William Gaddis: . . . I don’t know if you ever saw a review of J
R by a fellow named John Gardner, who should have been shot, and
finally he was . . . he was taken from us. He wrote a book called On
Moral Fiction, which young people think is important, so he’s the
only writer of moral fiber in the world, practically -- everyone else is
depraved, as bad as Solzhenitsyn in this kind of blind . . . But in J R
I had a passage where Mister Gibbs is talking about coming into the room,
and this piece of work is like an old friend who is sick and bandaged and
he’s hoping he could come in and he will be bright and all well, but
he’s just the way you left it, still sitting there, in the bandages and
so forth. And what I meant by this, of course, was a parallel to the work,
that you hope it will finish itself somehow. You almost hope to see it in
a bookshop window when you know it isn’t even finished yet.
Gardner took this to mean that I didn’t want to finish it, he got
exactly the wrong handle, the whole point of that image being you just
wish it would finish itself and get well and get out of your life! Gardner
said this evidently shows that he did not want to finish this book and
couldn’t finish it. So, this is the way I feel about this one [A
Frolic]: finally, it is out in someone else’s hands, and the woman,
the editor, just before I left had just finished reading the whole thing
through, and at least professed to be very pleased, and also sent through
the last payment on the contract, so I guess she is pleased. [laughter]
Marc Chénetier: That’s a good sign.
There was this very same discussion, remember? with Leslie Fiedler, in
Providence . . . just incredible.
WG: Speaking of people who should be
MC: It’s the Gardnerites who were
riding high there.
I read somewhere that you did a lot of documenting for these books, read
WG: Unfortunately, I always -- I have
never learned -- I always over-research, and finally have enough material
for forty books. In this case it was worse because about five years ago I
suddenly got interested in the law, legal writing, and then someone gave
me, there is a set of books -- there are two sets, one is called Corpus
Juris and one is called American Jurisprudence -- and someone
gave me, I’d said I’d been looking for these, in some used places, so
he gave me a set of American Jurisprudence, and it’s 84 volumes,
and of course I was delighted and began to outline and mark and read and
think that in this new book we will have a copyright case at the center of
it, but then have a wrongful death case, suing for wrongful death; in fact
in Carpenter’s Gothic, if you remember, the Reverend drowns the
little boy, baptizing him, so now in this book they re-appear: the father
of the little boy is suing the Reverend for wrongful death, for causing
the little boy’s death. So this is one case in the book. Did you see my
piece in the New Yorker?
WG: Well, there’s the dog in that
case, and the next step in that case is lightning strikes the sculpture
and kills the dog, so the little boy who owns the dog sues the town and
sues the artist and sues all of them for the death of the dog. That’s
another case. I can’t offhand think, there’s two or three more.
had the fancy of just all law cases, and then after about two years of
this excitement, of reading and marking and making notes, I thought:
am I doing? This is getting . . . this is supposed to be a novel!
began then to worry about the novel, and the characters and so
forth. And that is largely what took me, what got me in trouble, was this
over-research. I still have about three cases that didn’t fit, which I
may write later, for my own amusement, and publish separately, I don’t
know. But this got to be 650 pages -- but I use long pages, 14-inch, so
they’re equal to a book page, so I gather this book should be about 650
pages and I thought, No, no, got to get it out of my . . .
MC: That didn’t stop you before!
WG: Well, no, at this point . . . one
does slow down, it’s harder often to find words, what is the right word,
it used to come quite quickly. I find that as one grows older that
question: what is the right word? Very annoying. Again, like the sick man
in the room, feeling that a piece of work becomes like a plague, ruling
everyone’s life, everyone around you: oh no, I can’t do that, I have
to work, and everyone’s thinking, When’s he going to get rid of this
and live like regular people again?
MC: Talking of this evolution you’ve
felt, we were wondering, in what way do you think the four books you’ve
done now, do you think of this as a project, each book corresponding to
one particular set of preoccupations, or do you feel every time you embark
on a new thing that it’s different?
WG: Different, very much, but this is
what’s strange: the latter, it is different, but then suddenly looking
at it and thinking: I’m doing the same thing. I mean, in this book . . .
in the first book there is the old man who is the minister, and the young
man, his son, who is living in his shadow, afraid of him, the god-figure
of the father, and so forth, then I suddenly, in this book, realized
I’ve done the same thing: there’s an old judge, a Federal judge, who
is 97 years old, and his young son -- who is not young any longer, of
course, who is the central figure in this book -- it’s the same situation
in many ways. The old man is this kind of Old Testament lawgiver, and very
difficult, and his son is always trying to please him, and never manages
to please him, and I suddenly thought: I’ve done the same thing again,
and I had not intended that at all. And very similar things annoy
me when I realize them, that I’ve decided, Ah, I’m going to set out on
a completely new course, but underneath this . . . obsession, I suppose,
with some of these relationships, the same character appears as “Old
foes with new faces,” what was the book . . . Hypatia, who did
BF: In J R there’s old man
Cates, and young J R . . .
WG: In J R, there was a conscious
effort: no father. I thought, this time I’m not going to have the
father, because J R must be a self-created, self-invented person.
MC: On the other hand, the minute you
call him Jr., you postulate the Sr., right? [laughing] It’s
interesting in the Paris Review, when Zoltán Abádi-Nagy asked you
a question, you said that when you began J R it was to be totally
different from The Recognitions, it was to be an entirely new
departure. Do you still feel that?
