His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.
If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.
From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:
Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?
Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.
Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.
Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.
Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.
Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.
Harlin: Anyone else?
Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.
“Mothers” by William Gaddis
When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”
This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.
How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”
(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).
Novels That Will Be Considered the Most Important Literary Works of the Twentieth Century in the Year 2100
Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
Malone Dies, Samuel Beckett
Molloy, Samuel Beckett
The Unnamable, Samuel Beckett
The Lime Works, Thomas Bernhard
Nostromo, Joseph Conrad
JR, William Gaddis
The Recognitions, William Gaddis
Ulysses, James Joyce
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien
The Inquisitory, Robert Pinget
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon
Mulligan Stew, Gilbert Sorrentino
Speculative list from the Dalkey Archive (from an issue of their journal Context; compiled from responses of “advisors at universities and bookstores”). I’m sure the fact that they publish several of these titles has nothing to do with these books’ inclusion. I’ve read all of seven of these, some of five of these, and none of three of these.
From Matthew Erickson’s article “Mysterious Skin: The Realia of William Gaddis” at The Paris Review. From the article:
What the researcher, or even the dilettante, might want to know is how an author’s material surroundings and posthumous personal effects might distill and leak into their work. Most often, the realia from a literary archive are the typical objects that we would associate with the physical act of writing, such as it is: fountain pens, stationery, reading glasses, ashtrays. Essentially, these objects are to dead authors what the items in Hard Rock Cafe display cases are to dead rock stars: memorabilia. Hendrix’s famous acid-soaked headband or Faulkner’s famous tin of beloved pipe tobacco, take your pick. This fact makes an author’s nonwriterly objects stand out and seem more significant, more imbued with potential coded meaning. Indeed, zebras and their skins do make appearances within Gaddis’s fiction, so the poor beast in the special collections isn’t entirely irrelevant when considering his corpus. A rolled-up zebra skin appears midway through Carpenter’s Gothic (“He’d kicked aside a cobwebbed roll of canvas, the black on white, or was it white on black roll of a hide …”), sporadically emerging from the silent background and into the incessant stream of dialog that makes up the majority of the text. In JR, the downtrodden composer Edward Bast is commissioned to write a score of “zebra music” for a documentary being made by the big-game hunter and stockbroker Crawley, in a lobbying effort to convince Congress to introduce various African species, zebras included, into the U.S. National Parks system…
In William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape (2002), our embittered narrator excoriates the Pulitzer Prize:
. . . write what they want you’ll end up with a Pulitzer Prize follow you right to the grave. Maybe won the Medal of honor the George Cross even the Nobel but once you’ve been stigmatized with the ultimate seal of mediocrity your obit will read Pulitzer Prize Novelist Dies at whatever because they’re not advertising the winner no. No, like this whole plague of prizes wherever you look, it’s the prize givers promoting themselves, trying to rescue their thoroughly discredited profession of journalism. “The press is a school that serves to turn men into brutes,” Flaubert writes to George Sand “because it relieves them from thinking.” The prize winners? They’re just props, cartoonists, sports writers, political pundits, front page photos the bloodier the better for that instant of fame wrap the fish in tomorrow, good God how many Pulitzer Prizes are there? Over fifteen hundred entries, fourteen categories for journalists because if you started your bondage there you’re halfway home with that whole gang of sponsors, trustees, juries, God knows what who’ve survived that Slough of Despond and floated to the top. Just look at the next day’s New York Times, page after page bulging with self-congratulation with seven more categories to leech on, music, what they call drama and of course books where the Grey Lady finally got it both ways with their journalist who reviews books, like the misty-eyed ingenue but also destroys women writers and just for fairness crosses the gender line for an occasional assassination, give that lady a Pulitzer with oak leaf clusters! The books that are candidates are read by a jury whose decisions are passed up to the Olympian trustees with an eye to the multitude. We are thousands and they are millions, write the fiction they want or don’t write at all, ruling out Pound’s cry for the new, the challenging or what’s labeled difficult, so when Gravity’s Rainbow is being devoured by college youth everywhere and wins the National Book Award, its unanimous recommendation is overturned by the trustees for a double-talk spoof of academic vagaries by a bogus “Professor,” to everyone’s relief, and the author at peril escapes unblemished by the, no, no, no you can’t depend on it.
