Three Books


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.


Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. 1997 first paperback printing edition by Abacus (Great Britain). No designer credited.


The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara. First paperback printing by Aurora, 1998. Cover design by Todd Michael Bushman.

Nothing music (William Gaddis)

—No it’s all right . . . he’d brought his eyes up sharply from the loose collar of her blouseless suit, more the appeal of asking a favor than granting one in his tone—that was when he was old though, Wagner I mean, when Wagner was old and . . .

—Yes but that’s what you meant isn’t it, about creating an entirely different world when you write an opera, about asking the audience to suspend its belief in the . . .

—No not asking them making them, like that E flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty-six bars until the idea that everything’s happening under water is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on and . . .

—Mrs Joubert could I have a dime?

—I think you’ve had enough to eat Debby, we’re . . .

—It’s Linda.

—Linda yes I’m sorry, where’s your sweater.

—Over on the table, I don’t want to eat they said it costs a dime to go to the toilet here, you have to put a dime in to get in the . . .

—Yes yes all right if, oh thank you again we must be taking every penny you.

—No no it’s all right I’ve, I’d put some aside for the union and when they wouldn’t take me, when you say you’re a concert pianist they give you as hard a score as they can find there was a drummer there and all they asked for was give us a paradiddle . . .

—But why must you join at all, if you simply want to compose . . .

—No well since this teaching was, since it didn’t really work out too well I thought if I could find some work playing I could keep on with my . . .

—Mrs Jou . . .

—Here . . .! he thrust a dime at the figure shifting rapidly foot to foot beside her,—that I could keep working on my . . .

—But couldn’t you earn something writing music for, I don’t know but there must be somewhere you could . . .

—Yes well that’s what I did, what I’m doing I mean somebody I met there, a bass player, he was on standby he’s getting paid not to play at a Broadway show they say is a musical just because it . . .

—Mis . . .

—Excuse me, boys please! You’ve just had a dollar J R you don’t need . . .

—No I know, I just wondered if Mister Bast wants me to change some nickels from a dollar for him.

—Not, no but if you’d like something?

—Some, just some tea I think, I don’t feel awfully well . . .

—Yes wait, here . . . he peeled away a bill under the table.

—And he found you something? this bass player?

—No well yes sort of indirectly, he said he wanted to help me out and sent me to a place over on the West Side where they said they wanted some nothing music, three minutes of nothing music it’s for television or something, they said they had three minutes of talk on a track or a tape they needed music behind it but it couldn’t have any real form, anything distinctive about it any sound anything that would distract from this voice this, this message they called it, they . . .

—But of all things how absurd, paying a composer to . . .

—Yes well they didn’t, I couldn’t do it I mean, they were in a hurry they would have paid me three hundred dollars and I tried and all I could, everything I did they said was too . . .

—And that’s hardly what I meant, someone being paid not to play who sends you somewhere to write nothing mus . . .

—Well what do you think I . . .! he caught one hand back with the other,—I’m sorry I, three hundred dollars all I could think of was that concerto of Mozart’s the D-minor, that’s more than he got paid for the whole series and I couldn’t even . . .

—But I think it’s marvelous, that you couldn’t write their nothing music? I mean just because you can’t get paid to play Chopin or even write music that’s . . .

—No but I am though, I didn’t finish . . . he looked up from her fingertips touching his hands clenched there,—when I left somebody else there said he’d like to help me out and sent me downtown to see some dancers who want their own music for . . .

—Boys . . .! her hand was gone,—settle down! she called after the collision at the marbled cashier’s cage—I’m sorry, we . . .

—Do you like Chopin?

—Oh of course I do yes, that ballade the Ballade in G? it’s simply the most roman . . .

—In G-minor yes that’s on the program if I could get tickets would you, it’s next week would you like to go if I can get the tickets it’s a recital by . . .

—That’s awfully sweet Mister Bast I . . .

—No well I guess I, I mean you’re married I didn’t think of that I just . . .

