Behind the Scenes & Reviews

Gaddis and J R: Life With, By and Before


William Gaddis
Alfred A. Knopf, 1975
726 pages / $15.16 buy from Dalkey Archive or Amazon






By July I’d completed my yearlong ramble through DeLillo’s oeuvre. It was not one of the hottest summers I remember. I had a room in Crown Heights with a window that faced out to an alley, across which lived a Barbadian family, whom I was awoken by most mornings before biking the six miles, across Brooklyn, over the Manhattan Bridge, through Chinatown, to the parking lot behind the business school next to the library, where I rode the elevator to the tenth floor and worked for eight hours Monday to Friday. I had little idea or direction of what to do next.

I read Wittgenstein’s Mistress in about two sittings, during which I came to vaguely understand the significance of the name William Gaddis. All I knew when I dropped down to the eighth floor one afternoon to pick up the massive copy of The Recognitions was that it included a character who wore a clock as a necklace. The image appeared throughout Markson’s insane novel and recalled Flavor Flav, the refurbished and culturally derided figure of the preceding decade, which seemed enough for me.

It took me three attempts to get through the first ten pages. I’d decided with a friend that we would tackle it simultaneously, but he gave up a quarter way through the first chapter. He explained that he didn’t have any interest in dedicating his respite to a man baptized by Jonathan Franzen as “Mr. Difficult.” As a matter of contention or cultural superiority, or, more likely, personal superiority, I committed to reading the novel to completion and full understanding.

I did so, along the way reveling in what I referred to as the most conscious and hilarious diatribe on art ever penned. I was indoctrinated; by what I read, I found myself deeply shaken and moved.

A month passed. I signed a lease on an apartment with my girlfriend in a neighborhood that used to be a part of Flatbush but is now called Prospect-Lefferts Gardens and enrolled in my penultimate semester of college. I reread Hamlet and Heart of Darkness and The Waste Land. I read for the first time A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses and “Ulysses” and “Prufrock” and Castle Rackrent. I had few conversations about Gaddis. I went out constantly for a few weeks and stopped. There was the hurricane and I walked across the Manhattan Bridge through a city without electricity to Madison Square Garden. I read Ben Gocker’s absurdly funny Content publication The Pisces on a bus from Philadelphia on three hours of sleep. I felt tired of writing. The insanity of the world seemed more sane. I was bored, watched hours of television. I still do. I’m still bored. And I thought, I think about The Recognitions regularly as this masterpiece of social and artistic criticism, the most effort ever poured into something’s message, which stands to say: It’s not worth it.

The six-week break between semesters eventually came. The last real sweeping vacation I’d ever have. I got a cold and drank and fell asleep early. I went to a Russian and Turkish bathhouse in the East Village and sat in 250-degree saunas throwing cold water over my head. J R had been sitting on the bookshelf since August, since I’d ordered it on Amazon for a dollar. I knew as little about it as I knew of Gaddis’ first novel, other than that it was about money, based on my copy’s cover and first sentences, and was possibly “as big of a fuck you” as anything can be, according to this website’s editor.

It took me two weeks to get through the first 226 pages: a mess of dialogue, plots unraveling between the conversations of questionably significant characters with questionably significant motives, roles within the society of the inexorable and painfully linear literary space.

The first moment of schematic or setting or plot or interactive what-have-you change disturbed and excited me. A transition from the Basts’ home to outside Massapequa’s bank via the prose movement of lawyer Mr Coen’s car. It was, as I compared it in a tweet, like a basketball pass or interception, a fluid movement of possession and authority within the agency of the text, the brief and schizophrenic power of what could hardly be referred to as free indirect discourse.

The speed and impenitent nature of this approach is what distinguishes Gaddis’ second novel, not only as a staggering achievement, but as a totally unique reading experience, from anything that precedes it. The twenty years separating the publication of 956-page The Recognitions, a novel that took a mere seven years to complete, and was generally and shockingly, to, it seems, both its writer and its modern audience, panned, was wrought with the Gaddis’ own maturation from a comparatively buoyant young artist to an embittered and embedded member of society. He got married, had kids and inserted himself in the hellish world of a regular career in public relations. The anxieties of this life, the realities of financial struggle, love and priority—the non-ascension and ultimate failure of the endowed artistic spirit within the confines of the American system—are all over the pages and characters of J R.

To see Jack Gibbs grappling to make sense of his desires and responsibilities, all the while in the light of his creative opponent, an irreconcilable mess of writing sharing its title with Gaddis’ own posthumous novel, Agapē Agape, is to experience the dissatisfying nature of existence. To ascertain the harm and deaths of seemingly major characters, the transformation of quality, ability and influence of figures like a burly drivers ed instructor, exclusively through ensuing secondhand account, is to suffer Gaddis’ aversion toward the sensational and riveting. The thrill exists, then, in the distance the novel forces upon the reader from the absurdity it establishes. It is all an endless stream of shit, piling and piling, with no answer but a little nod that a few more lifetimes just passed. This almost abusive layout is what got me through the following 500 pages in five days.

It’s impossible for me to tell how much time passes in the actual literal plot of J R, maybe a few weeks, maybe a year. There is no break to the action and inaction. The breadth of several days is given no more weight than a conversation lasting minutes via a candy store payphone. There are no spaces between paragraphs, scenes, no chapters, because that is the awful truth about the reader, the living person. We put so much emphasis on the time separating events, and Gaddis works to strip that away. To reveal the true shitness of a phone conversation, of the communicative power of speech and the narcissistic misconception that the sole individual has anything to say on his own.

Gaddis’ second novel is the finest of its kind—the answer to those who claim that everyone has at least one within them—because it is a novel that nobody but Gaddis could have written or fully grasp. It is the destruction of the space in between: the public and private life, the interaction between people, wealth, plans for the future and the crap that piles up and never happens. I’ll leave you to dive into the eponymous driving force of the novel—the character’s cockamamie take on how one thing builds on or leads to another, but it follows the form I’ve tried to address.

J R employs that forceful desire to criticize in order to construct its brilliant hatred and sensitivity toward humanity, art and capital.

– – –

Buy from Dalkey Archive (to read Rick Moody’s maybe interesting introduction? (I look forward to doing so at a bookstore?)) or on Amazon (because it’s cheap and Gaddis is dead anyway)

Further Reading
The Gaddis Annotations
“Stop Player. Joke No. 4” by William Gaddis
“Mr. Difficult” by Jonathan Franzen
“Books People Wrote Because They Were Pissed About Writing” by Blake Butler
“I like William Gaddis alot” by Jimmy Chen

After the Novel
“Trickle-Up Economics: J R Goes to Washington” by William Gaddis


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  1. Andrew Colville

      good job fish

  2. lorian long

      nice, i just started J R last nite

  3. deadgod

      No but look Mr. Chairman we’re still on square one.

  4. Grant Maierhofer

      loved this, thanks for writing.

  5. Sam Moss

      these are the first positive comments i’ve read about the novel, found them motivating

  6. Mike Kleine

      Expertly written. Gonna have to add this one to my ‘shelf’.

  7. Jonathan Callahan


  8. Owen Davis

      future rule: can we talk about mr. gaddis without mentioning mr. franzen? please?

      mr. difficult is by far the dumbest literary sobriquet.