Brigitte Felix: If I may ask the same question, phrasing it differently: Jack Gibbs says at one point “Most god damned readers rather be at the movies because when you walk in to the movies you walk in empty-handed and leave much the same way.” What do you think your readers walk out with, after reading J R, for example?
William Gaddis: [after a long pause] I suppose . . . here’s the heart of the matter, he’s drawn a picture of . . . In J R someone is repeatedly saying “This is what America is all about.” It’s buried usually under paragraphs, but this is what America is all about. I suppose that one wants the reader to put the book down finally, having finished it — not after starting it, which is the case, frequently — and say, Yes, that’s what America is all about: it is a paper empire, it’s Gresham’s Law, the bad drives out the good, and so forth . . .
Bobbie Ann Mason: “Book dedications are…a private message in a public place… They’re like reading the personals.”
Joseph Heller: “I have not the slightest understanding of what they mean…none of my books except the first one have any.”
Richard Ford: “All of my books are dedicated to my wife.”
Ward Just: “My last seven books were all dedicated to my wife.”
Kaye Gibbons: “In the new printings of A Virtuous Woman, I’m deleting my ex-husband’s name and replacing it with my second and final husband’s Frank Ward.”
Christopher Buckley: “I was finishing The White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, ‘Now type, “For my wife, with love.”‘ And she cried. I dedicated my first book, Steaming to Bamboola, to John Lennon. It was about the merchant marine, and he was the son of a merchant seaman, and he died while I was writing it, and I was very sad, so I just dedicated it to him.”
Nicholson Baker: “I hope to dedicate several more books to my wife although not every one. You don’t want to be like Nabokov. Every book was to Vera, to Vera, to Vera.”
Susanna Moore: “My favorite dedication is by Gregor von Rezzori. In one of his books, he just says, For whom else but you!'”
William Gaddis: “You never dedicate a book to another writer. You’d worry that he wouldn’t like it.”
John Updike: “You worry with another writer, that he won’t like the book, that you’re like the cat who’s bringing a dead mouse to the back door.”
I’ve written about the so-called “Postmodernist Dinner” on this blog before. The 1983 dinner was organized and hosted by Donald Barthelme, and attended by John Barth, William Gaddis, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Coover, and John Hawkes, among others (Thomas Pynchon politely declined).
This morning, searching for something other than what I ended up finding, I came across a 1988 New York Times describing another Postmodernists Dinner. This particular dinner was organized by Robert Coover in honor of his friend John Hawkes’s retirement form Brown University. Well, I’ve written dinner here, but really the dinner was the celebration at the end of a conference at Brown. From Caryn James’s article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto”:
When the novelist Robert Coover organized a conference called ”Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction,” he invited some old friends to Brown University. There would be panel discussions that might define literary post-modernism once and for all, Mr. Coover said, but mostly it would be ”a family gathering” to mark John Hawkes’s retirement as a teacher of writing at Brown.
The poster above, signed by many of the panelists, is part of Washington University in St. Louis’s Modern Literature Collection. Here is the collections description of the event:
“Unspeakable Practices: A Three-Day Celebration of Iconoclastic American Fiction” sponsored by Brown University as part of the 1988 Brown University Reading and Lecture Series on April 4-6, 1988. Notable writers include Donald Barthelme, Walter Abish, Robert Kelly, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin, Jonathan Baumbach, Toby Olson, John Hawkes, Meredith Steinbach, William Gass, William Gaddis, Marilynne Robinson, Geoffrey Wolff, Leslie Fiedler, Marc Chenetier, Maurice Couturier, Geoffrey Green, Donald Greiner, Sinda Gregory, Tom LeClair, Richard Martin, and Larry McCaffery.
In her article “The Avant-Garde Ex Post Facto,” James describes the group as “almost all the major novelists sometimes called post-modernist . . . sometimes simply called difficult.” She continues:
They assaulted realism in the 1960’s, turning language inside out, crossing paths and forming friendships along the way. Twenty years later, here they all were, a group the critic Leslie Fiedler called ”iconoclasts with tenure” – the writers the current minimalists reacted against, an avant-garde no longer ahead of its time.
James then goes on to describe some “family friction” between the group during the panel called ”Traditional Values and Iconoclastic Fiction,” moderated by Leslie Fiedler:
The author of the classic study Love and Death in the American Novel and recent works on popular culture posed questions one writer later described as the sort you fear getting from little old ladies in tennis shoes. Why do you write? Who is your audience? The panelists floundered, told anecdotes, skated – sometimes charmingly – on the surface of the questions. “I know exactly who I’m writing for,” said Mr. Barthelme. “They are extremely intelligent and physically attractive.” Mr. Gaddis, whose fiction includes the two immense novels The Recognitions and J. R., said he wrote ”to avoid boredom, which is probably why I came up here today.”
At this point, I knew I’d read about this particular panel before, but I couldn’t remember where—possibly in Tracy Daughtery’s Barthelme biography, Hiding Man? Anyway, Fiedler continued to piss off some of the postmodernists:
When Mr. Fiedler concluded by saying, “None of us will be remembered as long or revered as deeply as our contemporary Stephen King,” many writers became furious and insulted.
I’m pretty sure Fiedler meant the comment from a place of deep contempt for contemporary culture, but whatever; James notes that
Some were so incensed they threatened to stay away from Tuesday night’s big dinner, the event Mr. Coover was playing as the centerpiece of the celebration.
She continues by describing the postmodernists dinner;
The main event was worthy of a post-modern novel, a dreamlike scene in which people from one life wander into a room where they don’t belong. Mr. Coover had discovered a modest Portuguese restaurant in East Providence, to which he often brought colleagues from Brown, where he teaches. Some became regulars; some never returned.
That was the sight of Mr. Hawkes’s retirement party, and between the fried calamari and roast pig, the lights went down and the audience was captive at its long narrow tables for the entertainment – traditional Latin fado songs to guitar accompaniment.
The host raconteur and main singer was named Manny. He wore a maroon jacket, told corny jokes and sang songs reminiscent of a discount Julio Iglesias (though he reminded Mr. Elkin of the nightclub singer in ”Broadway Danny Rose”). He stood at the head of the writers’ table, now and then glancing at Mr. Hawkes or Mr. Gaddis while shouting, “You’re lookin’ good!” Some people squirmed; some clapped along; Mr. Coover loved it. There were three sets in all.
And like a good postmodern comedy, there’s a happy ending:
Late in the night, Mr. Coover joked that he had not thrown this party for Mr. King, and Mr. Fiedler took his chance to make amends. “Whatever I said, I said with irony and with real affection for you,” he told Mr. Hawkes. “I hope it’s taken in that spirit.” Some family members held a grudge, but Mr. Hawkes hugged Mr. Fiedler and gave him the ultimate Hawkesian compliment. “Leslie,” he said, “you’re the most erotic critic here.”
Here’s a clipping of the event, again from Washington University’s invaluable Modern Literature Collection:
J R by William Gaddis. 2020 trade paperback edition by NYRB. Cover design by Katy Homans. Introduction by Joy Wiliams (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.
This is a clipping of W.G. Rogers’ (circa 1973) review of Gravity’s Rainbow (click on the image to enlarge it). The marginal annotation is by William Gaddis:
Rogers’ review of Gravity’s Rainbow is eleven paragraphs long in two columns. The final three paragraphs are devoted to a comparison with The Recognitions (this comparison takes up about three quarters of the second column). Rogers refers to Gaddis’s novel as Recognitions.
The final paragraph reads:
Gaddis could have written Gravity’s Rainbow and Pynchon could have written Recognitions [sic].That two hearts can beat as one is no proof two minds can. Would we not expect Gaddis to use his own respected name? Could there be two separate master hands? I suppose so, but…
Gaddis published his second novel J R, two years later, in 1975.
This document is part of the William Gaddis Papers collection at Washington University. I saw it earlier this morning thanks to Reddit user Signor Mantissa.