WG: Well, certainly the style, that
still is true, that I did not want to write another book like The
Recognitions, with that same . . . well, the whole business of
authorial access, to get the author out: he’s very much in The
Recognitions, I mean I’m there all the time, taking your hand,
leading you down this way, and down that way, and in J R, there was
a concentrated effort to remove the author as much as possible. And in
this new book, I felt I could just do what I want, the author comes and
goes; if there’s something, some little anecdote, or metaphor that
appeals to me, I put it in for my own pleasure, and then the reader may
think, Is he being cute again? The name of it has been The Last Act,
for this book, and I mean it, I’m not going to do this again, get
involved with a contract, and 600 pages, and so forth. But I think it’s
a dull title, I don’t know what I’m . . . I may end up with that, but
it seems almost like a title one has heard before, there’s a kind of a .
MC: I trust you don’t see it as
MC: As a program for stopping.
WG: Yes, indeed, I mean I do, to not
get into another . . . I would like now to just, if I want to write
something I will, if I don’t I won’t.
MC: Nothing planned or ordered.
BF: You said in that same Paris
Review interview that you now found that The Recognitions was a
little too easy, and that with J R and also Carpenter’s Gothic
you wanted to pose yourself a problem and solve that problem. Removing the
author: was it difficult, in the process of writing?
WG: Yes. In J R, for instance,
what it amounted to was . . . it has no chapter breaks, no author starting
a paragraph or a chapter with “The next morning” or “A month
later” or something like this. And I found I had created for myself a
problem of real time, and often enough there would be a place where, How
do I get . . . ? For instance, J R sends away for something, if he mails
away for something, I got myself in a situation where I could not say,
“When the mail arrived a week later, he owned it.” I had somehow to show
a week passing, and this was a problem, and also led to greater length
than might have been the case in a regular, routine book.
BF: If I remember correctly, you’ve
also said J R’s a very economical novel.
WG: Well . . . in that sense of making
things happen by themselves, by their own accord, like life, rather than
the novel. It’s funny, Flaubert, with this obsession he had about
authorial absence, and yet I read again, sometime during all that Madame
Bovary, and he’s quite present all the time [chuckling].
don’t know what he meant by authorial absence. I mean everyone talks of
. . . I suppose maybe they’re talking of other books of his, like “A
Simple Heart.” But I find, I enjoy reading Madame Bovary,
marvelous stuff, but all these claims of purity and authorial absence and
so forth, I don’t find this.
MC: And you find yourself slipping back
into presence when, for example, when writing J R, do you still
think you managed to step away?
WG: I do, mainly, those two, The
Recognitions and J R, I thought were -- if I can put it -- art,
and Carpenter’s Gothic was craft. I wanted to set up
rules -- length and unity and so forth -- and work within this set of
restraints, and clichés, all of the clichés of the novel -- maybe this
was in the Paris Review, I don’t remember -- the mysterious
stranger, the locked room, the obligatory adultery for one night -- and
take all of these old clichés and try to make them work. For some they
did, for some they didn’t.
MC: Systematically taking the novelistic
personnel, so to speak, and see how you could pull it away from cliché?
WG: Yes, right.
MC: Is this also the reason for the
exceptionality of the length of Carpenter’s Gothic, you wanted to
work within a range that was more novel-like?
WG: Well, say the unities: the unity of
place -- just the house -- the unity of a small number of characters, pretty
much the unity of plot, and of length: I said 240 pages, I think it came
out to 270-something.
BF: It certainly seems now, from what
you have said, that with your latest novel, The Last Act, you’re
back to a bigger book. Do you see any particular efficiency in bulk?
you believe a big book has a particular efficiency?
WG: Well, I think, with this one
especially, this new one, the feeling that I really got in over my head,
as we say, with this notion of all these different lawsuits, and finally
realizing, What am I doing? But like Gibbs in J R, when he sits
despairingly and looks at these notes he has for his book, very
much doing the same thing again. And when Gibbs is sitting looking at
these notes saying, “My God! What did I think I was doing?” -- and by
the same token, there I repeated the same thing in my own life, sitting
down with these 84 volumes and thinking, Ah, oh this is lovely, I must
have a case of wrongful death or of this or of that, thinking, What did I
think I was doing? And then there are all the real accidents all through
the new book, which of course is a vast source of lawsuits. The reason I
wanted originally to get hold of these law books -- and I had thought if
only I had got them when I was 25, what my life might have been -- every
human foible is somewhere in these books, every twist of human behavior,
and very funny. Here is one lawsuit that interested me: a man was driving
from New York to Maryland, and he was in a hurry, and was driving through
New York, New Jersey to Philadelphia -- not Maryland. He drove this route,
and when he got to Philadelphia he got out of his car and was struck by
lightning and killed. So his people then sued the insurance company to
collect the insurance for his death. And the insurance company in court
found that he had made this trip in only two hours, which should have
taken three and a half hours, which meant that he had been speeding in New
Jersey and breaking the law, and if he had not broken the law, he would
have arrived an hour and a half late for this appointment with the
lightning, and so they tried not to pay. Of course the Court didn’t
accept this. This kind of thinking, you know, it is so . . . what happens
in court cases, of how to get out, how to . . . and so I have notes and
notes and notes I will never use, fortunately I guess, but thinking:
where can I get this in . . .
MC: Were you also trying to settle
accounts with the dominant litigation spirit in the United States?
WG: Very much.
MC: Think this is doing something to the
very fabric of American society?
WG: This was very much in the back of my
mind, it is a plague, an incredible plague, lawsuits.