—That’s hardly the reason no but, I’m just afraid I can’t, I’m . . .

—No that’s all right I just, I just thought you, you wanted some tea yes I’m sorry I’ll get it . . .

—Thank you I’d, oh be careful! she’d seized his wrist.

—No I’m all right . . . he came up slowly as her hand fell away,—I’ll get it . . . he righted the chair and stood looking, turned toward the figures huddled at a table near the telephone booths foreheads almost touching, hands churning coins.

Another intersection of art and commerce in William Gaddis’s novel J R.

Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos (William Gaddis)

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 . . .

So I’m going through William Gaddis’s novel J R again (via Nick Sullivan’s amazing audiobook recording-performance)…

“Mothers” — William Gaddis

“Mothers” by William Gaddis

When Ralph Waldo Emerson informed—or rather, perhaps, warned us—that we are what our mothers made us, we might dismiss it as received opinion and let it go at that, like the broken clock which is right twice a day, like the self-evident answer contained in Freud’s oft-quoted query “What do women want?” when, as nature’s handmaid, she must want what nature wants which is, quite simply, More. But which woman? Whose mother, Emerson’s? A woman so in thrall to religion that we confront another dead end; or Freud’s? or even one’s own, even mine, offering an opportune bit of wisdom to those of us engaged in the creative arts, where paranoia is almost an occupational hazard: “Bill, just try to remember,” she said, “there is much more stupidity than there is malice in the world,” an observation lavish with possibilities recalling Anatole France finding the fool more dangerous than the rogue because “the rogue does at least take a rest sometimes, the fool never.”

This is hardly to see stupidity and malice as mutually exclusive: look at your morning paper, where their combined forces explode exponentially (women and children first) from Bosnia to Belfast, unlike the international “intelligence community” so self-contained in its malice-free exercises that it generally ensnares only its own dubious cast of players. Of further importance is the distinction between stupidity and ignorance, since ignorance is educable, while stupidity’s self-serving mission is the cultivation and exploitation of ignorance, as politicians are keenly aware.

How, then, might Emerson’s mother have seen herself stumbling upon Thomas Carlyle’s vision of her son as a “hoary-headed and toothless baboon”? Or Freud’s, in the gross unlikelihood of her reading the Catholic World’s review of her son’s book Moses and Monotheism as “poorly written, full of repetitions . . . and spoiled by the author’s atheistic bias and his flimsy psychoanalytic fancies”? Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister dismissed as “sheer nonsense” by the Edinburgh Review and, a good century later, the hero of Saul Bellow’s Dangling Man ridiculed as a “pharisaical stinker” in Time magazine, John Barth’s The End of the Road recommended by Kirkus Reviews “for those schooled in the waste matter of the body and the mind,” and William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! shrugged off as the “final blowup of what was once a remarkable, if minor, talent” by The New Yorker magazine where, just forty years later, “a group of avant-garde critics has put forward the idea that books should be made unreadable. This movement has manifest advantages. Being unreadable, the text repels reviewers, critics, anthologists, academic literati, and other parasitical forms of life,” indicting the author of the novel J R wherein “to produce an unreadable text, to sustain this foxy purpose over 726 pages, demands rare powers. Mr. Gaddis has them.” “You’re a fool, a fool!” the distraught mother of Dostoevski’s ill-fated hero Nikolay Stavrogin cries out at the “parasitical forms of life” surrounding her. “You’re all ungrateful fools. Give me my umbrella!”

(“Mothers” is collected in The Rush to Second Place).

Some notes on beginning Evan Dara’s novel Flee


A. What a cover on Evan Dara’s 2013 novel Flee, don’t you agree?

B. From the back cover:


C. That’s all there is. Well, okay, there’s an ISBN too. But no blurbs, no other text.

D. “Something always going on—” is the first line of Flee. It’s also an apt description of Dara’s formal technique, a constantly-shifting series of dialogues, monologues, overlapping, cross-cutting, diverging—always out there ahead of the reader. That dash there—that dash is the simple summative signal of it all, a little typographic pole that simultaneously connects and interrupts.

