ISBN 0670031313; Hardcover $23.95
Review by Rob Jackson
Recalling one to the image of the ouroboros which graces the title page of The Recognitions, William Gaddis final fiction is both the culmination of and an introduction to his lifes work. Released posthumously alongside another volume comprising Gaddis published non-fiction and selections from his notebooks (entitled, after one of the published pieces in the collection, The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings, Penguin 2002), Agapé Agape is, to all intents and purposes, the final and visible product of a lifelong ambition of the authors, an ambition which exactly matches that of one of his characters, Jack Gibbs, in J R. When asked whether the book he is writing also titled Agapé Agape, also ultimately unfinished is a novel, Gibbs replies
Not a, no no its more of a book about order and disorder more of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element....
And it is precisely this work that the solitary character unnamed, bedridden in Gaddis own Agapé Agape is so desperate to complete. The desperation is all in vain, of course, which is in keeping with the trajectory of Gibbs pretensions and achievements in the earlier novel too (and those of other of Gaddis later fictional alteregos, such as the composer Edward Bast in J R, or writers like McCandless and Oscar Crease from Carpenters Gothic and A Frolic of His Own respectively). Further confirming the apparent near alignment of the author and his protagonist in this text is the fact that the drugs which the man in the bed is taking, and the physical symptoms of decline he is experiencing, were Gaddis also in the final months of his life. So, one might legitimately be tempted to ask, is this last offering literally a work of fiction or non-fiction? How autobiographical is the resounding admission of failure which seems to lie at its heart?
Indeed, the first thing that strikes the reader is how slight the book is: at barely 96 pages, printed in a larger-than-usual font, with liberal margins and well-spaced text, it sits at the very opposite extreme, in terms of both heft and substance, to Gaddis imposing first tome in particular, but to the works in the later trilogy as well. In fact, weighing in as it does at around 22,000 words it can hardly be called a novella, let alone a novel! After decades of critical anticipation of the work-in-progress all this, naturally, is something of a disappointment.
On closer inspection, however, the published text is neither a fragment of nor distillation from the social history of mechanization and the arts which both Gibbs and the man in the bed are aspiring to write. At least, it is not so in any conventional way, and it is not so in the way that each character has envisaged the project. While there are hints of the format and the detail of the proposed work, its contours and minutiae, at the train of logic and breadth of reference which will comprise its pages, Agapé Agape also monumentalises the impossibility of that work ever being completed by William Gaddis, at least as Gibbs scrawled notes and mottoes, simulated, complete with erasures, in the narrative, had done likewise in the earlier novel. In this respect the text stands as a parody of the aspiration rather than any abortive consummation thereof, and herein, I believe, resides a key to the characteristic reflexive irony which operates within Gaddis entire uvre. Within the texts themselves, this work will only ever exist as a fiction. And yet, even so, it is within the fiction that such a work does in fact exist.
Just as, of all of Gaddis doppelgängers, it is Jack Gibbs (or Gibbs own quasi-reincarnations in McCandless from Carpenters Gothic, Oscar from A Frolic of His Own), rather than Wyatt Gwyon or Edward Bast or Liz Booth, with whom the dying man has the most in common, it is the 1976 National Book Award-winning J R from which this sliver of narrative might have been plucked. In it there is the perfect pitch and toss of the human voice witnessed in that earlier masterpiece, with its clangorous cacophony and frenetic interruptedness, as if the reader had accidentally tuned in on some American Babel where conversation and discourse, and meaning itself, are always and ineluctably being transmitted at cross-purposes, ludicrously awry.
That said, however, the narration in Agapé Agape is framed as internal monologue, more in the manner of Joycean stream-of-consciousness than the disjunctive heteroglossia which infests every page of J R and much of Gaddis other novels as well. Still the disarrayed stream of prose spills by like some crazy cantata, by turns agitato, by turns appassionata, as the man in the bed rails against his physical and intellectual deterioration, his human frailty, and tries to regather and recompose his thoughts, his papers, his lifes achievement, but it is thus a psychological polyphony rather than a sociocultural one which Gaddis is here conducting. The man in the bed addresses his detachable self, talks to his own belly, to the Other. He is talking, perhaps voicelessly, to himself.
