Frolic of His Own
Art of Fiction CI: William Gaddis"
Foes with New Faces”
in Conversation 13:
However, over the years a growing number of critics came to see it as possibly the greatest American novel of the century and as a kind of “missing link” between the high modernism of Joyce and Faulkner and contemporary postmodern novelists such as Don De Lillo and Thomas Pynchon. In a decade when literary realism was once again in the ascendant, the novel failed to sell. Gaddis had expected The Recognitions to make his name. One journalist, Jack Green, felt that it should have done and in 1962, the year of the novel’s British publication, wrote a seventy-page diatribe on the iniquities of novel reviewing in the press whose title suggests what editors should do with their book critics: Fire the Bastards!
Recently married and with a young family, Gaddis needed
to find work and began a ten-year career in business, writing speeches for
corporate executives and scripts for government films. He began and
abandoned a play, Once at Antietam, based upon his grandfather’s
experiences in the American Civil War, but his encounter with drama led to a
change of style; Gaddis’s next novel, J R (1975) consisted mostly
of dialogue, a huge babel of voices that added up to a 750 page satire on
American big business. The intervening years had seen The Recognitions
gaining influential admirers and the publication of his second novel
marked the beginning of a major reassessment of his work.
Gaddis’s third novel in thirty years, Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), was greeted with even warmer praise and at a manageable two-hundred odd pages, marked Gaddis’s entry into the book-buying public’s consciousness. Concerned with the media and religious fundamentalism, it is a profoundly bleak novel, deeply pessimistic about the possibilities of human happiness or creative fulfilment, but compelling in its delight in language and plotting and energised by its withering satire and Gaddis’s fine ear for speech. On the back of its popularity, his two earlier works were republished, and now appear as Penguin Modern Classics.
The 1990s saw the publication of a number of specialist studies of Gaddis’s work. His fiction was read in the light of influential Continental and postmodern literary theory. Articles on him continued to be published and it became obligatory to deal with his novels in any survey of innovative post-war American fiction. So, while 1994 brought only his fourth novel in four decades, A Frolic of His Own, his oeuvre, at two and a half thousand pages, is as substantial as Proust’s or Joyce’s. Gaddis’s latest novel is about the culture of litigation in America and has proved his most popular and accessible. It won the 1995 American Book Award and was widely and generously reviewed in Britain, partly because Gaddis, who until then had protected his privacy as staunchly as a Salinger or a Pynchon, agreed to be interviewed by the popular press both in America and abroad.
While Gaddis’s novels have dealt with art, business,
religion and the law respectively, they are at heart about characters,
usually artist-figures, searching for meaning and values in a world which
pointedly fails to offer it to them. Some form of redemption may be possible
through passion and creativity, but is by no means guaranteed and in an
alienated, commodified world, may be too compromised to sustain. For all
Gaddis’s protagonists, however, the effort must be made. This effort lies
behind some of the most important episodes in Gaddis’s fiction.
While his novels deal with the woes of contemporary life, they gain a resonance by the way they draw, often for parodic purposes, on a range of other works of literature, art and music. In The Recognitions, for instance, the work of the great Flemish painters is used as a touchstone of value, while J R uses Wagner’s The Ring to draw a comic parallel between the destruction of the Nordic gods in that opera cycle and the crash of a huge paper money empire built up by an eleven-year-old Long Island schoolboy.
The Recognitions This was Gaddis’s first novel published when he was 32 and more than 40 years on it is at the very heart of his enviable literary reputation. It has now come to be seen as a Janus-faced text that looks back in its complexity to the great Modernists of the inter-war years such as Joyce and Faulkner and forward to the post-war American writers such as Barth, Coover, Pynchon, De Lillo and Gass in its taste for black humor, literary play and absurdity. It has established itself as a unique and influential novel, a pivotal work that makes connections between Modernism and what has come to be called Postmodernism, both as a literary style and as a philosophical position.
Gaddis’s first novel takes the form of a quest. In a carefully wrought and densely-woven series of plots involving upwards of fifty characters across three continents, we follow the adventures of Wyatt Gwyon, son of a clergyman who rejects the ministry in favor of the call of the artist. His quest is to make sense of contemporary reality, to find significance and some form of order in the world. Through the pursuit of art he hopes to find truth. His initial “failure” as an artist leads him not to copy but to paint in the style of the past masters, those who had found in their own time and in their own style the kind of order and beauty for which Wyatt is looking. His talent for forgery is exploited by a group of unscrupulous art critics and businessmen who hope to profit by passing his works off as original old masters. As the novel develops, these art forgeries become a profound metaphor for all kinds of other frauds, counterfeits and fakery: the aesthetic, scientific, religious, sexual and personal. Towards the end, Wyatt wrenches something authentic from what Eliot called “the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” The nature of his revelation, however is highly ambiguous and is hedged about by images of madness and hallucination, which disturbs simple distinctions between real and authentic, between faiths and fakes.
A strikingly original novel, it gains a number of its effects from the dense web of literary allusions it employs, drawing upon the religious texts of American Calvinism and European Catholicism and to a wide range of literary and philosophical writings in the western tradition from Aristotle to Goethe and TS Eliot. Ostensibly, the novel charts Wyatt’s career as he negotiates the snares of the fallen modern world, but on a further level we see how he is identified with a whole series of literary figures, from Orpheus to Faust. While the novel is an immensely rewarding read at the level of realism, it gains in depth and resonance when the reader can see the allusions at work and the parallels being drawn.
