“Hey? You listening…?”
Chris Via reviews William Gaddis’ J R
Forty-five years ago, America’s twentieth-century Melville, William Gaddis, broke a twenty-year publishing silence with J R (1975), a feat of artistic daring, searing socio-economic satire, and palpable existential longing that would go on to secure a National Book Award. Gaddis’ earlier novel, The Recognitions (1955), was a similarly massive and formally innovative novel, but one written in a mode of black humor and self-awareness largely misunderstood until long after its publication — a novel that met with a deflated critical response much like the one that met Moby-Dick (1851). In contrast, though, while Melville’s myopic readers longed for the writer to return to the exotic travel tales with which he’d made his name, Gaddis’ early admirers tended to revere J R without really reading it; thus The Recognitions became a cult artefact. Yet, as John Beer says, “J R is… among the most exuberantly inventive works in [American] literature”, and “[i]ts continuing neglect is a cultural crime”. Now, equipped with deft Gaddis scholarship and the hyperopia of retrospection, and new editions of both novels from NYRB Classics, today’s readers are in a position to better appreciate this singular writer who produced not one but two worthy leviathans.
William Gaddis was born in Manhattan in 1922. Having only a career-focused mother in the picture, Gaddis attended the Merricourt boarding school in Connecticut from the ages of five to thirteen. He went to Harvard, serving as president of the Harvard Lampoon, but after disorderly conduct he was forced to leave without graduating. From 1945 to 1947, he worked as a fact-checker for the New Yorker, where he first became interested in the player piano, a major preoccupation throughout his career. He published The Recognitions in 1955, but its commercial failure led him to take jobs as a corporate writer for Pfizer International, the U.S. Army, IBM, and Eastman Kodak, among others, to support his new and growing family. This body of corporate experience would give him first-hand insight for J R. After two National Endowment for the Arts grants (1966, 1969), Gaddis published J R in 1975 and received the National Book Award the following year. In 1982, he received the MacArthur Foundation “genius award”; in 1984, he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; and in 1993 he received the Lannan Literary Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award. He died in December 1998, four years before his fifth and final novel was posthumously published.
The plot of J R is as extravagant as its form and rewards the attentive reader. In fact, according to Gaddis scholar Steven Moore, the book requires attentive reading. “[W]hile any text benefits more from an active reading than a passive one”, Moore writes, “J R leaves the reader no choice. The passive reader will not last a dozen pages.” Given the book’s heavily-populated cast, multiple legal and financial digressions, and a plethora of slowly- and slightly-unveiled backstories, a précis is both difficult and doomed to reduction.1 Nevertheless, all of these various complexities and the ways in which they are presented constitute a greater than average depth of meaning and resonance, not deliberate opacity and authorial pageantry.
At the core of the novel is the enigmatic sixth-grader J R Vansant, who sets in motion a ballooning corporate conglomerate that will threaten the entire American economic system. On a field trip to Typhon International — a business giant that controls everything — his class buys one share of stock in Diamond Cable as a lesson in democratic capitalism. But once J R overhears the greedy financial rhetoric of Typhon executives in the bathroom, his already burgeoning entrepreneurial tendencies come to a head and he begins buying depreciating companies and penny stocks on a get-rich-quick path to enormous but ephemeral financial success. It’s no accident that we first meet J R while he is performing the role of Alberich in a school rehearsal of Wagner’s Ring cycle, specifically the early scene in which Alberich steals gold from the Rhinemaidens. Reflecting on the early scenes of J R, Gregory Comnes posits that “paper money, as Wagner predicted, has become the new ring”, so that the very money that J R “steals” is the class money used to buy the stock that will spawn the eleven-year-old’s empire.