Oddly enough, it is the theatricality of the piece, almost Beckettian at times in its rhythms and recursions, its intensity, that is most striking and satisfying, and the potential for a stage adaptation or short film is great. It is noteworthy that the first airing of the work a part of the work, at least in translation on German radio in 1999 (just a few months after Gaddis passing), was as a dramatic monologue.
More troubling than these reservations relating to scale and mode, there is also a real sense of incompleteness about the novel the allusions to King Lear, for example, dont seem to get very far at all (except, perhaps, for the gruff and grizzled character actor who eventually decides to make the rôle his own). And, due perhaps to its abbreviated form, the text does at times read like one of those end-of-season clip shows from a television sit-com or cartoon series where highlight scenes from earlier episodes have been patched together on some trivial or gratuitous plot premise. The familiar themes and phrases from Gaddis previous novels are reprised: entropy; plagiarism, imitation, and the loss of authenticity, and the corresponding decline in status of both art and the artist in society; the threefold blight of the dollar sign, democracy and the market economy (what Americas all about...); the antecedence and ascendancy of mass culture and craven populism; the moral lesson of Platos Crito, and that overwhelming vision of total insanity which is the Book of Revelation; American slavery and American racism; and various iterations of the unswerving punctuality of chance, love as the ultimate fiction, the self who could do more, and the like. But where, in and across the other works, the intermittent repetition of these catchcries serves to haunt the uvre and bring the problematic contract or relationship between author, text and reader into sudden, stark focus, in Agapé Agape the effect, all in all, is somewhat more pedestrian.
While it is perhaps unfair to measure the achievement or success of this volume against Gaddis other novels, in places Gaddis seems consciously to invoke such comparisons, and to be inviting the reader to reflect on, or take up (again, or for the first time), one or other of the major works. And it is perhaps germane to point out, as his foremost critic Steven Moore has on a number of occasions, the shallowness in general of many of the allusions which litter Gaddis texts. Mention of writers and works, glancing references to episodes from the history of ideas, and to passages from literature, philosophy or an authors correspondence, are as likely to have been lifted from a dictionary of quotations, reference book, or newspaper article or review as from the primary source itself. Gaddis fiction has never been the ostentatious display of intellectual elitism, nor the putative defence of that sort of sensibility, which some commentators have taken it for. More often than not such pomposity is pilloried mercilessly in the novels alongside other, similar affectations, as styles or manifestations of pretentiousness, ignorance and prejudice.
Indeed, what is often overlooked, and what marks the author as one of the avatars of American literary postmodernism, is the compositional bricolage of Gaddis texts, their ardent eclecticism, where elements found objects might be the appropriate phrase in the vernacular of modern art taken up from across the gamut of high and low culture, and from a veritable myriad of eras and societies, are spliced together with nary a hint of irony or disdain directed towards the cultural context of the original. In Agapé Agape, for example, advertising copy finds a place alongside philosophical aphorisms, Walter Benjamin next to Glenn Gould, a book on The Physics of Baseball beside the works of Plato and Aristotle. Between snatches of Shakespeare and foreign language poetry or quotes taken from Nineteenth Century novels and artists there are fragments from John Kennedy Toole's comic novel A Confederacy of Dunces as well as brief travesties of hymns and gangsta rap lyrics, and excerpts from newspaper clippings and sales brochures. And, of course, passages lifted verbatim from Gaddis notes on the genesis and development of the player piano. While Gaddis own predilections for, say, the novels of Thomas Bernhard or Tolstoys Kreutzer Sonata are on display, certainly, and his disdain for particular artistic and ideological manifestations is also evident, rather than setting up a canonical hierarchy of artists or modes of expression he is concerned to address the various channels via which such hierarchies have been constituted and maintained, the vagaries of popular opinion and aesthetic credibility, and the manner in which taste and notions of cultural preeminence are manipulated within the public arena. To emphasise this point, there is as close an affinity between Gaddis and the rapper Eminem Marshall Mathers in terms of both the subtle and ironic layering of authorial personæ and the ways in which narration, invective and opinion are articulated within their respective texts, as there is with any other contemporary artist or writer, and it is interesting to conjecture about whether or not Gaddis would have been willing to acknowledge and accept such a comparison were he to have been made aware of it. Indeed, Gaddis final critical tribute, to the eclectic, multi-media works of the controversial and highly-successful contemporary artist and filmmaker Julian Schnabel (saluted by the author as a lasting and a loyal friend), is surely a sincere one.