J R Twenty years after his first novel, and after 20 years of working for the government and big business, Gaddis produced his highly acclaimed second; the prize-winning J R, another huge book of 726 pages containing very little except dialogue. A number of critics have said that this is the novel which comes closest to catching the varieties of spoken American English, while another has called it “the greatest satirical novel in American literature”. The first line of the novel gives us its theme: “- Money...?”. J R is a satire on corporate America and tells the story of the 11-year-old schoolboy JR Vansant who builds an enormous economic empire from his school's public phone booth, an empire that touches everyone in the novel, just as money - the getting of it, worry about the lack of it, the desire for it - shapes a great deal of the characters’ waking and dreaming lives. Through conversations, letters and telephone calls, we come to understand what Marx called “the distorting power of money”, how all value under capitalism is transformed into economic value. The novel lays before us in immense detail, in the very grain of the human voice, the alienation that is part and parcel of a world in which our innermost feelings have been commodified and where money has become fetishized; rather than it being simply a medium of exchange, a means to an end, money has become an object of desire for its own sake, an outward sign of success and power. The novel draws on a huge range of social and economic thinkers from Marx, a phrase of whose hangs over the entrance to JR's school, to Max Weber, George Simmel and George Bernard Shaw, whose interpretation of Wagner's Ring as an allegory of the rise of capitalism is central to J R.
The novel is far more than a tissue of references to other works, however. The way in which JR’s growing paper empire impinges on the lives of the other characters allows Gaddis to explore a number of themes that will be familiar from his first novel. Around the central figure of JR are educators, writers and musicians and through their greed and need we see how human relationships are torn asunder and how artistic creativity is stunted or dissipated. J R is an epic work and the second indisputable masterpiece Gaddis has contributed to post-war American fiction.
Carpenter's Gothic While Carpenter’s Gothic picks up and develops themes from Gaddis’s earlier fiction, this much shorter and relatively accessible novel proved the most commercially and critically successful work of the three he had thus far published. That said, it offers us a world without love, a world of religious chicanery and political cynicism. The novel describes the last few months in the life of Elizabeth Booth. Elizabeth and her husband Paul have rented a house from a mysterious ex-CIA man and writer, McCandless. Paul is working as a media consultant to a religious demagogue, the Reverend Ude and cynically attempts to turn the accidental drowning of a child into a miracle that can be trumpeted around the globe for profit. Carpenter’s Gothic, like J R before it, is largely composed of dialogue, by now Gaddis’s chosen form of narration. Elizabeth lives in a house built in the architectural style that gives its name to the novel. “Carpenter’s gothic” mimics the grand Victorian style, but is built from wood rather than from the expensive wrought iron and stone called for in the original. It is impressive from a distance, but when viewed close up, it is what the novel calls “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions.” This is also an apt summary of both the method of the novel and the practice of the majority of the characters; even those not out to deceive for gain are often self-deceiving. This is a dark novel that offers us “a vision of disorder which [is] beyond any...man to put right”. Once again Gaddis is concerned with human corruption and creativity gone to waste but what compels the reader, if anything does in this immensely enervating novel, is the intricate plotting and its excoriating satire on religious dogmatism in general and absolutist thinking in particular.
Carpenter’s Gothic is not without its difficulties; many important elements of the plot are kept from the reader until quite close to the end of the story and McCandless, the novel’s main artist-figure, can be seen as quite a complex figure that draws once again on a wide range of literary sources. At one level he represents the artist as outcast, speaking unbearable truths to those who do not wish to hear. Such a figure has an ancient lineage, one that both The Recognitions and J R use to tremendous effect. Probably the least interesting of his novels, in Carpenter’s Gothic, Gaddis’s world view may be more pessimistic, but it is clear that his vision is all of a piece.
A Frolic of His Own Similar to J R, Gaddis’s last novel announces its theme with its first word, but then develops it in the rest of its first line: “Justice? - you get justice in the next world, in this world, you have the law.” The novel follows a series of litigations through the courts and it is the discrepancy between the ideal of justice and the reality of the law that is Gaddis’s subject. For Gaddis, the theory of justice is a beautiful, ordered system we have constructed to ward off or minimise the chaos and contingency of existence. The practice of law however, is for him “a carnival of disorder”, a self-sustaining system of legalese and a conspiracy against the people run for the benefit of a self-serving legal profession. The law is finally “about itself.” As one character puts it, “Words, words, words. That’s what it’s all about.” On the one hand, the law is an attempt to establish a constant principle in the face of social differences, the principle of justice. On the other hand, the operation of the law can be used by the rich and powerful to subvert these very principles.
To develop this theme, the novel tells the farcical but
horribly believable story of Oscar Crease, a college instructor who is suing
both a film company and himself. Firstly,
he is convinced that a Hollywood mogul has plagiarised an unpublished play
of his about the American Civil War and turned it into a blood-and-guts
blockbuster. Secondly, he has
managed to get himself run over by his own car while hotwiring it and
through the insurance company, he is claiming damages against himself.
In a virtuoso piece of structural parallelism, it turns out that his
Civil War play revolves around the idea that a soldier who sends out
substitutes during the war to fight on his behalf for both sides becomes
convinced that the substitutes met and killed one another in battle. The
soldier believes that he has committed a ghostly form of suicide.
Two tales of self harming self then, the prize-winning A Frolic of
His Own (despite its length of nearly 600 pages) has become Gaddis’s
most popular work. He has
chosen to write on justice and jurisprudence at a time when there has been a
resurgence of interest in rights theory. For the law, finally, is about
interpretation: about the validity of certain forms of interpretation and,
just as importantly, about who possesses the power to enforce them.
This is at the very core of this remarkable novel.
William Gaddis and
I would conclude by suggesting that his fiction, with the very best that the great tradition of American fiction has to offer, is both part of that tradition and part of the larger history of the European novel.