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Temporary Note


The Recognitions


Penguin, 1993, ISBN 0140187081; Paperback $24.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Emotionally and psychologically scarred by the premature death of his doting mother, Camilla, and the privations he subsequently endures in a torrid New England upbringing, Wyatt Gwyon as a young man defies his father and abandons the seminary to pursue a career as a forger of Early Renaissance paintings. Darling of the shallow and pretentious bohemian set of Greenwich Village, fêted by evil impresario Recktall Brown and his procurer Basil Valentine, and held in thrall at the still center of a dizzying spiral of outlandish and often almost Cervantine coincidences and masquerades, Wyatt eventually extricates himself from his patrons, lovers, and acolytes and leaves the soulless charades of post-war New York to return home. From there, he embarks to Europe in a quest for artistic and spiritual expiation, with most of the rest of the novel’s considerable cast in tow.
Though neglected for many years, this monumental, eclectic, and intertextually dense masterpiece is now regarded as one of the foundation stones upon which American literary postmodernism is built. With its unrelentingly mordant ironies and overt reflexiveness, The Recognitions presages both “black humour fiction” and the “self-conscious novel.” More than this, the very difficulty and abstruseness of the text, the myriad allusions and symbolism as well as the refusal to identify speakers or explicate and contextualise dialogue and plot details, ensure that the experience of reading the novel is often as maddening an ordeal as the trials which are endured by many of its characters as they too seek in vain to claim or recapture some artistic essence, the ever-elusive materia prima. Inserting himself into the novel (and his subsequent works) in various guises, both Gaddis and his reader are caught firmly within its satiric purview; acerbic, contemptuous, angry, one of the author’s primary recognitions is that his own “original” text, no matter how widely received, will reach only “a very small audience”.



Penguin, 1993, ISBN 0140187073; Paperback $20.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Eleven-year-old J R Vansant is an unkempt and barely-literate sixth-grader who builds a multi-million dollar business empire through mail order coupons and debenture schemes which he manages via the pay-phone at his local school. Inspired by a class field trip to buy shares from a Wall Street stockbroker, an excursion orchestrated by his teacher, Amy Joubert, to demonstrate to her charges “what America’s all about,” and co-opting the assistance of mild-mannered Edward Bast, an aspiring composer and part-time music tutor at the school, en route, J R manages to fumble and finagle his way to the very pinnacle of the corporate world. Unnoticed by his other teachers, who are busy supervising rehearsals at the local synagogue for a student performance of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, or else are too caught up in romantic imbroglios and career frustrations of their own to care, the rise and fall of the “J R Family of Companies” exposes incompetence, avarice and moral bankruptcy at every turn.
In style, J R retains the frenetic allusiveness and self-deprecatingly ironic mood of The Recognitions, but the text is even more uncompromising in its repudiation of conventional fictional modes. Composed almost exclusively as unmediated dialogue, wherein incessant interruptions and the doltish obstinacy of the characters mean that their conversations invariably proceed at cross purposes, the novel bombards the reader at every pass with its outright refusal to conform to any expectation of what a literary narrative should be. The farcical plot, intricate in its design even so, recalls one to the fable of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” in exposing the capitalist hegemony as an unmitigatedly corrupt and pathetic sham cloaked by language itself – communication – which is revealed and exemplified simultaneously as the most corrupted and pathetic sham of all. Like Milo Minderbinder in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 and Wagner’s dwarf Alberich, the neglected waif-turned-business mogul J R is a personification of corrupted innocence, of the capitalist ethic run amok, an iconic representation of the routinization of greed in Western industrial society.
J R received the 1976 National Book Award.

