A Frolic of His Own has some of the funniest passages I have ever read.
I’m not sure whether, if I were not a practicing attorney, I would have appreciated them less, or even more.
The formal pleadings and deposition colloquies were exaggerated enough to bring out the comedy, yet genuine enough so as not to be absurd.
As in J.R., I found the legal aspects of the novel very authentic, both in substance and in form. It is surprising that Gaddis did not go to law school, at the very least, if not practice law. He must have been involved in litigation, which presumably left a bad taste in his mouth.
Naturally, I approach the book defensively. First published in 1994, as Newt Gingrich and his friends were drafting the Contract With America, the Gaddis satire would surely seem to compliment the view of America as an overly-litigious society.
Yet – and perhaps this is simply my prejudice or desire to turn the book into something it’s not – I cannot help but view the work as less of a polemic.
While Gaddis, and the typical reader, might find irony, or comedy, or perhaps even a mild level of outrage in some of the lawsuits, or the way in which they are litigated, it is difficult to infer any type of advocacy in favor of legislative immunities, or caps on damages, or other across-the-board limitations on the ordinary everyday person’s access to the courts.
Gaddis apparently did some commercial writing for Pfizer and Kodak and IBM. But he chooses not to present the subject of litigation from the typical corporate perspective.
In fact, it’s not completely clear that Gaddis is talking about the law, and not a metaphor for something else:
“Look all I meant was Oscar takes off and writes a longwinded play about his grandfather he wasn’t hired to do it, about seeking justice no one paid him to did they? And it gets him nowhere, does he keep at it? write another play? and another? No, no he splurges this one time and then lets it devour him year after year like this little birch canoe he made because its safer to blame the world out there for rejecting who he thought he was, for all the work he’s put in on a play that’s not really about justice in the first place, not about injustice it’s about resentment, it’s resentment right from the start like his little canoe sunk in the mud, and it poisons evenrything, blaming those faceless ogres out there instead of looking inside at the ogres we don’t want to see; don’t dare see our own hand in it, who we really are, and if he wins? if who he thinks he is wins on this appeal? What you see in the headlines out of Washington every day isn’t it? Caught redhanded destroying evidence, obstructing justice, committing perjury off on frolics of their own and when they get off on some technicality, everybody knows they’re guilty but there’s not enough there to prove it so they can proclaim they’ve been proved innocent, wrap themselves in the flag and now they’re heroes because now they believe it themselves, because the law has vindicated who they think they are like saying where would Christianity be if Jesus had been given ten to twenty with time off for good behavior, and if he wins? If Oscar wins and this whole cockeyed version of who he thinks he is is vindicated because that’s what the law allows?
– I mean, but I mean isn’t that really what the law is about? …. he’s done something nobody’s told him to, nobody hired him to and gone out on a frolic of his own I mean think about it Harry. Isn’t that what the artist is finally all about?”
One cannot help to wonder whether Oscar is Gaddis, a younger naive version of Gaddis he has come to regret, or some other writer or writers – and, if so, whether he looks upon them with contempt, or with at least some degree of empathy.
While, as in J.R., Gaddis relies on dialogue as the primary narrative device, he also employs judicial opinions, deposition transcripts, pleadings, and other legal constructs, which are authentic in style and form. Parts of the novel are set as in a play, and there a few descriptive passages, some of them brilliant, like:
“…the blare of brass and pounding bass and even voices raised in screams sounding almost human carrying them, relieved along the way by their usual complement of shopping suggestions,, storm window and used car sales, television repair and septic tank rejuvenation, to the posted exit westward where – look, she muttered to him, the land was bright with the lights of – the main terminal, stay here with him while I go in and check it out will you? and she blazed into the curb cutting off a stretch limousine with this dark green status symbol of conspicuous consumption emerging from it with a disdainful toss of the blonde haired leisure class only to be reclaimed by her own once inside among the milling supplicants for Coach Class dodging from one line to another, trying Information and finally surrendering to Snack Bar where her approach was threatened by the friendly advances of a large ungainly dog.”
“Isn’t that all any writer really wants?” the character Cristina asks. “Everyone jumping up shouting bravo?”