I hate William Gaddis.
As a would-be writer, Gaddis has had no direct influence on me. And yet, pretty much everything I have done, or planned to do, or started to do, as a writer, which I genuinely thought to be fresh or innovative, I have come to discover has pretty much already been done by him. The invasion or interruption of action or speech with sounds, voices, lyrics, television programs, or signs, (J.R.), the depiction of dialogue which is more competition than cooperation, (J.R.), the use of multiple different stylistic writing formats within one narrative structure (A Frolic of Own’s Own), the use of rhythmic, impressionistic passages with a lot of assonance, (Frolic), a satire of the legal profession (Frolic), and that doesn’t even include what is likely Gaddis’ masterpiece, The Recognitions.
First published in 1955, The Recognitions has the feel of something that was written just yesterday.
The whole time I was reading it, (the Penguin Classic paperback clocks in at 956 pages with fairly dense type), my wife Karen would ask, “Do you even like that book?” And I would say, “I’m not sure if I can say that I ‘like’ it, but I recognize it as being great.” (And she would roll her eyes.)
According to the Introduction by William H. Gass, The Recognitions has an archetypal plot: A baby is born to a King, who receives some type of omen that the child will pose a threat, so the King leaves him to die. The boy is raised in exile, by a foster parent (or beast), in a foreign land. At some point, as the boy grows into a man, he is told (“recognizes”) his true origin, and seeks his real identity. In doing so, he overcomes a series of trials or obstacles or labors, which often result in some level of fame. Finally, he returns home, and there is another recognition. This arc begins with birth and ends with marriage and is a comedy. The second part of the story repeats itself, but from the father’s point of view. A “hero” in his own country, from the son’s point of view, is an irredeemable villain. The second story ends with the death of the hero at the hands of the son he has wronged, and is a tragedy. There is usually some disloyalty which leads to the old king’s fall, and, through death, he achieves some type of redemption.
If this is the plot of The Recognitions, then I missed it.
Yet, perhaps that’s the point:
“This self-sufficiency of fragments, that’s where the curse is, fragments that don’t belong to anything. Separately they don’t mean anything, but it’s almost impossible to pull them together into a whole. And now it’s impossible to accomplish a body of work without a continuous sense of time….”
“….you try to get all the parts together into one work that will stand by itself and serve the same thing a lifetime of separate works does, something higher than itself….”
“It was wrong in someone young to be so ambitious, the reviewers thought” noted Gass in his introduction. “Well, it was ambitious certainly, dense, lengthy, complex. Its author is a romantic in that regard, clearly concerned to create a masterpiece; for how else, but by aiming, is excellence to be obtained? It’s not often that someone begins a sand castle on a lazy Sunday morning–only to–by gosh!–achieve–thanks to a series sandy serendipities–an Alhambra with all its pools by afternoon.”
The criticisms I have of The Recognitions, like the criticisms I have of Gaddis’ Frolic of His Own and J.R., (as well as Infinite Jest), are, first, the absence of an emotional arc; a sense of character; whom you care about; and who, through his conduct or circumstances, gives life to the theme. Second, while Gaddis uses many innovative forms, (and uses them well), it is hard to divine some guiding narrative principle; there seem to be no rules; the use of dialogue, versus description, versus verse, at any particular point, seems somewhat arbitrary.
(Which is, of course, the wrong word; the author’s selection is, of course, not arbitrary. It serves a narrative and dramatic purpose. But, without a pre-ordained set of rules, seems somehow too “easy”; like “cheating”; as I have expressed on other occasions.)
In any event, The Recognitions is, in many ways, the counter-part to The Fountainhead. Where Rand puts forth the clear, pure, objective vision of America as a singular, original, authentic embodiment of individual integrity; Gaddis, on the other hand, paints an ambiguous, tainted, subjective vision of America as a multi-layered, recycled, and largely falsified center of commerce through forgery and fakery.
“Like a story I heard once, a friend of mine told me, someone I used to know, a story about a forged painting. It was a forged Titian that somebody had painted over another old painting, when they scraped the forged Titian away they found some worthless old painting underneath it, the forger had used it because it was an old canvas. But then there was something under that worthless painting, and they scraped it off and underneath that they found a Titian, a real Titian that had been there all the time. It was as though when the forger was working, and he didn’t know the original was underneath, I mean he didn’t know he knew it, but it knew, I mean something knew….”
Either Gass, in his introduction, or Gaddis himself in The Rush for Second Place, notes the irony that the disjointed half-sentences, re-workings, and repeats in “experimental” fiction are in many ways more realistic than the dialogue and other elements of “realist” works which can be highly stylized.
“….that is really the force and the flaw in these paintings …. the thoroughness with which they feel obliged to recreate the atmosphere, and the…these painters who aren’t long on suggestion, but pile up perfection layer on layer and the detail, it’s…it becomes the force and the flaw….
Like a writer who can’t help devoting as much care to a moment as to an hour….
….You can go home and make up all the music you want to now.
– But it isn’t making it up, inventing music, it’s like…remembering, and like, well Van Gough says about painting, when he would take a drawing of Delacroix as a subject and improvise with colors, not as himself, he says, but searching for memories of their pictures, the “vague consonance of colors,” the memory that was himself, his own interpretation.”
There is a playwright in the novel, named Otto, who goes around writing down quotes – and then testing them – for use in his plays. One can’t help but wonder whether Gaddis was poking fun at himself, a younger naive version of himself, or another writer of lesser talents, trying hopelessly to compete.