Photograph from “The Postmodernists Dinner,” 1983 by Jill Krementz (b. 1940)
From the University of Houston’s collection of Barthelme’s papers. The entry’s description:
Left to right: unidentified, unidentified, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, Robert Coover (turned), unidentified, Kurt Vonnegut, Walter Abish (with patch), William Gaddis (squatting), unidentified, William Gass, unidentified, unidentified. In 1983, Barthelme arranged a “Postmodernists Dinner” for the group of writers who were often lumped together under the “postmodernist” label. The reclusive Thomas Pynchon declined the invitation.
It would be swell if anyone could identify the women in the photograph.
In his 2009 Barthelme biography Hiding Man, Tracy Daugherty offers the following recollection of the “Postmodernist Dinner” from novelist Walter Abish:
Around this time — in the spring of 1983 — “Donald had this idea to make a dinner in SoHo,” says Water Abish. “A major dinner for a group of writers, and he planned it very, very carefully. It was a strange event. Amusing and intriguing. He invited…well, that was the thing of it. The list. I was astounded that he consulted me but he called and said, ‘Should we invite so-and-so?’ Naturally, I did the only decent thing and said ‘Absolutely’ to everyone he mentioned. I pushed for Gaddis. Gass was there, and Coover and Hawkes, Vonnegut and his wife, Jill Krementz, who took photographs, I think. Don’s agent, Lynn Nesbit, was there. She was always very friendly. Susan Sontag was the only woman writer invited.
Pynchon couldn’t make it. He wrote Don to apologize. He said he was ‘between coasts, Arkansas or Lubbock or someplace like ‘at.”
Abish recollects that the meal was at a very expensive restaurant, prefix, and the writers had to pay their own way. There were about 21 attendees, and Barthelme was “Very, very dour.”
I had never seen the photograph until today when Ethelmer shared it with me on Twitter. Thanks!
Don’t forget the real business of the War is buying and selling 1. The murdering and the violence are self-policing, and can be entrusted to non-professionals. The mass nature of wartime death is useful in many ways 2. It serves as spectacle, as diversion from the real movements of the War. It provides raw material to be recorded into History, so that children may be taught History as sequences of violence, battle after battle, and be more prepared for the adult world 3. Best of all, mass death’s a stimulus 4 to just ordinary folks, little fellows 5, to try ’n’ grab a piece of that Pie while they’re still here to gobble it up. The true war is a celebration of markets 6. Organic markets, carefully styled “black” 7 by the professionals, spring up everywhere. Scrip, Sterling, Reichsmarks continue to move, severe as classical ballet, inside their antiseptic marble chambers. But out here, down here among the people, the truer currencies come into being. So, Jews are negotiable. Every bit as negotiable as cigarettes, cunt, or Hershey bars. Jews also carry an element of guilt, of future blackmail, which operates, natch, in favor of the professionals. 8
From page 105 of Thomas Pynchon’s 1973 novel Gravity’s Rainbow.
1 Gravity’s Rainbow is often (unjustly and unfairly) maligned as a messy, even pointless affair—but here’s our author speaking through the narrator, offering up one of the novel’s points—clearly, without equivocation.
2 Our narrator digs irony though…
3 Entropy is all—but entropy doesn’t make for good capitalism, by which our sly narrator means, Their Capitalism. The adult world needs to be organized, systematized, caused and effected.
Cf. Jack Gibbs’s rant to his erstwhile young students, early in William Gaddis’s 1975 novel of capitalism, J R:
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 . . .
4 Note the not-so-oblique reference to GR’s theme of stimulus-response (and upending that response).
Not too much earlier in the narrative, dedicated Pavlovian Dr. Edward W.A. Pointsman worries about the end of cause and effect, the rise of entropy:
Will Postwar be nothing but ‘events,’ newly created one moment to the next? No links? Is it the end of history?
6 Pynchon reiterates his thesis.
7 Note that organic (entropic?) markets fall outside of Their System—y’know, Them—the Professionals—these organic (chaotic, necessary) markets must be labeled “black” (preterite?).
Here’s another Dutch propaganda poster:
Page 105 of Gravity’s Rainbow “happens,” more or less, in 1944, in the middle of an extended introduction of Katje Borgesius, a Dutch double agent. (Or is that double Dutch agent?). The propaganda poster above strikes me as overtly racist, but also seems to nod to King Kong (1933, dir. Cooper and Schoedsack). Gravity’s Rainbow is larded with references to King Kong, a sympathetic but powerful force of entropy, a force against the Professionals.
From the invaluable annotations at Pynchon Wiki’s Gravity’s Rainbow site (there is no annotation for page 105 at Pynchon Wiki, by the way, and no notes on the passage I’ve cited above either in Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion):
King Kong & the Like
Fay Wray look, 57; Fay Wray, 57, 179, 275; “You will have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood,” 179; “headlights burning like the eyes of” 247; “the black scapeape we cast down like Lucifer,” 275; Mitchell Prettyplace book about, 275; “Giant ape” 276; “the Fist of the Ape,” 277; “orangutan on wheels,” 282; taking a shit, 368; “The figures darkened and deformed, resembling apes” 483; “a troupe of performing chimpanzees” 496; “on the tit with no motor skills,” 578; “Negroid apes,” 586; “that sacrificial ape,” 664; “a gigantic black ape,” 688; Carl Denham, 689; poem based on King Kong, 689; See also: actors/directors film/cinema references;
The Kong-figure in the Dutch propaganda poster seems to wear the petasos (winged hat) and wield the caduceus of Hermes or Mercury—god of thieves. But also god of the market, of commerce, merchandise, all things mercenary.
From Joseph T. Shipley’s The Origin of English Words: A Discursive Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (1984):
8 The passage as a whole, which emphasizes war as a conduit for the techne of the market (or do I have that backwards? should I note the market of techne?) echoes an earlier passage. From page 81:
It was widely believed in those days that behind the War—all the death, savagery, and destruction—lay the Führer-principle. But if personalities could be replaced by abstractions of power, if techniques developed by the corporations could be brought to bear, might not nations live rationally? One of the dearest Postwar hopes: that there should be no room for a terrible disease like charisma.
All signs seem to point to No.
The fourth of seven unnumbered chapters in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s Gothic is set over the course of Halloween, moving from morning, into afternoon, and then night. Halloween is an appropriately Gothic setting for the midpoint of Gaddis’s postmodern Gothic novel, and there are some fascinating turns in this central chapter.
A summary with spoilers is not necessary here. Suffice to say that our heroine Elizabeth Booth is left alone on Halloween in the dilapidated Rural Gothic style house she and her awful husband Paul rent from mysterious Mr. McCandless. As Paul exits the house to go on one his many fruitless business trips, he notices that some neighborhood kids have already played their Halloween tricks:
He had the front door open but he stood there, looking out, looking up, —little bastards look at that, not even Halloween till tonight but they couldn’t wait… Toilet paper hung in disconsolate streamers from the telephone lines, arched and drooped in the bared maple branches reaching over the windows of the frame garage beyond the fence palings where shaving cream spelled fuck. —Look keep the doors locked, did this last night Christ knows what you’re in for tonight… and the weight of his hand fell away from her shoulder, —Liz? just try and be patient? and he pulled the door hard enough for the snap of the lock to startle her less with threats locked out than herself locked in, to leave her steadying a hand on the newel…
The kids’ Halloween antics take on a particularly sinister aspect here, set against the stark New England background Gaddis conjures. We get gloomy streamers, desolate trees, and the bald, ugly signification of one lone word: fuck. (Fuck and its iterations, along with Gaddis’s old favorite God damn, are bywords in Carpenter’s Gothic). Paul’s reading of this scene is also sinister; he underscores the Gothic motif in telling Elizabeth to “keep the doors locked” because she doesn’t know what she’s “in for tonight.” Tellingly, the aural snap of Paul’s exit shows us that Elizabeth is ultimately more paranoid about being locked in. Indeed, by the middle of the novel, we see her increasingly trapped in her (haunted) house. The staircase newel, an image that Gaddis uses repeatedly in the novel, becomes her literal support. Elizabeth spends the rest of the morning avoiding chores before eventually vomiting and taking a nap.
