Sunday, February 06, 2011

William Gaddis, J R (1975)

Is it a good idea to pick up a dense, seven-hundred-twenty-six-page novel with absolutely NO section breaks of any description when you also have a lot of academic stuff that you have to do? The evidence suggests that the answer is no. I mean, I was able to get through Omensetter's Luck, Warlock, and Neveryóna, all of which are at least moderately dense books, without a great deal of difficulty, but, well--I just recently finished J R, which I started, embarrassingly enough, eight months ago. That's full disclosure for you. I would understand were you to disregard my thoughts on the book, and I'm pretty sure that if I wanted to write something really perceptive on the subject, I'd want to reread it, this time in a more disciplined, concentrated fashion. But the idea of doing that any time soon kinda makes me break out in a cold sweat, so for now, this is all you get.

In broad terms, the book is a satire in which an eleven-year-old boy--the title character--manages to parlay various free offers and the like into a big ol' financial empire. There are of course dozens of other characters, the most important being Gaddis's hero, Edward Bast, composer and former music teacher who is reluctantly dragged along in J R's schemes; and Jack Gibbs (I can't stop wanting to say Robert Gibbs, a quite inapropos connection), physics teacher, writer manqué, and general cynic. They and other characters do their best to make their way in a world that seems designed to thwart any kind of transcendent ambition or desire.

Thematically, the novel is very similar to The Recognitions--almost identical, really, except with more finance: everything of real value is being pushed aside, marginalized, and destroyed by a relentlessly superficial, status-mad society that can't even begin to distinguish between the true and the false. This is made explicit by a scene late in the novel in which Bast and J R are walking home as a rainstorm approaches, the latter's financial empire crumbing around him; Bast--having, after being more or less hapless for most of the novel, finally snapped--forces J R to listen to a Bach cantata on a cheap tape player and tell him what he hears; this, naturally, is completely baffling to the latter: what am I supposed to be hearing? Just tell me what you want (a feeling all-too-familiar to teachers everywhere), prompting an angry rant from Bast to the effect that he can't understand beauty and that his entire enterprise represents a concentrated effort to destroy everything good in the world. It's certainly blunt--too blunt, some might suggest--but as a crystallization of the book's themes, it worked for me.

A brief word on J R himself: he isn't actually that prominent as a character in the narrative; like a lot of books I seem to be reading lately, what he represents and his effect on other characters is of greatest importance. But he's well-drawn, and actually quite believable: his business dealings quickly become corrupt without much resistance on his part, but he isn't trying to be evil or anything (and in the early parts of the novel, his relentless enthusiasm is actually kind of endearing); he just does what the system lets him do, and who could possibly blame him, given that the unfettered capitalistic instinct is infecting every aspect of life? This is what we want our children to be, whether we're consciously aware of it or not. A frightful thought.

So yeah, about the narrative style: as you probably know if you know anything at all about the novel, it consists primarily of unattributed dialogue, with the odd bit of impressionistic stage direction. This pretty clearly represents the unrelenting onrush of late capitalism and American life in general. It's actually not all that hard to follow, if you're paying attention, though the reader is quite clearly never meant to fully understand all the ins and outs of the financial wheelings and dealings constantly in progress and presented in fragmentary form, often as one side of a telephone call.

Does this work? Well, yes, on its own terms, I think it works pretty much exactly as Gaddis wanted it to. Which is not an unmitigated good thing, from the perspective of the poor beleaguered reader. In spite of the continuous narrative, there are still individual scenes, and occasionally you'll come across one of these that is, well, pretty astonishingly good: the J R's class on a field trip to the New York stock exchange; a romantic interlude between Gibbs and Amy Joubert, another teacher; the initial scene in an apartment crammed with all the junk J R's been ordering with Bast and the underage lover of a writer who's recently committed suicide (actually, any scene with Rhoda, really--a great character). It's shit like this that makes the book feel like it's worth reading.

However--I'm not gonna lie to you, people--there are also endless scenes of financial back-and-forth involving an endless array of interchangeable business types, and yeah it illustrates capitalism's depredations, the transmogrification of education into a business, the collusion of business with government corruption, the commodification of art, all this stuff, yes, and I agree that this is all very bad, and capitalism indeed sucks, but holy shit is this ever boring in places. I mean, not quite To the Lighthouse boring, but definitely getting up there. Literature doesn't have to be constantly, balls-to-the-wall entertaining to have value, but J R really puts that belief to the test sometimes.

Also, there is borderline (or possibly more than borderline) misogyny. This does not come as a surprise, as a questionable attitude towards women also marred The Recognitions in places.

The other thing about the all-dialogue format: on the one hand, yeah, it's impressively done, although you should definitely laugh in the face of anyone who tells you that it has a greater level of verisimilitude than realist writing: it's no less stylized than any Victorian novel. Just as people don't talk consistently in fluid, well-crafted sentences, they don't talk consistently in choppy, disconnected fragments, either. Not that that's a problem. I'm just sayin'. No, the problem, if problem it be, is that this method of writing means that you sure as hell won't find any passages like this description of New York in The Recognitions:

It is a naked city. Faith is not pampered, nor hope encouraged; there is no place to lay one's exhaustion: but instead pinnacles skewer it undisguised against vacancy. At this hour it was delivered over to those who inherit it between the spasms of its life, those who live underground and come out, the ones who do not come out and the ones who do not carry keys, the ones who look with interest at small objects on the ground, the ones who look without interest, the ones who do not know the hour for the darkness, the ones who look for illuminated clocks with apprehension, the ones who look at passing shoe-tops with dread, the ones who look at passing faces from waist level, the ones who look in separate directions, the ones who look from whitened eyeballs, the ones who wear one eyeglass blacked, the ones who are tattooed, the ones who walk like windmills, the ones who spread disease, the ones who receive extreme unction with salted peanuts on their breath.

It's hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment when faced with a writer who can write like that but chooses not to.

If you read it, the introduction by some dude whose name I forget and my copy of the book is way over there is definitely perceptive and worth checking out. Its only real flaw is that it does the same thing that William H Gass does in his introduction to The Recognitions; that is, it mentions that the book has received a lot of criticism, and then immediately dismisses all criticism as either ignorant or self-interested. Dudes: I don't doubt that there has been some unfair criticism of Gaddis, but let's not be jackasses about it. Nobody is beyond critique (not even Carl Barks).

I recommend this book to somewhat masochistic anti-capitalists everywhere. It has some great characters and some great scenes and I am very much in sympathy with the book's "message," even if it felt in parts like it was repeatedly punching me in the face.


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