MC: Of the same magnitude as money in J
WG: I think, in a way, yeah.
BF: You already have some great lawyers
in J R, with such characters as Beamish, Mister Coen, and there’s
this phrase that is repeated about J R, that he’s a stickler for the
letter of the law. So now you’re putting the law in letters, so to
speak, with your interest in language?
WG: Yeah, right. It’s very funny
what happened. Five or six years ago, I met a man one evening at dinner,
and I just happened to say that I was fascinated by legal language;
everyone thinks of it as being obfuscatory, that legal language just
creates problems, and so forth. I find it, in some opinions, fascinating,
because it does attempt to cover all contingencies. Such as in a divorce I
had, the problem came up of visiting rights with the children, and I had
in the separation agreement that if for any reason I did not exercise my
rights, this would not jeopardize my rights -- in other words, I had a
right to see the children every other weekend, and if I skipped three
months and didn’t see them, that this wouldn’t jeopardize my right to
see them. The other party could not then say, Well you haven’t seen them
for six months, so this is out. So we put that it, but then I said, What
if I don’t have a reason, so we put it in so that now it read: “If for
any reason, or for no reason, he fails to exercise his right. . .
.” So it’s that kind of subtlety in legal language that fascinated me.
So, at any rate, this man I was talking with said, in a movie contract,
the movie company would own the rights “throughout the world and
elsewhere” [laughter]. Now that was sheer fantasy, until we
came into the world of satellites and so forth; it was before all of this
business of satellites, and that someone might have possibly made a case
for, you know, “This being a satellite transmission, this is not
in the world, so we don’t have to pay.” At any rate, this fellow said,
“Well, let me send you the contract,” so he sent me one of the
best-known cases in law schools, which is Palsgraf v. Long Island
Railroad is the name of the case. This is a woman who was getting on
the train, rushing for the subway doors, someone trying to help her on
dropped a package, which contained fireworks which exploded, knocking over
a weighing machine, and injured her, and she sued the Long Island Railroad
for what happened. So this became a great landmark case of proximate
cause, the immediate cause of an injury, and here in about three steps:
the fireworks, the train, the weighing machine, and so forth. And this is
a classic opinion that all law students read. So he sent me that, and so I
was very intrigued. I wrote him back to thank him, so he sent me another
couple, he sent me one of the best books, one of the most entertaining
books that I own, it’s called -- Prosser is the name of the author -- On
Torts, which are injuries, all the laws on cases on people suing for
damages. And again, just in this one volume, are these marvelous,
entertaining stories of what people will come up with. And so then I was
in trouble, already. Then arrives the 84 volumes of American
Jurisprudence, and I was hooked, spending years reading and making
notes and marking margins, you know.
MC: Did you do the same amount of
research for J R, in the financial area?
WG: But there I was looking for specific
things, going for things . . . well for instance, a very basic thing, how
to have the character of J R -- who is not very bright, he’s not a
genius, he’s not a brilliant boy, he’s just a little, fresh, innocent,
greedy little boy, who thinks, How can you make this work? How can I get .
. . but so he not start out -- and this has been a misunderstanding, often
in reviews, calling him a little financial wizard -- really what happened
in J R, he backs in to situations all the time -- in this essential
thing, getting him off to a start, he has bought these bond issues, which
have been long since defaulted, in other words, the company has borrowed
money, which is what a bond is, then failed to, when it comes due,
supposedly a bond issue comes due in 1990 and they don’t, now it’s
1999 and they still, they have never come through with it, they have never
repaid, so the bond is pretty much worthless. So he’s been seeing these
and buying them for ten cents on the dollar -- five cents, six
cents -- there are these bond issues floating around, and he’s bought
these mainly because it says a thousand up in the corner, and he’s
getting it for only $70, and he thinks, “Gee, this is a
$1000 bond!” and he’s getting it for seven cents on the dollar. And
finally, when creditors close in, throw the company into
bankruptcy -- because it’s been losing money all these years, and finally
the creditors say, This has gone on long enough, they throw the company
into bankruptcy -- any bondholders have first claim, the stock then is all
washed out, and if you have owned stock in the company, you get nothing.
But the bondholders then get their interest converted into stock, such as
it is. So my problem was: how do I get this boy, who’s not brilliant,
get him started with a company shell. So here is this Eagle Mills, a
textile company, which has been in a state of semi-bankruptcy for years
and just plodding along, and no one has ever bothered to call them into
bankruptcy, and finally they do. And he’s got these bonds, and suddenly
he’s a major stockholder, and a very important part of that is, having
done this without really knowing what he was doing, and becoming a major
stockholder, he now believes he did this out of his own brilliance, and
very much what J R is about is him believing his own myth, and he
reads something in the paper about these “downstate interests” who
have closed in and taken over Eagle Mills and he thinks, “Wasn’t I
brilliant?” And that was not what he had in mind, he didn’t
know what he was doing, and so he constantly has these things where he
backs into a situation, and then it turns out well for him, and he thinks,
“Wasn’t I smart? Wasn’t I clever? Wasn’t I brilliant?”
to me is very much America too: first, the chance element, but also the
people of “limited” intelligence, shall we say, struggling around in
this morass of capitalism, if you like, of investment, of nonproductive
money-dealing, who prosper and produce nothing -- this is a very, very . .
