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Temporary Note


Gaddis: Toward the Dramatic

By Garrett Rowlan

I’ve always been intrigued by James Joyce’s idea, as expressed through Stephen Daedalus in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, of an artist’s progression through the lyric, epic, and dramatic phases, a path of increased technical mastery and emotional withdrawal. The heartfelt cry of the developing artist, the lyric phase, becomes more impersonal in the epic phase. In the final, dramatic phase, the artist’s presence and emotional involvement are seemingly absent. He is indifferent and, as Joyce puts it, “paring his fingernails.” Relating these phases to William Gaddis shows how Gaddis, in his idiosyncratic way, has moved from youthful “lyricism,” such as it was, to artistic maturity. Tracing this development is the purpose of this essay.
Gaddis was clearly influenced by Joyce. The typography and themes of The Recognitions shows the imprint of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Joyce plunged into the mind, showed the internal chatter of Bloom and Stephen Daedalus talking to themselves. In a similar way, Gaddis created a diaphanous surface, pages of “recorded” conversations creating a flat clear plane, like a glass-bottom boat looking down. “Mr Feddle,” Gaddis writes of one partygoer in The Recognitions, “scooted up a tier of shelved books, beyond the reaches of hagfish and lamprey, and other jawless progenitors babbling in apparent contentment below.” The recorded babbling is something like Gaddis’ fundamental technique, to position the narrator and reader slightly above the fray and observe. Joyce depicted interiors. Gaddis depicted exteriors, a collage of voices in long conversations annotated from the sidewalks, lofts, and bars that constitute the art scene in New York. Ideas of real and fake, genuine versus counterfeit, are braided throughout the book. As a result, The Recognitions isn’t about the expression of the lyrical impulse as much as its mutation in a cockeyed world of art. His protagonist, Wyatt, sets out to be a painter, takes up forgery, and ends up as a babbling mystic in a Spanish monastery. The reader’s last glimpse shows him setting out on a new, more genuine artistic path. While Wyatt – who now calls himself Stephen perhaps as Gaddis’ nod to Joyce – departs the hack writer Ludy, he does so saying that he now intends to “fail on my own.” This sentiment is hardly as rapturous as Stephen Daedalus’ pledge, at the end of Portrait, to “forge on the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race,” but will have to do. It’s about as truthful as an artist’s “lyric” credo in the world Gaddis depicts.
It will have to do because Gaddis portrays his artists within the context of a larger issue, that being the question of creativity in a phony culture. The composer Stanley contrasts the spiritual in Baroque music against the worldly in an age of pop jingles. Wyatt questions a painter’s validity in an age of hype and publicity. Anselm, whom we might call a “conceptual artist,” is noted for sawing toilet seats in half, to the apparent delight of trendy critics. Gaddis, as noted by Joseph Tabbi in his introduction to The Rush for Second Place, a collection of Gaddis’ essays and occasional writings, was skeptical of modern art. He was not unsympathetic to the complaint that a child could execute the bizarre canvases hanging from a museum wall, indeed the slab of browns and blues on the cover to A Frolic of His Own was done by Gaddis’ daughter Sarah when she was five years old. Certainly the conversations that Gaddis invented in The Recognitions suggested an ambience in which prevailing trends can lead to the overblown reputation of a mediocrity.
Yet a constant irony lurks within Gaddis’ text. If we take Wyatt’s reverence for the medieval artists and Stanley’s admiration for the Baroque composers to their logical extremes, we are down the slippery slope to anachronism, stagnation. We cannot limit the “lyrical” impulse to some eternal neo-romantic depiction of moonlight sonatas and weeping Werthers and canvases by Casper David Freidrich. Stephen Daedalus doesn’t go far enough. The “lyric” phase cannot be a purely emotional one, but inspirational, intellectual, technical even, and aware of tradition, placing the inspiration within the context of previous artists. Otherwise, there would not be progress, change, or reflection of one’s times in a work of art.
We’re left to our own judgments, for what way is there to tell if an artist’s innovations are truly reflective of the times or just wantonly “original?” A case in point is Gaddis’ second novel, JR, published in 1975. Reviewed by George Steiner for the New Yorker, it was criticized for containing “jostling pieces of typography” and “interminable screeds of direct address.” The book panned in Steiner’s critique almost suggests the literary equivalent of a crowded, modern canvas not painted so much as assembled. (Indeed, Gaddis often worked by laying out snippets of dialogue and quotations on a table and pinning them together until he came up with the right sequence.)