By using an eleven-year-old to conduct the entire corporate operation from a pay phone at his school, with a handkerchief over the receiver to mask his young voice, J R offers a scathing criticism of the nature of American economics. First point of critique: the traits of a child — greed, impatience, self-centredness — are what it takes to be successful. Another trait, namely sincere naïveté, also gives J R an edge in the business world while maintaining reader sympathy. In contrast to bureaucratic adults who feign professionalism with contrived workplace parlance like “tangibilitating the full utilization potential”, J R offers no pretenses about his intentions when he approaches composer and music teacher Edward Bast: “I just thought maybe we could use each other”, he says (emphasis mine). Second point of critique: it is not through entrepreneurial excellence that J R makes his fortune, but through the purchase of failing companies and cheap products. When his eternally apprehensive assistant Bast questions him on the ethics of his actions, J R parrots what he has gleaned from adults: “You can’t just play to play because the rules are only for if you’re playing to win which that’s the only rules there are”. This mindset culminates in endless growth-at-all-costs, and so prefigures J R’s future — a future acted out through other characters like Davidoff, one of many underlings who end up working for J R but never meeting him.
But this is only the most basic plot. What makes J R so engrossing and re-readable is the elegant gossamer of its interconnectedness, and the ways in which Gaddis pushes everything to absurd lengths. Much of the plotting has to do with family skirmishes and madcap intrafamilial warfare, as entire families are torn apart by financial greed. Bast’s cousin and half-sister, for instance, ruthlessly seek to attain a controlling share of the family company, and in a remarkable statement on the corporatisation of the family, J R will eventually establish the J R Family of Companies in the midst of a book rife with disintegrated families. But rather than using this grim material to drive the reader to despair, Gaddis finds a form that makes it stylistically extravagant: unattributed dialogue in continental format, devoid of section breaks and chapters, with rare moments of clipped narrative.2 It’s not chaotic; on the contrary, it’s orchestrated with operatic sophistication. Indeed, with the early scene depicting the rehearsal of the Ring cycle, and repeated invocations of Mozart and Wagner, Gaddis effectively signals that he is conducting an operatic epic so that we, as readers, will not only need to scan his words but also listen to him (as Bast implores J R to do). And, as we listen, attuning our ears to his dialogue, we become acquainted with his characters solely through their voices, which in turn become the book’s leitmotifs. To capture the nuances of the characters’ voices, Gaddis dismisses Strunk and White, et al., and maximises his use of every solecism, malapropism, and spoonerism, often to comedic effect: stock phrases, verbal tics, and an unusual degree of characters referring to each other by name help to maintain footing in the endless panta rhei of talking.
Noise is thus the salient feature of J R. The reader will have to contend with sometimes multiple layers of interwoven cacophony (people, radio, television) in a mixture of blather and earnestness that echoes our distracted Age of Information Overload. Joseph Tabbi, in his book Nobody Grew but the Business (2015), puts it succinctly:
One will not find in American fiction a more prescient vision of the collective, corporate life-world than what we have in J R, and none of the direct citations in current fiction of email exchanges, text messages, chat sessions, pings, and tweets have caught so well the spirit of corporatization that underlies these symptoms.
The glut of the noisiest stretches of the book takes place in the 96th Street apartment originally used by Jack Gibbs and Thomas Eigen as (ironically) a writer’s retreat from the world. But the world cannot be kept out of this waste land. Designated the J R Corp headquarters, the telephone rings endlessly and parcel delivery attempts abound. A buried radio springs to life intermittently, a clock runs backwards, and a leaky faucet becomes increasingly voluminous. Mail is kept in the oven and the ice tray. Boxes and papers repeatedly topple and scatter, inside and outside the apartment, invoking through imagery Gibbs’ namesake, Josiah Willard Gibbs, the nineteenth century scientist who made major contributions to thermodynamics, cybernetics, and entropy theory. Joseph McElroy highlights a key accomplishment of J R’s marriage of dialogue and communications entropy: “He is writing about it — writing it — expressly, these spilled entropies, failed aims, words not getting through”. With these gestures, Gaddis allows J R to simulate for the reader the chaotic exhaustion that characters like Gibbs and Bast endure, both physically and mentally.
Literary critic Tom LeClair uses systems theory to exemplify J R as “the paradigmatic systems text, the one closest to systems theory”. The structure of J R, LeClair shows, is modelled on recursion and, ultimately, runaway processes, which underscore Gaddis’ theme of attempting to impose order on chaos (about which Gibbs is the foremost spokesman). This is unsurprising, given that one of Gaddis’ sources was cybernetics founder Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings (1950). The goal of cybernetics is to make communication more efficient, but, as Nicholas Spencer points out, “most financial information and decision making [in J R] is communicated by telephone. As a crude form of cybernetic technology, the predigital telephone engenders the controversial entropic noise that technological endeavors in J R seek to eliminate.” The irony of this situation is especially relevant today, as we are busier than ever — or feel ourselves to be so — despite the time-saving devices that saturate the market.
