The Recognitions 
by William Gaddis.
NYRB, 992 pp., £24, November 2020, 978 1 68137 466 6
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by William Gaddis.
NYRB, 784 pp., £20, October 2020, 978 1 68137 468 0
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Thesenovels, first published in 1955 and 1975 and now reissued as classics, are certainly monuments, but less monuments in terms of literary achievement than monuments to a particular 20th-century idea of literature, and a peculiar division of labour between writer and reader. Their author, William Gaddis, who won the National Book Award with JR, might actually have felt short-changed by the accolade of the imprint, to judge by a riff in JR deploring the way ‘longer works of fiction [are] now dismissed as classics and … largely unread due to the effort involved in reading and turning any more than two hundred pages’. The context of this passage is a harebrained scheme to freeze sound by the Frigicom process, using liquid nitrogen, so that noise pollution can be frozen at source and disposed of safely at sea. These books have safely been turned into sound without Frigicom technology, in audio versions (both read by Nick Sullivan) that last 47 hours 55 minutes and 37 hrs 41 mins respectively.

Two images of artistic endeavour emerge from a seventy-page party scene in The Recognitions. The tortured composer Stanley talks about ‘living among palimpsests … double and triple palimpsests pile up and you keep erasing, and altering, and adding, always trying to account for this accumulation, to order it, to locate every particle in its place in one whole’. He feels doomed to add details endlessly, stranded between inspiration and finished work (he’s writing an organ concerto). Meanwhile the tortured bridge designer Benny rhapsodises about some technical drawings done by a one-time employee, so accomplished that they make something unbuilt seem to attain a plane higher than physical reality: ‘Every tension was perfect, the balance was perfect, you can look at those bridges with my name on them and see them leap out to meet themselves, see them move in perfect stillness, see perfect delicate tension of movement in stillness, see tenderness in suspense.’

It’s hard to imagine a middle ground between these two opposed notions – accretion in layers and elegant engineering – unless it’s the Pont des Arts in Paris, so encrusted with the padlocks attached to it by lovers commemorating their devotion that part of the parapet collapsed under the weight. On the page, The Recognitions is all stubborn proliferation and zero paring away of the inessential. The draughtsman Benny reveres is Wyatt Gwyon, in theory the protagonist of the book but edging away from that status. In fact, all the book’s principal characters have a tendency to wander off, sometimes for hundreds of pages, while characters who should be walk-ons hog the stage.

Wyatt enjoys the conventional perk for a novelistic hero of a detailed account being given of his miserable early life in a New England parsonage, a setting as gothic-intense as the proximity to Mount Lamentation would suggest. It sounds like something out of Pilgrim’s Progress, though there is a real if modest eminence by that name (700 feet tall) in Connecticut. Wyatt is sensitive to the otherworldly, for instance seeing his mother on the day of her death, though she was in Spain at the time. Pieces of indirect evidence such as the date of the Scopes trial indicate a birthdate for Wyatt near Gaddis’s own (1922), though the atmosphere seems unchanged since Hawthorne’s day. Wyatt’s father is a scholar whose sermons are as likely to mention Mithras as Christ. His Aunt May performs killjoy Puritanism as if it were an Olympic sport: she even hangs up male and female laundry to dry separately. When Reverend Gwyon takes on simple-minded Janet as a kitchen maid, the household is able to match the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm for individual and collective oddity, though comedy here is an uninvited guest.

Any account of an oppressive religious upbringing risks being overshadowed by Gosse’s Father and Son, particularly the cruel moment when Gosse senior throws onto the dust-heap the remains of the Christmas pudding (‘idolatrous confectionery’) offered to young Edmund by the servants. The equivalent moment in The Recognitions hardly measures up: a guest invited for Wyatt’s fourth birthday brings a plus one, so under pressure from Aunt May (who has apparently baked an exact number of slices) Wyatt must sacrifice his cake.

On page 39 of a very leisurely opening section comes this dismaying sentence: ‘Transportation and communication advanced, bringing to Aunt May’s door the woes of the world, a world which she saw a worse thing daily.’ (The awkwardness of grammar and cadence is characteristic.) It’s quixotic to draw attention in this way to the absence of particularity or observation, particularly in areas where less grandiose American writers have achieved such quiet splendours of chronicle, whether it’s Booth Tarkington in The Magnificent Ambersons describing the ‘little bunty streetcar’ pulled by a mule along a track that wove its way among the cobblestones, whose passengers got out and pushed if the mule strayed from the track, or E.B. White in his essay on the Model T Ford remembering the way his car would strain forward if the emergency brake wasn’t fully engaged: ‘I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.’