. J R is now almost 20 years old, I mean the book: this is what
the record of the '80s became, lots of money floating around,
producing nothing, and no one go on to it, even when I told them
this is what’s coming, this whole idea . . . at least in the nineteenth
century, in America, in the late nineteenth century -- there was
corruption: in the government, in the railroads, bribes, all kinds of
chicanery, and so forth -- but it produced railroads, it produced
coal mines, it produced all kinds of things. Now this same spirit of
buccaneer capitalism produces nothing; in fact, by now what it has
produced is the collapse of General Motors, the collapse of IBM,
everything collapsing because the money is what was going on. This is what
J R is about, the nonproductive use of capitalism, where money is
the only . . . in fact he invented junk bonds with his whole penny-stock
fantasies. Like Cassandra [chuckling], I told them, and they
wouldn’t believe me.
MC: Considering The Recognitions
is also based on what is not real, what is not true, original, and ends in
collapse, are you doing with different metaphors the same denunciation of
the vacuousness at the heart of this enterprise?
WG: I think so. It gets worse.
it got worse -- to go right to the heart of it -- in books and literature
and what have you. The vacuity of television and the movies and the
inverse proportion of the rewards. I obviously speak as an injured party
when publishers give . . . I don’t even know the names, Tom Clancy is
one, you know, our big American best-sellers . . .
MC: But how do you fight back, I mean
the question Brigitte was asking a while ago: is the strategy you have
chose, pushing these enormous books which are hard to read, let’s
face it, for the average reader theoretically you are pointing these evils
to, so what’s your hope there? You think they enter it in what sort of
spirit? What do you expect of your reader? What sort of collaboration do
you expect from your reader?
WG: What can I say [chuckling],
intelligent collaboration? Which is asking too much, I know.
MC: Remember in Providence when Don
Barthelme was asked what his readers were like, he said they were all
intelligent and very sexy? [laughter]
WG: Attractive people, yes, I remember
that, that was lovely. Fiedler’s rejoinder at the end, that in the end
everyone will be reading Tom Clancy, or something, that was the end of
Fiedler in my book.
MC: It wasn’t Tom Clancy, it was
someone else . . . it was Stephen King.
BF: If I may ask the same question,
phrasing it differently: Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned
readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you
walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.” What do you think
your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?
WG: [after a long pause] I
suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of
. . . I n J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America
is all about.” It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what
America is all about. I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book
down finally, having finished it -- not after starting it, which is the
case, frequently -- and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is
a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and
so forth . . .
MC: J R has been described
as -- of course because of the particular way it’s made -- as
fundamentally structuralist, so to speak. Could you comment a little bit
on the way you tried to structure the huge amounts of material? Since you
cannot handle time in the usual fashion, since the central consciousness
at the heart of the novel is not really doing what it’s doing, how do
you handle the structuration of that material? I think the French readers
need all the help they can get.
WG: Yeah, well, this is a very definite
structure, but I think it has to appear haphazard on the surface, but it
is a case of . . . well, self-deceit becoming the operative factor, if you
must, that J R primarily is self-deceived. And he’s the only one who
really prospers; the ones who keep seeing through the fabric, like
Gibbs, come out badly because they cannot maintain the illusion, cannot
maintain the self-deceit. J R is self-deceived by the information that’s
given him: “This is what you do.” So to try to build that possibility
around him . . . now what was your question?
MC: The way you see the structuring or
the evolution, is it strictly the storyline becoming the structure of the
book, or do you see it as a cluster of images that progress the way they
do in The Recognitions?
I think each fantasy succeeding then lays the ground for the next
succeeding, I mean, finally when we get to the absurdity of teletravel -- of
traveling by wire from one place to another, this kind of thing -- that
there’s been enough built up in the earlier part of the book, of
absurdity which prospers, so that people believe this teletravel business.
I mean this entire thing being baseless, there being no gold to forge, as
we say in The Recognitions. There is nothing there but the
fantasy of anything that will make money, and finally there’s no
substance at all, it is only the fantasy of people passing worthless
currency back and forth to each other, and prospering in that world of
MC: So the irony becomes that, in each
of your books, what you are actually staging is the hollowing of the
language shells . . .
WG: Right, OK, right.
MC: . . . and the irony becomes,
of course you’re a writer, and you’re trying to re-endow the language
with value. How do you manage that thematic formal contradiction?
WG: I rather think, because this is
where I have been thinking, why, in legal language, which creates its own
nightmare, really, because it tries to solve exactly this problem, of for
instance the [tape ends; other side resumes:] to put these
limitations, to put these, to make a new language, in effect, by having it
precise, seeing every possible contingency, finally reduces things to,
defeats itself totally, so America being this nightmare of litigation.
First thing people think of is: Can I sue? So the tyranny of the legal profession,
not the law itself; it comes down to the language -- “for any reason or
for no reason” -- defeating itself, and now it is a litigious society
fighting over empty shells, corrupted by advertising, the language
corrupted on all sides, and the law trying to preserve these distinctions
becomes in itself a terrible morass of . . . well, for instance, when the
movie contract finally fell through, for J R: I was paying a lawyer
to go over the contract. I said at one place, the whole idea of profits,
net profits and gross profits -- usually in the movies, as in this current
book, they have made a movie, and the stars get “gross participation”;
that means off the top. If the box office and foreign rights and so forth
bring in $50 million dollars, the star gets 5%, 8%, whatever, before
anything else is deducted. And then gradually the whole net shrinks and
shrinks and shrinks, so that if you have a share of the net profits . . .
in this current book, he ends up getting 20% of the net, but of course
there isn’t any by then, ’cause they’ve paid everybody else. In this
contract for the movie of J R there was a 19-page definition of
“net profits,” every single paragraph was putting it down down down,
until there was nothing. And this is when I then, maybe foolishly, having
been paying this lawyer to read the thing, and then I would read it and
make complaints and then she would pursue it and finally I owed her $2500
and I had nothing, and when I got this 20-page outline of net profits I
just said, To hell with the whole thing, I’m sick and tired of it.
it’s too bad: if I had just shut my eyes, let them do what they wanted
to, taken the money and run, as we say . . . but I got so involved with
the legal involvement of the contracts and so forth that I did myself out
of. . . . The one thing I was very firm about was something called “novelization.”
