Discussed in this essay:
The Recognitions, William Gaddis. Penguin Classics. 976pp, $25.00.
J R, William Gaddis. Penguin Classics. 752pp, $25.00.
Agapē Agape, William Gaddis. Penguin Classics. 128pp, $13.00.
I. Work as Calling
Just as his novels J R and A Frolic of His Own announce their subjects (“Money . . . ?” and “Justice?” respectively) in their opening sentences, William Gaddis’s career could have started with the question, “Work?” No single word better encapsulates the concerns and organizing metaphor for Gaddis’s artistic project, in which he chronicles the myriad ways that postwar industrial American culture devalues and drowns out individual expression in an endless barrage of information. His concerns were weighty—nothing less than the erosion of western culture and society—but Gaddis’s novels are ultimately saved from grim systemic coldness by his emphasis on work, which he defined strictly and defended with religious zeal. To Gaddis, work equaled an individual effort (best exemplified by the sympathetic and underappreciated artists of his first novels, The Recognitions and J R) to sort through the swarming cultural ephemera and create, with monastic persistence, something that no machine or business could adequately reproduce. Since Gaddis believed the two to be tantamount, his emphasis on the value of work was nothing less than a defense of the artistic impulse itself.
Gaddis’s own times were appropriate to this attitude. Born in the final days of 1922, he entered the world in the same year as Ulysses, “The Waste Land,” and Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, which collectively comprise the most accurate literary forebears for Gaddis’s own work—a mixture of linguistic innovation, cultural threnody, and categorical sociology. (Gaddis denied having ever read Ulysses as late as 1980, it should be noted.) Beyond that coincidental detail, however, Gaddis’s early life coincided with the decline of high literary modernism—of which The Recognitions, published in 1955, served as both a final validation and death knell—and the rapid ascendancy of the United States to its continued place as the most economically and culturally influential country in the world. No wonder he claimed in an interview that Eliot’s “juxtaposition of exchequer bonds and the South Seas and Doris on the stairs . . . never left me.” It seems prescient that his time at Harvard—he entered in 1941 and was expelled during his senior year—coincided with America’s involvement in World War II; by 1945, America was positioned for a massive economic upswing, and Gaddis was dividing his time between Greenwich Village and travels through Europe, Africa, and Central America, experiences that would figure prominently in his first sprawling, Boschian satire.
Gaddis’s first two novels take place during this immediate postwar American environment, The Recognitions encompassing the late 1940s to early 1950s, and J R the early 1960s (made clear when one character refers to “the pill all these girls are taking”). The settings of both also reflect the milieu in which Gaddis lived while writing them—The Recognitions takes places among Manhattan’s socially elite art community and was written during Gaddis’s travels and his tenure as a New Yorker fact checker; J R, published in 1975, concerns the intersecting worlds of public education and stock trading, and was written while Gaddis raised his young children and worked as a corporate marketing writer in the wake of the first novel’s sales failure. In these novels, the writing of which spans the first quarter-century of America’s postwar global dominance, Gaddis diagnoses the false ideals and trends that in his estimation led to the culture’s increased moral and aesthetic “vacancy” (to borrow a term that’s littered throughout J R). Since Gaddis himself witnessed Depression-era diligence sliding quickly into postwar bacchanalia, and since he watched American culture gradually devolve from learned modernism into suburban sprawl, it’s not surprising that both The Recognitions and J R chart these changes in terms of the culture’s simultaneous devaluation and perversion of our so-called Protestant work ethic.
Six years after J R’s publication, Gaddis would distill these themes into a dense, highly allusive essay, “The Rush for Second Place” (published in the April 1981 Harper’s as “Failure”), that serves simultaneously as a postscript to the first two books and an individual statement of purpose. Gaddis enthusiastically quotes German theologian Ernst Troeltsch, who bemoaned how easily “capitalism was able to steal into the Calvinist work ethic.” The rest of Gaddis’s chosen block quote could just as easily summarize his religious artistic conviction:
This “Protestant ethic of the ‘calling,’” continues Ernst Troeltsch, “with its severity and its control of the labor rendered as a sign of the assurance of election, made service in one’s ‘calling,’ the systematic exercise of one’s energies, into a service both necessary in itself and appointed by God, in which profit is regarded as the sign of the Divine approval. . . . The owner of wealth or property is ‘the Lord’s Steward,’ and administers a Divine gift which has been entrusted to him.”
