From Washington University’s marvelous Modern Literature Collection YouTube channel.
I reread William Gaddis’s 1975 novel J R this February and, as is usually the case with a reread, I was pleasantly unsurprised by all its unremembered surprises—the jokes and japes, riffs and routines that had oozed from my brain-sieve since that first read back in 2012.
How could I forget about a scheme to freeze sound, or an art theft subplot, or the Indian uprising? How could I forget that in J R, Gaddis anagrammatically parodies the critical rejections of his first novel The Recognitions? (I did remember the stuffed Eskimo).
What I was surprised surprised surprised about in my rereading of J R was how much of the first reading had stuck. And stuck hard, soaked in, saturated—the sign of a great grand thing, the em-word thing, the masterpiece thing.
Only a handful of novels are so perfectly simultaneously comic and tragic. Moby-Dick? Yes. Gravity’s Rainbow? Absolutely. (G R and J R, a duo published two years apart, spiritual twins, massive American novels that maybe America hardly deserves (or, rather: theses novels were/are totally the critique America deserves). I guess maybe what I’m saying is J R is the Great American Novel to Come (The Recognitions is perhaps overpraised and certainly not Gaddis’s best novel; J R is. The zeitgeist has been caught up to J R, the culture should (will) catch up).
So I already wrote on J R on this blog: A misfire of sorts from halfway through (in which I offer more description of the novel’s plot and form than I intend to here, maybe), and a thing I wrote after finishing it which (this thing I wrote before, I mean) might be better than anything I can muster here, in terms of analysis, of like, theme. I’ll limit myself to, I don’t know, eleven points in this riff, yes? (Why 11? Why not? Why not go to 11? 11 for Chapter 11, for bankruptcy, for the moral artistic intellectual bankruptcy that the novel J R skewers). So, having limited myself to eleven points, and having not gotten to the damn point yet, which is—
J R is so good, y’all. The book is a performance, an opera, an essay on America, a howl, a condemnation, a farce, a romance, a tragedy. When I read it in 2012 I couldn’t believe how prescient it was, a feeling reconfirmed with force four years later. J R diagnoses and describes and ridicules American corporatism, the industrial-military-entertainment-banking-education-etc. -complex. And then it weeps.
But wait—what I wanted to say is J R is so good—so, uh, entertaining. It’s fucking funny. And sweet.
And J R’s not as hard a read as some dudes would have you believe. Sure, it’s composed almost entirely in unattributed dialogue—and that can be tough, to start, but you can learn to hear it very quickly.
In his essay “William Gaddis and His Goddamn Books,” William Gass writes that, “J R takes time. J R takes patience. J R takes faith.” But Gass also points out the payoff of J R “unlike other faiths…is immediately and continuously redeeming.”
It is redeeming (continuously), and I don’t just echo Gass here as some kind of rhetorical flourish—reading J R again was a reminder that the novel posits redemption through Bast’s call to action, to his resolve to, as the failed writer (or stymied writer) Eigen puts it, “go do what [he has] to do” to make real art—or, in our hero Bast’s own terms: “…until a performer hears what I hear and can make other people hear what hears it’s just trash isn’t it…”
And in J R the reader becomes the performer, making the voices, singing the voices, (muttering the voices), navigating all the trash, the entropy—J R is a novel of unraveling, where art trips over commercial trash and literal trash–old ads, betting tickets, stock ticker tape, phone book pages, train tickets, scraps. Is there another American novel so aware of its own textuality, its own metatextuality—I mean one that doesn’t goddamn wink all the time at its readers like so much clever postmodern slop?
Gass again: “[J R] is written in speech scraps, confetti-like wiggles of brightly colored cliché. As a medium, it would appear to be as unpromising as might be imagined. And the reader has to ride in the parade and organize all that fluttering that’s come down from on high.” High and low.
And all the heroes of J R—Bast and Gibbs and Amy Joubert, but also the titular J R his own goddamn self (and maybe, if we’re feeling charitable examining this novel of capitalism, Eigen)–they’re falling apart and trying to put themselves back together (even their clothes unraveling, their shoes falling apart). Chaos, entropy.