Now that would be the movie people buy the rights to the book, to make the
movie, but then all these ancillary rights . . .
MC: They can rewrite the book in another
WG: Well what happens is they buy the
book to make the movie; it goes through ten screenwriters, inevitably
things are changed and changed and changed; finally they have a script and
make the movie. While they’re making the movie, they have given the
script to someone, paid him $750 to write a novelization of the movie, so
that when the movie comes out here is the book out on the stands, that
says J R, drawn from the script, and it’s totally different from
my book. What the people do, they buy it, they don’t buy my
book, and this is where I rebelled too, and said this we cannot have.
MC: But really the heart of the irony is
you produced an image of the way it actually works and is utilized. By the
same token, that was the gist of my question; you are constantly in danger
of what Ivor Winters called the fallacy of the mimetic: you are pouring
into these books the very debased language that you are criticizing, so
how do you see your intervention on the linguistic material so that people
will see a way out of this jailhouse of discourse?
WG: I see no way.
MC: You don’t see any way?
MC: So the imitative fallacy is
something you’re condemned to? There’s no way you can use the language
to . . .
WG: This is the way I always see it, the
corruption is almost total, and when you get into these . . . when the law
attempts to clear up this problem, it simply compounds it, this
problem or use of language, for instance “throughout the world and
elsewhere”: some lawyer saying, What about if this happens? so they put
in “and elsewhere,” or they put in “for any reason or for no
reason,” trying to find every contingency that could arise, it gets so
complicated that the entire structure collapses, and this is where we are
MC: But certainly you don’t think J
R adds on to the problem? It’s supposed to fight it.
WG: Uh . . . that’s a good question.
It may simply compound the problem. Many people seem to have difficulty
with it. It is largely about language, as this new book is. The
central story in this new book is . . . a man has written a play, it has
gone unproduced, nothing has happened, he has written this play, which
takes place during the Civil War, and finally put it on the shelf and
given up, no one’s interested in it.
MC: That’s the Antietam play?
WG: Yes. And then suddenly a big movie
comes out and it is his story, his theme, which involves, very simply, the
basic story of a young man with no prospects in the South becomes heir by
his uncle, who was a very prosperous Northern coalminer, the old uncle
dies, and he becomes the heir by default to these Northern mines. So he
has fought on the Southern side of the early battles of the Civil War, the
first two battles, then he comes into this legacy from the North, so he
hires a substitute to take his place in the Southern army while he goes
North to take over the mines. Then he’s threatened with being drafted in
the North, so he hires a substitute to take his place in the Northern
army. They meet at Antietam and both are killed, the two substitutes, and
it’s a kind of moral suicide, if you like. And the shell of this man
then goes on. That’s essentially the story. And that is a true story, I
came across it years ago. So he reads about the movie, and is furious and
sues to try to recover damages from what they’ve stolen, and he has at
one point, very early, sent his play to someone who was once in television
and is now a big Hollywood producer, and he’s saying, You stole my idea,
you stole my play. So all through this book is this lawsuit, progressing,
of his trying to recover damages for them stealing his play. And it’s
gradually whittled down and whittled down and whittled down until he ends
up, of course, with nothing. And the movie proves, even though it cost $90
million to make and has made another $150 million or something, they
prove, with their figures, they have lost $18 million and so, in
effect, owe him nothing. And that’s the central lawsuit that runs
through the book. We start out with him in an automobile accident to get a
lawsuit going about his car, which did happen to a friend of mine: his car
wouldn’t start, he opened the hood, he’s in front of the car, touching
the wire from the battery to the . . . I forget what . . . and the car
suddenly goes into gear and runs over him. And this fellow, in fact, there
he was up on the parkway, off to the side, under the car, and the car is
still sort of heaving ahead, and he was quite badly damaged, and shouting,
but of course the cars are going by, finally someone stopped and saw what
had happened, and turned the car off and got him out from under it. So we
start off with that, that is the opening of the novel, the man in the
hospital, talking with the insurance people, who say, Who was driving?
Well, no one was driving. How did the car run over you? and so forth.
that case goes under the surface all the way to the end too. He is a
victim suing the owner, but he is also the owner, and in the law the
plaintiff and the defendant cannot be the same person, so he’s trying to
get around this -- “Well there was no driver!” -- well then it
becomes a case of faulty parts, in the car, and they’re both suing, and
the car company is suing the dealer who is suing the wholesaler who is
suing the manufacturer, who then is suing the different companies: one
company in Japan has made the transmission, a company in Yugoslavia has
made the ignition system, and so forth. So it, by the end, turns into this
nightmare of litigation.
BF: It’s the same buildup as in J R,
the same process.