Overambitious and deeply defective first novels don’t normally enjoy an amnesty from editorial suggestions, whether on the local level (nonsensical formulations like ‘half in a fury and half in a rage’ or ‘her trenchant mumbling almost soothed the chill it rode on’) or in larger matters of construction. The second section of Part I, recounting a visit by the young Wyatt to Paris, serves no structural function – it’s also turgid, but that’s the weather of the book. Much of The Recognitions is set in New York, where Wyatt arrives after reading for the ministry and realising that his vocation is as a painter. In childhood he acquired the idea that originality was a sin, being a challenge to the Creator, and so he makes copies, starting with a supposedly authentic Bosch that his father brought back from Spain (claiming it was a fake). Wyatt slyly substitutes his copy for the original and sells the original. In New York there is money to be made from this skill, and so the clichéd figure of the artist as tortured genius is replaced by the counterfeiter as tortured genius, who doesn’t do anything as crude as imitation but must fully inhabit the psyche of the artist, whether it’s Dieric Bouts or Memling. Bouts finished his work and moved on, but Wyatt must take care, while artificially distressing a painting to simulate the effects of age, not to spare the most expressive areas. He may end up obliterating the Virgin’s face. This is very much the territory of ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, though the ideas can’t be expected to resonate in the clogged ducts of The Recognitions as they do in the vast interior spaces of Borges’s story (which is unlikely to have influenced Gaddis, since it wasn’t translated into English until 1962). Gaddis shows an intimate knowledge of fine art, in terms of both aesthetics and techniques, obviously an asset in a novel that deals with the forging of paintings. His blind spot, unfortunately, is literary prose. He has no feeling for his medium. His novels are long not because they are structurally ambitious – they’re not – but because he has no idea how to construct, or to cut.

Wyatt marries a young woman called Esther, accepting her suggestion that they tie the knot before they know much about each other. Does he know what he is taking on? Her analyst forbids the marriage and then kills himself when it happens. The union doesn’t last. A young man called Otto, a would-be writer, falls under Wyatt’s spell and starts an affair with Esther after the break-up of the marriage. Otto’s function is to be an inferior double of Wyatt, a literary plagiarist whether conscious or unconscious, a minor character whose every thought and action is inauthentic, while Wyatt is a forger who adds value. No call, then, for a whole chapter describing Otto’s time in Central America, particularly since Gaddis has accidentally written an effective paragraph, more than enough to sum up the episode: ‘Weeds grew luxuriously. The only way that Otto was certain time was passing was the frequency with which he had to pare his nails. His shoes, left under the bed, turned green.’ The experiment of concision is not repeated.

When Wyatt goes home for a visit, gothic values still rule the roost in the shadow of Mount Lamentation. He arrives more or less insane and carrying a gold figure of a bull. His father now worships Mithras, and there’s a bull in the carriage barn, so it’s a good choice of offering (earlier the barn’s occupant was a Barbary ape called Heracles, disembowelled and crucified by the reverend to cure an illness of Wyatt’s). It’s not an emotional father-son reunion, though: ‘On either side of the door they stood, a hand raised and a hand held forth, their extended arms abscissa and ordinate for the point of ordination where their eyes met on the inordinate curve of doubt.’ The door between them is closed as a matter of physical fact, so the meeting of their eyes can only be a symbolic event.

Meanwhile, drinkers in the Depot Tavern discuss druids and Manichaeism. Even the ladies who call at the house to invite their preacher to a Christmas supper succumb to a diffuse eeriness, the spreading dry-ice mist of genre: ‘When they looked round, they were alone in the room. When they left, seeking their footprints, those were gone under the snow; and the prints of departure so quickly obliterated as to leave no witness that their visit had ever been made at all.’ Finally a bolt of lightning during a storm reveals that Janet in her own way worships the bull: ‘Louder than laughter, the crash raised and sundered them in a blinding agony of light in which nothing existed until it was done, and the tablet of darkness betrayed the vivid, motionless, extinct and enduring image of the bull in his stall and Janet bent open beneath him.’ It’s not every simple-minded kitchen girl who models her behaviour on Queen Pasiphae of Crete.