E. The most obvious point of comparison for Dara’s technique (besides his amazing debut novel The Lost Scrapbook) is William Gaddis’s stuff, particularly J Rthe verbal dazzle, the few stray lines of poetic stage-setting in lieu of traditional exposition—the throw-the-reader-in-the-deep-end stuff. David Foster Wallace frequently attempted the same rhetorical mode, most successfully in §19 of The Pale King. (It’s entirely likely that The Lost Scrapbook could have had the same following that Infinite Jest achieved had Dara done anything to promote the book. But here I think of Gaddis in his Paris Review interview: “I’d go back to The Recognitions where Wyatt asks what people want from the man they didn’t get from his work, because presumably that’s where he’s tried to distill this ‘life and personality and views’ you speak of. What’s any artist but the dregs of his work: I gave that line to Wyatt thirty-odd years ago and as far as I’m concerned it’s still valid”).

F. The point of contrast though is Dara’s abrupt transition, sometimes it seems mid-sentence, from one speaker to the next. Just as we feel (nearly) comfortable with who this particular narrator might be, another voice interjects, or rather continues, or re-trajects the discourse—as in the second chapter of Flee (“38,842”), where a college student driving home in snowy weather to pick up a book by Paul Krugman gives over to a number of speakers all describing the closing of the local university, Pitkinson (this closing’s being the presumable, like, plot of Flee so far I suppose)—faculty and staff and townies and residents—until a grad student takes over to report the speech of one Professor Gray, himself bearing witness to the downfall of the school (Ghost Sociology is the issue)—and then of course the chapter gives over to more rumor, more speculation. “Something always going on—.”

G. So I’ve read the first three chapters (“38,839,” “38,842,” “36,551”). But wait: The next chapter (“35,717”–do the titles reflect the dwindling population of the town (Anderburg)?)—but wait the next chapter, I see by scanning, offers some new, perhaps, rhetorical gesture—a section in a different font? Chunkier paragraphs?

I have to go see about this. (More to come).

“The Blue Jay” by Billy Gaddis — Juvenilia from William Gaddis


William Gaddis juvenilia from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. (You can read the entire piece there).

OOPS! (William Gaddis)


Another little nugget from Washington University’s Modern Literature collection. Their description:

The Freedom Forum calendar showing a quote concerning the Pulitzer Prize by William Gaddis on December 15, 1995. Includes autograph commentary by Gaddis.

“Those involved. Wyatt — A painter” — William Gaddis’s autograph notes for The Recognitions


More great stuff from Washington University’s Modern Literature Collection.


“Dear Willie” — William H. Gass Writes to William Gaddis


From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection.


“Authenticity’s Wiped Out” — A Passage from William Gaddis’s Last Novel, Agapē Agape

William Gaddis’s last novel Agapē Agape is a bitter, funny rant, a monologic stream-of-consciousness that, through its extreme powers of synthesis, spills over into heteroglossic eruptions, a carnival of erudite voices. Driven by terrible physical pain, hints of madness, and, most of all, the need to “explain all this” before he dies, the voice of the novel (surely Gaddis himself) channels cultural historian Johan Huizinga and philosopher Walter Benjamin into a conversation about the conflict of art and commerce set against the backdrop of the rise of mass culture:

