Interview
with Marc Chénetier and Brigitte Félix

 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 shot.

MC:  It’s the Gardnerites who were riding high there.

Brigitte Felix:  I read somewhere that you did a lot of documenting for these books, read many things.

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?

MC & BF: 
Yes.

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.  But I 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:  What am I doing?  This is getting . . . this is supposed to be a novel!  So I 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 write that?

MC:  Kingsley?

WG [not hearing]:  I can’t now remember.  At any rate, I’m sure someday there will be lecteurs, students, candidates for doctorate degrees, who will say, “From the start he worked out this plan to have each book be a version of the . . .” -- well, even in Carpenter’s Gothic there is the father in the background, who the young boy hates, his father’s a tyrant . . .

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 programmatic?

WG:  As what?

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.

WG:  No.

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].  I 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?  Do 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:  Now 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 R?

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?”  And this 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.  I think 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:  Judith Krantz, Danielle Steel?

WG:  Yeah, a million dollars, fifty million copies of Danielle Steel’s books in print -- it is Gresham’s Law, it is the bad driving out the good.  But I think movies and television have so compounded this now, but it’s always been on the rise, Gresham’s Law -- bad money drives out good -- has always been the case, and here it is, but now . . . million-dollar advances, five-million-dollar advances. . . .  But I don’t have to think about it anymore, I’m at the end of the line here, if I want to write something I will, if I don’t I won’t.

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?

WG:  No, 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 worthless currency.

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.  And 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 form?

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?

WG: 
I see no way out. No, I see it as getting worse and worse.

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 now.

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.  And 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?”  And he 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 culture?

WG:  Pardon?

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.  In 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 Country.

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.  It’s 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.  And 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 African?

MC:  Yeah, Giscard, that was the allegation anyway.

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?  “It 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.  It had 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?  So 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?  So 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?

WG:  Indeed, indeed.  I haven’t spent 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 ending mid-sentence. -- Steven Moore

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