All this is preposterous but has the virtue of being germane. More baffling from the reader’s point of view are the extraneous sections and characters. The reader’s experience of The Recognitions (this reader’s) is of being alternately abandoned and spoon-fed. How many times does a child from downstairs need to ask party guests to supply sleeping tablets for her mother for the reader to understand these are irresponsible people? In The Recognitions it happens four times. Too subtle a set-up? Then add some coercive pathos, and have the child say to the hostess: ‘You’ve got lots of friends, haven’t you … Mummy used to too, but not any more.’ This is overkill, even if the mother survives.

Here readers are assumed to need the help of crude signposts, but in much of the book obstacles to understanding are placed in their way. ‘Basil Valentine cupped his hands to light a cigarette, for the one he had held up with a match was quivering.’ The scanning eye, needing to find a referent for ‘one’, fastens first on the singular noun ‘cigarette’, discards it when the mental picture of a match holding up a cigarette proves nonsensical and settles by a process of elimination on the intended meaning, ‘one’ of Basil’s hands. Readers don’t mind paying attention as long as attention has been paid to them, their path through the book swept rather than boobytrapped. But this sentence, like thousands of others, needs to be read twice for basic information – no writer who had given it even a single scrupulous reading would leave it as it stands.

There’s an inability to control dynamics apparent at every scale. Energy leaks out of a sentence like this one, founded on the unpromising notion of a facial expression not visible to anyone in the scene: ‘He was too excited with pleasure to notice Otto’s face, an anxious expression, but a vacant anxiety, and the more abandoned for being features inured by conscious arrangements where, only now as in sleep, nothing happened.’ And have a shot at imagining this posture: she stared ‘at his hands, her own withdrawn to shelter the hollows, heels on bone and the round ends of her fingers appointing that soft declivity which rose above them until her thumbs could not meet across her waist.’ Not easy to form a mental picture of this disposition of body parts. It’s as resistant to understanding as the more blatantly cryptic formula later in the same scene: ‘They stood there with three senses locked in echo of the fourth.’

Anticlimax is an effect, and a risky one, dependent on the precise control of dynamics. It can’t really be a principle of construction, though that sometimes seems to be Gaddis’s hope. Chapter IX of Part II, for instance, is relatively compact, not even twenty pages, and in outline promises no end of drama. At Christmas the Reverend Gwyon finally commits to Mithras rather than Christ, modifies his church, overcomes the bull in single combat, sacrifices it, attempts an invocation (‘To Mithra of the wide pastures, of the thousand ears, of the myriad eyes’) and is carted off to the asylum. Oh, and a stranger’s car crashes into the Depot Tavern, which burns down. Yet the material is processed in a way that almost suggests embarrassment, starting with a list of rumours about the Reverend (for instance that he had married ‘a hoary crone with bangles in her ears … and led an insurrection of the Moors on Córdoba’) and proceeding in the manner of a tall tale. A drinker swears that as he made his way home he saw ‘the bull carried shoulder-high, and then dragged, by its hind legs, out of his sight, up the lawn towards the parsonage’. All very well to say that ‘the fellow’s story assumed such proportions that credulity was strained’ – but isn’t it a bit late for that? The time to have doubts about the gothic mode was seven hundred pages earlier, and since the bull’s body was indeed found in the parsonage, killed with a single stab to the neck, retreat isn’t an option.

These lurid events occupy only a third of the chapter, with the rest being taken up first by the arrival of an emergency substitute, introduced with characteristic lack of vividness (‘a young man whose expression did something to redeem the otherwise vapid character of his face’), and then by the tenure of Gwyon’s successor. A dislike of jaunty clergymen, whose favourite words are ‘cozy’ and ‘cheery’ and who want to be called ‘Dick’, is understandable, but what can justify its being indulged here? Hold on, perhaps this is a feint – perhaps ‘Dick’ visits his predecessor in the institution. Perhaps, wild idea, the staff mistake the visitor for the inmate’s son. Is that what happens? Well, yes and no. Yes, the visit duly takes place and the identity is duly mistaken, but the scene is cut off before the encounter, though there is space for a couple of pages detailing the obsessions of another patient, who has spent a lot of time experimenting with the body parts of cadavers to determine the likely size and placement of nails at the Crucifixion. So it isn’t the gothic mode that Gaddis rejects – far from it – but relevance in narrative.