. . . falls right into line doesn’t it, collapse of authenticity collapse of religion collapse of values what Huizinga called one of the most important phases in the history of civilization, and Walter Benjamin picks it up in his Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction in this heap somewhere, the authentic work of art is based in ritual he says, and wait Mr. Benjamin, got to get in there the romantic mid-eighteenth century aesthetic pleasure in the worship of art was the privilege of the few. I was saying, Mr. Huizinga, that the authentic work of art had its base in ritual, and mass reproduction freed it from this parasitical dependence. Ah, quite so Mr. Benjamin quite so, turn of the century religion was losing its steam and art came in as its substitute would you say? Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, and I’d add that this massive technical reproduction of works of art could be manipulated, changed the way the masses looked at art and manipulated them. Inadvertently Mr. Benjamin you might say that art now became public property, for the simply educated Mona Lisa and the Last Supper became calendar art to hang over the kitchen sink. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga, Paul Valery saw it coming, visual and auditory images brought into homes from far away like water gas and electricity and finally, God help us all, the television. Positively Mr. Benjamin, with mechanization, advertising artworks made directly for a market what America’s all about. Always has been, Mr. Huizinga. Always has been, Mr. Benjamin. Everything becomes an item of commerce and the market names the price. And the price becomes the criterion for everything. Absolutely Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice, Mr. Benjamin, and the mass will always choose the fake. Choose the fake, Mr. Huizinga! Authenticity’s wiped out, it’s wiped out Mr. Benjamin. Wiped out, Mr. Huizinga. Choose the fake, Mr. Benjamin. Absolutely, Mr. Huizinga! Positively Mr. Benjamowww! Good God! a way to find a sharp pencil just sit still avoid stress stop singing what, anybody heard me they’d think I was losing my, that I’d lost it yes maybe I have . . .

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis

I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel–so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Two tremendous novels. And the author maneuvering his car out of a dark and cramped driveway, the last time I saw him, with four or five friends and acquaintances calling out instructions as the car backed onto the country road, headlights shining on our waved good nights.

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis. From the Fall 2003 issue of Conjunctions.

The Inhumanity Museum


Scissors, Richard Diebenkorn
Scissors, Richard Diebenkorn

Near the end of the first cycle-section of Doris Lessing’s novel The Golden Notebook, protagonist Anna Wulf abandons the pretense of personal narrative in favor of pastiche, collage, clipping. Our heroine cuts and pastes material directly from the newspapers she’s been reading into her blue notebook:

[At this point the diary stopped, as a personal document. It continued in the form of newspaper cuttings, carefully pasted in and dated.]

March, 50

The modeller calls this the ‘H-Bomb Style’, explaining that the ‘H’ is for peroxide of hydrogen, used for colouring. The hair is dressed to rise in waves as from a bomb-burst, at the nape of the neck. Daily Telegraph.

July 13th, 50

There were cheers in Congress today when Mr Lloyd Bentsen, Democrat, urged that President Truman should tell the North Koreans to withdraw within a week or their towns would be atom-bombed. Express.

July 29th, 50

Britain’s decision to spend £100 million more on Defence means, as Mr Attlee has made clear, that hoped-for improvements in living standards and social services must be postponed. New Statesman.

Aug. 3, 50

America is to go right ahead with the H Bomb, expected to be hundreds of times more powerful than the atom bombs. Express.

The passages continue for pages in the same vein until:

30th March 2nd H-BOMB EXPLODED. Express.

This section of The Golden Notebook fits neatly into what I’ve come to think of as the Inhumanity Museum. The writer clips from the newspaper and passes those fragments to the author, who tosses them to the speaker, the narrator, a character, perhaps—and asks: What to do with these? Can you believe this? Are there even words for this? 

Which is the appeal to the writer, I think, of clippings that belong to the Inhumanity Museum: That the journalist telegraphs (plainly, simply, succinctly) what the novelist may deem ineffable.

I’ve appropriated the term the Inhumanity Museum from William H. Gass’s novel Middle C:

The gothic house he and his mother shared had several attic rooms, and Joseph Skizzen had decided to devote one of them to the books and clippings that composed his other hobby: the Inhumanity Museum. He had painstakingly lettered a large white card with that name and fastened it to the door. It did not embarrass him to do this, since only he was ever audience to the announcement. Sometimes he changed the placard to an announcement that called it the Apocalypse Museum instead. The stairs to the third floor were too many and too steep for his mother now. Daily, he would escape his sentence in order to enter yesterday’s clippings into the scrapbooks that constituted the continuing record:

Friday June 18, 1999

Sri Lanka. Municipal workers dug up more bones from a site believed to contain the bodies of hundreds of Tamils murdered by the military. Poklek, Jugoslavia. 62 Kosovars are packed into a room into which a grenade is tossed. Pristina, Jugoslavia. It is now estimated that 10,000 people were killed in the Serbian ethnic-cleansing pogram..