(This is the cover to one of William Gaddis’s corporate writings; the image comes from the collection The Rush for Second Place).
There are only a handful of forthcoming titles that I know about right now that I’m looking forward to reading next year: story collections from Sam Lipsyte (The Fun Parts) and George Saunders (Tenth of December), and a new novel from William Gass called Middle C. I’m also hoping Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn and Child will finally get a US release, because I’d like to read it too.
There are a few newish books that I didn’t read in 2012 that I’ll try to catch up to this year—Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango, and Laurent Binet’s HHhH.
I do not currently possess any of these books.
I also look forward to reading Evan Lavender-Smith’s From Old Notebooks, back in print again from Dzanc (who I am sure will get the copy I ordered to me any day now).
At the top of my list though are the books I’m currently reading: Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.
Stuff I’ve been saying I’ll read for a few years now that I hope to get to:
Cortazar’s Hopscotch, John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing, Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke, and, at the top of the heap, Georges Perec’s Life A User’s Manual.
I have a few books by Thomas Bernhard that I’ll probably get into this year (when I feel called to a misanthropic monologue), and I’ll gobble up anything else by Barry Hannah that I can get my mitts on. I read William Gaddis’s “big books” last year, but I still haven’t read A Frolic of His Own, which I’ve heard is superior to Carpenter’s Gothic.
I’ll reread Moby-Dick this year (or at least listen to William Hootkins’s brilliant audio version) and I’ll probably end up rereading some book that I hadn’t planned to at all (this happened with 2666 and The Savage Detectives this year—who knows? I haven’t read Gravity’s Rainbow since college, and I haven’t reread Infinite Jest in full, and I’d love to go through Suttree again . . . ).
I dipped my toe into Finnegans Wake this year—I’ve found reading it on the Kindle late at night and then going through Joseph Campbell’s Skeleton Key the next morning is rewarding—and I’ll probably keep at it in 2013. Maybe I’ll make it to chapter 3.
But enough of my rambling—What books do you, dear reader, look forward to in 2013?
I didn’t really read that many new books—by which I mean books published in 2012—this year.
The highlight of the new books I did read was Chris Ware’s Building Stories, the moving story of the lives of several people (and a bee!) who live in the titular building (and other places. And other buildings. Look, it’s difficult to describe). Building Stories is a strange loop, a collection of 14+ elements (the big box it comes in is part of the puzzle) that allows the reader to reconstruct the narratives in different layers.
I also really dug the second installment of Charles Burns’s trilogy, The Hive; Burns and Ware are two of the most talented American writers working right now, suggesting that some of the most exciting stuff happening in American literature is happening in comic books.
Speaking of second installments in ongoing trilogies, I also listened to Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, which I liked, and read Lars Iyer’s Dogma and liked it as well—sort of like Beavis & Butthead Do America by way of Samuel Beckett.
I read Dogma at the beach the same week I read Michel Houellebecq’s The Map & The Territory, an uneven but engaging novel about art; the novel eventuually shifts into a strange murder procedural before exploring a fascinating vision of what a post-consumer future might look like. I dig Houellebecq and look forward to whatever he’ll spring on us next.
Another strange book I liked very much was Phi by Giulio Tononi, an exploration of consciousness written as a kind of Dante’s Inferno of the brain. A beautiful and perhaps overlooked book of 2012.
Indie presses in general tend to get overlooked—not in the sense that their books don’t have a community of readers, but in that their books don’t always reach the wider audience they deserve. I liked new books this year by Matt Bell (Cataclysm Baby), Matt Mullins (Three Ways of the Saw), and Jared Yates Sexton (An End to All Things). These books are all very different in style and content, but all marked by precise, unpretentious writing. Good stuff.
Like I said though, I didn’t read that many books published in 2012—even when I intended to. Like George Szirtes’s English translation of László Krasznahorkai’s novel Satantango, for instance. I was right in the middle of something when I got my review copy, and by the time I started it the hype surrounding it was almost unbearable—the sort of palate-clouding noise (to mix and misuse metaphors) that deafens a fair reading. (To be clear: I blame myself. I could easily refrain from Twitter and quit following lit news online). By the time Hari Kunzru documented the hype in a mean-spirited (but hilarious) article forThe Guardian, I knew I’d have to set Satantango aside for a bit. It’s worth noting here that Hari Kunzru’s own novel Gods without Men had been lingering in my to read stack for some time at that point, but his Satantango article managed to get it shelved. Still, I’m interested in reading it—maybe sometime late next year.