The novel is choked with side-chambers, not connecting either with one another or with the main business of what is a very unbusinesslike novel. If Otto is barely relevant then his father can’t be more than a footnote to a footnote. Yet Gaddis devotes page after page to Mr Pivner, pages that set out only to establish, and to repeat, how contemptibly ordinary he is, in a denunciation of conformity that is itself entirely routine. Pivner senior lives in New York but father and son have apparently never met (family history not given), and though there are various attempts at a rendezvous, they never come off. This allows for a wan version of the father-son theme in Ulysses, with Otto mistaking a forger for his father and Pivner senior settling for a substitute. But isn’t Wyatt Gwyon, mother-deprived, guilt-imbued and looking for art to heal the wounds of religion, already a version of Stephen Dedalus? By the end of the book, in self-imposed exile, he’s even answering to the name of Stephen.

Other ambitious 20th-century American writers have tried to find a way of synthesising the internal perspective and the external, subjective experience and newspaper headline, impression and chronicle. For the middlebrow modernism of U.S.A., John Dos Passos shrewdly kept those registers apart, offering them separately on the page under the headings camera eye and newsreel. Here they are mashed together, and the effect is distinctly lumpy. There’s a reference to Firbank late in the book and perhaps Gaddis thinks he’s following in those dancing footsteps, by building up party scenes out of scraps of dialogue:

– So I said to her, you just go ahead and be pathological …

– So I said to them when we got back to Florence, of course there’s no place I’d rather live than Siena if I had my analyst there with me …

– So he said to me, Oh, Sappho, he was queer too wasn’t he …

It’s a good bet that the 1933 novel The Young and Evil, whose authors Parker Tyler and Charles Henri Ford turn up the dial of camp to Spinal Tap levels, is an intermediate influence. Gaddis misses the lightness of Firbank’s compression, preferring to fill pages with lines that are variously clever, stupid and clever-clever, hoping the reader cares enough to decide which is which. He clogs scenes with lectures; an account of a drag ball, for instance, is drowned out by paragraphs of miscellaneous erudition: ‘So priests down through the ages, skirted in respectful imitation of androgynous deities who reigned before Baal was worshipped as a pillar, before Osiris sported erection, before men knew of their part in generation, and regarded skirted women as autofructiferous.’

Gass in his 1993 afterword mentions Malcolm Lowry, Proust, Finnegans Wake and Moby-Dick; Tom McCarthy in his new introduction invokes Döblin, Laforgue, Plato, Shakespeare, Derrida, Bataille and Adorno. Sensibly neither makes reference to Gide’s The Counterfeiters, published in 1925, whose handling of the themes of originality and authenticity has a vitality and a reflexiveness that makes The Recognitions seem antediluvian – with modernism the purging flood it seems to predate, or unaccountably to have survived.

JoyWilliams’s name on the cover of JR (she wrote the new introduction) is proof that an almost caricaturally male enterprise, and the challenge of yomping across vast inhospitable tracts of literary terrain, has appealed to at least one female sensibility in the 45 years since the book’s publication. In terms of form and texture JR is very different from The Recognitions, since the vast proportion of it is in unattributed dialogue, introduced by the em dash, with no chapter breaks. Its genre is unmistakably comedy, some of it high though much of it low, a satirical farce on the supercharged American version of capitalism. There are 20th-century precedents (Confessions of Felix Krull, A House for Mr Biswas) for viable if not side-splitting comic novels written by authors who test negative for a sense of humour, and for some of its enormous length, JR suggests that Gaddis might succeed in joining Mann and Naipaul in that strange and frosty club.

The opening sentence of the book is admirably focused and efficient (‘ – Money … ? in a voice that rustled.’) and the whole first scene has a welcome if oblique element of exposition. The lawyer Coen needs legal and financial documentation from the genteel sisters Anne and Julia Bast in order to administer the estate of their brother Thomas, who died intestate. The sisters’ grip on relevance in conversation, and indeed reality, is far from fierce, but a family and a business are sketched in: Thomas has a daughter called Stella, and the fourth sibling, James, has a son called Edward, though his biological father might actually have been Thomas. The family firm, General Roll, deals in player pianos and the punched paper rolls they require. There are assets involved, liabilities and potentially power struggles of the sort familiar from Louis Auchincloss’s novels published decades before JR and decades after it, as well as from soap operas like Dallas: ‘If instead of Stella holding 25 shares against my 23 it turns out that her and Edward split that 25 …’ This strand never quite goes away but never takes centre stage. There is no centre stage in JR, and that’s part of the point: the world of money is a hall of mirrors that will reflect and distort anything or nothing. Under investigation for insider dealing, one character cries: ‘How could I be inside there isn’t any inside!’ And though he’s referring to a particularly ramshackle business enterprise the remark resonates.