There is more

Tomato and Knife, Richard Diebenkorn

I’m still not sure exactly how the Inhumanity Museum fits into Middle C’s tale of fraud and music. Maybe it’s just Gass’s excuse to unload some of the material he’s been clipping for years. (Maybe I need to reread Middle C).

Here is Gass, in a 2009 interview, discussing William Gaddis (the emphasis is mine): 

We were very close, even though we spent most of our time apart. I really had the warmest… We had great times. We both had the same views: Mankind, augh hsdgahahga!!!!. And he would read the paper and make clippings out of it. He was always saying, “Did you read…!?” We would both exalt in our gloom.

“Mankind [unintelligible]!” Ha! Continue reading “The Inhumanity Museum”

The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. (William Gaddis)


After the injection, he picked up his newspaper. The Sunday edition, still in the rack beside him, required fifty acres of timber for its “magic transformation of nature into progress, benefits of modern strides in transportation, communication, and freedom of the press: public information. (True, as he got into the paper, the average page was made up of a half-column of news, and four-and-one-half columns of advertising.) A train wreck in India, 27 killed, he read; a bus gone down a ravine in Chile, 1 American and 11 natives; avalanche in Switzerland, death toll mounts . . . This evening edition required only a few acres of natural grandeur to accomplish its mission (for it carried less advertising). Mr. Pivner read carefully. Kills father with meat-ax. Sentenced for slaying of three. Christ died of asphyxiation, doctor believes. Woman dead two days, invalid daughter unable to summon help. Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner’s eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. “Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. “Ashamed of world,” kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.Every instant of this sense of waiting which he had known all of his life, this waiting for something to happen (uncertain quite what, and the Second Advent intruded) he brought to his newspaper reading, spellbound and ravenous. Man fights lion in zoo, barefisted. Cow kills woman. Rooster kills woman. Dogs eat Eskimo. As he turned the pages, folding them smartly back over the bulk of the newspaper, he relaxed a little at his comparative safety away from the news, drew comfort from the train wreck (he was not in it), the bus accident in Chile (nor in that), the meat-ax slaying (he had not done it), the headless corpse (not his), and so the newspaper served him, externalizing in the agony of others the terrors and temptations inadmissible in himself. Even though the evening paper repeated the news of the morning paper, he read attentively again, reworded, of the hunt for the unknown person who was releasing birds from an uptown zoo, of the discovery of two priceless art treasures, original paintings of Dierick Bouts, in a pawnshop in Hell’s Kitchen, of the murder trial in Mouth, Mississippi, where just that morning the husband’s heart had been exhibited in court. All of these civilized wonders were brought together, he was made to feel, expressly for him, by the newspaper. True, they kept him in such a state that he often bought late editions of the same newspaper, seeing different headlines than those tucked under his arm, only to read the story from column six suddenly elevated to a banner across columns one to four. True, often the only way he could know whether he had read a newspaper was to turn to the comic strips, where life flowed in continuum; and recognizing them, he knew that he must have read everything else closely and avidly, that nothing had evaded his eye, nor penetrated to his heart round which he had built that wall called objectivity without which he might have gone mad. As the tales of violence seemed daily to increase it hardly occurred to him that he was living in such unnatural density of population that it daily supported disasters sufficient for a continent. Added to this came the blood of the world, piped in on wires, and wireless, teletype, undersea cables, and splashed without a drop lost in transit upon Mr. Pivner, who sat, hard, patient, unbending, wiped it from his eyes, and waited for more.

An inhumanity museum from William Gaddis’s The Recognitions. I’m citing part of the passage for a bigger thing I’m working on now—it’s a bit too long for that thing, but too good not to share in full.

