I Riff on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel J R (From About Half Way Through)

1. I want to write about William Gaddis’s novel J R, which I am about half way through now.

2. I’ve been listening to the audiobook version, read with operatic aplomb by Nick Sullivan. I’ve also been rereading bits here and there in my trade paperback copy.

3. What is J R about? Money. Capitalism. Art. Education. Desperate people. America.

4. The question posed in #3 is a fair question, but probably not the right question, or at least not the right first question about J R. Instead—What is the form of J RHow is J R?

5. A simple answer is that the novel is almost entirely dialog, usually unattributed (although made clear once one learns the reading rules for J R). These episodes of dialogue are couched in brief, pristine, precise, concrete—yet poetic—descriptions of setting. Otherwise, no exposition. Reminiscent of a movie script, almost.

6. A more complex answer: J R, overstuffed with voices, characters (shadows and doubles), and motifs, is an opera, or a riff on an opera, at least.

7. A few of the motifs in J R: paper, shoes, opera, T.V. equipment, entropy, chaos, novels, failure, frustration, mechanization, noise, hunting, war, music, commercials, trains, eruptions of nonconformity, advertising, the rotten shallowness of modern life . . .

8. Okay, so maybe that list of motifs dipped into themes. It’s certainly incomplete (but my reading of J R is incomplete, so . . .)

9. Well hang on so what’s it about? What happens?—This is a hard question to answer even though there are plenty of concrete answers. A little more riffage then—

10. Our eponymous hero, snot-nosed JR (of the sixth grade) amasses a paper fortune by trading cheap stocks. He does this from a payphone (that he engineers to have installed!) in school.

11. JR’s unwilling agent—his emissary into the adult world—is Edward Bast, a struggling young composer who is fired from his teaching position at JR’s school after going (quite literally) off script during a lesson.

12. Echoes of Bast: Thomas Eigen, struggling writer. Jack Gibbs, struggling writer human. Gibbs, a frustrated, exasperated, alcoholic intellectual is perhaps the soul of the book. (Or at least my favorite character).

13. Characters in J R tend to be frustrated or oblivious. The oblivious characters tend to be rich and powerful; the frustrated tend to be artistic and intellectual.

14. Hence, satire: J R is very, very funny.

15. J R was published over 35 years ago, but its take on Wall Street, greed, the mechanization of education, the marginalization of art in society, and the increasing anti-intellectualism in America is more relevant than ever.

16. So, even when J R is funny, it’s also deeply sad.

17. Occasionally, there’s a histrionic pitch to Gaddis’s dialog: his frustrated people, in their frustrated marriages and frustrated jobs, explode. But J R is an opera, I suppose, and we might come to accept histrionics in an opera.

18. Young JR is a fascinating study, an innocent of sorts who attempts to navigate the ridiculous rules of his society. He is immature; he lacks human experience (he’s only 11, after all), and, like most young children, lacks empathy or foresight. He’s the perfect predatory capitalist.

19. All the love (whether familial or romantic or sexual) in J R (thus far, anyway) is frustrated, blocked, barred, delayed, interrupted . . .

20. I’m particularly fascinated by the scenes in JR’s school, particularly the ones involving Principal Whiteback, who, in addition to his educational duties, is also president of a local bank. Whiteback is a consummate yes man; he babbles out in an unending stammer of doubletalk; he’s a fount of delicious ironic humor. Sadly though, he’s also absolutely real, the kind of educational administrator who thinks a school should be run like a corporation.

21. The middlebrow novelist Jonathan Franzen, who has the unlikely and undeserved reputation of being a literary genius, famously called Gaddis “Mr. Difficult” (in an essay of the same name).

22. Franzen’s essay is interesting and instructive though flawed (he couldn’t make it through the second half of J R). From the essay:

“J R” is written for the active reader. You’re well advised to carry a pencil with which to flag plot points and draw flow charts on the inside back cover. The novel is a welter of dozens of interconnecting scams, deals, seductions, extortions, and betrayals. Between scenes, when the dialogue yields briefly to run-on sentences whose effect is like a blurry handheld video or a speeded-up movie, the images that flash by are of denatured, commercialized landscapes — trees being felled, fields paved over, roads widened — that recall to the modern reader how aesthetically shocking postwar automotive America must have been, how dismaying and portentous the first strip malls, the first five-acre parking lots.

23. Franzen, of course, is not heir to Gaddis. If there is one (and there doesn’t need to be, but still), it’s David Foster Wallace. Reading J R I am constantly reminded of Wallace’s work.