Of all the characters trapped in the entropic oppression that thwarts the conveniences of cybernetics, Edward Bast is the most evident victim. Young and idealistic, but with his goodwill and financial needs manipulated by J R and Crawley (who commissions him to write “zebra music” for a documentary), Bast desperately tries to focus on his creative work, yet is beleaguered from all angles. Answering the phone, running errands, and at one point monitoring a radio station’s music through an earpiece while attempting to write his own music at the same time, he ends up in hospital with double pneumonia and nervous exhaustion, his grand opera now reduced to a piece for unaccompanied cello. As Gibbs says, channeling Oscar Wilde: “All art depends upon exquisite and delicate sensibility, and such constant turmoil must ultimately be destructive of the musical faculty.”
But amid the despair of this situation, J R is also a legitimately hilarious novel. Characters talk over each other and past each other, and state (not ask) questions, and disregard answers. Stuttering and false starts abound; plays on words, puns, and other miscommunications result in comical, often Freudian parapraxes. The frantic (and, in the case of Gibbs, drunken) disposition of the characters compounds a frenetic pace conducive to humor that builds on itself. For example, because the reader already knows that J R sent an electric mail opener to the 96th Street apartment in an earlier passage, the humor of this otherwise incomprehensible exchange benefits from Gaddis’ controlled momentum:
—Christ Jack what… look out!
—Just opening the mail, Mister Bast here got us a…
—Stop, stop it look it’s slicing most of it in half… (ellipses in original)
In a more straightforward delivery, one character offers an amusing anecdote about her father:
Because all these years he’s hated Franklin Roosevelt he still does, he thinks he ruined the country and when that dime came out with Roosevelt’s face on it he started to collect them to get them out of circulation honestly he did…
Gaddis even creatively employs subtle humor behind the backs of the characters without narrative intervention. For example, after the lawyer Coen tells the Bast aunts that his last name does not have an “h” in it, his surname remains rendered as “Cohen” when spoken by Anne and Julia. This interplay of written and spoken dialogue has the effect of an inside joke between author and reader.
J R belongs in the pantheon of encyclopedic, maximalist, Menippean literature, but as a critique of the individual buried under the rubble of an economic system built on growth-without-end it has no equal — and, unlike many political and economic satires, Gaddis focuses not on the inherent flaws of the capitalist system but rather on its abuses.3 The novel is also an exhaustive, stentorian, discordant text that relentlessly escalates its pandemonium for over seven hundred pages — an escalation symptomatic not of self-indulgence but of urgent earnestness. Finding himself beset by labels like “pessimistic” and “nihilistic”, Gaddis was surprised that so many readers took his comic first novel so seriously and missed the greater depths of Bast’s revelation at the end of his second novel: if one is to fail, one should fail at one’s own work. Yet, with both books, Gaddis took great risks and followed not industry trends but his own vision, believing that the potential for failure was necessary for any sort of success.4 And although J R continues to guarantee readers the “shock of the new”, it is Gaddis’ début, The Recognitions, that affirms Browning’s charge that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.
1. For a clear, insightful analysis of what Steven Moore calls J R’s “pentahedral plot”, see the section ‘A Story of Wall Street’ in his book William Gaddis: Expanded Edition.
2. Marc Chénetier’s essay ‘“Centaur Meditating on a Saddle”: Fabric and Function of the Narrative Voice in William Gaddis’ JR‘ offers a convincing analysis of the narrative thread which actually amounts to roughly one hundred pages of the book.
3. In his 1987 Paris Review interview, Gaddis says: “I do see… [capitalism] in the end as really the most workable system we’ve produced. So what we’re talking about is not the system itself, but its abuses.”
4. One of Gaddis’ issues with the player piano was that it sought to remove the possibility of failure by eliminating the human element from art.