The whole deal is best summed up in an early episode in which Gibbs rants against the modern education system: “Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos…”
Or maybe it’s best summed up (not the right phrasal verb—maybe described by the chaos of, but gee-dee that’s clunky) in the scraps Gibbs keeps wadded in his pocket or in his folders, scraps toward something bigger—
Gibbs’s novel is Agapē Agape, which is also Gaddis’s last novel. And to go back to whatever thrust this riff had re: rereading—J R coheres, perhaps (it doesn’t have to cohere) after a reading of Agapē Agape (which also, Agapē Agape, works to dismantle coherence, or to emphasize the chaos of thought, or to highlight entropy, or to you know what goddamn it pick your own phrase). What I mean to say is I think it’s a good move to read Agapē Agape after J R.
(What I mean to say is that I care and cry for Jack Gibbs, and find in Agapē Agape for him a redemption and resurrection (and dissolution, of course…)).
So I get to point 11 and fail to say so many things I intended to say—about the novel’s sexiness (it’s sexy!)—about its wit (goddamn!)—
——-about its repetition of phrases like god damn and its unrelenting use of forms of the verb threaten—and ——– and
—–and here I see/read/hear that I’ve been referring to the novel as its own agency, its own its, as if it were its own beast independent of its master Gaddis—
—-which I guess, like any Great Novel (American or otherwise), it is.
Independent, I mean.
And great, I mean.
And, <enthusiasm> You should read read it! </enthusiasm>.
I mean, I love it.
No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation–indeed, any explanation–would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes. Easy answers, convenient summaries, quiz questions, annotations, arrows, highlight lines, lists of its references, the numbers of its sources, echoes, and influences, an outline of its design–useful as sometimes such helps are–nevertheless seriously mislead. Guidebooks are useful, but only to what is past. Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms. “Okay, I get it,” we say, dusting our hands, “and that takes care of that.” “At last I understand Kafka” is a foolish and conceited remark.
From “William Gaddis and His Goddamn Books” by William Gass. Originally published as the introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of The Recognitions, and also published (and repurposed and expanded) in A Temple of Texts—which is where I went looking for it—or rather, went looking for some of Gass’s language on J R, which I re-read last month, and was going to, I don’t know, try to write about (something beyond: J R is not nearly as difficult as you may think it is, and it is a very funny and important and tragic and entertaining novel). Anyway, this section leapt out at me—Yes, how wonderful!, thought I. And as I went to transcribe it here, to share, reader, I realized that of course I had done so already back in 2009. Ah! Why not share again. Isn’t J R about recycling, about language as a kind of detritus, redirected, repurposed? Isn’t it?
I am taking a class titled 21st-Century Fiction: What Is The Contemporary? and three of the books in this photograph are part of the reading list. Absent titles are by Dan Chaon, Kathryn Davis, Ben Marcus, Blake Butler, Sheila Heti. Some others. Wanted titles: Tao Lin’s Taipei (which I am reading now, which is surprisingly good).
I don’t know anything about Dodie Bellamy beyond the fact that she is often grouped with Kathy Acker, who are both often grouped with Dennis Cooper, who are all New Narrative people. New Narrators make the author present, her body and sexuality usually the prime subject. Letters of Mina Harker is a “sequel” to Dracula, except Mina Harker is a young woman who lives in 1980s San Francisco. On conceit alone, it reminds me of Kathy Acker’s Don Quixote: Which Was a Dream.
Richard Powers and Evan Dara are often grouped together, mainly because Powers blurbed his first book, The Lost Scrapbook, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Also, there is speculation that Powers is Dara (Or Dara is Powers). Flee is, according to its publisher Aurora Books, about “in which a New England town does just that.” I’ve read the first chapter, titled “38,839,” and it reeks of Gaddis (in a good way). Disembodied voices colliding into each other, a cacophonous plot; the absurd & banal drama of everyday, throwaway conversation. An Australian book show on Triple R Radio, who have a good and very rare interview with Gerald Murnane (whose book Inland I was really, really jazzed on), also really loves Dara. I’m pretty excited to read this one.
