JR, by William Gaddis, is really an ingenious book.
Funny. Interesting. Thought-provoking. Novel, in style. And captures, both substantively and in form, many elements of modern society.
It is, in many ways, like A Day in the Life of Timothy Stone. The dashes. The absence of chapters, or other section breaks. The interruption, or inspiration, provided by sounds streaming in from radio or tv. He also does something I had thought was fairly “original” in the The Gordian Knot, (actually worked with it earlier in 1991 with an unpublished book called November), and later recognized was integral to the sitcom Seinfeld, namely, that “dialogue” is often not really a dialogue, but a series of monologues, running up against each other; each with it’s own agenda; less cooperative than competitive.
Frederick Karl, in his Introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, describes the book as “auditory voyeurism”. A “stream-of-conversation” one might say, as opposed to stream-of-consciousness. Yet, all the same, similar to “a voyeuristic journey into the mind of Timothy Stone.”
It’s always a paradoxical feeling when you discover someone doing (or, in particular, having done) something similar. Not that I would compare myself to Gaddis, nor my works to his, (which is obviously a lot more ambitious and accomplished), but you feel a certain kinship. Reassurance. Maybe there’s something to this; maybe you’re not crazy. But, on the other hand, what you are doing isn’t so original. Singular. It’s already been done. So what’s the point?
Karl says that Gaddis’ initial plan was to use only dialogue, with no description at all. I’m not sure why he abandoned that approach. The value of the fairly sporadic narration seems marginal at best. If, as Karl suggests, “a novel in which language abounds yet fails is a novel about how feeling, emotion, mutual response no longer function,” (and, therefore, stated another way perhaps, substance = form), the vision, and hence the message, seem a bit undermined in that regard.
I really didn’t study the “plot” carefully enough to discern whether time was linear. If, as Karl suggests, the book’s “novel time” breaks free of real time, “to create a flow that parallels inner consciousness,” I’m not sure how you can do that with conversation. (Obviously, I know how you could do that; you just do it; but I’m not sure I understand the justification.) If he simply means that, through the conversation itself, characters revisit the past and imagine some type of redemption that is possible in the future, that makes sense. But if the conversation itself is actually an assembly of past, present and future conversations all mixed together, then someone must be pulling the switch. You are no longer a “voyeur”; you are someone being “told” something.
In any event, Gaddis seems in many ways ahead of his time. Perhaps it’s simply that I don’t remember too well what 1976 was like. Or perhaps it’s simply that 30 years really isn’t all that long ago in the grand scheme of things. But it seems like Gaddis is discussing social/advertising/cultural trends which I would consider fairly recent (e.g. the marketing of used cars as “pre-owned”) – or at least 1980s (e.g. a character or two who, in almost Valley Girl style, are always, like, saying, like, you know, like, stuff.) J.R. could be seen as kind of a younger, disconnected, craftier Alex P. Keaton, who is hard to imagine before the ascendancy of Ronald Reagan to the White House. The rise and collapse of J.R. Corp. seems Enron-like, with characters such as “Milliken” and “Grynszpan”. (Is that just coincidence, or were Milken and Greenspan already public figures at the time?)
I also note that Gaddis’ discussion of the law is very on-point and genuine. So I have to assume all of the stuff about stocks and bonds and credit and futures and tax shelters is as well.
There are some great passages, of course. Generally full of satire. For example:
…listen to this one. For a fifth straight day, the brave little fourth grader trapped in a steel sculpture Cyclone Seven patiently awaits court settlement in a case that promises to set precedents in art and insurance circles alike. As tightlipped members of the local fire department stand their lonely vigil with acetylene torches ready, prepared to free the boy from what has been called one of the most outstanding contemporary structural comments on mass space, insurance company attorneys continue to work around the clock assembling briefs covering interpretations of the health, accident, life and property provisions contained in the numerous subclauses of the policies directly and indirectly involved in the controversy. Prospects for the out of court settlement rumored yesterday were suddenly dimmed by the intervention of a group calling itself the Modern Allies of Mandible Art. Through its attorneys, MAMA is seeking an injunction against what it terms willful destruction of a unique metaphor of man’s relation to the universe, stating its contention that altering the massive work in the smallest detail would permanently destroy the arbitrary arrangement of force and line that pushes Cyclone Seven beyond the conventional limits of beauty to celebrate in the virile and aggressive terms of raw freedom the triumphant dignity of man.
And the mock (presumably) book titles with (presumably) mock blurbs/reviews:
I CHOSE ROTTEN GIN The story of a disillusioned Communist, who had not the courage to go against the party.
…so ostentatiously aimed at writing a masterpiece that, in a less ambitious work, one would be happy to call promising, for such readers as he may be fortunate enough to have…
– Glandvil Hix
OI CHITTERING ONES A serious work which urges us to lay aside our fears and realize our true strength.
…the outside world of American life is described so imperfectly and so superficially as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it… – M Axswill Gummer
THE ECHOES RIOTING A delicately evocative novel.
…a delicately evocative novel… – B.R. Endengill
…a literary event, of sorts… – Newsleak Magazine
THE TIGER ON SONIC A killer in provincial New England trapped by the brilliant deductions of the author’s popular armchair detective, Mr Ethan Frome.
…a really yummy read… – D O’Lobeer
Ultimately, what’s lacking in J.R. (at least for me) is the same thing I found lacking in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (and, similarly, certainly U.S.!).
The Howard Roark. The Roy Hobbs. The quest of Froddo Baggins.
There is something to Bast, but he’s no Willie Loman. Or maybe he is a Willie Loman, but you don’t experience, in the same way, what’s happening to him.
Things can be meaningful in and of themselves. Ideas, perhaps, “shouldn’t” need context to be meaningful. But, at least for me, the intellect and emotion cannot be separated so decisively. They go together, like content and form. The very same notions become a lot more meaningful when they are tethered to characters and stories which, themselves, have something to say.
Upon reading Eggers’ Staggering Genius, I began to sense this lacking, perhaps, in Timothy Stone. There was nothing particularly original about Eggers’ writing. But there was meaning to be found in the “characters”’ texture, and depth.
It’s easy, in many ways, to write things that are funny, interesting, thought-provoking, or to capture elements of modern, or some other, society. It may be easy, for some, to weave a compelling and universal tale. But to do them both, and in a way that’s never been done before… is a daunting task.