Remembering William Gaddis, neglected master

Remembering 'The Recognitions' and 'JR' author William Gaddis, one of the most brilliant and least read of American novelists.

Published December 18, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

William Gaddis was esteemed by his peers like few other contemporary novelists, but his audience never matched his reputation. He wrote just four novels, but they are of such density, variety and accomplishment as to dwarf lengthier bibliographies. Each is an artifice of uncommon structural and moral integrity.
Gaddis, winner of the National Book Award in 1976 and again in 1994 and the recipient of a MacArthur fellowship in 1982, died Wednesday at his home in East Hampton, N.Y. He was 75.

Deeply concerned with the values by which people live, Gaddis filled his work with fierce anger and bitter humor at how people fail themselves and others, at all forms of laziness and greed and stupidity. His books overflow with bleak sorrow, outrage and a desperate laughter that provides the only refuge in a world where most people spend their best efforts on tasks not worth doing.

In his work, what is worth doing often goes unappreciated. The disappointed and neglected artists, writers and composers who inhabit his pages can be read, to some degree, as surrogates for Gaddis himself, from the saintly Wyatt Gwyon of "The Recognitions" to the obdurate Oscar Crease of "A Frolic of His Own."

"The Recognitions," published in 1955, daunted and angered reviewers with its 956-page length and its uncompromising aesthetic. Sterling North wrote in the New York World-Telegram: "What this sprawling, squalling, overwritten book needs above all is to have its mouth washed out with lye soap. It reeks of decay and filth and perversion and half-digested learning ... nowhere in this disgusting book is there a trace of kindness or sincerity or simple decency." Other reviewers were either distantly respectful or openly disdainful of Gaddis' ambition, but uniformly ignorant of his accomplishment, and the book sold poorly, although it gained a devoted underground following.

Gaddis was so embittered and set back by this reception that 20 years passed before the publication of his second novel, "JR." He was angered too by Harcourt Brace & World's lack of support for the book, saying, "They didn't publish it, they 'privated' it." In "JR," some of the more stinging reviews of "The Recognitions" are reproduced, and the novelist character Thomas Eigen has this exchange with an admirer:

-- But you must have known you were writing it for a very small audience ...

-- Small audience! his feet dropped, -- do you
think I would have worked on it for seven years
just for, do you know what my last royalty
check was ...

Born in Manhattan on Dec. 29, 1922, Gaddis grew up in
Massapequa, N.Y., a town that provided the model for the
Long Island village "desecrated" by developers in "JR." His
parents divorced when he was 3, and between the ages of 5
and 13 he attended boarding school. He entered Harvard in
1941 and spent the war years there, exempted from service
for medical reasons, studying English literature and writing
for the Harvard Lampoon. In his senior year, after a run-in
with local police, he was asked to leave the college.

For the next two years he lived in Greenwich Village and
worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker. From 1947 he
traveled through Central America, Europe and North Africa,
settings that turn up in "The Recognitions." He returned to
New York in 1952 and spent the next year finishing the novel.

"The Recognitions" is a comic inferno that already displays its 30-year-old author's powers at their full: an extraordinary ear for speech, intricate plotting and a supple style that bridges the lyrical, the elegiac and the Gothic, while keeping up a counterpoint of irony, wit and pratfall. The book centers on Wyatt Gwyon, a failed seminarian and aspiring painter who works as a restorer -- and, finally, a forger -- of Flemish masterpieces. Brilliant and erudite, the novel has an exaggerated reputation for difficulty that overlooks its nonstop humor.

After the commercial failure of "The Recognitions," Gaddis worked in public relations and speechwriting for Pfizer International, the U.S. Army and Eastman Kodak, experiences he drew on two decades later for his next book, "JR." At 726 pages, this is his most challenging and essential novel, a scabrous, hilarious condemnation of American business and its genius for degrading everything it touches. Eleven-year-old J.R. Vansant, as wistful as he is appalling, builds a paper empire of penny stock and junk bonds from a school phone booth, drawing dozens of hapless adults into his disastrous orbit. Prophetic of 1980s Wall Street, "JR" is told in relentless overlapping dialogue, without chapters or breaks, that like its New York setting is at once exhilarating and draining. "JR" won the National Book Award in 1976.

Its unity of setting, its relative shortness and Gaddis' knowing reworking of familiar, almost trite, romantic elements make "Carpenter's Gothic" (1985) the most approachable of his books, though the plot is his darkest. Its interlocking intrigues lead, as usual, to disasters both local and global.

In "A Frolic of His Own" (1994), Oscar Crease is a middle-aged college instructor who sues a Hollywood producer for plagiarizing his unpublished play. The novel is not merely a satire on lawyers, since Oscar's high-minded principles are undercut by his ceaseless petulance, self-absorption and greed. The lawyers and jurists, while equally venal or biased, recognize as Oscar does not that justice and the law are entirely separate; Gaddis' lengthy pastiches of legal opinions show more than a grudging respect for the intellectual rigor of the law, imperfect as it is. Despite the characteristic multiple frantic threads racing one another toward chaos, "Frolic" ends on a note of, if not hope, at least respite. It won Gaddis his second National Book Award.

Over the years Gaddis' critical reception improved, but the idea of his "difficulty" remained a shibboleth of reviewers. Jack Gibbs, another of Gaddis' personae, is asked in "JR" if the book he's writing is difficult, and he replies, "Difficult as I can make it." For Gaddis this is a virtue, a gift of respect to his readers.

Ultimately he came to recognize that the number of readers willing to engage seriously with art is invariably small, a recognition that ends his first book: "He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played."

Gaddis is survived by his son Matthew, a filmmaker, and his daughter Sarah, a novelist. He left also a completed manuscript for a fifth book, "Agape Agape," the same "difficult" book about the player piano and mechanization in the arts that Jack Gibbs tried vainly to finish in "JR."

By Carter Scholz

Bay Area writer Carter Scholz's short fiction has appeared in Crank!

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