Then, Gaddis propels us forward a few hours with two remarkable paragraphs (or, I should say, two paragraphs upon which I wish to remark). Here is the first post-nap paragraph:
She woke abruptly to a black rage of crows in the heights of those limbs rising over the road below and lay still, the rise and fall of her breath a bare echo of the light and shadow stirred through the bedroom by winds flurrying the limbs out there till she turned sharply for the phone and dialed slowly for the time, up handling herself with the same fragile care to search the mirror, search the world outside from the commotion in the trees on down the road to the straggle of boys faces streaked with blacking and this one, that one in an oversize hat, sharing kicks and punches up the hill where in one anxious glimpse the mailman turned the corner and was gone.
What a fantastic sentence. Gaddis’s prose here reverberates with sinister force, capturing (and to an extent, replicating) Elizabeth’s disorientation. Dreadful crows and flittering shadows shake Elizabeth, and searching for stability she telephones for the time. (If you are a young person perhaps bewildered by this detail: This is something we used to do. We used to call a number for the time. Like, the time of day. You can actually still do this. Call the US Naval Observatory at 202-762-1069 if you’re curious what this aesthetic experience is like). The house’s only clock is broken, further alienating Elizabeth from any sense of normalcy. In a mode of “fragile care,” anxious Elizabeth glances in the mirror, another Gothic symbol that repeats throughout this chapter. She then spies the “straggle of boys” (a neat parallel to the “black rage of crows” at the sentence’s beginning) already dressed up in horrorshow gear for mischief night and rumbling with violence. The mailman—another connection to the outside world, to some kind of external and steadying authority—simply disappears.
Here is the next paragraph:
Through the festoons drifting gently from the wires and branches a crow dropped like shot, and another, stabbing at a squirrel crushed on the road there, vaunting black wings and taking to them as a car bore down, as a boy rushed the road right down to the mailbox in the whirl of yellowed rust spotted leaves, shouts and laughter behind the fence palings, pieces of pumpkin flung through the air and the crows came back all fierce alarm, stabbing and tearing, bridling at movement anywhere till finally, when she came out to the mailbox, stillness enveloped her reaching it at arm’s length and pulling it open. It looked empty; but then there came sounds of hoarded laughter behind the fence palings and she was standing there holding the page, staring at the picture of a blonde bared to the margin, a full tumid penis squeezed stiff in her hand and pink as the tip of her tongue drawing the beading at its engorged head off in a fine thread. For that moment the blonde’s eyes, turned to her in forthright complicity, held her in their steady stare; then her tremble was lost in a turn to be plainly seen crumpling it, going back in and dropping it crumpled on the kitchen table.
The paragraph begins with the Gothic violence of the crows “stabbing and tearing” at a squirrel. Gaddis fills Carpenter’s Gothic with birds—in fact, the first words of the novel are “The bird”—a motif that underscores the possibility of flight, of escape (and entails its opposite–confinement, imprisonment). These crows are pure Halloween, shredding small mammals as the wild boys smash pumpkins. Elizabeth exits the house (a rare vignette in Carpenter’s Gothic, which keeps her primarily confined inside it) to check the mail. The only message that has been delivered to her though is from the Halloween tricksters, who cruelly laugh at their prank. The pornographic image, ripped from a magazine, is described in such a way that the blonde woman trapped within it comes to life, “in forthright complicity,” making eye contact with Elizabeth. There’s an intimation of aggressive sexual violence underlying the prank, whether the boys understand this or not. The scrap of paper doubles their earlier signal, the shaving creamed fuck written on the garage door.
Elizabeth recovers herself to signify steadiness in return, demonstratively crumpling the pornographic scrap—but she takes it with her, back into the house, where it joins the other heaps of papers, scraps, detritus of media and writing that make so much of the content of the novel. Here, the pornographic scrap takes on its own sinister force. Initially, Elizabeth sets out to compose herself anew; the next paragraph finds her descending the stairs, “differently dressed now, eyeliner streaked on her lids and the
colour unevenly matched on her paled cheeks,” where she answers the ringing phone with “a quaver in her hand.” The scene that follows is an extraordinary displacement in which the phone takes on a phallic dimension, and Elizabeth imaginatively correlates herself with the blonde woman in the pornographic picture. She stares at this image the whole time she is on the phone while a disembodied male voice demands answers she cannot provide:
The voice burst at her from the phone and she held it away, staring down close at the picture as though something, some detail, might have changed in her absence, as though what was promised there in minutes, or moments, might have come in a sudden burst on the wet lips as the voice broke from the phone in a pitch of invective, in a harried staccato, broke off in a wail and she held it close enough to say —I’m sorry Mister Mullins, I don’t know what to… and she held it away again bursting with spleen, her own fingertip smoothing the still fingers hoarding the roothairs of the inflexible surge before her with polished nails, tracing the delicate vein engorged up the curve of its glistening rise to the crown cleft fierce with colour where that glint of beading led off in its fine thread to the still tongue, mouth opened without appetite and the mascaraed eyes unwavering on hers without a gleam of hope or even expectation, —I don’t know I can’t tell you!
Gaddis’s triple repetition of the verb burst links the phone to the phallus and links Elizabeth to the blonde woman. This link is reinforced by the notation of the woman’s “mascaraed eyes,” a detail echoing the paragraph’s initial image of Elizabeth descending the stairs with streaked eyeliner. The final identification between the two is the most horrific—Elizabeth reads those eyes, that image, that scrap of paper, as a work “without a gleam of hope or even expectation.” Doom.
Elizabeth is “saved,” if only temporarily, by the unexpected arrival of the mysterious Mr. McCandless, who quickly stabilizes the poor woman. Gaddis notes that McCandless “caught the newel with her hand…He had her arm, had her hand in fact firm in one of his.” When he asks why she is so upset, she replies, “It’s the, just the mess out there, Halloween out there…” McCandless chalks the mess up to “kids with nothing to do,” but Elizabeth reads in it something more sinister: “there’s a meanness.” McCandless counters that “it’s plain stupidity…There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world.” This phrase “Halloween out there” repeats three times in the chapter, suggesting a larger signification—it isn’t just Halloween tonight, but rather, as McCandless puts it, the night is “Like the whole damned world isn’t it.” It’s always Halloween out there in Carpenter’s Gothic, and this adds up to mostly malice of mostly stupidity in this world—depending on how you read it.
The second half of the chapter gives over to McCandless, who comes to unexpectedly inhabit the novel’s center. Elizabeth departs, if only for a few hours, leaving McCandless alone, if only momentarily. A shifty interlocutor soon arrives on the thresh hold of his Carpenter Gothic home, and we learn some of his fascinating background. It’s a strange moment in a novel that has focused so intently on the consciousness of Elizabeth, but coming in the novel’s center, it acts as a stabilizing force. I won’t go into great detail here—I think much of what happens when McCandless is the center of the narrative is best experienced without any kind of spoiler—but we get at times from him a sustained howl against the meanness and stupidity of the world. He finally ushers his surprise interlocutor out of his home with the following admonition: “It’s Halloween out there too.”
[Ed. note–Biblioklept first published this post in October of 2018.]
Problem with you Markson you’ve got no God damned fellow feeling in bosom, put yourself in the poor bastard’s place: like if your wife wrote a novel and the best agent in town declined to handle it, would you go around giving a free ride to the agent’s clients? I mean why the hell do you think some poor bastard wants to be a book calumnist in the first place.
–A 1975 letter from William Gaddis to David Markson. Collected in Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Moore provides this context for Gaddis’s satirical letter:
When Christopher Lehmann-Haupt’s negative review of J R appeared in the daily New York Times on 30 October, Markson sent a postcard the same day to WG reading: “Dear Bill—Fuck Christopher Lehmann-Haupt!” (Lehmann-Haupt had also written a negative review of Markson’s Going Down five years earlier.) Gaddis’s reply, undated and without salutation, plays on a joke in J R whereby a foreigner takes literally a dictionary definition of “sympathy” (488–89)…
Origin of the Brunists is Robert Coover’s first novel. First published in 1966, this long novel tells the story of an apocalyptic religious cult that forms around the sole survivor of a mining accident. The novel begins with the Brunists prepping for the upcoming end of the world (doomsday is scheduled for the weekend). After this somewhat bewildering prologue, the novel shifts back a few months in time, to lay out the cult’s genesis, a fatal mining accident.