There were plenty of top listed writers who put out books this year that I probably would’ve been excited to read six or seven years ago or at least feel obligated to read and write about two or three years ago. But by 2012 I just don’t care anymore. At the risk of sounding overly dismissive (not my intention), I just can’t make time for another middling Michael Chabon novel, or another bloated tome from Zadie Smith, or another empty exercise in style from Junot Diaz, or another whatever from Dave Eggers.
Most of the great new stuff I read in 2012 was really just playing catch up to 2011—I loved Teju Cole’s Open City, found Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes to be an amusing diversion, and declared Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams a perfect novella. I also read Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, and used it, along with Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot as a kind of springboard to discuss lit criticism (which everyone in my particular echo chamber wanted to spar about this year) and what I want from books these days.
Two books I pretty much hated: Joshua Cody’s clever but empty memoir [sic] and Alain de Botton’s facile self-help book Religion for Atheists.
On the whole though, most of what I read in 2012 was fantastic and most of what I read in 2012 was published before 2012.
The major highlight of the year was finally reading William Gaddis’s novels The Recognitions and J R. I also read Gaddis’s posthumous novella AgapēAgape, an erudite rant that purposefully echoes the work of Thomas Bernhard, another cult writer I finally got to in 2012. His novels Correction and The Loser challenged me, made me laugh, and occasionally disturbed me.
And while I’m on Bernhard, perhaps I should squeeze in the collection I read by one of his predecessors, Robert Walser, and the poetry collection (After Nature) I read by one of his followers, W.G. Sebald. Both were excellent. And while I’m squeezing stuff in—or perhaps showing how writers lead me to read other writers—I’ll admit that I hadn’t read Thomas Browne’s Urn Burial (referenced heavily in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn) until this year.
Another book that I finally got to this year that blew me away was John Williams’s lucid and sad novel Stoner. Reading Stoner, produced one of those can’t-believe-I-haven’t-read-it-before moments, which I experienced again even more intensely with Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, a surreal comic masterpiece which may be the best book I read in 2012. I also finally read—and was blown away by—Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (why had I not read it yet? Maybe I read it before. Not sure. In any case, if I did read it before it’s clear to me that I didn’t really read it). I took another shot at Marcel Proust but it didn’t take. Again.
Clarice Lispector received some much-deserved attention from the English-speaking world this year when New Directions released four new translations of her work. I found her novella The Hour of the Star sad, funny, and captivating. Also on the novellas-by-South-Americans: I’m working my ways through Alvaro Mutis’s Maqroll novellas and they are fantastic.
I also finally got to David Markson’s so-called “note card novels,” devouring them in a quick stretch. I reviewed the last one, The Last Novel.Markson’s novels are often called “experimental,” a term I kind of hate, but perhaps serves as easy tag for many of the novels I enjoyed best this year, including Ben Marcus’s The Age of Wire and String and Barry Hannah’s hilarious tragedy Hey Jack!
Hey, did you know David Foster Wallace wrote an essay on David Markson? The previous sentence is an extremely weak attempt to transition to Both Flesh and Not, a spotty collection from the late great writer; it showcases some brilliant moments along with undercooked material and a few throwaways probably better left uncollected. I fretted about the book on Election Night.
The posthumous book mill also kept pumping out stuff from Roberto Bolaño, including an unfinished novel called The Woes of the True Policeman that seems like a practice sketch for 2666 (I haven’t read Woes and don’t feel particularly compelled to). I did read and enjoy The Secret of Evil, a book that might not be exactly essential but nevertheless contains some pieces that further expand (and darken and complicate) the Bolañoverse. Going back to that Bolañoverse was a highlight of the year for me—rereading 2666proved to be tremendously rewarding, yielding all kinds of new grotesque insights. I also reread The Savage Detectives, and while it’s hardly my favorite by RB, I got more out of it this time.
