Just like I did with John Fowles, when I started reading the last unread novel by him, I'm going to do the same with one of my favourite authors of all time, William Gaddis. I have for sure mentioned the man a bunch of times on this blog, in relation to favourite novels, best dialogue, and literary criticism.
I have gotten sick of reading English literature right now. I'm halfway through D. H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, and about 100 pages into Byatt's The Whistling Woman, and I can't stand either of them right now. I tried starting Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea (because it's a Booker Prize) but I just couldn't stomach the sheer Englishness of it. It's just a phase, I assure you. My tastes are consistently mercurial, as paradoxical as it seems. This being said, I wanted to read something American, direct, and opposite to Englishness. What better author than William Gaddis? The last novel to read by him is the National Book Award-winning classic J R? Since I'm just at the beginning of this massive tome, let's take a look at his previous works.
A 900 page monster of high-end literature about painting, forgery, and the commodification of art, a theme which is so intrinsic to Gaddis' works and life that to discuss him without that concept is to miss the point entirely. From the first two difficult chapters to the 150 page long cocktail party scene to the counterfeit 20 dollar bill that changes hands all throughout the entire novel to the constant never-ending allusions, this is a masterwork of American fiction. Gaddis isn't afraid of puns or jokes in his works, either; there's characters named Agnes Day and Recktall Brown. This is also an extremely difficult, but rewarding novel. It also confirms Gaddis' status as the master of dialogue, bar none.
The shorter work, published after J R, this is a novel of a smaller cast, but still deep themes. It is concerned with a married couple in a rented house, and the bizarre man that comes to visit them, with schemes and ideas. This book is funny, and still made up entirely of dialogue, but it's more interesting as a work in context of the whole oeuvre. The litigiousness of J R, and this novel all plant the seeds for Gaddis' next book.
A Frolic His Own
Easily the funniest of all of the books I've read by Gaddis, this novel is about the law, justice and how much people sue each other over nothing. The plot is complication, but Gaddis' skill at mise en scene via dialogue is unmatched. This is a perfect novel, I would say. I was always excited to read it, and it's certainly worthy of further critical analysis. Very deserving of its National Book Award win.
The other published material by Gaddis include a collection of essays, A Rush For Second Place, which further articulates Gaddis' pet themes, and finally Agapē Agape, a novella written in the style of a monologue about the player piano, an invention that Gaddis was obsessed with.
The player piano for Gaddis represented everything that was wrong with art. It's a perfect example of taking the artist out of the art, allowing art to remain static and never changing. Gaddis absolutely loathed the idea of the commodification of art, the subjugation of art by anything other than art for art's sake. It's a primary theme for Gaddis, and almost a sourcepoint for any analysis or interpretation of his work.
All of Gaddis' work present similar features: realistic dialogue, puns, jokes, allusions, density, and a never-failing appreciation of art. His novels wallow in it, from paintings to music to other works of literature, Gaddis was always the first to applaud a real work of art.
I'm excited to read J R, which has often been considered his best, or his most difficult work, depending on who is asked. My revived interest in Ellis and Gaddis has also revived my interest in other great American postmodernists, like Pynchon and Delillo. I am going to try Gravity's Rainbow after this, and I'm going to give White Noise a try as well.
Check back here for my review of J R!