Origin of the Brunist’s early chapters are an engrossing and unexpectedly smooth launch into a 500+ page novel. I read the first 70 pages in one night, rapt in the weird world of West Condon, the fictional midwesternish mining town where the Brunist cult originates. I woke up the next morning and continued to read in bed. I was, and am, enthusiastic.
The second chapter of Origin of the Brunists is especially enthralling. Propulsive and engaging, the chapter zooms through the various consciousnesses of West Condon on the night of the novel’s originating disaster, the horrific mining collapse that imperils hundreds of miners. Coover inhabits the voices and minds of his characters with an easy if often grimy grace here. Evocation of consciousness has marked much of Coover’s work, from the early short story “The Brother” (1962) to his recent novel Huck Out West (2017). The man can throw his voice around. Origin of the Brunists overflows with voices. In small snatches of dialog and free-indirect speech, we get an aural and vivid picture of the miners, their children and spouses, as well as the other residents of West Condon.
The mining disaster chapter shuttles along with a filmic quality. Coover intercuts scenes of the miners escaping (or failing to escape) with a highschool basketball game, teenage lust in a parked car, and other odds and ends of West Condon life. The chapter builds in tension, reminding one of the climax of an epic movie, but one wedged unexpectedly at the narrative’s outset.
Indeed, Coover’s contest with film is something of a trademark. A signal example of this style can be found in the stories in his 1987 collection A Night at the Movies, or You Must Remember This. Stories like “The Phantom of the Movie Palace” and “Lap Dissolves” wrestle with film as a medium, deconstructing author and text, filmmakers and audiences, film reels and book pages. In the Night stories (and elsewhere, always elsewhere), Coover employs a host of metatextual techniques, dissolving one narrative into another, overlapping archetypes and synthesizing tropes, blending fables and history and commercial culture into a critique of American Pop mythology.
Coover’s metafiction always points back at its own origin, its own creation, a move that can at times take on a winking tone, a nudging elbow to the reader’s metaphorical ribs—Hey bub, see what I’m doing here? Coover’s metafictional techniques often lead him and his reader into cartoon landscapes, where postmodernly-plastic characters bounce manically off realistic contours. The best of Coover’s metafictions (like “The Babysitter,” 1969) tease their postmodern plastic into a synthesis of character, plot, and theme. However, in large doses Coover’s metafictions can tax the reader’s patience and will—the simplest example that comes to mind is “The Hat Act” (from Pricksongs & Descants, 1969), a seemingly-interminable Möbius loop that riffs on performance, trickery, and imagination. (And horniness).
I’m dwelling on Coover’s metafictional myth-making because I think of it as his calling card. And yet Origin of the Brunists bears only the faintest traces of Coover’s trademark metafictionalist moves (mostly, so far anyway, by way of its erstwhile hero, the journalist Tiger Miller). Coover’s debut reads rather as a work of highly-detailed, highly-descriptive realism, a realism that pushes its satirical edges up against the absurdity of modern American life. It reminds me very much of William Gass’s first novel Omensetter’s Luck (1966) and John Barth’s first two novels, The Floating Opera (1956) and The End of the Road (1958). (Barth heavily revised both of the novels in 1967). There’s a post-Faulknerian style here, something that can’t rightly be described as modern or postmodern. These novels distort reality without rupturing it in the way that the authors’ later works do. Later works like Barth’s Chimera (1973), Gass’s The Tunnel (1995), and Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) dismantle genre structures and tropes and rebuild them in new forms. (I might contrast here with the first novels of William Gaddis (The Recognitions, 1955), Thomas Pynchon (V., 1963), and Ishmael Reed (The Freelance Pallbearers, 1967), all of which employ postmodern and metafictional techniques right out of the gate—but that’s perhaps appropriate material for another riff).
While Origin of the Brunists doesn’t tip into Coover’s metatextual mode, it points towards his mythic style, but in a subtle, restrained way, as in this description of the moments preceding a high-school basketball game:
A ritual buzzer alerts the young athletes on the West Condon court and strikes a blurred roar from the two confronting masses of spectators. In a body, all stand. The mute patterns of run-pass-leap-thrust dissolve, congealing into two tight knots on either extremity of the court, each governed by a taut-faced dark-suited hierarch. Six young novices in black, breasts ablaze with the mark of their confession, discipline the brute roars into pulsing chants with soft loops of arm and skirt, while, at their backs, five acolytes of the invading persuasion pressed immodestly into sleek diabolic red, rattle talismans with red and white paper tails, seeking to neutralize the efficacy of the West Condon locomotive. Young peddlers circulate, selling condiments indiscriminately to all. A light oil of warm-up perspiration anoints the shoulders of the ten athletes chosen as they explode out of their respective rings to confront each other. Some of them cross themselves, some clap and cry oaths, others tweak their genitals.
These mythical touches are rare in the first section of Origin of the Brunists though. Instead, Coover seems to tease out the West Condoners’ building of their own mythology, one cobbled from the apocalyptic strands of rural American Christianity, a religion divined through signs and wonders.
Such signs have much of their origin in Ely Collins, a miner-cum-preacher who meets his fate in the disaster. In a shocking scene that plays out with frank realism, Collins loses his leg:
“It’s okay, boys,” Collins whispered up at them. “I kin take it.” And he took to praying again.
Strelchuk lifted the ax in the air and thought: Jesus! what if I miss, I’ve never swung a goddamn ax much, what if I hit the wrong leg, or—?
“Goddamn you, Mike!” Jinx screamed, losing control. “Quit messing around! This gas is knocking me out, man! We got to get us out of here!”
And while he was screaming away like that, Strelchuk came down with the ax, caught the leg right where he aimed, true and clean, just below the knee, and the blood flew everywhere, and Juliano was crying like a goddamn baby, and Bruno, his face blood-sprayed, went dumb, mouth agape, and broke away in a silent fit, but the leg was still hooked on, they couldn’t get him free. Preach was still praying to beat hell and never even whimpered. Mike raised the ax again and drove down with all the goddamn strength he had, felt the bone this time, heard the crack, felt the sickening braking of the ax in tough tissue, and he turned and vomited. He was gagging and hacking and crying and the blood was everywhere, and still that goddamn leg was hooked on. Mario ripped away Collins’ pant leg, took the wedge he had in his pocket, pressed it up against Collins’ thigh. Strelchuk whipped off his leather belt and, using it as a tourniquet against the wedge, they stopped the heavy bleeding. Pontormo whined Italian. Strelchuk grabbed up the ax once more. His hands were greasy with blood and it was wet on his chest and face. He was afraid of missing or losing hold, and the shakes were rattling him, so he took short hacking strokes, and at last it broke off. They dragged him free. And Preacher Collins, that game old sonuvabitch, he was still praying.
I’ve quoted at such length to give a sense of Coover’s meticulousness in Origin of the Brunists. The novel is thick with life, thick with voices, mimetic detail, shapes, smells, colors, sounds. West Condon feels utterly real, making the novel’s dramatic absurdities all the more pronounced. The characters tell stories, weep and pray, bury their desires. Coover’s command of character isn’t absolute, but if his West Condoners sometimes teeter on the edge of grotesquerie they are nevertheless real, or as real as words on a page can be. More to come.