William Gaddis and David Markson, New York, 1964


(From The Letters of William Gaddis, Dalkey Archive).

“the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection” (William Gaddis)

His father seemed less than ever interested in what passed around him, once assured Wyatt’s illness was done. Except for the Sunday sermon, public activities in the town concerned him less than ever. Like Pliny, retiring to his Laurentine villa when Saturnalia approached, the Reverend Gwyon avoided the bleak festivities of his congregation whenever they occurred, by retiring to his study. But his disinterest was no longer a dark mantle of preoccupation. A sort of hazardous assurance had taken its place. He approached his Sunday sermons with complaisant audacity, introducing, for instance, druidical reverence for the oak tree as divinely favored because so often singled out to be struck by lightning. Through all of this, even to the sermon on the Aurora Borealis, the Dark Day of May in 1790 whose night moon turned to blood, and the great falling of stars in November 1833, as signs of the Second Advent, Aunt May might well have noted the persistent non-appearance of what she, from that same pulpit, had been shown as the body of Christ. Certainly the present members of the Use-Me Society found many of his references “unnecessary.” It did not seem quite necessary, for instance, to note that Moses had been accused of witchcraft in the Koran; that the hundred thousand converts to Christianity in the first two or three centuries in Rome were “slaves and disreputable people,” that in a town on the Nile there were ten thousand “shaggy monks” and twice that number of “god- dedicated virgins”; that Charlemagne mass-baptized Saxons by driving them through a river being blessed upstream by his bishops, while Saint Olaf made his subjects choose between baptism and death. No soberly tolerated feast day came round, but that Reverend Gwyon managed to herald its grim observation by allusion to some pagan ceremony which sounded uncomfortably like having a good time. Still the gray faces kept peace, precarious though it might be. They had never been treated this way from the pulpit. True, many stirred with indignant discomfort after listening to the familiar story of virgin birth on December twenty-fifth, mutilation and resurrection, to find they had been attending, not Christ, but Bacchus, Osiris, Krishna, Buddha, Adonis, Marduk, Balder, Attis, Amphion, or Quetzalcoatl. They recalled the sad day the sun was darkened; but they did not remember the occasion as being the death of Julius Caesar. And many hurried home to closet themselves with their Bibles after the sermon on the Trinity, which proved to be Brahma, Vishnu, and Siva; as they did after the recital of the Immaculate Conception, where the seed entered in spiritual form, bringing forth, in virginal modesty, Romulus and Remus.

If the mild assuasive tones of the Reverend offended anywhere, it was the proprietary sense of his congregation; and with true Puritan fortitude they resisted any suggestion that their bloody sacraments might have known other voices and other rooms. They could hardly know that the Reverend’s powers of resistance were being taxed more heavily than their own, where he withstood the temptation to tell them details of the Last Supper at the Eleusinian Mysteries, the snake in the Garden of Eden, what early translators of the Bible chose to let the word ‘thigh’ stand for (where ancient Hebrews placed their hands when under oath), the symbolism of the Triune triangle and, in generative counterpart so distressing to early fathers of the Church, the origin of the Cross.

From William Gaddis’s novel The Recognitions.


The Self-Portraits of Nine Authors


David Markson on Lowry, Gaddis, Vonnegut, Etc.

From David Markson’s 2007 interview in Conjunctions:

Harlin: Incidentally, you wrote your M.A. thesis on Malcolm Lowry, a relatively unknown writer at the time, and became very friendly with him. What was the impulse behind writing him?

Markson: A great percentage of the people in the world haven’t had this experience, but sometimes you read a book, and it’s almost as if it’s been written for you, or you’re the only one who really understands it. The impulse—creatively, artistically, spiritually—was to say, “Be my daddy. Be my father.” It took a letter or two, but obviously I struck a chord. He had done the same thing. As a young boy in England, he’d written to Conrad Aiken, he so admired Aiken’s poetry. I became friendly with Aiken, too, through Lowry. When Malc died, we got back in touch, and when he was in New York he would come to dinner. He kept a cold-water flat—are there still such things?—up on the East Side.