The Recognitions and J R catalog the ways in which postwar America gradually equated “work” with “business,” and the books’ settings illuminate how such a deterioration adversely affected education and the arts, respectively.
II. Work in Action
Gaddis anticipated postmodern American literature’s obsessions with entropy and the “death of the author,” but he shared the high modernists’ attention to form. Like Joyce peppering Ulysses’s newsroom scene with capitalized headlines, Gaddis constructed The Recognitions and J R as mimetic of their subjects—the former is as bulging and ornate as the Flemish paintings that protagonist Wyatt Gwyon is paid to forge, and the latter is one continuous flood of voices, frequently unidentified, that recall either a stock ticker’s relentlessness or an overlapping teleconference. In both cases, the mutability of identity performs double-duty as a plot device and a cardinal theme, and it’s therefore no coincidence that they take place during the postwar time that was nearly a midpoint in Gaddis’s life.
W.T. Lhamon, in his exhaustive study of the 1950s, Deliberate Speed, notes that “folk or oral culture completed its changes during the ’50s to popular or mediated culture,” a statement that Gaddis could have written himself. Instead, he wrote two long novels that document the change. Reeling from a dark family history and unsuccessful flirtation with the priesthood, Wyatt Gwyon arrives in New York near The Recognitions’ beginning and tries to make it as an artist. He instead discovers that the better money is in forgery; tempted by a Mephistophelian art dealer named Recktall Brown (Gaddis indeed deserves his Janus-like reputation for connecting Eliot and Joyce’s classical allusions to Pynchon’s lowbrow name games), Wyatt’s greatest success comes from painting knockoff Flemish “masterpieces.” In Gaddis’s world of faux-artistes and post-Protestant aimlessness, works of art aren’t valued as products of human effort or historical background; they’re merely purchasable commodities. And Gaddis makes no bones about the role of capitalist materialism in this distinction; as one character rants, “We’ve had the goddam Ages of Faith, we’ve had the goddam Age of Reason. This is the Age of Publicity.”
An Age of Publicity requires whittling products down to reductive, sellable identities, a point Gaddis makes by never mentioning his protagonist’s name after page 118. He then scatters the novel’s remaining narrative action throughout a wide cast of wanna-be’s and hangers-on. The novel itself, produced as it was in the mass media age, proceeds without a defining central character despite being initially framed as a fairly standard Faust parable. With Wyatt swallowed by the godless society whose acceptance he tragically sought, the only viable “hero” of The Recognitions is Stanley, a young composer whose drive to work artistically is thwarted at nearly every turn. Unable to finish his work because there’s no money in it, Stanley bemoans, “This work of mine, three hundred years ago it would have been a Mass, because of the Church. . . . And it would be finished by now, because the Church . . .”
Gaddis never vouches for the theological righteousness of Christianity (had he turned his satirical eye to religious institutions
, he no doubt would have found as much to mock as he found in all other hierarchies), but he knew that a religious society, whatever its flaws, will always fund its arts, if only to continuously praise God. When such worship dries up, the societal value of artists goes with it: The Recognitions
closes with Stanley adrift in rural Italy, coming across an old church with an unattended organ inside. He steps in to finally play his musical opus and, unaware of the Italian-language warnings against playing too loud, is crushed when the vibrations dismantle the building. At once harrowing and cartoonish, this is Gaddis’s statement on the fate of serious artists in a world where churches are left to rot.
The Recognitions is a warning above all else—a plea, like “The Waste Land,” for Western society to recognize its mythic origins before art expires. Again, Stanley has the right diagnosis, tragically ignored amid a party’s din:
—But . . . even Voltaire could see that some transcendent judgment is necessary, because nothing is self-sufficient, even art, and when art isn’t an expression of something higher, when it isn’t invested you might even say, it breaks up into fragments that don’t have any meaning and don’t have any . . .