Otherwise I scarcely know what to say to your request for help on ‘more background’ first, I think, and I am not being facetious when I plead not that it’s so long since I wrote it but that [following a strikeover] (I’ve been typing all day and getting a little bleary) so long since I read it. If I named a single influence it would certainly be TS Eliot who still takes my breath away as he did then (and as a fair number of his lines sprinkled through the book might attest). Regarding any ‘message’, perhaps that art abides and the artist is its tool and victim but despite that it is the only enterprise worth embracing in the attempt to justify life; that art executed without love is bad (false) art but such love is not easy to come by. There was a corollary there too with God (perfection, gold) and the driving impossibility of grasping it because of our finite condition but that attempt being all we have to justify this finite condition (page 689 at the top I suppose is the key to the book if there is such). And in taking it down just now to look for this reference I read a few pages at random and must confess found them quite entertaining. I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition’, to simply enjoy it.
From Letters of William Gaddis, edited by Steven Moore. Excerpted from a 1972 reply to Jeanne G. Howes, a student at Case Western Reserve University who wrote a thesis on The Recognitions.
In the epilogue of his 1955 novel The Recognitions, William Gaddis checks in on the book’s enormous background cast, tying up loose ends, but also leaving many of the characters frayed, burned out, or destroyed. There’s a remarkable metatextual moment in this epilogue in which two minor characters are revealed to be carrying copies of a book that bears more than a passing resemblance to The Recognitions itself. These characters are both literary counterfeiters—Mr. Feddle, a faker who forges book jackets with his name in the author’s position and slips them over classic novels, and “the critic in the green wool shirt,” who doesn’t bother to read the books he reviews.
Meeting at a tailor’s shop, Feddle and the critic peer at each other, “fix[ing] the book the other was carrying with a look of myopic recognition.” The passage continues with the following acerbically ironic exchange:
—You reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise. —No. I’m just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in his green wool shirt.
—A lousy twenty-five bucks. It’ll take me the whole evening tonight. You didn’t buy it, did you? Christ, at that price? Who the hell do they think’s going to pay that much just for a novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review.
The exchange here accurately anticipates exactly how The Recognitions would be received by its contemporary critics—or “hacks,” as Jack Green repeatedly calls them in his infamous 1962 screed Fire the Bastards! For almost 80 pages, Green details the failures of the 55 critics who reviewed the book upon its release. Some of these major failures include—
failing to recognize the greatness of the book
failing to convey to the reader what the book is like, what its essential qualities are
counterfeiting this with stereotyped preconceptions—the standard cliches about a book that is “ambitious,” “erudite,” “long,” “negative,” etc
counterfeiting competence with inhuman jargon
Green’s repeated use of the word “counterfeit” not just here but throughout his tract demonstrates the essential realism of The Recognitions: Gaddis conceived how his novel of counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks would be misread, misremembered, and misrecognized by counterfeiters, poseurs, plagiarists, and hacks. The green-wool-shirted critic’s declaration that all he needs “is the jacket blurb to write the view” transcends its original satirical contours—it is a prophecy that comes true.
This satirical metatextual prognostication finds fruition in the review of The Recognitions published in The Louisville Courier-Journal. In Fire the Bastards!, Green details how the reviewer plagiarized his review of The Recognitions from the novel’s jacket blurb. The metatextuality here is magical: Gaddis conjures the character of an unnamed counterfeiter critic who will (not-)review a book that appears to be The Recognitions itself; this character becomes real by (not-)reviewing the book in an unsigned review in The Louisville Courier-Journal that plagiarizes the book’s blurb.
But perhaps I’ve neglected to demonstrate that the book that Feddle the faker and the critic in the green wool shirt are both not reading is in fact a version of The Recognitions itself. Here is the next paragraph in the episode:
It was in fact quite a thick book. A pattern of bold elegance, the lettering on the dust wrapper stood forth in stark configurations of red and black to intimate the origin of design. (For some crotchety reason there was no picture of the author looking pensive sucking a pipe, sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie, plastered across the back.)
In his invaluable work A Reader’s Guide to William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, Steven Moore gives the following annotation to these lines:
the description is of the first edition of R [The Recognitions]. Martin Dworkin’s photograph of Gaddis “sans gêne with a cigarette, sang-froid with no necktie” appeared in both the Time and Newsweek reviews.
Jack Green is more succinct in Fire the Bastards!: “the book the stubby
poet [Feddle] has is the recognitions [sic] itself.” And what is “the stubby poet” doing with such a bigass book? Reading it?
—Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike.
At least Feddle’s dislike is “intimate.” If he’d bothered to read it he might have gotten some weird alarming joy from this (meta)Recognitions. Or, even better, he might reread it—which is really the only way to read The Recognitions, I’m convinced, after my second full read. The book is more precise, more artfully constructed—more stuffed with motifs and symbols, doubled, tripled, quadrupled—than I had realized on first reading.
Jack Green made rereading The Recognitions a significant part of his life. He was an evangelist for the text, going so far as to take out a full page ad in The Village Voice in 1962 when the book was reprinted in paperback. His advertisement is five short paragraphs. The second paragraph is a proper, original blurb. The second paragraph is an argument for rereading. Here they are:
“The Recognitions” is a 956-page novel whose main theme is vanity or forgery—of Old Masters, $20 bills, slings, personality, everything. It is like a painting with a few primary figures presented in depth and an army of caricatures in the background. The main characters are unforgettable and, as is usually true, give the book most of its greatness. The minor characters, including the author himself who has a bit part, are very funny.
Like “Ulysses,” Gaddis’s book can be read the first time with enjoyment (my advice: don’t work at it) and then reread for years with increasing fascination. It has an intricate network of thousands of cross-references which give it a unique time-sense: as the connections are gradually recognized on rereading, the book appears to grow like a living being.
“Grow like a living being.” I think that’s about right.
— Where were you all day? Mr. Yak asked again, when they bumped the second time.
—The art museum? Mr. Yak shrugged. —What did you do there? He glanced up at the face beside him, and said, —You don’t look like you liked it much. The art there.
—Well they . . . the El Greco, his companion began, as though called upon to comment, and he drew his hand across his eyes.
—They have so many in one room, they’re almost hung on top of each other and it’s too much, it’s too much plasticity, there’s too much movement there in that one room . . . He suddenly looked up at Mr. Yak, holding a hand out before them which appeared to try to shape something there. —Do you … do you see what I mean? With a painter like El Greco, somebody called him a visceral painter, do you see what I mean? And when you get so much of his work hung together, it … the forms stifle each other, it’s too much. Down where they have the Flemish painters hung together it’s different, because they’re all separate . . . the compositions are separate, and the . . . the Bosch and Breughel and Patinir and even Dürer, they don’t disturb each other because the . . . because every composition is made up of separations, or rather … I mean … do you see what I mean? But the harmony in one canvas of El Greco is all one . . . one . . . He had both hands out before him now, the fingers turned in and the thumbs up as though holding something he was studying with a life which Mr. Yak had not seen in his face before. But he broke off abruptly, and his hands came down to his sides.
From William Gaddis’s The Recognitions.
The second episode of Part II, Ch. 5 of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions returns to the consciousness of sadsack everyman Mr. Pivner. Through milquetoast Mr. Pivner (the long-lost father of poseur-supreme Otto), Gaddis critiques the banal emptiness and rank venality of post-war life in America. In this particular section of The Recognitions, Gaddis reinforces one of his novel’s central themes: modern commerce has supplanted culture in contemporary America. Indeed, commerce is culture in America.
The episode begins as Papa Pivner prepares to meet Otto for the first time (their estrangement has not yet been explained in the narrative). They arrange to meet in a hotel restaurant, their recognition of each other secured in a promise to wear matching green scarves. Gaddis weaves this father-son plot into the schemes of the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who plans to offload his oh-so-artistic fraudulent currency to “a spreader” who will disseminate “the queer” bills. Ever the conman, Sinisterra disguises himself before heading to the meetup, which is to be held in a hotel restaurant. He dons a green scarf, by which his contact will recognize him. You get it: Sinisterra misrecognizes Otto for the spreader, Otto misrecognizes Sinisterra for his long-lost father, tragicomedy ensues, and Gaddis multiplies the strands of deferred and displaced father figures threaded through his bigass too-big too-long novel. This paternity motif is underlined even more when we remember Otto’s competition with Sinisterra’s son Chaby for the affections of Esme. But such deferrals and displacements are the material for a different riff. Let us shift back to Papa Pivner, sad soul, Gaddis’s little manikin-symbol-thing of paternal cultural authority cuckolded by commercial masscult modernity.