I also revisited The Hobbit this year and somehow decided it’s a picaresque novel. Definitely a picaresque: Blood Meridian, which I reread as well. In fact, I’ve reread it at least once a year since the first time I read it, and it gets funnier and richer and more devastating with each turn. I also reread Herman Melville’s “Bartleby” and tried to make sense out of it. I will reread Moby-Dick next year, although it’s not “Bartleby” that sparked the desire—chalk it up to Charles Olson’s amazing study Call Me Ishmael.
Olson’s study reminds me to bring up some of the nonfiction I enjoyed this year: Stephen Bronner’s Modernism at the Barricades, Robert Hughes’s Goya biography, the parts of William T. Vollmann’s Imperial that I read, Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids,and big chunks of William Gass’s collection Finding a Form.
Perhaps the most significant change in my reading habits this year was embracing an e-reader. I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas last year and wound up reading from it—a lot. About half the books I read this year I read on the Kindle. I also read lots of comics on it with my daughter, including all of Jeff Smith’s Bone, much of Tintin, and all of Carl Barks’s Donald Duck stuff. (I also read several hard to find volumes from Moebius via the Kindle).
And while I love my Kindle and it’s become my go-to for night reading (it’s lightweight and self-illuminating), I can’t see it replacing physical books. To return to where I started: Chris Ware’s Building Stories, an innovative, sprawling delight simply would not be reproducible in electronic form. Ware’s book (if it is a book (which it is)) reminds us that the aesthetics of reading—of the actual physical process of reading—can be tremendously rewarding as a tactile, messy, sprawling experience.
Perhaps because I’ve freed myself from the anxiety of trying to write on this blog about everything that I read, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to write traditional reviews on this blog, and perhaps because I’ve freed myself from trying to cover contemporary literary fiction on this blog—perhaps because of all of this, I’ve enjoyed reading more this year than I can remember ever having enjoyed it before.
1. Let’s start with the what:
Agapē Agape is the last novel by William Gaddis, that underread titan who gave us The Recognitions and J R. Agapē Agape was published in 2002, four years after Gaddis’s death. Agapē Agape is 96 pages in my Penguin Classics edition (the font is rather large, too)—almost exactly one-tenth the length of The Recognitions in my Penguin Classics edition, which is 956 pages (and in a smaller font).
2. And why?
Let’s say I’ve struggled with this review, perhaps more than I struggled with writing about J R (which I did here and here) or The Recognitions (which I did here and here), which seems nonsensical because those books are so big and this one is so short. But that’s a surface argument.
See, Agapē Agape is dense. It seems to compact and condense all of Gaddis’s themes and ideas and motifs into this little book that’s uranium heavy, too dense to allow for line breaks or paragraph breaks or indentations, let alone chapters. It’s one big block of text.
3. And so—
After reading the book twice I’ve marked every page (which is exactly like marking no pages), and at this point the only way that I can find to discuss it (I know there must be others) is to annotate the opening paragraph, its first sentence, really—which of course isn’t really a paragraph or a sentence in the traditional grammatical sense—I mean, there are a set of clauses, some fused sentences, perhaps a comma splice or two—but what marks it as a discrete sentence is that it’s punctuated by a question mark, a tiny caesura before the next onslaught of words. (Some of Agapē Agape’s sentences go on for pages).
4. The style of Agapē Agape recalls Thomas Bernhard, who Gaddis’s narrator accuses of having plagiarized the book that the narrator has yet to write. The accusation (ironic, purposefully, of course) points to Agapē Agape’s concern for synthesis, for transmitting some clear thesis statement out of the muddle of Western culture. Agapē Agape tries to suss out that muddle and as such is larded with discussions of Plato, Nietzsche, Melville, Hawthorne, Byron, Freud (“Sigi”!), Bach, Caesar, Joyce, Pulitzer, Tolstoy, Frankenstein, Huizinga, Pound, Philo T. Farnsworth, player-pianos . . . It overwhelms the narrator; it overwhelms the reader. But enough dithering—
5. —here is the opening sentence:
No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece, houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about, that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?
