a vaudeville turn. Paul’s scribbled diagram of a promotion scheme, with all its arrows pointing cause-and-consequence, is mistaken for a map of the 14th-century Battle of Crecy. The “big ore find on the mission tract,” a lie, is designed to lure American military imperialism into Africa. Liz, roused against McCandless, cries out (quoting Paul muddying it up: Ephusians for Ephesians, now Clausnitz for Clausewitz), “Clausnitz was wrong, it’s not that war is politics carried on by other means it’s the family carried on by other means,” and McCandless, sneering at tribe against tribe, nation against nation, replies: “—Well good God! They’ve been doing that for two thousand years haven’t they?” McCandless is Mr. Gaddis’s strong seer, a philosophical trader in scourging tirades: “talk about a dark continent I’ll tell you something, revelation’s the last refuge ignorance finds from reason.  Revealed truth is the one weapon stupidity’s got against intelligence and that’s what the whole damned thing is all about. . . . you’ve got enough sects slaughtering each other from Londonderry to Chandigarh to wipe out the whole damned thing. . . . just try the Children’s Crusade for a sideshow, thousands of kids led into slavery and death by a twelve year old with a letter from Jesus. . . .—all four horsemen riding across the hills of Africa with every damned kind of war you could ask for. . . . seven hundred languages they’ve all been at each other’s throats since the creation war, famine, pestilence, death, they ask for food and water somebody hands them an AK47. . . .” Paul, meanwhile, is Mr. Gaddis’s weak seer, discloser of the shoddy morning news: “Draw the line, run a carrier group off Mombasa and a couple of destroyers down the Mozambique channel, bring in the RDF and put the SAC on red alert. They’ve got what they want.”

Is “Carpenter’s Gothic” a “political” novel? An “apocalyptic” novel? A novel of original sin without an illusion of salvation? It is tempting to judge Mr. Gaddis as Liz finally judges McCandless: " -- Because you’re the one who wants it,” she accuses him, “-- to see them all go up like that smoke in the furnace all the stupid, ignorant, blown up in the clouds and there’s nobody there, there’s no rapture no anything just to see them wiped away for good it’s really you, isn’t it.  That you’re the one who wants Apocalypse, Armageddon all the sun going out and the sea turned to blood you can’t wait no, you’re the one who can’t wait! . . . because you despise their, not their stupidity no, their hopes because you haven’t any, because you haven’t any left.” But not long after this outburst Liz learns from McCandless’s wife - who appears out of nowhere like a clarifying messenger - that McCandless was once in a mental hospital. Another clue hints at a frontal lobotomy. A world saturated in wild despair, and only in despair, turns out to be a madman’s image.

Even while he is handing over this straw of hope -that the evangelist of darkest calamity is deranged -Gaddis the trickster may be leading us more deeply into hopelessness. If McCandless, the god of the novel and its intellectual sovereign, the owner of that false-front house of disaster, whose pitiless portrait of our soiled planet we can recognize as exactly congruent with truth-telling - if McCandless is not to be trusted, then where are we? Does Mr. Gaddis mean us to conclude that whoever sees things-as-they-are in their fullest tragic illumination will never be credible except under the badge of lunacy? Or does he mean McCandless -whose name, after all, suggests he is the scion of darkness - to speak for the devil? And if so, is Mr. Gaddis on the devil’s side, if only because the devil is the most eloquent moralist of all? And a novelist to boot, whose papers are irredeemably scrambled in that secret messy room he is forever cleaning up, that room “like Dachau” where the Bible is stored upside down?

The true god of the novel - god of invention, commerce and cunning - is of course mercurial Gaddis himself. He is a preternatural technician and engineer: whatever turns, turns out to turn again; things recur, allusions multiply, pretexts accrete, duplicities merge, greed proliferates, nuances breed and repeat. The center holds horribly: “you see how all the God damn pieces fit together.” No one in “Carpenter’s Gothic” is innocent or uninjured or unheard. It is an unholy landmark of a novel - an extra turret added on to the ample, ingenious, audacious Gothic mansion William Gaddis has slowly been building in American letters. 


EVERYTHING IS USEFUL TO HIM Speaking from his summer place near a pond in the Hamptons on Long Island, William Gaddis explained that even though he has published only three novels in the last 30 years, the books do not actually take a decade or two to write. Occasionally he has had to interrupt his fiction writing to earn a living. Over the years that has meant working on scripts for industrial films, teaching at Bard College and writing speeches for corporate executives. But, for a novelist, everything is usable. His second novel, “JR,” which was published in 1975 and won a National Book Award the following year, includes a good deal about a comic conglomerate in a very free enterprise system. “Things eased up for me while writing ‘Carpenter’s Gothic,’ “ he said. “I was able to devote all my time to the novel because I first received a Guggenheim and then a MacArthur Foundation award.”

To coincide with the release of “Carpenter’s Gothic,” “JR” and his first novel, “The Recognitions,” are being reissued in paperback editions. Mr. Gaddis, who is 62 years old, is already at work on his next novel, but he is not rushing -- talking or writing, Mr. Gaddis takes his own good time between sentences. “It’s in the concept and note-making stage,” he said. There is no underlying scheme to his novels, the author said. But there is a constant. Without giving away any secrets, he said: “There is an obligation not to bore or be bored yourself in doing your work. If a writer is bored, the reader will be too.” -- Herbert Mitgang

 Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company