As he preps to meet his boy Otto, Mr. Pivner skims through Dale Carnegie’s 1936 utlrabestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People, a self-help book that Gaddis beats up for nearly ten straight pages in The Recognitions. (Not incidentally, Gaddis had his students at Bard College read Carnegie’s book as part of a class he taught called “The Theme of Failure in American Literature”). Carnegie’s book is the AntiRecognitions, and Gaddis delights in savaging its self-help hucksterism by setting How to Win Friends against the Western canon:
Mr. Pivner sat staring through rimless glasses at a kindly book-jacket face which returned his amorphous gaze. He was preparing to meet his son, to win him as a friend, and influence him as a person. As Odysseus had Mentor, Jesus John the Baptist, Cesare Borgia Machiavelli, Faust Mephistopheles, Descartes Father Dinet, Schopenhauer’s dog Schopenhauer, and Schiller his drawerful of rotten apples, Mr. Pivner had Dale Carnegie: he and four million other individuals, that is…
The passage’s bathos exemplifies Gaddis’s techniques in the Pivner episodes. Gaddis inflates the rhetoric with rich allusion and haughty parallelism, only to puncture the verbal balloon with the banality of middlebrow midcentury American values. For Gaddis, Carnegie’s book represented a signal synthesis of these venal values. How to Win Friends and Influence People cannibalized millennia of writings on wisdom, philosophy, ethics—and the strange mystery vibrating underneath these disciplines—and distilled it all into a self-help book centered on selling yourself to others. The contempt is palpable in another bathetic passage:
True, Mr. Pivner might have read Descartes; and, with tutelage, understood from that energetic fellow, well educated in Jesuit acrobatics (cogitans, ergo sum-ing), that everything not one’s self was an IT, and to be treated so. But Descartes, retiring from life to settle down and prove his own existence, was as ephemeral as some Roger Bacon settling down to construct geometrical proofs of God: for Mr. Pivner, a potential buyer (on page 95) who was head of the Hotel Greeters of America (and president of the International Greeters too!) was far more real.
Cribbing and re-appropriating Carnegie’s own words, Gaddis’s narrator notes that How to Win Friends “was not a book of thought, or thoughts, or ideas, but an action book.” Gaddis then ironically resituates the value of such a book:
An action book; and herein lay the admirable quality of this work: it decreed virtue not for virtue’s sake (as weary Stoics had it); nor courtesy for courtesy (an attribute of human dignity, as civilized culture would have it); nor love for love (as Christ had it); nor a faith which is its own explanation and its own justification (as any faith has it); but all of these excellences oriented toward the market place.
Gaddis posits How to Win Friends as the cynical, terminal destination for the radical transcendental values of the previous century. The values of self-determination, self-reliance, and self-making upheld by Henry David Thoreau, whose writings are alluded to in The Recognitions, are converted into self-improvement, which translates into self-selling. Art and philosophy are simply commodities. Gaddis intuits the ways that capitalism glosses its venality over with the promises of culture and transcendence. Consider this passage, which begins with a quote from Carnegie:
“Let me repeat: the principles taught in this book will work only when they come from the heart. I am not advocating a bag of tricks. I am talking about a new way of life.” That was the wonderful thing about this book [. . .] if at first its approach seemed fraught with guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice, that feeling soon disappeared, and one had . . . “Ah yes, you are attempting a new way of life.”
The litany of the huckster’s “bag of tricks” — “guile, subterfuge, duplicity, sophistry, and insidious artifice” — doubles back to The Recognitions’ motif of counterfeiting and also bites viciously into Carnegie’s core disingenuousness.
Gaddis not only attacks the content of Carnegie’s book, but also the form and style of the book. Carnegie’s hucksterism evinces in its very rhetoric. Gaddis seems to propose his own novel as the opposite of How to Win Friends and Influence People in both content (searching quest for meaning and authenticity in a degraded commercial world) and form (an unwieldy and often abstruse polyglossic beast of a book). In the following remarkable passage he decidedly (if obliquely) situates The Recognitions as a work contra Carnegie:
Here was no promise of anything so absurd as a void where nothing was, nor so delusive as a chimerical kingdom of heaven: in short, it reconciled those virtues he had been taught as a child to the motives and practices of the man, the elixir which exchanged the things worth being for the things worth having. It was written with reassuring felicity. There were no abstrusely long sentences, no confounding long words, no bewildering metaphors in an obfuscated system such as he feared finding in simply bound books of thoughts and ideas. No dictionary was necessary to understand its message; no reason to know what Kapila saw when he looked heavenward, and of what the Athenians accused Anaxagoras, or to know the secret name of Jahveh, or who cleft the Gordian knot, the meaning of 666. There was, finally, very little need to know anything at all, except how to “deal with people.”
Poor Pivner. He’s really just wanting to win the friendship of the son he’s only just learned he has. Gaddis uses Pivner to indict American culture’s commercially cruel contours, where any entity might be misappropriated and misused in the market place of ideas:
Here were Barnum and the Bible, Charles Schwab, Dutch Schultz and Shakespeare, two Napoleons, Pola Negri, and the National Credit Men’s Association, Capone, Chrysler, Two-Gun Crowley, and Jesus Christ, each in his own way posting the way to the market place. Even Jehovah appeared, if only in brief reversal…
The repeated bathos in II.5 of The Recognitions is wonderfully mean humor, but Pivner doesn’t seem like Gaddis’s main mark—rather, Gaddis shows us that Pivner is Carnegie’s mark. And for all the bathos here, there’s pathos too. We can find a certain sympathy in Pivner’s mild and foiled quest to meet with his progeny. A diabetic (like Chaby Sinisterra, he too uses needles), Pivner waits too long to take his insulin and conks out in the hotel lobby. He is briefly arrested and of course fails to meet Otto.
The next chapter, II.6 is set on Christmas Eve. Pivner receives a Christmas present from Otto, a beautiful and expensive robe (Otto is now flush with plenty of the counterfeit cash). Pivner is deeply moved by the gift, and elects to head back to the hotel to try to meet Otto again. The moment he dons the robe is rendered with disarming pathos. Gaddis’s narrator describes Pivner as a man “whose world was a series of disconnected images, his life a procession of faces reflecting his own anonymity in the street, and faces sharing moments of severe intimacy in the press.” If Pivner is prey to a conman like Carnegie, it is because Pivner is lonely and alienated. The modern condition is one of anxious anonymity, where “intimacy” boils down to reading the same gruesome news that others read. Human connection is mediated through mass media.
When Pivner returns to the hotel, he actually does encounter Otto. They stand next to each other, pissing into urinals in the hotel lobby men’s room, staring straight ahead at the obscene graffiti scrawled on the wall. A pornographic drawing so alarms Pivner that he turns and lowers his head, catching a glimpse of a green scarf poking from the proximal pisser’s pocket. The recognition remains incomplete though: Otto turns his “bloodshot eyes in a desolation of contempt” upon the older man and departs into the night. Pivner is unable to find confirmation of the younger man’s identity, and retreats to the bar to drink orange juice.
The final image of the chapter resonates with sympathetic and lonely despair. It is like something from an Edward Hopper painting. On one end of the bar sits a blonde; next to her Pivner; to his right, a newly-disguised Mr. Sinisterra, hoping too to catch Otto. When the blonde pays for her drink with one of his fake bills, Sinisterra gasps in a moment of recognition. The gasp draws Pivner’s attention and he looks to Sinisterra whose
sharp eyes gleamed at something beyond him, and with such intensity that his own were drawn in a reflex to look to where the blonde paid for her drink. But all Mr. Pivner saw, in the dim light, was a crisp twenty-dollar bill exchange hands: or so it looked to him, moonblind in the tinted gloom of that landscape where the three of them hung, asunder in their similarity, images hopelessly expectant of the appearance of figures, or a figure, of less transient material than their own.
