So sue me

Michael Wood

  • A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
    Viking, 529 pp, £16.00, June 1994, ISBN 0 670 85553 7

It’s hard to think of a writer who publishes a book every ten or twenty years as garrulous, or of a person who produces his fourth novel at the age of 72 as prolific; but we need some such terms if we are to begin to describe the extraordinary work of William Gaddis, born 1922, the author of The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and now A Frolic of His Own.

Everyone talks in these novels, all the time and at length. They don’t listen, or they barely listen; or they listen too late, so that what they finally hear confounds everything they have been saying. Their style, at least in the last three novels, is breathless and jumbled, often pronounless, dedicated to the present participle. From JR:

See life draining out of everything in sight call that beautiful? End of the day alone on that train, lights coming on in those little Connecticut towns stop and stare out at an empty street corner dry cheese sandwich charge you a dollar you wouldn’t even put butter on it, finally pull into that desolate station scared to get off scared to stay on.

From Carpenter’s Gothic:

Trying to get things together here look, getting things lined up everything’s just about ready to fall in place so God damn many pressures, why I don’t try to tell you everything I don’t want to upset you. Try to give you the big picture you take one corner of it and run, jump like I said you jump to some conclusion the whole God damn thing falls to pieces like these flowers, I send these flowers you jump to some conclusion we end up arguing about flowers, see what I mean?

From A Frolic of His Own:

Like we just witnessed here right before our eyes how this Federal US judge just steps in there to suit his fancy and throws out a verdict reached after calm deliberation by a jury of you honest citizens black folk and white, right there in the Fourteenth Amendment in black and white, the jury that’s the bulwark and cornerstone of American justice like you don’t see in these dictator atheist countries.

And it’s not just the characters who talk. The novels themselves are driven by a compulsion to discuss and argue, to let all these words out of the bag. Monologues merge into hectic narrative, often without warning; the narrators have purple passages, usually parodying some sort of fine writing, including Gaddis’s own; texts are inserted into texts – handwritten homework and lists in JR, a play and sundry legal documents, with typescript to match, in A Frolic of His Own. There is a need for words here, a sense of things to be said, of a world waiting for our wisdom, of ourselves needing to make an extended verbal mark on our habitat; and there is also – this is what makes these novels so brilliantly funny – a lucid and ironic awareness of how pointless and manic and self-centred this talk is. Talk is a kind of doomed buffoonery, wearing funny clothes and taking tumbles because it doesn’t know how to get another job, or if there is another job, anywhere.

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