Alongside this patchwork aspect of Gaddis literary method there is also a distinctive ironic mood which pervades the texts, a constant tension or fibrillation between lucubration and burlesque, between earnestness and self-parody, and which becomes manifested through language and narrative orientation as much as it does in the convolutions and absurdities of plot. When, in J R, Jack Gibbs is asked if the book hes writing is difficult, he boasts, Difficult as I can make it. Of course, the greater difficulty for Gibbs has proven to be in the making of it, and his purportively portentous and uncompromising aesthetic stance, and the sarcasm-laced rants against popular culture which he so often launches into, are revealed as little more than compensatory bravado for his own artistic frustration. Further, in respect of the self-conscious identification between this character and his author, just as Gibbs credibility is soon deflated within the text there is something acutely double-edged in the way that his remark reverberates with the raison dêtre of Gaddis own work, in J R particularly but within a broader frame of reference also. And, this is certainly the case with Agapé Agape.
More than the physical maladies which plague him, what Gaddis geriatric protagonist is suffering from is a type of monomania; it is a neurotic obsession with this work which will never be which bedevils him and harries his every waking, and semi-waking, moment. Further, it is not simply the fact of his imminent death which has provoked this final, feverish flurry, his burgeoning despair, it is the infinite expanse of the recognition itself the paralysing intimation that everything is connected, as that other heavyweight of American postmodern fiction, Thomas Pynchon, phrases it in Gravitys Rainbow and which will prevent him from ever being able to get it all down.
But what is also disclosed within the pages of this slender philippic or pseudo-philippic, as it were above and beyond the social and cultural ills perceived by the fictional protagonist and which, by turns incensed and coolly rational, he rails against and attempts to put into perspective, are deeper and more personal doubts, not only about the problematic notion of originality, as plumbed in The Recognitions, but about what will come of the authors own literary achievement, both in terms of its interpretation and its legacy. For Gaddis himself it is not the works composition which is most at issue this is never the bottom line, for the work is always complete, completed, an artefact, irretrievably out of his hands it is what happens between the reader and the page, how the work will be received, and read, and misread, by future generations. And so it is the spectre of Nietzsche which haunts the final movement of Agapé Agape, the tragedy not just of the great modern philosophers final years of madness, confinement and humiliation, but of what came after his death, the bowdlerisation of his lifes work by his sister, its posthumous complicity in the triumph of Richard Wagners operatic bombast (which Nietzsche indeed had once embraced and glorified but then just as strenuously and urgently denounced) and the Aryan mythography spawned therefrom, the eventual triumph of the composers anti-Semitism, his racism and nationalism, orchestrating the blackest period in German history.
The man in the bed dares to fear that he and his work likewise will be and have been turned into a cartoon, that Pulitzer prizegivers and newspaper obituary-writers, as well as, one might infer, book reviewers, literary critics and disloyal heirs (the references to Lear perhaps serving as a cautionary message, personal and private, the facility of Shakespeares plays moral lesson and the obvious inapplicability of the situation to Gaddis family context promoting a sense of protective detachment rather than merely being an insubstantial or incompletely-rendered allusion), will appropriate his words and his lifes example and recast these to self-serving ends, and such reservations are certainly not without foundation or precedent in Gaddis case. But before proceeding too far down this path of unequivocally ascribing the characters apparent outrage and perceptions of injury and injustice, actual and potential, to the author himself, it is pertinent to recall also that Gaddis had already immortalised himself in a cartoon (used as the cover art for The Rush for Second Place), just as he had once (not) envisaged a photoportrait of himself on the back sleeve of his own novel, sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie, in the final pages of The Recognitions.