In those final words and images we see the dream behind The Recognitions—the dream of recognizing the metaphysical, the original thing itself comprised of “less transient material” than our own. The final image seems to emanate from Pivner’s consciousness, and to emanate in a moment freed from the ironic bathos the narrator dragged him through before. There’s an emergent if subdued rejection of the market place figures that Dale Carnegie blithely promises his marks can attain, replaced, if fleetingly, for a longing after something more, something mysterious and unnameable. Gaddis conjures a small moment of strange, hopeless expectation—the wish for transcendent recognition.
It seems that for the past two weeks I have been reading mostly final exams and research papers, but I have read some other things too.
I have all but finished Tristan Foster’s collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, which I think is excellent contemporary fiction. Foster’s pieces do things that I did not know that I wanted contemporary fiction to do until I read the pieces. Read his story/poem/thing “Economies of Scale” to get an illustrating example. Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father deserves a proper review and I will give it one sooner rather than later. For now let me say that I am jealous of that title.
I’ve continued sifting unevenly through John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs. Earlier this year I tried reading one Dream Song a day and then realized I didn’t like reading one Dream Song a day. Some days I wanted to read three or five and some days I wanted to read none and some days I felt like skipping ahead to later Dream Songs and some days I got stuck on a few lines or a spare image or an oblique word and then I couldn’t move on. Here is Dream Song 30, which took me two days to read (I got hung up on “Hell talkt my brain awake” for more than a little while):
I am still auditing/rereading William Gaddis’s first novel The Recognitions. I riffed on rereading it here and here and here) and hope to riff some more, but I doubt I’ll have anything comprehensible to write about the chapter I just finished, II.3 (Chapter 3 of Section II). The opening of this chapter is a stream-of-consciousness flowing so freely that it overwhelms the reader. Gaddis takes us into Wyatt’s addled brains, a space overstuffed with hurtling esoteric mythopoetic gobbledygook. (The section also strongly recalls Stephen Dedalus’s stroll on the beach in Chapter 3 of Ulysses—although Gaddis denied having read Joyce’s opus).
The interior of Wyatt’s skull is frustrating as hell, which is maybe half the point. Things don’t get any simpler when Wyatt goes to his childhood home where no one recognizes him. Or, rather, he is misrecognized, recognized as someone else: an acolyte of Mithras, Prester John, the Messiah. As always with The Recognitions though, there’s a radical ambiguity: Is Wyatt misrecognized? Or is there an originality under the surface that his ersatz fragmented family recognizes?
I have around 100 more pages left to read of Helen DeWitt’s debut novel The Last Samurai. I’ve read the book at such a fast clip that I’m frankly suspicious of it. The book is 530 pages but feels like its 150 pages. I’m not sure what that means. Maybe it means it’s not a particularly dense novel, although it is rich in ideas—ideas about art, language, family. The book won me over when DeWitt steers the narrative into one of its first major side quests, the story of a musician named Kenzo Yamamoto. I recall reading late into the night, overtired but unable to put the book down. I stayed up too late and was too tired the next day, and then sneaked in a few sections during office hours the next morning. I think that means that I like the book very much—but I also find myself irked at times by something in DeWitt’s style—a sort of archness that veers into preciousness, a cleverness that interminably announces itself. The book tries to spin irony into earnestness, which is vaguely exhausting. I think I would have been head over heels in love with this book if I had read it ten or fifteen years ago.
In his recent review of The Last Samurai at Vulture — where the book garnered the dubious prize of being prematurely called “The Best Book of the Century” — Christian Lorentzen wrote that DeWitt’s “novel was never easily subsumed in one of the day’s critical categories, like James Wood’s hysterical realism.” But reading The Last Samurai, I am reminded of the books that Wood thought of as “hysterical realism.” Wood coined the term to describe a trend he saw in literature of the late nineties, literature that combined absurdity with social and cultural realism (at the expense of Wood’s precious psychological realism). Wood specifically applied his description to Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth (published, like The Last Samurai, in 2000), but slapped it down elsewhere, notably to David Foster Wallace. While I don’t endorse Wood’s scolding use of the phrase “hysterical realism,” I do think that it’s a useful (if perhaps too-nebulous) description for a set of trends in some of the major novels published in the late nineties and early 2000s: Infinite Jest, Middlesex, The Corrections, A Heartbreaking Work of Something or Other, etc. And, to come in where I started: The Last Samurai shares a lot of the same features with these texts—the blending of styles and texts and disciplines, etc. DeWitt’s filtering a lot of the same stuff, I guess. I would maybe use the term post-postmodernism in place of “hysterical realism” though—although a novel need not be subsumed by any term, and maybe the best can’t really be described in language at all.
An intriguing and confounding section of Chapter 1 of Part II of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions focuses heavily on Esme, the poet who models for Wyatt Gwyon as he paints his forgeries. The episode eventually reveals Esme as one of the heroes of The Recognitions. It begins with Esme cloistering herself, pinning a sign to her door that reads: “Do Not Disturb Me I Am Working Esme.” She begins her “work” in a manic blur, “delighted to be alone.” As her energy shifts, she sews for a bit, before finally switching to attend to her small library:
But before that sewing was done she was up, rearranging her books with no concern but for size. There was, really, little else their small ranks held in common (except color of the bindings, and so they had been arranged, and so too the reason often enough she’d bought them). Their compass was as casual as books left behind in a rooming house; and this book of stories by Stevenson, with no idea where she’d got it, she hadn’t looked into it for years, now could not put it down, and to her now it was the only book she owned.
Esme’s bookshelving is purely aesthetic, and the aesthetic seems arbitrary (and likely temporary). In this little scene she moves from arrangement by color to arrangement by size. Her aesthetic arrangement leads her back to a collection of Robert Louis Stevenson stories (likely The Merry Men, and Other Tales), her current (arbitrary, temporary) aesthetic obsession. The “Esme working” section of II.1 of The Recognitions actually begins with an entire paragraph a Stevenson story, presumably read aloud by Esme. This long quote goes unattributed, but Steven Moore identifies it in his annotations for The Recognitions as part of the Gothic short story “Olalla.”
The passage from “Olalla” quoted in The Recognitions begins with the phrase “What is mine, then, and what am I?” Olalla poses these questions to the narrator of Stevenson’s tale, a nameless Scottish soldier who recuperates from wounds in a Spanish hospital and then in the home of a fallen noble family (Gaddis cribs from this plot in the first chapter of The Recognitions, where Wyatt’s father, the Reverend Gwyon, recovers in a Spanish monastery).
Olalla’s questions are quite literal. She recognizes herself in the paintings of her ancestors, which line the walls of her family’s house, and claims a part of herself in those paintings in a haunting phrase: “Others, ages dead, have wooed other men with my eyes.” Olalla recognizes something in herself that antecedes her ancestors, some essential element that surpasses death and transcends time. She describes herself as “a transitory eddy” in a stream of time (lines not included in Gaddis’s graft from the story): not the original, but the wave that carries the impulse of origination. Her words challenge the notion of a stable, self-present self.
Olalla’s questions — “What is mine, then, and what am I?” — are essentially Esme’s questions. Esme fragments as the novel progresses, and Gaddis rhetorically highlights her looming madness by employing a daunting elliptical prose style in the sections that wander into her consciousness. Consider here, where we learn about Esme the reader:
Even so she had never read for the reasons that most people give themselves for reading. Facts mattered little, ideas propounded, exploited, shattered, even less, and narrative nothing.
This sentence is fairly straightforward—we see how Esme’s reading might differ from the way most of us read. But let’s see where we go next—what does Esme read for?
Only occasional groupings of words held her,
Esme reads discontinuously, perhaps arbitrarily, aesthetically—but let’s let that sentence unwind:
Only occasional groupings of words held her, and she entered to inhabit them a little while, until they became submerged, finding sanctuary in that part of herself which she looked upon distal and afraid, a residence as separate and alien, real or unreal, as those which shocked her with such deep remorse when the features of others betrayed them. An infinite regret, simply that she had seen, might rise in her then, having seen too much unseen; and it brought her eyes down quick.
