The Paris Review has published Joy Williams’s introduction to NYRB’s forthcoming edition of William Gaddis’s masterpiece satire of American capitalism, J R. Williams’s review is heavy on citation from Gaddis’s letters, William Gass’s essay “Mr. Gaddis and His Goddamn Books,” and J R itself. I like this bit:
In 1956, nineteen years before the publication of this second novel, Mr. Gaddis wrote a registered letter to himself to protect his idea for it from copyright infringement:
In very brief it is this; a young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune by developing and following through the basically very simple procedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests, to build a ‘big business’ in a system of comparative free enterprise employing the numerous (again basically simply encouragements (as tax benefits &c) which are so prominent in the business world of America today …
This boy (named here ‘J.R’) employs as a ‘front man’ to handle matters, the press &c, a young man innocent in matters of money and business whose name (which I got in a dream) is Bast. Other characters include Bast’s two aunts, the heads of companies which JR takes over, his board of directors, figures in a syndicate which fights his company for control in a stockholder’s battle, charity heads to whom his company gives money, &c.
This book is projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in America today; and on the people who handle them; it is also a morality study of a straightforward boy reared in our culture, of a young man with an artist’s conscience, and of the figures who surround them in such a competitive and material economy as ours. The book just now is provisionally entitled ‘SENSATION’ and ‘J.R.’
What a surprisingly unpromising précis!
I hope to have something forthcoming on this new edition of J R. In the meantime, here’s a link to the last thing I wrote about it, back in 2016, and this excerpt from that thing:
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 Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).
And here is my favorite picture of Gaddis:
William Gaddis’s contribution to a 6 June 1982 New York Times article asking numerous authors what their next book will be. I suppose that Carpenter’s Gothic, being a Gothic, is a romance.
J R by William Gaddis. 2020 trade paperback edition by NYRB. Cover design by Katy Homans. Introduction by Joy Williams (xi pages). 770 pages.
J R by William Gaddis. 1993 trade paperback edition by Penguin. Cover art is a detail of an Associated Gas and Electric Company stock certificate “Courtesy of William Gaddis.” No designer credited. Introduction by Frederick R. Karl (xxi pages). 726 pages.
J R by William Gaddis. 1975 trade paperback edition by Borzoi/Knopf. Cover design by Janet Halverson. 726 pages.
I prefer rereading to reading. Rereading an old favorite can often offer comfort. A week or so after the US presidential election, I picked up Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth and reread its fourteen stories over a few mornings and afternoons. I’m not sure why, but somehow Bolaño’s sinister vibes and dark humor worked to alleviate my own post-election dread in some small measure. “Life is mysterious and vulgar,” after all, as one of his narrators points out. (I reviewed the book seven years ago).
I’m not really sure what impelled me to reread William Gaddis’s great grand gargantuan novel J R in 2016, but I found the experience incredibly rewarding—richer, sadder, funnier, more bitter. Most of J R is composed as unattributed dialogue, so one of the great challenges for a first reading is simply figuring out who is speaking to whom; additional readings help flesh out the narrative’s colors and tone. I wrote about rereading J R, noting
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).
This little note offers me an easy bridge to the reread that dominated the second half of 2016, a slow read of Gravity’s Rainbow. I finally read Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015—and then immediately reread it. Which is sort of like, y’know, actually reading it. To put it plainly, the only way to read Gravity’s Rainbow is to read it twice. Reading it a third time was fascinating—not just in seeing all the stuff I’d missed, but also in experiencing the novel’s radical coherence, its sublime plotting, its real depth—and most of all, Pynchon’s prose. Critics and commenters tend to foreground Pynchon’s humor and themes, perhaps overlooking his prowess as a sentence-shaper. I also had fun annotating sections of the novel, a project I’ll be continuing next year, when I read Gravity’s Rainbow again.