What Stanley warns of, in other words, is the world as seen in J R. At once situationally funnier and morally bleaker than The Recognitions, Gaddis’s second book is one continuous 726-page chapter, comprised of an array of characters blathering, scheming, and traveling back and forth between Massapequa, Long Island, and downtown Manhattan. Whereas the first book took the form of a classic quest (William H. Gass’s fine introduction to the Penguin Classics version expounds on this aspect) and undermined it to warn of post-religious society’s eventual fracturing, J R examines how that fractured society functions.
J R Vansant—a name that simultaneously conjures John D. Rockefeller, The Jungle protagonist Jurgis Rudkis, and a bowdlerization of New York’s intrepid Dutch origins—is a sixth-grader who takes advantage of the stock trade’s facelessness by building a makeshift corporate empire using payphones and mail-in catalogs. He enlists the help of Edward Bast, his school’s composer-in-residence who, just like Stanley, watches his own work get slowly downgraded from a symphony to a sonata to a suite and so on, all because of his better-paying obligations elsewhere. Meanwhile, J R’s school is busy installing a system of closed-circuit televisions, Bast’s family is embroiled in a delicate inheritance matter, and the school board’s funding is shown as increasingly reliant on corporate intervention. All these threads come together in different ways, although J R’s plot is byzantine to the point of madness; it’s purposefully cacophonous, meant to mirror the fact that America is “the noisiest country that ever existed,” as one character notes, quoting Oscar Wilde.
As always, this noise—which Gaddis represents in typographical insertions, among them a special font for broadcasted speech and messy handwritten documents—distracts from both proper education (most of the academic scenes involve finance meetings in the principal’s office) and artistic creation. Bast occupies two workspaces throughout the novel—one at his aunts’ house that gets broken into and destroyed, and another on 96th Street in Manhattan that gets slowly filled up with the ephemera of “The J R Family of Companies” and prevents him from having a place to compose. As if Gaddis were taunting him, Bast relatively early in the novel equates a workplace with a setting “where nothing else happens” (interestingly, an anticipation of David Byrne’s nearly identical definition of “heaven” that appeared in 1979).
Gaddis’s linguistic noise also echoes the spread of industry throughout the ’50s and early ’60s—the growth of suburbs, strip malls, and even urban centers. Again, W.T. Lhamon diagnoses this distinctly postwar phenomenon in ways that Gaddis would applaud:
Lore, which previous generations had absorbed at Grandpa’s or Uncle Remus’s knee or on the store porch, was now absorbed basking in the blue glow of the TV, from the car radio, from comics and theme parks. Instead of producing and participating in their own lore, ’50s people began buying it ready-made, became its recipients.
“Culture,” in other words, was no longer something to be sought out; it was now something that forced its way into people’s increasingly intertwined lives. Appropriately, Gaddis’s few breaks from J R’s strictly dialogue structure come in the form of violent passages that echo the “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of the natural world in Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.” At one point, “a disabled French machine gun and a vacant flagpole [hold] off the sky”; at another, a woman changes the radio station, “fleeing one wad of sound for another.” Other descriptions are more lyrical, but still filled with violent verbs and overflowing garbage:
Bast’s steps had slowed as a small clearing opened abruptly on their right where mangled saplings and torn trunks and limbs still bearing leaves engaged a twisted car fender, a split toilet seat, a chair with one leg and a variety of empty tin cans surrounding a sign Clean Fill Wanted with a telephone number.
With the messy noise of pop culture in constant combat against nature’s attempted calm, it’s no wonder why J R’s characters are all so capital-obsessed; one of Bast’s aunts quotes his uncle James, an important character who, recalling Wyatt’s textual disappearance, never actually enters the action: “—James will say what he’s always said, that money buys privacy and that’s all it’s good for.”