Social comedy depends on agreed and stable codes of behaviour, which begin to melt away almost immediately. When the Bast sisters refer to the local paper they mean the one from their childhood home in Indiana (which they continue to have sent to them) rather than Long Island, where they have lived the bulk of their lives. They seem proud that their uncle served time in Andersonville prison and also of their Native American ancestry: ‘It is Cherokee blood you understand, Mister Cohen. They were the only tribe to have their own alphabet.’ Far from being embarrassed to be investors in a firm that makes top-of-the-line condoms, they take pride in the thinness of the sheep membranes used in their manufacture.

In the absence of chapter breaks, transitions between scenes are managed according to a strange and shifting set of conventions. Sometimes it’s as if a disembodied recording device, some sort of electronic flea, were jumping from person to person. At other times the recording device remains in a particular location, in an apartment for instance, which people leave and to which they return, or waits overnight in a railway station, a patient parasite, for the next set of voices to fasten on. It’s disconcerting to have a night simply elided, in another part of the book, without a break in the grammar:

In the bathroom he lifted her things dripping from the basin across to the tub and washed, in the bedroom stepped on Wagner as Man and Artist broken open on the floor between their beds looking, as he got into his own, at the shadow of her thighs’ descent there just beyond his reach and unchanged it seemed in any detail next morning as he paused again up on one elbow to look.

The characters have had a full night’s sleep while the reader is denied even the refreshment of a comma.

Sometimes the point of view (or hearing) dives down a phone line, emulating a modem (a device that came on the market in 1962 but wasn’t yet part of the cultural landscape in 1975); at other times it for no obvious reason takes the cross-country route. When it turns out that the point of view can travel by phone even when the receiver hasn’t been picked up, the device seems to have no advantage over the more traditional ‘Meanwhile, in another part of town …’ These perversely ingenious transitions can’t reasonably be described as constraints, since they don’t restrict the writer, but they do restrict the reader, asserting an arbitrary relentlessness that doesn’t correspond to any formal logic.

At an early stage of the writing process, in 1956 (this information comes courtesy of Williams’s introduction), Gaddis sent himself a registered letter as a low-cost way of copyrighting the plot of JR. In it he sketches the idea of a sixth-grade schoolboy (ten or eleven years old) – JR – who becomes a major financial player, using as a front man an idealist with no knowledge of business called Bast. That’s Edward Bast, whose surname came to Gaddis in a dream, as he claimed, or perhaps from a reading of Howards End, though Leonard Bast’s idealism is compromised from the beginning of Forster’s novel.

This double act of boy tycoon and reluctant executive survives into the book, but necessarily changed by the vast expansion of the premise (a satire on the business world and ‘a morality study of … a young man with an artist’s conscience’). Gaddis is consistent in his preference for anticlimax: no one but Edward Bast ever knows, in the ample time scheme of the book, that the JR of big business is the same creature as the unappealing high school student who is so hard to get rid of. Everyone else in the book keeps wearing the green-tinted spectacles, and no one but Bast shares this erratic pre-teen wizard’s secrets. The trouble is that to make the plot plausible, or near plausible, Edward Bast must become a moral weakling, unsympathetic if not actively annoying, unable to stand up to a pushy child. Without Bast as his mouthpiece JR must make phone calls speaking through a wadded hankie to be taken for an adult, or use a tape recorder to slow his voice down and lower its pitch.