24. But also Joyce. J R is thoroughly Joycean, at least in its formal aspects: that friction between the deteriorated language of commerce and the high aims of art; the sense and sound and rhythms of the street. (Is there a character more frustrated in Western literature than Stephen Dedalus? Surely he finds some heirs in Gibbs, Bast, and Eigen . . .)

25. Gaddis denied (or at least deflected) a Joycean influence. Better to say then that they were both writing the 20th century, only from different ends of said century.

26. And then a question for navel-gazing lit major types, a question of little import, perhaps a meaningless question (certainly a dull one for most decent folks): Is J R late modernism or postmodernism? Late-late modernism?

27. Gaddis shows a touch of the nameyphilia that we see (out of control) in Pynchon: Hence, Miss Flesch, Father Haight, the diCephalis family, Nurse Waddams, Stella Angel, Major Hyde, etc.

28. To return to the plot, or the non-plot, of J R: As I’ve said, I’m only half way through the thing, but I can’t see its shape. That sentence might need a “yet” at the end; or, J R might be so much chaos.

29. In any case, I will report again at the end, if not sooner.

20 thoughts on “I Riff on William Gaddis’s Enormous Novel J R (From About Half Way Through)”

  1. This post was fun to read and makes me want to dip back into J R. I’m just spinning up a new group read of Gravity’s Rainbow and found myself thinking just yesterday that it might be time to reread Gaddis too. If GR goes well, maybe I’ll queue up J R.


  2. Someone described reading Gaddis like flipping through radio stations. I can’t disagree.

    I enjoyed ‘The Recognitions’ immensely and have been craving to read ‘J.R.’ Supposedly it’s more “forgiving” to the reader.

    Funny you mention Franzen’s impression of the novel. Seems like he starts Gaddis novels only to abandon them halfway through.* Granted, so do most people.



    1. Hmm, it would never have occurred to me to think that J R was more forgiving than The Recognitions. The latter is a lot easier to read, I think, if only because it’s somewhat more conventional, less of a Babel. You have to learn how to read J R as you go, whereas with The Recognitions, some of the material is hard, but at least you don’t feel like you’re on another planet in terms of how to read the thing.


      1. I kept stalling out on The Recognitions (although I did read half of it)—I don’t know if I’m better equipped to read Gaddis now, or if JR is just more engaging than TR. Anyway, I’ll give it another shot after JR.


  3. One of my favorite aspects of J R, besides the humor, is the occasional intrusion of prose. Notably, the cinematic, one-shot changes of scene, where it is as though the narrator’s “camera” pans back quickly from a conversation, often mid-stream, and pans, wildly, over the trees and houses, down the street, describing in breathless detail all it catches, until it finally lands on its destination, through a crack in the window, say, or a door just closing for the start of a new school day. I’ve never witnessed such amazing scene transitions in all my reading life.


  4. Finding halfway through JR that you can actually differentiate the characters within a single sentence of dialogue is probably the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had reading fiction. It’s like Gaddis is teaching you to listen to speech as closely as he does and it feels wonderful.


    1. Cheers for the article link, danyulengelke—I’m a huge fan of The Quarterly Conversation, but I generally avoid criticism of stuff on my “to read” list, so I hadn’t read this yet.


  5. I loved JR. It’s in my unofficial top 10, high on the list. I found it to be more about capitalism and the production of art within that system. It may be the funniest book I’ve ever read and works very well as a satire and a farce. On the other hand, it’s a bitter and I would say ultimately pessimistic book about America as a failed entity desperately grasping to bring everyone else down with it. Maybe Bast redeems it, but he is a dim light. Certain characters, like Davidoff, are meant to infuriate the readers, and it can be a bit “much”. Gaddis can overemphasize the point, sometimes. I found it hard to read more than 15 pages at a time because it is a totally exhausting effort to absorb Gaddis’ style, especially when Davidoff or Cates are talking, and there are no freakin’ chapters! If you haven’t encountered Rhoda yet, get ready. An amazing tragicomic character. The whole thing is just an incredible display of language and voices.


    1. Hey! Benny Profane on my blog! I loved your work in V.

      Yeah, I think Rhoda had showed up briefly around Schramm’s suicide, but her first full scene with Bast is amazing. And, yeah, the book is *really* a scathing indictment.


  6. Nice Barthelme Glass Mountain format. Good poke at Franzen, a boring writer for people with cotton instead of grey matter between their ears. Probably agree about the late DF Wallace, at least from the perspective of authorial brainpower and obvious cleverness. Wallace wisely chose to not ape Gaddis’s unattributed dialog style.

    Disagree that it’s tough to read JR. If you just humble yourself to it, it’s very readable. The problems arise when reading it with expectation that it will resemble something Franzen wrote.


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