6. “No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I,”
Ulysses ends with a “Yes”; Agapē Agape begins with a “No.” This is a deeply negative book, cruel almost, bitter, caustic, acidic, but also erudite, funny, and even charming. We see right away the narrator—surely a version of Gaddis himself—concerned with the ancient problem of communication, the problem that occupied Plato and every philosopher since: “I’ve got to explain all this.” We also see here the same stream-of-consciousness technique here that Joyce used so frequently in Ulysses (putting aside Gaddis’s denials of a Joyce influence)—the suspended referent, the unnamed (the unnameable?): “I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I”—while I what? Still can? Still live? From the outset, Agapē Agape is a contest against time, death, and entropy.
7. “why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized”
Synthesis, synthesis, synthesis. Making books out of other books. Plugging literature into other literature. I am quite content to go down to posterity as a scissors-and-paste man, said someone once. And then others said it again. And then I cited it here, now.
I’m reminded here of a list that Gibbs (erstwhile Gaddis stand-in in J R) keeps in his pocket, a scrap paper crammed with ideas, fragments, citations:
Is it possible to get it sorted?
Recall now Gaddis’s hero Ezra Pound. From Tom McCarthy’s essay on synthesis, “Transmission and the Individual Remix”:
With the Cantos, he kept up this furious enterprise for five whole decades, ramping its intensity up and up until the overload destroyed him, blew his mind to pieces, leaving him to murmur, right toward the end: “I cannot make it cohere.”
It is the reader’s job to make Agapē Agape cohere.
8. “when I get this property divided up and the business and worries that go with it”
Agapē Agape may be said to have a few formalizing plots beyond its object of synthesizing Western culture vis-à-vis art and entertainment.
One of these formalizing elements is the idea of an old man divvying up his property to his daughters. Oh, hey, King Lear anyone? What’s most interesting to me about this plot (okay, more of a motif really) is that it’s the only allusive device that the narrator doesn’t remark upon. We have a narrator who’s trying to control all these notes and clippings, all these scraps of culture, a narrator with a sharp (if distracted intelligence) who nevertheless fails to remark upon the fact that his personal circumstances echo the great dismal swan song of English literature. King Lear: madness, unraveling, degeneracy, death, entropy.
9. “while they keep me here to be cut up and scraped and stapled and cut up again my damn leg look at it, layered with staples like that old suit of Japanese armour in the dining hall feel like I’m being dismantled piece by piece,”
Another formalizing element in Agapē Agape are the health issues the narrator faces, presumably a series of surgeries that involve at least one of his legs. The motif of surgeries, of transplants, and implants runs throughout The Recognitions and J R as well. In The Recognitions we get poor Stanley’s mother’s amputated leg, another strange reliquary trace floating through the text. In J R, we get Cates prepped for a heart transplant, yet another organ transferral for this massive man. There’s the idea here of borrowed parts, that humans might not be “natural,” cohesive entities but rather a collection of parts that may be swapped out. Again, synthesis in the face of break down; the surgeon as entropy repairman.
10. “houses, cottages, stables orchards and all the damn decisions and distractions I’ve got the papers land surveys deeds and all of it right in this heap somewhere, get it cleared up and settled before everything collapses and it’s all swallowed up by lawyers and taxes like everything else because that’s what it’s about,”
Here, the personal, the concrete, the immediate, and the real tips into what Gaddis took to be the grand subject of his corpus—collapse, chaos, entropy. Spelled out clearly in the next line:
11. “that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight,”
I don’t think commentary from me is necessary here. Instead, let me share a quote from Gibbs in J R, ranting to his young students:
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
12. “entertainment and technology and every four year old with a computer, everybody his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?”
The age of the amateur. Paint-by-numbers. Everyone wants to write a novel but no one wants to read one. Etc. When the narrator grumbles “where technology came from in the first place,” he means entertainment. That’s one thesis in Agapē Agape: that the technological progress we so value, that so underwrites the march of our grand civilization has its roots in toymaking and child’s play.
13. The novel that follows this addled, rattled opening line is remarkable for its brilliance, its cruelty, but most of all its sheer verbal force. Gaddis showed a mastery of voice in J R, a heteroglossic novel of speech, speech, speech, a grand dare to any reader, I suppose. Agapē Agape is even more stripped down, the monologue of a dying voice, a voice that’s been too-long ignored and under-appreciated. I don’t know if something so sad, so personally sad can be called perfect, but I can’t think of a more appropriate or fitting final statement from Gaddis.