It is in this way that textual self-consciousness in Gaddis works, or the consciousness-of-self apparent within the texts, rebounds, in a sort of infinite regress, on the authors own situation, and implicitly, on his métier. The ironies, always, impinge upon Gaddis personal context in a reflexive way, and in this there is a distance as well as a closeness which has been enacted between the author and his protagonist, and with each of his protagonists, for invariably the characters themselves are far less self-critical, less prone to self-caricature, than the author himself has been in their creation. The man in the beds lament that Ive been wrong about everything in my life its all been fraud and fiction is heartfelt enough, as are Wyatt Gwyons self-doubts and psychological flagellations in The Recognitions, but Gaddis, in the very act of writing them down, can both share in and step outside of these misgivings at the same time. Similarly, in Carpenters Gothic McCandless is gradually forced to confront not only the dire consequences of his having sold out to thoroughly disreputable corporate and political interests, and the personal and global tragedies which will be wrought as a result, but the fact that this reprehensible course of action was one that he had not taken innocently or inadvertently, and this can be set beside Gaddis long-term career writing advertising copy for multinational corporations, but the comparison has been consciously exaggerated to an absurd degree, blown out of all proportion, just as, one hopes, the example of Nietzsche and Nazism for the protagonist of Agapé Agape will be.
Thus, within the trope of self-consciousness reflexivity which Gaddis employs, the pathos is soi-disant, is always tinged with an ironic knowingness. The predicaments and emotional crises which Gaddis authorial alter-egos face have obviously been (and perhaps still were) acutely personal and deeply-felt for the man himself, but at the same time there is something which is patently ridiculous about the obsessions and obsessiveness of these characters. In Agapé Agape the protagonists intimation that his angst is like some maiden aunts Torschlusspanik at being left unmarried on the shelf discloses thankfully bathos rather than true self-pity on the part of the author. This note of self-deprecation, of not taking himself too seriously, is healthy for the novels as works of art, and there is always and essentially a refreshing sense of humour about Gaddis fiction, about the way in which he perceives and positions himself in and through the narratives, and which contributes to an overall tonal register in the texts which is much more andante allegro in its articulation than it is funereal, maudlin or truly maledictory.
Get things in order thats half the battle in fact it is the battle, organize whats essential and throw out the rest of it thats the, Phidias? For me an image slumbers in the stone whos that, Nietzsche?
There is more to say about this slender finale, and about Gaddis achievement, his place in the literary pantheon. The Afterword written by Joseph Tabbi is informative and suitably reverent, if a little unfocused, while the materials collected in The Rush for Second Place are perhaps even more revealing about the man himself, demonstrating both a remarkable capacity for understatement and wry subversiveness as well as a somewhat less appealing tendency towards excesses of both hyperbole and harangue. There are speculations biographical, cultural, political to be made about the author looking back on his own era, and on his lifes work, and looking forward to what will come of each of these after his death. Indeed, the man in the beds late remark that my first book, its become my enemy should certainly give serious readers pause to wonder. There is a surprising reference as well to Gaddis American peer, Thomas Pynchon, and the infamous acceptance speech hoax pulled, presumably at Pynchons behest, on the gathered literati by Professor Irwin Corey at the National Book Award presentation for Gravitys Rainbow in 1974. Not quite ambiguous, the passage in Agapé Agape peters out in what could be read as Gaddis own sarcastically satirical appropriation of characteristic Pynchonian ellipsis, and as such might be interpreted as a delayed and somewhat churlish rejoinder to the apparent attempted doff of the cap and perhaps condescending, perhaps unintentionally so note of encouragement to Gaddis in Pynchons Vineland. Whatever, it seems safe to say that neither writer ever quite understood where the other was coming from, which must in the end go down as something of a pity.