III. A Call to Action
Based on the treatment I’ve given them and the quotes I’ve pulled from them, Gaddis’s thematics might seem straightforward. Though it’s true that Gaddis was never reticent about the moral impulses of his novels—J R is particularly bludgeoning in its rage at times, one reason I find it a less satisfying novel than The Recognitions—his reputation for being a quintessentially difficult writer is nevertheless well-deserved. One reason, of course, is the sheer mass of words in his first two books; his themes may be periodically voiced with ringing clarity, but those moments are buried in hundreds and hundreds of pages of tenebrous, often cryptic prose. His emphasis on culture’s dehumanizing elements also informs his trademark use of unnamed speakers and intentional blurring of characters’ identities. Gaddis knew how difficult his books were, and he felt that his themes required and justified that difficulty. Jack Gibbs, a writer and obvious doppelganger for Gaddis in J R, is asked about a book he’s writing and responds,
—Not a no, it’s more of a book about order and disorder and more of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element.
—It sounds a little difficult, is it?
—Difficult as I can make it.
Gibbs is describing Agapē Agape, a history of the player piano. The idea occurs in each of Gaddis’s novels and was a continuous personal project for the man throughout his life. In various stages, Agapē Agape was a nonfiction history (some of which is reprinted in J R), or a collection of essays, and it was eventually published as a slim novella, posthumous but completed before Gaddis’s 1998 death. In its final form, Agapē Agape is a first-person deathbed rant that, though perhaps the most appropriate end for the man’s career, doesn’t have the sprawl or heart of his best work. Nevertheless, the player piano was Gaddis’s white whale, the ultimate metaphor for all the Protestant devolution chronicled in The Recognitions and J R.
In “‘Stop Player. Joke No. 4,’” a nonfiction fragment of player piano history that first appeared in the July 1951 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Gaddis puts all his cards on the table in paragraph one.
The player offered an answer to some of America’s most persistent wants: the opportunity to participate in something which asked little understanding; the pleasure of creating without work, practice, or the taking of time; and the manifestation of talent where there was none.
These were also, needless to say, Gaddis’s most persistent satirical targets. The droning partygoers of The Recognitions are all participating in something that they aren’t required to understand, as evidenced by their collective misjudgment of Flemish artwork. The manipulation of oblique futures and dividends that pervades J R is an example of capital being created without work (as Gaddis defines it) or time. And of course mass media of any kind is an example of mechanically provided insta-talent, perhaps explaining Gaddis’s affinity for underdog composers whose work never leaves their own heads, remaining free from even the slightest mass manipulation.
The Recognitions and J R are roaring, howling affronts to this kind of laziness. These are not books that function as the literary equivalent of a player piano. They are not “hot media,” to borrow one buzz term that Gaddis quoted in his National Book Award acceptance speech for A Frolic of His Own. Rather, they require effort, metaphorical reading between the lines, and ideally a little research, as evidenced by the encyclopedic website The Gaddis Annotations, devoted to annotations of the novels. They require, in other words, the readerly equivalent of a Protestant work ethic.
Gaddis harbored no illusions that this demand would lead to widespread fame and sales. (Although it is tiresome to hear the repeated mantra that a two-time National Book Award winner and MacArthur fellow was somehow under-recognized.) “I do ask something of the reader,” he noted in the Frolic acceptance,
and many reviewers say I ask too much . . . and as I say, it’s not reader-friendly.
Though I think it is, and I think the reader gets satisfaction out of participating in, collaborating, if you will, with the writer, so that it ends up being between the reader and the page. . . . Why did we invent the printing press? Why do we, why are we literate? Because of the pleasure of being all alone, with a book, is one of the greatest pleasures.
It also bears noting that, most immediately, Western Europeans invented the printing press to mass-produce the Bible. Once again, the connection between solitary intellectual work and religious conviction is made explicit and inexorable. Gaddis focused so much on work because its perversion and devaluation in contemporary society further removed us from our religious principles. Again, it could never be said that William Gaddis was a Christian writer, but he acknowledged that the healthy religious impulse inherently inspires the solitary study of printed words and the solitary quest to create beauty in God’s honor. In his estimation, we need religion—not so much out of any spiritual necessity, but because it improves our art and culture to believe in something greater than material gain. It improves our culture, in other words, by reminding us of the value of work.
John Lingan is a writer living in Baltimore, MD. He is the managing editor of Splice Today.
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