The foundations of the plot are strongly laid. JR, who loves to send off for every offer and opportunity touted in the advertisement pages of the comics he reads, goes with his class to visit a Wall Street firm with which his class teacher, Mrs Joubert, is connected. Between them they have saved up enough money for a single share in the business, and naturally the firm seizes on the opportunity to create some publicity about giving young people a stake in America’s future. But JR takes away the company’s annual report, and is a great reader of the small print. He writes to the company, where his letter is assumed by the publicity director to be threatening a class action rather than referring to a class visit. JR is offered $1800 in settlement, which gives him his seed money. His early efforts are erratic, since he assumes the abbreviation ‘gr.’ in an advert for army surplus at knockdown prices refers to a colour (green) rather than a quantity (gross), but luckily he has given his school as the delivery address, and no one there dares to question the arrival of more than a million unwanted wooden picnic forks in case it is part of the federal programme for subsidising cafeteria lunches.

Thereafter JR doesn’t seek to pursue gains so much as finesse losses. Soon he is buying up mineral rights, cemeteries and chains of nursing homes, and the corporation he sets up with Bast’s help is, in the words of one of its executives, ‘preponderantly inspired by such negative considerations as depreciation and depletion allowances, loss carryforwards tax write-offs and similar’. Remind you of anyone? In a world where the conventional wisdom is that you should avoid taxable income like the plague and always get other people’s money working for you, JR isn’t exactly an outlier. Sometimes he comes up with a brilliantly simple solution: saddled with a vast quantity of aspirin which is brightly coloured due to a defect in the manufacturing process, he promotes it with the slogan ‘It’s green!’ and corners the market. Sometimes his ignorance of the world lets him down, as when he queries a claim for air travel to Jamaica: the only Jamaica he has heard of is the neighbourhood in Queens. He registers the name ‘Alsaka’ for business purposes, finding out only later that the word is spelled ‘Alaska’.

The world​ of money lost any transparency it might have had long before the 1970s, perhaps at some point between the publication dates of Middlemarch and The Golden Bowl. George Eliot could have told you to the penny what the people in the town earned or owed, while Henry James would have struggled to imagine a balance sheet emanating from Adam Verver’s empire. No reader is likely to understand the self-sustaining momentum of JR’s business dealings, which wouldn’t matter if that momentum carried over into the dynamics of the book. Williams praises the novel’s ‘flow of unremitting talk’, but there’s no equivalent in a book to the tempo markings on a musical score. Flow can only be a collaboration between reader and writer, and it isn’t always clear that Gaddis understands he has a part to play. The secret of successful long comic novels – Don Quixote, Tristram Shandy – may be companionability.

Dialogue as an aspect of fictional technique changed a great deal in the 20th century, at least in the English-speaking world. David Lodge argues in Consciousness in the Novel that a generation starting to publish in the shadow of modernist masterworks chose to emphasise externals rather than psychological depth, with characters whose spoken words were almost ostentatiously distanced from actual feelings. A classic example would be the two phone conversations in Vile Bodies between Adam and Nina about the breaking of their engagement and Nina’s decision to marry someone else, totalling fewer than two hundred words between them, but there are similar strategies of non-revelation at play in early Huxley, in Compton-Burnett, in Hemingway. Gaddis, whose characters tend towards logorrhoea, hardly belongs in the same category, but in the early passages of JR that deal with Bast’s infatuation for his cousin Stella there is an unexpected element of homage to the syncopated lyricism of Henry Green. Green’s style is routinely described as inimitable, but this is a pretty good imitation: Stella ‘mirrored in the picture’s glass, her back to them in a simple curve of gray tailored to the grave decline of her shoulders’; Stella ‘turning from them what might have become a smile to draw up her throat’s long and gentle curve’.

By the time Gaddis started working on JR, in the 1950s, Green had influential American admirers on both East and West Coasts (Updike and Terry Southern), and his last two novels, Nothing (1950) and Doting (1952), though trim, have roughly the same proportion of speech to narration as Gaddis’s colossal book. Stella, with her manipulative glamour (an ex describes her as needing ‘somebody to lie to’), recapitulates Jane Weatherby in Nothing, while in Green’s novel the young lovers’ relationship, like the one between Stella and Edward, may be that of half-siblings. (In Nothing this is a plot point, in JR just one more possibility opened up and not developed.)