I’ll admit I find the lines baffling. Esme inhabits the words, which then, strangely, become submerged within her, or a part of her that she has disassociated from her self-present self. The paragraph ends with a shock of recognition. Is this Esme gazing into the abyss? In any case, we see here Gaddis’s rhetorical skill at conjuring complex instability in his subject.
Let’s continue by moving from Esme the aesthetic reader to Esme the aesthetic writer:
The sole way, it seemed to her often enough when she was working at writing a poem, to use words with meaning, would be to choose words for themselves, and invest them with her own meaning: not her own, perhaps, but meaning which was implicit in their shape, too frequently nothing to do with dictionary definition.
And yet it would be too simple to suggest that Esme’s poetry is utterly meaningless, pure sound and shape without content. Rather, her writing is a writing against: A writing against the cheapness of language in a masscult zeitgeist, against newspapers and memos and comic books and flyers and stock ticker tape and museum guides and informational pamphlets and millions and millions of copies of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The paragraph continues, highlighting Gaddis’s fascination with entropy:
The words which the tradition of her art offered her were by now in chaos, coerced through the contexts of a million inanities, the printed page everywhere opiate, row upon row of compelling idiocies disposed to induce stupor, coma, necrotic convulsion; and when they reached her hands they were brittle, straining and cracking, sometimes they broke under the burden which her tense will imposed, and she found herself clutching their fragments, attempting again with this shabby equipment her raid on the inarticulate.
Esme is one of Gaddis’s heroes. Like Jack Gibbs in J R or McCandless in Carpenter’s Gothic or the narrator of Agapē Agape, she forces her will against an entropic dissolving world, and she does so to make art. And in her art she makes her self, or a version of her self, a self apart from the self-present self that might have to haggle and bustle in the tumult of the masscult midcentury metropolis. Esme strives for transcendence from language through language toward a place of pure recognition:
It was through this imposed accumulation of chaos that she struggled to move now: beyond it lay simplicity, unmeasurable, residence of perfection, where nothing was created, where originality did not exist: because it was origin; where once she was there work and thought in causal and stumbling sequence did not exist, but only transcription: where the poem she knew but could not write existed, ready-formed, awaiting recovery in that moment when the writing down of it was impossible: because she was the poem.
Earlier this week, continuing my audit of William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recogntions, I felt a tingling sense of recognition in the following lines from which Basil Valentine reads from “a copy of Thoreau” (this is at the very end of Part I, on page 265):
What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.
I attributed this tingling recognition to having read The Recognitions before (and to having read Part I once before that)—but then I realized that I’d read the line far, far more recently: It’s the epigraph to Gaddis’s fourth novel A Frolic of His Own, which I’d opened up again just a few weeks ago (and subsequently put back down).
This recognition is nothing special and certainly uninteresting to longtime Gaddis fans, but it motivated me enough to look more into the remark, so I plugged it into Google and quickly found J. M. Tyree’s essay “Henry Thoreau, William Gaddis, and the Buried History of an Epigraph.” Tyree’s essay was originally published in New England Review but I found it, natch, on Steven Moore’s The Gaddis Annotations.
Tyree’s essay is a fascinating read, tracking the strange history of the line. Thoreau’s words, it turns out, are not exactly Thoreau’s words—rather, they are Emerson’s recollections of a conversation between the pair from a walk in the woods. Additionally, Emerson wrote and attributed these words after Thoreau’s death. The remark initially appeared in Emerson’s literary eulogy “Thoreau,” published in the August 1862 edition of Atlantic Monthly. As Tyree observes,
This detail, which seems highly trivial at first, in fact slyly reinforces the theme of original and copy supersaturating Gaddis’s novel. The very nature of authorship falls into question here, in a manner similar to the problem of Socrates and Plato: is Thoreau’s saying from Emerson or from Thoreau, or is it from both?
While issues of originality and authenticity of authorship clearly correlate to the themes of The Recognitions, Tyree’s essay is most interesting to me in the ways by which it situates Gaddis’s work with/against the American Renaissance tradition. Tyree gives us some of the flavor of that tradition, recontextualizing Gaddis’s epigraph in a full paragraph of Emerson’s. Here’s Emerson eulogizing his friend Thoreau:
It was a pleasure and a privilege to walk with him. He knew the country like a fox or a bird, and passed through it as freely by paths of his own. He knew every track in the snow or on the ground, and what creature had taken this path before him. One must submit abjectly to such a guide, and the reward was great . . . Presently he heard a note which he called that of the night-warbler, a bird he had never identified, had been in search of twelve years, which always, when he saw it, was in the act of diving down into a tree or bush, and which it was vain to seek; the only bird that sings indifferently by night and by day. I told him he must beware of finding and booking it, lest life should have nothing more to show him. He said, “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.”
Tyree situates the passage within the contrasting (and quickly diverging) philosophies of the old friends: “Emerson was essentially cosmic in his Transcendentalism, while Thoreau sought the divine in the actual empirical details of nature.”
Tyree’s essay becomes most interesting to me when he begins to interpret just what the hell the quote means. His analysis hovers around the word family, underlining an obsession of American literature: escape from domesticity. Here’s Tyree’s paraphrase of the Thoreau’s/Emerson’s line:
One finds the object of a long quest, quite suddenly, at the family dinner table. But in the moment of discovery, something seems to go wrong; rather than capturing the truth, one becomes its prey. Clearly, the conversation here has expanded beyond night-warblers. Thoreau is now speaking of truth and its relationship to the family dinner table.
Tyree then susses out Thoreau’s complicated relationship with Emerson’s family:
It is possible to make too much of the fact that Thoreau’s intellectual life, as both a thinker and a man, developed in Emerson’s shade, in the shelter of Emerson’s house and family. But it is clear that Thoreau was often of two minds about living with or near Emerson. In a September 1841 letter….Thoreau told a friend that he was “living with Mr. Emerson in very dangerous prosperity.”
That “dangerous prosperity” of domestic life echoes one of the grand themes of American literature—namely, civilization is a blockade to be surpassed on the trek into wild nature, individuality, and freedom. Domestic duty interferes with such adventures. Just ask Rip Van Winkle, Ishmael, or Huck Finn. (Or perhaps Hawthorne’s cautionary figure, Young Goodman Brown).
Tyree underlines the point (final emphasis mine):
In the exchange over the night-warbler, the family is again identified in terms of danger; the quest is a danger to the family, or the family is a danger to the quest. One might read this as Thoreau’s critique of what would now be called Emerson’s “lifestyle.” A man who is the prey to truth must leave the dinner table to find it, but Emerson, in the comfort of his household, among his family, will never book the night-warbler. Thoreau does not say that having “all the family at dinner” stops one’s seeking, only that one becomes the prey of a protracted, half-conscious quest at mealtime. Then, one must decide what to do about it—whether to search out the night-warbler or not, and how to do it. The question seems to be whether the truth can be found through the life of the family, or whether one must leave it behind in some sense.
In The Recognitions, Wyatt circumvents the danger to his quest by not only removing himself from family (in the form of his wife Esther), but from removing himself from society in general. In J R (1975), most of Gaddis’s heroes find themselves unable to reconcile to Wyatt’s solution; their seeking fumbled out in half measures, neatly figured in the 96th Street apartment apartment shared by Gibbs, Eigen, and Bast. This hellhole is a transitory space, an inbetweeness of domesticity and city wilderness. Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) offers a more thorough critique of the impulse in American literature to send its (generally masculine) characters out into the wild spaces where they can transcend all the trappings of domesticity that bog them down. Carpenter’s Gothic confines its heroine to one haunted house, the men in her life flitting in and out if like silly birds on foiled quests. That domestic confinement reaches a kind of apotheosis in Gaddis’s posthumous novel Agapē Agape (2002), the stifling uninterrupted monologue of a man in a room, fighting against entropy.
And what about A Frolic of His Own (1994)? Well I haven’t read it yet.