Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Recognitions

Okay! William Gaddis! This is a book that I had started some years ago, got two hundred pages into, wimped out. I'm glad to have the chance to revisit it. The impression I had of it back in the day was "sort of mean, but funny." That may well be accurate, but it's a little bit difficult to really get a lock on what the exact viewpoint is. I've regained that two hundred pages, is where I am now.

The first section, featuring the Reverend Gwyon--the putative hero's father--and his son's upbringing is pretty enthralling, it must be said. The Reverend (who never gets a first name) is a likable character, who ends up confusing his congregation by alluding to non-christian/pagan themes in his sermons and the connections between the two. The theme of forgery/imitation is well-established right from the start.

In the second section, Wyatt is living in France, and the vehemence of Gaddis's dislike of French culture is almost comical. For being artificial, mainly. Expatriate Americans buying into it being the only thing he might hate more. Actually, this strongly reminds one of Balzac's depictions of the glittering corruptions of Paris; the difference is that Balzac shows you the excitement, the giddy rush, the thrill of it all, as well as the bad parts; Gaddis does not. Although he's frequently funny, I would have to say that Gaddis's view of the world is actually rather humorless, or humorous only in a very bitter way.

I don't know about Gaddis and women: I can't quite tell if HE is displaying misogynistic tendencies, or whether it's just the characters. The fact is that the only notable female characters to date--Wyatt's Aunt May and his wife Esther--seem to mainly exist to thwart the soaring ambitions of the men around them. But you know, I'm not even completely confident in that assertion. Wyatt is actually kind of a dick to Esther, and I can't decide whether or not Gaddis means him to be dickish. If he doesn't, I think he has problems, since his main character--the guy who seems to be supposed to represent authenticity in an increasingly fake culture--kinda makes you root for the fakery.

I think all this makes it sound like I'm more down on the book than I actually am; it IS often funny: the character of Otto--the guy who's writing a play that consists of a mary sue character spouting overheard semi-profundities--is perhaps a bit broadly drawn, but still wonderfully entertaining. Also, Gaddis does have an ear for dialogue. For the time being, I am withholding judgment.

Esme is an interesting character, maybe. Entirely artless, she effortlessly sees through Otto's attempts at self-romaticiziation. I'm not sure but that Gaddis' heroes and villains might be a bit too exaggerated in their heroism and villainy, however. I still like Otto, even though Gaddis shows him behaving increasingly assholishly by the minute. What can I say? I think the problem with Wyatt's relationship to Esther is that, even if Wyatt isn't trying to be a dick, you cannot function in some sort of exalted, artistically pure way and pretend that other people, whatever their flaws, either don't exist or don't matter. We haven't seen Esther lately, so it's possible that more will come of all this, but I'm having a hard time forgiving Wyatt at the moment.

You can definitely see the postmodern in here: long scenes of fragments of unrelated conversations, characters who barely appear in one scene becoming the viewpoint character in the next, and of course the apparent idea that art is done--I'm not sure if this is what Gaddis is going for or not, but it seems as though all one can do is riff--parodically or not--on previous high culture, rather than coming up with anything new. Of course, Gaddis also has choice words to say about originality.

Sometimes I'm not sure about this book, but then I get to a chapter like this one, at about the halfway mark, where Wyatt, having had some sort of nervous breakdown, returns to his childhood home with the aim of following his father's religious calling, and all these people--his grandfather, the maidservant, these women from some charitable society, even his father to an extent--all mistake him for various religious figures. Very impressionistic; very striking. On the one hand it strongly recalls Faulkner--half-mad remnants of a decaying ancestral estate hanging on like ghosts--but it's also very postmodern: All of this confusion precipitates in Wyatt a crisis of identity where he keeps asking "don't you know who I am?" We see in this--as well as in the fact that his name is rarely if ever used after the novel's initial section--a kind of fragmentation of identity that inevitably brings to mind Slothrop hisself.

Otto meets with a man who he thinks is his father he's never known, but who is actually a counterfeiter who mistakes him for the guy he's meant to deliver his latest batch of fake cash to. Hijinx ensue! Very funny hijinx, as a matter of fact.

I'm starting to get into the swing of things! And I'm not two thirds of the way through yet! It comes together to a large extent once you more or less figure out the characters, which is not all that easy because of the way they come and go in profusion and confusion. There is absolutely no doubt that an immediate reread would be enjoyable and profitable, but there's not really time for that, is there?

Stanley and Anselm are both identifiably Dostoevskian characters, the former being a kind of holy fool; the latter, a tumultuous, angry soul tortured by cynicism, disbelief, frequently expressed in blasphemous terms, but who nonetheless, although he'd never admit it, badly wants to believe. It's quite fascinating how this novel traverses so many different novelistic styles and modes. Don't look now, but I think I may be in love.

So as not to sign off without a little complaining, though, I have to say: the introduction, by William Gass, is totally fucking self-satisfied and insufferable. Yes yes, all those fools who do not appreciate the awesomeness of this novel--aren't they irredeemably stupid? Aren't we initiates just ever so much better than them? The Tunnel is on The List a little way down the line, and this makes me feel even more trepidation about that. We shall see.

Long scene at Esther's Christmas party. Seventy pages of mostly dialogue--bunches of different conversations going on at once, complete with random snippets from unidentified characters. I won't say this section wasn't a little difficult to read, but as I've mentioned before, Gaddis does dialogue very well, even if characters occasionally lapse a bit more into speechifying than realistic. Not on a Dostoevskian level, though. Thankfully. Anyway. All very postmodern.