WG: Yes. And the only people who
prosper, of course, are the lawyers, because the worse it gets, the more
lawyers get into it. At the end of the book the insurance man who is
trying to clear things up says to Oscar, who is the central character,
“Well, you can take satisfaction in the fact that you’ve put bread on
a lot of tables.” And he says, “What are you talking about?”
says, “Well, you know, bread -- or baguettes, or pita bread, or
whatever -- by now, all over the world, you’re putting bread on
lawyers’ tables” [FHO 548], and he says [chuckling],
“What about me? I’m the one who’s damaged!” So they finally make a
settlement to get rid of it. Again, it’s largely about language.
MC: Is this dark vision you have of it
all, which of course makes sense in light of your liking of Twain’s late
work -- what is the salvaging thing: humor? irony? What is the thing that
saves it all?
WG: I take a very bleak view of the
whole thing, even more than I did twenty years ago when I was already
called . . . well, The Recognitions: I’m talking about 1955,
’56, when many reviewers looked at The Recognitions and said, How
can anyone take such a dark view of life and of work and so forth. I mean,
this man is really verging on a sick mind, you know, that he can see
things in this bleak fashion. And I’m thinking now, My god! What an
innocent book that was! I mean, it was about forthright forgery, as a
metaphor, but even so. But by now, where we are, in the way of . . .
hopeless . . . I mean, again back to this whole idea of the '80s, as
an age of producing nothing, and by now we’re paying the price, watching
our great corporations, IBM? [incredulously] collapsing? One witty
thing I did, I bought IBM stock, I bought some stock ten years ago and
barely came out alive, in the late '70s, because I had made a
mistake, real J R. I had bought something called Outboard Marine, which is
a company that makes outboard engines for boats. I had heard that Outboard
Marine had the Wankel engine, an engine where the cylinders rotate, and
I heard that had got the rights to this, so this is going to be a big
thing, so I’m going through my stocks and I’d forgotten what stocks I
had, and as it turned out, all the other stocks dropped, this was in the
big stock market drop in the late '70s, I think it was. Outboard
Marine, which had nothing to do with the Wankel engine [click
for rief description of this], something else
saved them, I’ve forgotten what it was, suddenly their stock rose, so I
sold off everything and came out just about even. It was based on a
mistaken idea of mine that the Wankel engine was going to save them;
they’d never heard of it, practically. And then I thought: Never again.
But then about four years ago I thought maybe I should fool around a
little more with the stock market, and IBM, I thought, there is a solid
thing, so I bought IBM stock at 99, it went up to 138, I sold it at 137,
now I think it’s about 45, and I got out just by chance, I just thought,
this is too good to be true, get out, and by a happy chance I did. But the
idea now of IBM going from 137 to about 47 . . . and what’s fascinating
there to me too is, like Kodak, I had done work for Kodak, these great 19th-century
paternalistic companies, where if you are at Kodak or at IBM, you’ve
been treated very well as an employee, all your career, and you have had
your salary and stock options, where you are constantly building up a
retirement fund for yourself of stock, and then -- I never exploited this,
really, this idea that I had of the father and the children, the
paternalistic corporation, like Kodak, more than IBM, more than any other,
suddenly when the stock falls, it’s like a betrayal of the father, who
has said I am going to take care of you and everything’s going to be
fine, and things will always get bigger, there will always be more, and
when it drops, rather than the kids blaming the system, or the market,
they blame Dad, saying, “But you promised me, you told me that there was
no end in sight, that IBM stock would always go up, Kodak stock would
always go up. Now, here I am, 67 years old, and my stock is worth $40 a
share instead of $200?” And this sense of betrayal of the father and
son, the metaphor is, to me, so perfect, so clear, so clean. And the
father of course has meant well all the time, doing a great service, son,
of trying to save for retirement . . .
MC: Considering your view of the coming
of the American society, where’s your dead father in American
MC: Where’s your America,
what’s your America all about? In comparison to what you do you feel
this sense of loss?
WG: My own personal experience was a
fatherless upbringing. My mother and father divorced when I was about
three, so I was off at boarding school and so forth, during my what we
call formative years, and the father figures were two very strong-willed
uncles, as was the master of the boarding school I was in, so there was
always a dominant, strong male person in my life. And why I’ve always
come back to this business of the father I don’t know, maybe Freud I’m
sure [chuckling] has some twisted . . .
MC: I didn’t mean to prod you into
personal reminiscences, but culturally speaking, where does it all go
wrong? Since you seem to have this benign vision of paternalistic
capitalism, and then something goes wrong, is it something that culturally
is the equivalent of that father-son relation?
WG: I suppose I think that, I suppose
that’s something I need explained . . . maybe I should go to an analyst
now and have him explain to me exactly [chuckling] your question.
It’s been suggested, the phrase is “Maybe you should see someone.” [MC
laughs] I say it’s a little too late for that. But I don’t know.
What it is, really, is in my own work trying to explore these metaphors
myself, and as The Recognitions started out with the notion there
are basic patterns that are inescapable -- then I was more interested in
religion than I am now -- there of course I was entranced by reading The
Golden Bough, which is what set me off there, I think, reading it when
I was in my early twenties and being fascinated by this revelation of the
constants that appear in all the various religions that had never had any
contact with each other: there is a trinity in Buddhism, there is a
trinity . . . and so forth and so forth. Trying to work out one’s own
salvation, as it were, and finding these correspondences, and these huge
metaphors of, as you say, the father figure in real life, the absent
father, the dead father, in religion, in the corporate world [chucking].
MC: And that’s where the whole
meditation on origins comes from in The Recognitions?