Harlin: You also became friends with Dylan Thomas and Kerouac.

Markson: The Dylan Thomas thing was a fluke. I don’t think I’d ever met a writer. Back then, I was only in correspondence with Lowry. Thomas did a reading, and on impulse I went backstage. You can’t imagine how popular he was or how highly thought-of he was, even though he was a legendary troublemaker. Out of the blue, I said, “How would you like to have a couple of drinks with some graduate students?” He said, “Yeah, I’ll meet you.” One thing led to another, and we had, at most, nine or ten evenings together. Kerouac was sheer chance and non-literary. My next door neighbor at the time, on 11th Street in the Village, was a recording engineer, and he was friendly with Jack. They used to listen to jazz together. In fact, this guy, who’s long-since dead, was one of the first to lug that old-style heavy equipment up to Harlem to record it. Jack loved it, and he’d go with him once in a while. He lived right next-door. Frequently, we’d go from apartment to apartment drinking together. Sometimes, Jack would come to New York, and this fellow, Jerry, would be away, so he’d ring our bell. For about two years—I’m guessing a dozen, fifteen times—the doorbell would ring, never a word in advance, and there he’d be, drunk as hell all the time. Generally he’d stay the night. One time he borrowed a T-shirt. He came back a week later, and we’re sitting in the living room, and I’m recognizing the outer shirt from a week before. I saw this filthy T-shirt and said, “You son of a bitch, is that the shirt of mine that you put on here a week ago?” And he said, “Well, I had a shower.” Then he stopped coming around; I guess he was in Florida. We just lost track of him, and the next thing I knew he was dead.

Harlin: There’s also William Gaddis.

Markson: I thought The Recognitions was—Lowry being English—the great American novel of that period. That’s the only other letter I wrote to a writer, but it was different from the Lowry one. When The Recognitions came out, it was shat on by every reviewer. They said, “How dare he write so long a book? How dare he deliberately try to create a masterpiece?” I wrote this casual letter, saying, “Screw them. Some of us out here know what you did.” When my wife and I went to Mexico for three years, an editor came down there, and Aiken had given him my name. We had him to dinner, and all I did was talk about The Recognitions. And this guy said, “Shut up already. Tell me about Mexico. I’ll read it when I get home.” And he did. The Recognitions came out in 1955, and this would have been about 1961. One day I get a letter there: “Dear David Markson, If I may presume to answer yours of”—whatever it was—”May 16, 1955.” It turned out that this editor, Aaron Asher, had come home, read the book, and decided to resurrect it. There had never been a paperback, and he put it in print, and it brought Gaddis back to life.

Harlin: Anyone else?

Markson: Kurt Vonnegut I’d known for about forty years. We weren’t that intimate, but for the last twenty years, he and I and two other people had dinner twice a year. And Joe Heller. We weren’t buddy-buddy, but I knew him before Catch-22. If you’re writing, who do you know? If you’re a lawyer, you know lawyers. If you’re a dentist, you know dentists. If you’re a writer, you know other writers. Heller was working in public relations. I remember when we came back from Mexico, one of the first people I saw said, “Hey, Joe Heller finished his book, and it’s great.” This all probably sounds very exotic. In fact, a book just came out recently called Sleeping with Bad Boys, by a woman named Alice Denham. She had been a Playboy centerfold, but she was the only Playboy centerfold who was the author of a short story in the same issue. I can say this, because she’s admitted it in her book, but she slept with everybody. She slept with James Jones, with Gaddis, a long list. She and Heller, for some reason, they would just neck or something. And she and I had an affair at one point. In fact, she refers to me as one of her favorite lovers. The Times review reported that she’d slept with this one and that one and then quoted something about each person. After my name, “the novelist David Markson,” was “stud lover boy.” And here I am seventy-nine years old! I still run into Alice; she lives a couple of blocks from me.