At opposite ends, temporally and structurally, of the spectrum of proto-postmodern fiction, Agapé Agape resonates with both Kurt Vonneguts Player Piano and Patrick Whites Memoirs of Many in One, though neither of these two novels is particularly impressive as a literary achievement in its own right. There is an endorsement of the fiction of Thomas Bernhard, whose work Gaddis apparently discovered in the last decade of his life, and a lead to Hugh Kenners 1968 study entitled The Counterfeiters, along with other extant and fictitious works which plough the same turf as the projected social history of mechanization and the arts which underscores the text, and Gaddis entire uvre. But it is perhaps Saul Bellows Herzog (Gaddis admitted to having written his brief review of More Die of Heartbreak for the New York Times Book Review in 1987 as if preparing for a dissertation on Bellows work) which the conceit of Gaddis swansong most nearly resembles, as the man in the bed, by turns seemingly energised or addled by the drugs he is taking, looses a manic torrent of reflections on and rejoinders to the words, ideas and life experiences of long-dead artists and philosophers, running the quotations and chain of connections together in a seemingly senile, but often surprising and profound disarray, one which both exemplifies and is part of his struggle to come to grips with the fact of his own mortality, and which is reflected in the increasing disorder and desuetude into which everything his body, his mind, his personal affairs, even the bed and the piles of notes and books surrounding him is descending.
The proximity of Gaddis work to various strands of postmodernist thought and postmodern fiction has been a much-contested arena, often vehemently so. It is, I think, apposite to note at this juncture the homographic pun which has stood as the rubric for this project of Gaddis for many, many years, the double negation in the texts title, juxtaposing agapé, that love feast in the early church, with the silenced agape of ticketholders awed by the current Hollywood action blockbuster. It is a moment of linguistic play not unreminiscent of Wittgenstein, and not unworthy of Jacques Derrida. Further, the frequent references to belly-talking, with its connotations of ventriloquism and duplicity as much as of supernatural possession and prophecy, are likewise etymologically and conceptually double-edged and hint at something like Derridean deconstruction of Platonic dictums in demonstrating how such bipolarities and ambivalences are always already operative within the language of the text.
As in the prior novels, there are many examples in Agapé Agape where, though not consciously working along any continuum or spectrum, Gaddis seems to embrace the characteristically postmodernist fascination with those most common and overlooked features of human discourse, such as verbal punning and linguistic coincidence, plagiary, misprision, and aporia, and to address their respective valencies. A reference to the game of push-pin, for example, provokes a sudden rumination on Pushkin; consideration of George du Mauriers character Trilby (from the 1894 novel) devolves into commentary on the trilby hat. The quote from Nietzsches Also sprach Zarathustra, later famously taken up by Jung, eventually relates back to Michelangelesque nonfinito, the dying slave bound, asleep, those enigmatic sculptures wherein an image slumbers in the stone and to that cry from Michelangelo in the lines of verse which Gaddis himself translates from the Italian, an invocation to the self who could do more and on then to the current texts seeming unfinishedness. The protagonists vacillation between presumption and self-doubt, his documented uncertainty, as first he apostrophises Phidias, greatest of ancient Greek sculptors, and then asks of himself whos that, Nietzsche?, is thus another example of Gaddis self-conscious and self-referring irony, simultaneously entertaining the various possibilities of interpretation and resonance within the multiplication of analogies and connections while clouding the significations, and their significance, in a way that is strongly suggestive of some underlying scepticism, or mock-seriousness, at work.
More telling than any of this, perhaps, is the overt reference to Roland Barthes seminal 1968 essay entitled The Death of the Author which, we assume, the man in the bed has read and reviles:
Every where present and nowhere visible leads him right into the embrace of the death of the author whose intentions have no connection with the meaning of the text which is indeterminate anyway, a multidimensional space where the modern scriptor is born with this, this detachable self this second voice inside predicting the future in its hoarse belly-voice, Strabo? You hear me?...
There is, in the first instance, the dark comedy of the fact that with the writing and publication of Agapé Agape Gaddis is self-consciously memorialising the death of the author, and this irony is operating on several levels simultaneously. The joke, albeit perhaps bitterly so, is, as always, an ambivalent one, and so, I believe, is the erstwhile denunciation, for Gaddis text indeed, all his work is just as Barthes describes. In the post-structuralist manifesto Barthes constructs in the cited essay, the text of the work of art is to be perceived as not a line of words releasing a single theological meaning (the message of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. It is not at all far-fetched to assume that the accumulation of ironies here is deliberate, that the specificity and applicability of the quotation are not accidental. For, this multidimensional space [in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash] is exactly what Gaddis uvre is; it is what he has always recognised it to be, his own house of letters, as described in Carpenters Gothic,
all derivative, ... bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale . . . a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the insides a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale....