WG: I suppose, yeah. And the interesting
thing, as I say, not starting out thinking I will do this, but seeing the
father appear in one book after another, even in Carpenter’s Gothic
there is the father in the background who is not a nice fellow at all.
the current book there are two fathers: one is the old judge, a Federal
judge who is in his nineties, who writes some of these opinions, who is
the Old Testament lawgiver, as it were. This is my own analysis; whether
any reviewer will ever see it or not, I don’t know. And then there’s a
girl in the book, who is not very bright, the girlfriend of the hero, and
her father is a complete mess of the New Testament father of love -- the
Old Testament is the law and the New Testament is love solves
everything -- and of course both of them come to grief, in these two
concepts. The girl’s father, finally, has money and leaves it all to
. . . his son is killed in a car crash, for which he has given him
the money to buy this Porsche, the kid’s gone out and killed himself in
an accident, and then in moves the local minister who says, “You should
give the insurance money to the church in the hopes of meeting the boy on
the other side.” And the father is taken in by all this, so the poor
girl, his sister, is in effect disinherited, because her dead brother is
on the other side and the father presumably is insuring getting together
with the lost boy by giving the money to the church. And of course she’s
furious, saying, “I need it right here, on this side!” So both
concepts, of the Old Testament father and the New Testament father,
collapse. We’ll see how far reviewers get with that.
[BF recalls the scene in J R where the DiCephalis’s
child sells his father’s coins for more than the bills, considering the
Washington $1 bill comparatively worthless.]
WG: Well, another thing that has
interested me in my writing career, as they call it, how there are ideas
under the surface of my thinking, of my attempting to create situations,
where a reader will make connections which I didn’t realize were there.
This may be one of them: George Washington, the “Father of His
Country,” being a kind of cardboard cutout without any substance. “I
never tell a lie”: of course all we do is live with the most outrageous
lies, at every level, so the bits persist underneath the surface all the
time. I don’t know what you speak of there, if I meant that or not,
maybe I had it in mind, I can’t remember.
BF: The Father of My Country also
appears in The Recognitions, when Sinisterra is forging money,
that’s what he calls the $1 bill, he refers to it as the Father of His
WG: Well there the whole idea of the
myth as a forgery of values, I suppose, persists all the way through.
I’m trying to think of some of the things that readers came up with. . .
. Here’s one -- this is rather crude and need not go into your
notes -- but it was fascinating to me: late in The Recognitions
where Wyatt is in the monastery and this figure of complete falsification
of everything, the novelist who is there for “spiritual experience,” I
can’t remember if he sees Wyatt or what it is, anyway Wyatt is off in
the bushes urinating, and there’s something about this, somewhat masked,
and some critic, reviewer, I don’t know where or what, read this as
masturbating. And I thought, My heavens! It never occurred to me.
an interesting metaphor. This kind of thing, again, will happen where
there is evidence enough, I suppose, in what is on the page, for this
fellow to have made this interpretation. And I think, this hasn’t
occurred to me, and yet it is consistent, and this is when it gets
“spooky” [chuckling] as the girl, in the new book, she’s not
very bright, and everything is “spooky,” she says. . . . I’ve
forgotten the question now.
BF: It was just a remark on the father
in Washington . . .
WG: Oh right, and whether I had that in
mind . . . I guess I did, the Father of His Country, and the fact he’s
on the $1 bill; as we get into the $1000 bills, which I think we don’t
have anymore, I think the picture on that was a man named Samuel Chase,
who was Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury and wanted to be president.
In other words, the inverse: the more important the historical figure, the
lower the denomination, so we get the Father of His Country on the $1
bill, Jefferson is on the $2 bill, Lincoln on the 5, Hamilton on the 10,
Franklin on the 50 . . .
MC: Twenty is what?
WG: Jackson. And it’s an interesting
panorama of father figures.
MC: Considering it’s J R
that’s coming out here, what do you think could be the French reading of
this? It cannot be read of course in the same tradition your working in;
are you puzzled by this?
WG: Totally. I wonder. Ivan Nabokov
decided to do this, and first I was amazed that something I think is so
American, right down to the schoolboy and his patois, his confused use of
the language, the idea first of the translation itself and then second,
the idea of its applicability, its pertinence, will the French . . . ?
MC: What would be the parameters you
would think a person foreign to the American culture would need to read J
R right? In terms of literary tradition, in terms of cultural
tradition, what are the things one must start with as a key in his mind to
read J R in a foreign country?
WG: I wonder. I wonder. Because to me it
is so American and everything, all the problems it seems to
embrace, seem to me peculiarly American. I mean, in older cultures,
European cultures, the idea of a certain amount of greed is quite
acceptable. As we were brought up, America was the fresh, innocent country
and Europe was corrupt. This was the mythology, that the Old World of
Europe was a corrupted world, this of course had to do also with American
ideas of Puritanism, and purity, and so forth, as opposed to Europe, and
Catholicism as a corrupt institution. My family, for instance, were much
more disturbed by the pope than they were by anti-Semitic . . . I mean,
they were matter-of-factly anti-Semitic, you know, just “Well the Jews
are over here, and what do you expect?” But for corrupting influence,
around the turn of the century, the shadow of the pope -- and this
persisted right up to Kennedy, this fundamentalist American religious
thing: Kennedy, if he’s elected, it will be handing America eventually
over to the papacy -- all of this a remnant of late-19th-century
America where the shadow of the pope was, people were quite alarmed.
with this influx of southern Europe, and Catholicism. . . . My grandmother
was much more disturbed by the Catholic Church than by any other foreign,
corrupting influence. So America emerging as this pure “city on the
hill,” as a kind of New Testament brought to life, and that has got to
be part of this [J R] and how Europe will look at this, I don’t
know. For instance, Nixon: I remember when that whole scandal of Watergate
and so forth came along, and people saying, “My god, in France, it would
be a feature for a couple of weeks in the newspapers and they wouldn’t
be all that upset.” Who was it who took a large gift of jewelry, from an
MC: Yeah, Giscard, that was the
WG: This was a little scandal, and
people chuckled, and it went. Whereas in America, this would have been a
really shocking revelation.