Evan Dara and Richard Powers are often grouped together, mainly because Dara’s first book was blurbed by Richard Powers, and that both of them write books that weave disparate discourses into their fiction. Dara might be Powers (or Powers might be Dara?), but that doesn’t really matter. The Echo Maker is supposed to be one of those Big, Important American Books (as noted by the shallow, embossed seal on my used copy of the book). As I write this, I am listening to Powers read from The Echo Maker from an old Lannan Foundation talk (who also really love Gass) and I am really intrigued. I haven’t flipped through this, so I will reproduce the back copy.
On a winter night on a remote Nebraska road, twenty-seven-year-old Mark Schluter has a near-fatal car accident. His older sister, Karin, returns reluctantly to their hometown to nurse Mark back from a traumatic head injury. But when Mark emerges fro a coma, he believes that this woman–who looks, acts, and sounds just like his sister–is really an imposter. When Karin contacts the famous cognitive neurologist Gerald Weber for help, he diagnoses Mark as having Capgras syndrome. The mysterious nature of the disease, combined with the strange circumstances surrounding Mark’s accident, threaten to change all of their lives beyond recognition.
Can Xue (which roughly translates from Chinese, according to my mother, to “persistent & dirty snow”) is hailed by western critics to be the Chinese avant-garde heir to Kafka and Borges. Can Xue is a pen name for Deng Xiaohua. She is of my mother’s generation and her class, which means she grew up persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, which means she was sent to a “re-education camp” in the Chinese sticks and learned to farm. She taught herself English, has written criticism on Kafka and Borges. The strangeness of Kafka echoes in Xue. While the former’s strangeness arrives in the narrative with a kind of grim inevitability, the discovery of a debilitating truth lands like an obvious punchline that the reader stupidly forgets (or realizes too late, like the classic Seinfeld episode “The Comeback“), Xue’s arrives with a kind of startling innocence against the backdrop of dramatic irony. It is like watching, in Michael Haneke’s words in his great interview in The Paris Review, a tragedy from the perspective of an idiot. The title story, “Vertical Motion,” can be read here.
(From William Gass’s 1995 novel The Tunnel; The Quarterly Conversation will lead a Big Read of The Tunnel starting next week).
Is the reader an adversary for you?
No. I don’t think much about the reader. Ways of reading are adversaries—those theoretical ways. As far as writing something is concerned, the reader really doesn’t exist. The writer’s business is somehow to create in the work something which will stand on its own and make its own demands; and if the writer is good, he discovers what those demands are, and he meets them, and creates this thing which readers can then do what they like with. Gertrude Stein said, “I write for myself and strangers,” and then eventually she said that she wrote only for herself. I think she should have taken one further step. You don’t write for anybody. People who send you bills do that. People who want to sell you things so they can send you bills do that. People who want to tell you things so they can sell you things so they can send you bills do that. You are advancing an art—the art. That is what you are trying to do.
So this weekend I started auditing William Gass’s novel The Tunnel on mp3, read by the author: Sonorous, strange, ugly, beautiful, poetic, abyssal, phallic, anal, fragmented, rich. Here he is in 2007 reading from the beast of a book at The Village Voice Bookshop in Paris (RIP). More on The Tunnel.
“Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer” by Gregg Williard (More graphs/via).
I think contemporary fiction is divided between those who are still writing performatively and those who are not. Writing for voice, in which you imagine a performance in the auditory sense going on, is traditional and old-fashioned and dying. The new mode is not performative and not auditory. It’s destined for the printed page, and you are really supposed to read it the way they teach you to read in speed-reading. You are supposed to crisscross the page with your eye, getting references and gists; you are supposed to see it flowing on the page, and not sound it in the head. If you do sound it, it is so bad you can hardly proceed. It can’t all have been written by Dreiser, but it sounds like it. Gravity’s Rainbow was written for print, J.R. was written by the mouth for the ear. By the mouth for the ear: that’s the way I’d like to write. I can still admire the other—the way I admire surgeons, bronc busters, and tight ends. As writing, it is that foreign to me.