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Temporary Note

William Gaddis
William Gaddis
By Tim Conley

William Gaddis

It is too sad to be rightly called irony. On December 16, 1998, the day on which a libidinal American President, counting the hours before his impeachment, launched yet another series of bomb attacks on an Iraqi population already unconscionably squeezed and starved, America’s most proficient satirist died. William Gaddis was the author of four very complex novels (he completed an as-yet-unpublished fifth book, a non-fictional study of the player piano, called Agape Agape, before he passed away) and an artist inclined to avoid the trappings of celebrity. Gaddis was born in New York December 29, 1922. He went on to Harvard, but was asked to leave the college in his senior year (the circumstances of the situation are mysterious, and await the unfortunate biographer). He worked for The New Yorker for a spell in the 1950s, and absorbed experiences at the bohemian parties and happenings, to be later used as material in The Recognitions. Travel provided further resources of experience in Mexico, in Costa Rica, in Spain and Africa and, perhaps strangest to imagine of him, he was employed for a few years in public relations for a pharmaceutical corporation.
The number of printed interviews with Gaddis can be counted on one hand: he wondered why anyone should expect an author to be at all interesting, after having very likely (or ideally) projected the best of themselves in their work. He has been frequently compared with Joyce, Nabokov, and especially Pynchon, and in terms of talent this must be so. Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions (1955) is a 956-page saga of forgery, pretension, and desires misguided and inexpressible. Critical response to the book ranged from cool to hostile, but in most cases (as Jack Green took pains to show in his book of rebuke, Fire the Bastards!) reviewers were ill-prepared to deal with the challenge, and evidently many who began to read The Recognitions did not finish. The novel’s sometimes great leaps in time and location and the breadth and arcane pedigree of allusions are, it turns out, fairly mild complications for the reader when compared with what would become the writer’s trademark: the unrestrained confusion of detached and fragmentary dialogue. Consider the following excerpt from very early on in Gaddis’s second book, JR (1975; winner of the National Book Award), only 726 pages long:

It’s worked so far but it can’t work forever, sooner or later somebody will show up who reads Greek. Then where are we?
Up the creek, Miss Flesch obliged with a promptness that lost her some coffee down her chin, like the smut mail.
There’s an issue. The smut mail rise.
My boy sent off for a ball glove and what he got back in the mail was. . . .
Mouthpiece puller, sleigh bells, strobotuner, choir risers, tympanies, marching bell and stand, two thousand five hundred and... what’s all that for?
Breakage. Here, replacing glass, repairing doors, painting, refinishing and so forth, thirty-three thousand two eighty-five. Thirty-three thousand dollars for breakage, isn’t that what we’re really talking about? Plain unvarnished vandalism? And another fourteen thousand plus item down here, repairs and replacement, chairs, desks, project tables, pianos, same thing isn’t it? Breakage. . . ?

And this is only a sound byte of the logorrhea. The chaos of the unceasing deluge of talk of JR (very much part of the continuing spills, mistakes and general “breakage” which may be recognized as the plot) drove critics to declare the text “unreadable” – like the school’s “Greek” motto (–Oh, can you read it? one character asks another, who is seen copying it down. – Not exactly read it, said his companion). Reading Gaddis is by no means easy, but, as I think the above sample suggests, it is rewardingly hysterical. I don’t know of any more lacerating and artfully sustained attack on capitalism than JR, and The Recognitions makes one so terrifyingly uncertain about the “unique” or “authentic” nature of experience and art that upon finishing it one cannot be sure one read a novel, as either term may be suspect.
In 1985 Carpenter’s Gothic was published. Cynthia Ozick called this book, Gaddis’s shortest (a manageable 262 pages) and ostensibly the most restrained in scope, “an unholy landmark of a novel.” Set entirely in a rented house and buzzing with the usual chatter, lost voices, and half-heard telephone conversations, Carpenter’s Gothic is probably the most intimate of the author’s books though, it needs to be added, perversely so, given the gradual revelations of corruption and insanity in even the most personal exchanges and at the same time the most grimly apocalyptic.
And then there is the bureaucratic and legal farce of A Frolic of His Own (1994, and the occasion of a second National Book Award): where JR begins with the question “Money...?”, Gaddis’s fourth novel (509 pages, for those still counting) initially asks for “Justice? You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” In planning the book, Gaddis admitted in a letter to a friend that originally it was to contain an effective representation of every lawsuit in America, with a plot as a more or less incidental result. The struggle to wrest language back from the distortions inflicted by professionals, particularly lawyers (one character observes that “every profession is a conspiracy against the public” in its truth-concealing cloak of jargon), is fought out in the same arena as the various other dramatized debates about intellectual property and the social functions of art.
Like the best satirists, Gaddis wrote (by his own admission) from a sense of indignation. His novels’ world, for all its sound and fury (as a character in JR accuses: “Noise, you’ll hide in noise any chance you get”), cannot conceal or altogether stifle the short cries of hope. The corruptions of art, thought, and language are part of the dreadful pomp and carnival heralding stupidity and greed as not only respectable values but cause for injustice. “We’re comic,” the character Benny admits in The Recognitions. “We’re all comics. We live in a comic time. And the worse it gets the more comic we are.” To recognize how very funny Gaddis is thus entails a further, less palatable acknowledgement about ourselves. What is most distressing about the death of William Gaddis is the general lack of notice of it and, more importantly, of his work: America has, for the most part, again managed to neglect one of its major artists. Herman Melville, in the winding path of whose encyclopaedic efforts and investigations of iniquity Gaddis’s writings walk, endured critical ignorance, scorn, and indifference when and after he produced Moby Dick. If people will read thoughtfully in the next century, William Gaddis and only perhaps we ourselves will be redeemed with wiser laughter.

–Tim Conley
22 February 1999

More on William Gaddis


Gaddis Works – Summaries and commentary for Gaddis’ novels, along with publishing and ordering information.

Review of Agapé AgapeRob Jackson offers a comprehensive and insightful review of Gaddis’ posthumously published final novel.


Recognizing Recognition
By Garrett Rowlan.
In this essay, Garrett Rowlan speculates on the nature of Gaddis’ idea of recognition, and what it implies for Wyatt’s art.

Gaddis: Toward the Dramatic
By Garrett Rowlan.
Using James Joyce as a guide,
Garrett Rowlan traces the path of Gaddis’ career from the lyric through the epic to the dramatic.


The Gaddis Annotations page is 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.

You may also wish to visit the resourceful William Gaddis Page, which is associated with the above annotations project.

The New York State Writers Institute also has a small Gaddis Page.

You can download an streaming media inteview with Gaddis from the Roland Collection of Films & Videos on Art.

The Gaddis List is an Internet Mailing List that discusses the works of William Gaddis. This page has instructions on how to join.

Gaddis Interview – A rare interview with Gaddis, originally appearing in the Review of Contemporary Fiction.

The Gaddis Niche is a homepage for the Madison band Gaddis, who state “We love Gaddis’ books for their language, texture, subtlety and humor. We sound like a Gaddis book reads.”

Recognizing a Masterpiece: William Gaddis’s Reinterpretation of Flemish Art – Ted Morrissey’s paper examines classic art via The Recognitions.


Google Search – This will search news groups related to Gaddis.

Yahoo News Search – Searched Yahoo for artcles and news related to Gaddis.

Northern Light – This will search Northern Light for online articles and sites about Gaddis and his work.

The Internet Public Library Online Literary Criticism Collection – This page has some links to Gaddis Literary criticism available on the Web.

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