MC: Listening to you, a thought
comes to mind. It’s interesting that you should be thematizing this
whole idea of the corruption of language, and then you have all this view
of America as standing against the idea of corruption, and I think
it was Johan Thielemans in a very good article he wrote on your work, who
said you were obviously writing against a backdrop of some idea of the
potential purity of language, and that therefore the power of the corrupt
language you were staging came across against that foil, so to speak.
WG: Well in the new book, of course,
this is even more so because what is the law but language? And so, I
suppose that piece that was published in the New Yorker is a fair
glimpse of what goes on. There are four or five other opinions, one is 20
pages, where the court decides on this man’s lawsuit against the movie
people, and whether they stole his play or not. This is very much a
question of language, of redeeming the language, and that legal language
supposedly redeems the language in being precise and so forth. But then of
course it creates such a morass that we’re in even worse trouble, by
trying to solve this problem of language. And of course the legal world .
. . there was just a passage in this book, I can’t think of the context,
but it’s the word should: in some law, the word should is
featured -- I shouldn’t get into this because I cannot remember the
details -- but at any rate it all hangs on the interpretation of the word should:
that this situation should result in this. But now does this mean
it should “righteously” but it doesn’t? or does it mean that the law
means that it does only result in this interpretation: it should
be, but is this conditional? Does it also imply that it’s not?
should be but it’s not.” So this then becomes an entire area of
litigation over this one word. And this is what the law . . . Of all the
people who came out of this whole Iraq-Iran nightmare, one of the real
swine named Eliot Abrams, who was one of the featured people in the whole
arms-for-hostages kind of thing. The Senate Committee asked him a
question, and he responded -- they meant a question like, again I can’t
remember what it was, they meant it in a larger context, had he been aware
of such-and-such -- but the way they phrased the question allowed him to
say no, he was not aware of it, because he was not aware of this single
aspect of it. He lied, but in terms of the language he was covered.
to do with prepositions, it had to do with him, a very shrewd, sublimely
dishonest man, taking this little way out. And so when they picked him up
later and said, Now come on, you told us you didn’t know anything about
this, he said, “No, I answered the question, you asked me about this
aspect of it, and I said no.” But then the law is so involved in this
kind of detail of language, and this is what the old judge in this current
book is about, trying to . . . one character who is a lawyer in the book,
the woman asks him, He’s a serious Federal judge, what is he doing in a
case involving a little dog trapped in a sculpture, I mean this is
nonsense. And of course he is involved in all of the ramifications that
would bear on this: Who is liable? Who is negligent? -- and negligence law
in America is a very large area of litigation -- Who’s fault is it?
when she says to her husband, the lawyer, What is he trying to do, all
this law and opinion on this dog, he says, “He’s trying to redeem the
language” -- trying to reinstate the language as having meaning and being
able to clarify meaning. This is what Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad
is about, proximate cause of an accident: how far can you remove the
actual accident from an explosion of fireworks way down the platform?
this obviously is an immense area of litigation in America, anything
finding fault, you trip on the sidewalk and then you nip away and sue the
city for not maintaining the sidewalk. Then we get to one character in my
book who has . . . people in a car have been injured in a pothole in the
road, driving up First Avenue or something there’s a big hole in the
pavement and the car hits it and bang! And they all sue, for whiplash and
for all these things. Then they find him at three o’clock in the
morning, just before it goes to court, out there digging a deeper pothole,
so that the jury will then come to see this terrible big hole in the
pavement and his clients will get their damages from the city. There’s a
saying in Spanish, and I’d like to get it right, it’s the heart of all
this, it is something like “Quien haga la ley, haga la” whatever, the
word for loophole: “Who makes the law, makes the loophole,” to
get through the law. In other words, the more you try to clearly define
negligence, say, or whatever, the more room you leave for loopholes that
people can get through.
MC: Your novels consist in deepening the
hole in the street so that when the jury of readers comes to see the
extent of the damage they’ll see for sure? [laughing] We’re
talking about proximate causes, and going back into causality like this:
in your estimate of the damage, where did it begin to go wrong?
Indeed, indeed. I
time on that but maybe, because of . . . I mean, we’ve always in
America, again, going back to corrupt Europe, in the 19th century, and
the American view of American Puritanism -- we are the
innocent, the pure -- well, take Italians as the perfect example, and the
Catholic Church, and this is my own interpretation, but the whole idea
. . . [tape ends]
|Recorded 15 February 1993 in the lobby
of a Paris hotel, when Gaddis was in France for the publication
of the French translation of J R and had just submitted A Frolic of His Own to
his publisher. A small portion of the interview was translated and published
as “Entretien avec William Gaddis,” La Quinzaine littéraire, no.
620 (16-31 March 1993), p. 7. The tape is incomplete, beginning and
-- Steven Moore