I'm reading the older Penguin Twentieth Century Classics edition, which is 956 pages; however, the current edition is twenty pages longer, so I'm going to use their page count so as to sound more impressive. But why would you fuck up citations everywhere by messing with the pagination? Seriously. Not cool.

Anyway, things started to explode today, as we find ourselves at a party Recktall Brown is holding where he drunkenly squeezes into a suit of armor and topples down the stairs to his death. Wyatt and Valentine are the last people to leave; Valentine makes what I consider an on-the-mark criticism of Wyatt's work: that while he, Wyatt, thinks of his paintings as containing elements of the divine, the fact that he insists on filling in details everywhere; that he can't stand leaving space indicates that he's actually insecure about this alleged numinous quality and doubts the presence of God at all. Wyatt stabs him three times and leaves him for dead. I don't think he's actually dead though. The only good thing to come out of all this is that Brown's slightly insane black servant, Fuller, is emancipated.

Things really are falling apart: the Reverend Gwyon devotes himself wholly to Mithraism, and is consigned to an insane asylum, where he is apparently--I say "apparently" because it's a very elliptical scene--is crucified by his insane roommate, a Mr. Farisy (ho ho!). A sad end for a good character. His successor has to write a funeral oraison for him, and then we get a pretty funny passage:

It was in this inert position, with no change in his expression at all (as a matter of fact he had finished the cigar and was picking his nose) that "Dick" was inspired to take his text from I Corinthians, "the foolishness of God..." what was it? "Hath not God made foolish the wisdom of this world?" He got up mumbling--"Unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness..." looking for the familiar gold-lettered black spine,--"But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise..." His blank look gradually focused as his lips, pursuing "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men..." slowed and went dead. There, on the marble table, lay one of seventeen and a half million copies of the latest issue of the Reader's Digest, in which he became so engrossed, that he took it to bed with him.

Doesn't that just perfectly tell you who the guy is?

Otto actually breaks his arm in an actual Central American revolution, where previously he had been just pretending. Does this mean that he will have no choice but to start behaving as an authentic person?

Fuck me. Taking an enforced week-long leave of absence isn't exactly good for one's rhythm. Well anyway. Today we have Frank Sinisterra, disguised as a Romanian named "Mr. Yák," and Wyatt, given the guise of a Swiss named "Stephan," in Spain. They're both consistently referred to by their pseudonyms, emphasizing their fractured identities. "Mr. Yák" acts for a while as a father figure to "Stephan," which is especially meaningful inasmuch as he was responsibly for "Stephan"'s mother's death waaaaay back at the beginning of the novel (as the fake ship's doctor). Also, the Reverend Gwyon's original name for Wyatt was Stephen, before Aunt May stepped in. Whatever that may signify.

"Stephan" is theoretically searching for his mother's remains in this chapter, but he seems to spend most of his time sleeping with prostitutes (love vs counterfeit, obviously). I think now that my previous moral condemnations of Wyatt are actually rather beside the point, but he remains a cypher, aside from apparently being rather crazy. Earlier, in a little meta-comment on the novel, Valentine proclaimed that he could write a novel about him, Brown, and Wyatt, but Wyatt wouldn't work well because the idea with a novel is to be able to receive privileged psychological information about a character, but Wyatt is just a blank. I go back and forth on the question of whether or not, at least as far as THIS novel is concerned, he had a valid point.

Okay: all I have left is the epilogue. Fifty-odd pages. So I AM going to finish it tomorrow, right? Right? No more bullshit? Okay. Anyway, Wyatt's story seems to be over; he has achieved some sort of inner peace, apparently, although it's not totally clear to me how or why. I've been reading some essays by Steven Moore which detail the trajectory of the novel, and the religious symbolism that fuels much of it, so I'm pretty sure Gaddis knows what he's doing. I'm not sure that's enough, but it's late, so I'll say more tomorrow.

Okay done. All nine hundred seventy-six pages. Now I belong to an exclusive club, although not as exclusive as the one of people who have UNDERSTOOD every one of those pages. Actually, I think Steven Moore might be the only member of that one. And his membership is still probationary. But still--not bad!

The epilogue takes place partly in France, leading to more of Gaddis's bizarre fulminating about how France fucking sucks and he hates it hates it HATES IT OH GOD HE HATES IT SO MUCH. Any valid point he might have been trying to make is obscured by what I can only presume are very large, unresolved, irrational ISSUES he has with the country. It's really strange: even if it's sometimes tedious, the novel is clearly very carefully constructed for the most part. And yet...

That aside, the epilogue is pretty effective in terms of dealing with the fates and paths of the characters. Aside from poor Esther, who gets nada. Gaddis definitely does not do female characters with a great deal of nuance, and it is unfortunate. Still, said epilogue is kind of beside the point. Wyatt's been taken care of. And as I said, I really don't know. I feel like the human side of the novel is sometimes obscured by Gaddis's intricate, symbolic plans. I reckon that's a charge that many people would lay at the feet of post-modern fiction in general; I would argue with that in some cases, but not so much here. Let us not overstate things, however: there's a lot to like about this novel, and the constant religious imagery, while hard to deal with at times, definitely creates a distinct atmosphere. The link between modern and postmodern is also vital and useful to think about.

I've probably said too many mean things about the book to be in the good graces of scary cultists like Gass and the dude who wrote the book about how much all Recognitions-reviewers suck and should be fired, but who cares what they think?

Next: TBA


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