I was at the bookstore last week, killing a spare hour, looking for nothing in particular, when I spotted a first edition Knopf paperback copy of William Gaddis’s novel J R. The book is one of my favorites—I first read it in 2012 and then again in 2016 (which maybe means I’ll reread it again in 2020?). I’ll cobble really quickly from my 2016 review here:
Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves)). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J R is the Great American Novel to Come . . .
The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.
. . . in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?
Well so and anyway, I was browsing the shelves of my local, looking for nothing, as I said, although I was ambling through the “GA-” section in the hopes of maybe picking up a copy of William Gass’s The Tunnel, when I spied the J R, with its bold oh-so-seventies design, its big stiff spine unbroken and seemingly unbent. After handling it a few minutes, I resigned myself to a pic and a tweet—
I didn’t intend to buy another paperback copy of J R, even a first edition, even though it was only seven bucks, and even though I have trade credit out the ying-yang there—I mean, I have a perfectly fine Penguin edition; better to leave the J R for some other person to acquire, no? But qithin a few minutes Twitter folks had talked me out of my plan to not acquire it, advice that was perhaps not unwanted.
The Knopf edition—the cover design is by Janet Halverson, by the way—has a much longer summary blurb than my 1993 edition (and indeed, a much longer summary blurb than one usually sees on a paperback). The Penguin edition features an introduction by Frederick Karl (that readers should wait to read until after they’ve finished the book), a bibliography of “Suggestions for Further Reading,” and a new dedication page: “For Matthew: Once more unto the breach, dear friend, once more” (I’m guessing the dedication is to Gaddis’s son Matthew). The ’93 Penguin does not have this though:
But! The Penguin edition’s colophon promises that “Errors in the original publication have been corrected by the author for the first Penguin edition” (1985 btw).
Other than that, the two edition are pretty much typographically the same—the pages are aligned, and both editions are consistent with the same typographical oddities, like JR’s famous handwritten “Alsaka” memo and his logo designs and Gibbs’s pocket scrap citations.
The big difference between the two editions (besides the cover, obviously) can be summed up in this image—the seventies Knopf is above the nineties Penguin:
The Penguin edition is slightly larger with much better binding. I’ve read it twice and I never had to break its spine; I’m pretty sure that the Knopf I picked up has never been read—and also that a serious reading would crack its spine pretty badly.
The most recent edition of J R is from Dalkey, and includes an essay by Rick Moody as its introduction. I don’t have a copy of it, but it has 752 pages—the other editions have 726 pages (which the Gaddis Annotations project match up to). I’ve handled the Dalkey, and I recall it being smaller and stiffer than the Penguin. Basically, I think, as of now, the Penguin edition is probably the best option for anyone wanting to read the book. So I love the cover of the 70’s first edition I’ve got, but I doubt I’ll be reading it soon (or, like in 2020 when I read the book again).