“The Unswerving Punctuality of Chance” (And Other Citations from William Gaddis’s Novel JR)

Books, Literature, Writers

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In JR, the sprawling novel of capitalism and art by William Gaddis, Jack Gibbs loads his pockets with crumpled newspaper clippings, racing forms, and citations for a book he’s working on. “More trash,” he mutters about this list (which appears on page 486 of my Penguin Twentieth Century Classics Edition).

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8 thoughts on ““The Unswerving Punctuality of Chance” (And Other Citations from William Gaddis’s Novel JR)

  1. Interesting. Reading those quotations, I was all of a sudden reminded of David Markson. I haven’t read “JR” (so don’t know how characteristic of the book the above page is), but I have read “The Recognitions”, and don’t remember coming across anything like this. I wonder whether Markson – an avowed Gaddis fan – had a moment of afflatus when reading this page, which would eventually lead to the creation of his most vital works. Both were obviously very erudite writers; but Gaddis’ erudition (at least in “The Recognitions”) seems more traditional in its deployment. When I first read Markson’s later novels, his more fragmentary, entropic brand of erudition seemed to be utterly singular, and – so I thought – to have been created ex nihilo. Is this a missing link?

    1. The page is not necessarily characteristic of JR, but it definitely gels with JR’s aesthetic, or mode, if that makes sense. The book is basically a jumble of voices, buzz, and noise. Gaddis’s characters have to compete with the clatter and clutter of radio, advertising, the dull language of business, the trite commonplaces that litter discussion . . . Gibbs’s list is one of the few moments of overt citation to other works, which I think Markson is working toward more explicitly (at least in Wittgenstein’s Mistress and the bits of The Last Novel that I’ve read).

      Entropy, though, is a *major* theme of JR (Gibbs suggest that all is entropy early in the novel), so there is definitely that correlation. I mean, obviously Gaddis was a *huge* influence on Markson, who repeatedly puts Gaddis and The Recognitions in W’s Mistress, which is basically a novel about canon-making.

  2. I just had the opportunity to re-read this for book club, and I just see more inside it every time. The willingness of Gaddis to leap willy nilly between voices and streams here, and Markson’s later style of jumbled-notecards-as-novel could be seen as a much more disciplined version of the Beat asthetic. I mean, they were both working contemporaries of that style, although maybe imagine for a moment Billys Gaddis and Burroughs having coffee in an automat somewhere?

  3. Thanks for the replies. I agree with most of what you said. I distinguish, though, between entropy as mere “theme”, and the enactment of it through the particular kind of fragmentary erudition deployed by Markson. The reason Gibbs’ list really piqued my interest is because it seems to be distinct from the white noise and dialogue of the rest of the novel (even the typeset distinguishes it). But for Markson, this kind of fragmentary warp and weft of quotes and artistic erudition became a means by which to build entire novels. (I’m thinking less in terms of “Wittgenstein’s Mistress”, and more of the four novels that followed it.) Gaddis seems to me to be more of a conjurer; however much intellectual detritus (or indeed any kind of detritus) may encroach upon his writing, it still seems to be subservient to the narrative. But with Markson, it seems that this detritus becomes the whole deal–a means of ousting the conjuring voice, of nullifying it. And when I read the above page, it’s just like I’m reading Markson. Given what we know about the two men, it seems too much to be a coincidence.

    Out of curiosity, how does “JR” rank against “The Recognitions”?

    1. Kind of backwards:

      I don’t know how JR ranks against The Recognitions, because halfway through its second third, The Recognitions wore out my patience . . . although I was younger and more impatient when I read it. I can’t think of another book to deliver such a promising opening chapter and then not follow up; or, rather, to follow up by showing/saying the same idea again and again. But JR suggests that I need to go back to The Recognitions, and I will go do that later this year.

      I dunno. I really like the book—JR, that is. It’s funny, sad, smart, moving—reminds me of Joyce or DF Wallace, I suppose. Very mean, also. Bitter? I don’t know.

      I don’t know much of Markson beyond W’s Mist., but, yeah, it seems more synthesis than invention, I suppose, at least compared to Gaddis (or McCarthy or Joyce or Pynchon, or whomever, although it’s all just synthesis I suppose).

      I haven’t finished JR yet, but it seems like the list is, despite its “artistic erudition,” still so much white noise — “More trash,” as Gibbs remarks — and although I doubt Gaddis (or any seasoned reader) would regard the phrases as trash, they still add up to just more of the paper (and noise) that floats through JR. Gibbs doesn’t seem to be able to *do* anything with them, just shove them into his ratty pockets along with racing forms and subway tickets. There’s no filter; or if Jack Gibbs is the filter he’s clogged or broken or inept or whatever.

      There are a number of passages in the novel (as well as phrases) in different typesets and fonts; even doodles—but like you say, it stands out, and I suppose that it could have been an inroad or inspiration or more fodder toward an organizing principle for Markson.

    2. Hey, Owen—been reading Gaddis’s last book Agape Agape—it’s total Markson territory (or maybe the other way around…). Anyway, tried to find you at your blog but it seems to have disappeared. Email me if you get this response.

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