JR intrudes the world upon the text. The image, says Daedalus’ of an artist’s middle period, is presented “in mediate relation to himself and to others.” This mediate relation is made visible in JR by the use of small, boldfaced print to record the constant prattle of a radio or, earlier, of a platitude-filled “educational program,” or by other typographical devices all to locate the book, in graphic terms, within the world’s clutter and detritus. By extension, Gaddis also suggests the artist’s precarious position within this maelstrom.
The authorial personality retreats in JR, which marks the “epic” phase of Gaddis’ career. In displaying the encroachment of the world in a concrete manner, he becomes an organizer of diverse materials as much as a writer of them. He steps back from his role of overarching narrator. Unlike Wyatt, the struggling composer Edward Bast is not introduced with a long expository chapter, rather after a rambling dialog between two aging sisters and a lawyer, the gist of which concerns Edward’s legitimacy. He is then dropped into the narrative in the same oblique manner as other characters.
Gaddis’ depiction of the beleaguered artist is merciless. Throughout the book, Bast is trying to write an opera but is hampered by constant intrusions. Another artist, the painter Schepperman, executes large canvases full of “shattering blacks and whites” in the manner of a Franz Kline. However, the paintings are bought by a wealthy patroness and locked away, and Schepperman’s execution of a larger canvas for a corporate lobby turns out to be a fiasco. Disillusioned, Schepperman hangs out in bars, gabbling to strangers about how he tries to “make a statement.”
In JR, we don’t have the digressions on art and culture that we did in The Recognitions. In this middle phase of Gaddis’ career, we have only passing, fragmentary complaints about making a statement or Bast’s grumbling about finding some degree of silence in which to compose. The crazed atmosphere that Gaddis creates rules out such asides. In A Frolic of His Own, which marks the third, or “dramatic” phase of Gaddis’ career – coming after the publication of Carpenter’s Gothic, a shorter and, to me, insignificant work – the artist is pushed even further back.
Gaddis, who liked to recycle previous inspirations, begins the book by featuring two works mentioned near the conclusion of JR. The first is a large piece of modern sculpture called Cyclone 7, which becomes a piece of legal contention when a small boy is caught within its gnarled structure. In A Frolic of His Own this becomes a small dog ensnared within the metal monstrosity and later killed by a bolt of lightning. The other is a novel called The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, mentioned in a case of plagiarism toward the end of JR. In A Frolic of His Own the writer Oscar Crease claims that his play “Once at Antietem” was used without credit or compensation in a bloody Civil War movie called The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue.
The book also resumes the themes of real versus counterfeit that characterized The Recognitions, though here those debates are given a distinctly legal twist, as if originality in art is only defined by immunity to charges of plagiarism or forgery. The book is all legal contention. Oscar Crease and the sculptor of Cyclone 7, a Mr. Syzrk, appear mostly as litigants. Art becomes a legal issue, nothing more.
And Gaddis is a kind of human glue pot. He no longer even assembles, in the manner of JR, disparate material. Rather, A Frolic of his Own is given over to large swaths of transcripts and legal opinions that are interlarded with “recorded” conversation and impressionistic prose marking transitions between scenes. As a result, the book lacks even the vaguely symphonic sense that characterizes JR. The author seems distant from his creation, a cut-and-paste man fusing text and pages of legalese. Suggesting that a book can be produced using a tape machine, a Xerox copier to reproduce vast legal traits, and a pound of paste is how Gaddis trims his fingernails. More than a century after Joyce’s categorization, Gaddis took the idea of a writer’s removal from his text to a penultimate level. Anything more and a writer would fade into the ether, as nebulous as God.
Dividing an artist’s career into lyric, epic, and dramatic phases may be too schematic for any wide application. Artists certainly are likely to employ impersonal uses of technique as they grow older, but this is a little more than a truism. The rule would seem to have more exceptions than adherents, and is best applied to writers whose major works form triads that fit the pattern. In fact, beyond Joyce and Gaddis, I can’t think of anyone to whom the lyric-epic-dramatic grid would apply. Joyce ended his career on the “dramatic” night-language of Finnegans Wake. Gaddis ended his, in A Frolic of his Own, as more of a transcriber than author of a book full of legal opinion and testimony. Perhaps some future author, an intermittent publisher of three major works, will end his career with a book that won’t be any book at all, as we know it today. At that point, the author will be truly refined out of existence.


Garrett Rowlan
26 March 2004

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