Carpenter's Gothic


Penguin, 1999, ISBN 0141182229; Paperback $13.95. [Browse/Purchase]

Heiress Liz Booth is trapped inside an unfulfilling marriage and the few furnished rooms of a dilapidated “carpenter gothic” house in a swank but out-of-the-way New York suburb. Meek, self-deluded, and agoraphobic, she spends her days fielding barely-comprehensible messages and trying to placate the three men in her life: her husband, Paul, a Vietnam veteran and wannabe entrepreneur; her younger brother Billy, impressionable and shiftless; and McCandless, a geologist and writer who once sold out to the CIA, and the owner of the house she and Paul are renting. The more Liz tries to intervene and make sense of all the confusion and deceit which plagues their travails, revolving around a crusading Christian televangelist named the Reverend Elton Ude, a geological survey, mining lease and political upheaval in East Africa, and looming Armageddon, the more the shady dealings and destinies of the men she cares for become irredeemably entangled.
The most accessible, if darkest, of all of Gaddis’ novels, the events, characters and themes in Carpenter’s Gothic are contemporaneous with those of J R and A Frolic of His Own. Bleak and unrelenting in its satiric exposé of the ways in which “meanness” or “stupidity” – or both – provide the motivation for human beliefs and social interactions, the novel’s narrative structure, echoed in both Liz’s fantasy life and the architectural design of the house itself, is a textual jigsaw or mélange, self-consciously so, of “conceits, borrowings, deceptions” drawn from literature, newspapers, television and other sources.

A Frolic of His Own


Scribner, 1995, ISBN 0684800527; Paperback $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Oscar Crease, yet another of Gaddis’s fictional alter egos, is a former community college history teacher and failed playwright who lives alone and ostracized amongst the clutter and gradual collapse of the family mansion on Long Island. Incapacitated in a bizarre mishap with his car and only just released from hospital, he is tended to by his step-sister, Christina, brother-in-law Harry, and Lily, his much younger mistress. Despite their solicitations and advice Oscar embarks on a spree of outrageous litigations, eventually suing himself for injuries sustained in the accident while also lodging a claim and injunction against a major Hollywood movie director for plagiarizing from his unproduced Civil War melodrama. Meanwhile, Oscar’s father, a Federal judge and eminent nonagenarian, is presiding over a series of increasingly ridiculous court cases in the Deep South concerning an enormous steel sculpture, a dead dog, a drowned boy, and Judge Crease’s attempts “to rescue the language,” all of which erupts into a national cause célèbre and steals Oscar’s limelight yet again.
Incorporating several long excerpts from the script of Gaddis’ own unpublished play “Once at Antietam,” along with wickedly-accurate travesties of legal judgments and depositions and his trademark dialogue, allusiveness, and sense of the absurd, justice is a travesty in this scathing indictment of the culture of litigiousness, the third and final instalment in Gaddis’ satire of modern-day America.
A Frolic of His Own received the National Book Award for 1995.

Agapé Agape


Viking, 2002, ISBN 0670031313; Paperback $23.95. [Browse/Purchase]

A bedridden and dying writer meditates on the significance of his life and his life’s work as he tries vainly to draw together his thoughts and papers into some ultimate coherency. Composed as a dramatic monologue, many of the themes and concerns from Gaddis’s major works are reprised in this posthumously-published novella.
You may read a full review of Agapé Agape here on this site.


The Rush for Second Place


Penguin, 2002, ISBN 0142002380; Paperback $14.00. [Browse/Purchase]

A collection of Gaddis’s published and unpublished non-fiction, The Rush for Second Place includes corporate writings, essays, reviews, speeches, tributes, an autobiographical fragment, and notes and assorted supplementary material for a projected history of the player piano that Gaddis worked on intermittently for almost half a century, but which never came to fruition. By turns laconic, rancorous, erudite and self-effacing, the volume is worth the price of admission for the brief reprise of the character J R alone. As a 23 year old “Deputy Assistant in the overall policy area” in the White House in “J R Up to Date” (1987), the eponymous protagonist of Gaddis’s second novel has been subpœanaed before a Congressional hearing to explain and defend Reaganomics. Incorrigible as ever, he boasts: “I mean this last five years of this here Administration this economy has degenerated like 13.5 million new jobs, so… ”

–Rob Jackson
23 April 2004

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