In Agapé Agape this metaphor is extended further still, the dying mans skin like tissue paper, his leg layered with staples. Here, his body has become the text, a wreckage, the souls prison. And, just like McCandless in the earlier novel, Gaddis greatest anxiety is that when somebody breaks in steals, perverts, defaces the invention of the artist its like being assaulted.
According to Linda Hutcheon, postmodernist cultural endeavour takes the form of self-conscious, self-contradictory, self-undermining statement. It is in this respect that the postmodern novel ultimately manages to install and reinforce as much as undermine and subvert the conventions and presuppositions it appears to challenge ... [and] juxtaposes and gives equal value to the ... reflexive and the historically-grounded. (The Politics of Postmodernism, 1989). In Carpenters Gothic, McCandless essential recognition is that individual identity is an artificial creation, that even ones own personal existence can only ever be perceived, and that, as such, it is a fabrication itself:
this fictions all your own, because youve spent your entire life at it who you are, and who you were when everything was possible, when you said that everything was still the way it was going to be no matter how badly we twist it around first chance we get and then make up a past to account for it.
Beneath the maelstrom of distracted insight possessing all of Gaddis authorial protagonists personal misgivings such as these throb insistently. Indeed, that lone, handwritten sheet which Amy Joubert discovers amongst Jack Gibbs papers in J R the extent, perhaps, of the magnum opus he aspires to compose contains the following (ungrammatical) sentence fragment: That a work of art has a beginning, middle and end, life is all middle. As Hutcheon notes, such moments of apparent artistic renunciation or self-criticism are always thoroughly saturated in the tone of knowingness which is Gaddis trademark, and a dialectical tension is enacted for the reader as a result. While the contentions are made they are not unequivocally endorsed; undercut, the assertions persist even so.
Those critics and theorists (such as Alan Wilde, Max Apple, Fredric Jameson, Umberto Eco, Richard Rorty and others) who, with Hutcheon, have detected and documented the distinctive way in which irony and its associated literary modes of satire, parody and the like, are articulated as self-conscious and self-referring tropes and forms in postmodern fictions speak most cogently to the tenor and register of Gaddis novels. From even The Recognitions the ironic temper is all-embracing: not only is it the putative subject matter of the fiction, the fictional characters and their trivial pursuits and obsessions, towards which the wry humour is directed, the author himself, and his text, are intentionally arraigned within its purview. There is no safe vantage, no elevation above the morass of human travail and frailty neither for the author nor for the reader and in this sense Gaddis fiction indeed stands alongside those great works of literature and philosophy to which it appeals, as a timely meditation on that admixture of absurdity and dogged perseverance and resilience which might be called the Human Condition.
And so it is that, ultimately, Agapé Agape does arrive in the readers hands as A Novel (as the front cover proclaims) rather than as memoir or apologia. The genre is fiction, not autobiography. Within its pages we do see, beyond the character and his situation, to the man himself, to our society, and to the possibilities in literary art. His legacy is left, like Lears, to the loyal daughter, to daughters in a more abstract sense, to the daughters of music, to the muses the daughters of memory. The notes and thoughts are to a large extent Gaddis own, but for the most part they have already been organised and assimilated into the body of work he has left behind, seeping into and out of every pore of the artistic edifice:
thats what its about, thats what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?
Agapé Agape is, after all, a fiction, but like all of Gaddis works it is also a fiction about writing that fiction, about creating a literary text, and about the possibilities (and impossibilities) of literary creation. And, ultimately too, it is a fiction about the writing of that fiction which is life.
24 March 2003
William Gaddis Page -- The Libyrinths page on William Gaddis. Penned by Tim Conley, it is available at the Scriptorium.
William Gaddis Bookstore -- Gaddis titles through the Libyrinth and Amazon.com.
The Gaddis Annotations -- A wonderful resource for exploring Gaddis works. The site maintains a growing database of annotations to his major works, and involves the Gaddis scholar Steven Moore.
Email Rob Jackson at: email@example.com