Nevertheless, JR mostly offers monologues rather than dialogue. In group scenes, particularly in rooms that contain multiple telephones, it’s a real challenge to work out who is talking. Phones are forever ringing and being answered, but these facts are rarely mentioned. One side of a conversation simply starts, adding another layer of speech, often at cross-purposes, to the tangle in the room. Even when the speaker is identifiable the scantiness of punctuation regularly requires the reader to have several goes at understanding something that isn’t really a sentence, more like the wreckage of three or four that have been started and abandoned: ‘Yes where’s never find a pencil here give it to him get him out of here looks like he’d cut his mother’s man in the hat is that Walldecker said he was coming up here for …’ The way we talk in real life has a lot of this incoherence, but there are other clues (vocal tone and emphasis, context, body language) available to make up the shortfall in immediate sense. The person who says ‘Whole God Damn problem tastes like apricots, whole God damned problem listen’ isn’t saying that the problem tastes like apricots, he’s describing the flavour of his drink in an aside, as his hearers would know, but Gaddis’s readers, deprived of helpful punctuation, must go back in search of understanding. In this context it’s a shock when someone expresses himself clearly and means what he says: ‘The function of this school is custodial. It’s here to keep these kids off the streets until the girls are big enough to get pregnant and the boys are old enough to go out and hold up a gas station, it’s strictly custodial and the rest is plumbing.’

The spoken words aren’t the only challenge the reader must overcome. There are many rounds of the game of Hunt the Antecedent: ‘He pulled his shirt together, joined her search of the ceiling as she broke it off.’ What was it she broke off? It can only be her search. Neutral bits of description are bent out of shape for no reason: ‘he sought down the row of stares levelled in chromed grimaces for the familiar ptosis left from a jump up a curb into a fire hydrant.’ He located his car.

There’s​ no stauncher ally of plausibility than pace. Far better to keep things moving, seeking to power past any moment in which the question ‘Do I believe this?’ can even be asked, than to keep the detail piling up to clogging point and beyond. The single most important precondition for pace is a lubricated grammatical smoothness, with each sprocket efficiently engaging to drive the sense forward in the reader’s mind. An 11-year-old tycoon is an absurd notion – that’s the whole point – and nothing is gained by page after page of monologue from him: ‘no this Mister Wiles he’s this bank director too see so anyway we show it over here in our cash balance and take the interest off these here earnings from Wonder and all the rest of wait a second look did they do that mineral essay of that water they’re using in this here beer … ?’ JR is always hard going – in that last sentence, for instance, ‘a second look’ construes itself misleadingly as a unit of meaning and needs to be broken apart for reassembly. Yes, the book has some of the architecture of what JR calls a ‘rolycoaster’, but you have to get out and push.

The element of verbal comedy has a good chance of working, though many sparky jokes are smothered for lack of the space and air that a joke needs to catch fire, but the insistent emphasis on speech militates against the physical comedy on which farce relies. Farce has the advantage of a strong cross-cultural appeal, since there is no society without rules about what should be worn, when and where. Gaddis devises any number of wardrobe malfunctions, with clothes stained, torn or wrongly fitting (shy Edward Bast must address a public meeting wearing Native American ceremonial dress, complete with feathers), and places particular emphasis on damaged, missing or inappropriate shoes (at one point a teacher has no choice but to wear a dead pupil’s sneakers), but it all becomes abstract and notional. Such scenes call strongly to the mind’s eye. They have nothing to say to the mind’s ear. Shame, the force that powers farce, is socially constructed, that is to say visually constructed, based on the knowledge or the fear of being seen doing the wrong thing or wearing the wrong clothes. Feydeau on the radio would be a non-starter. Here we must constantly be reminded of the look of things: ‘ – You go ahead Dan, one of us going around bandaged up with an arm in a sling is one thing but the two of us these kids would think was a comedy team.’ There are much more complex scenarios than this, a hospital sequence for instance in which a patient tries to conduct complex transactions while objects, wanted and unwanted, keep arriving in his room – a private phone line that needs to be installed, not to mention a pacemaker, a Quotron machine to give him updated stock market read-outs, a crock of Stilton – and the whole invisible circus might just as well be taking place on the moon.

There’s one place even more cluttered with arrivals that does become vivid, thanks to a great deal of repetition, and that’s the apartment, left vacant by a suicide named Schramm, where Edward Bast tries to do creative work while the phone keeps ringing and mail and miscellaneous deliveries arrive in bulk, since it’s also registered as the headquarters of JR Industries. Food rots because the fridge doesn’t work (it’s just another place to put mail), the front door is off its hinges and the taps of both the bath and the kitchen sink are broken off so that water never stops gushing – as the reader is constantly reminded – but this setting does acquire a hellish presence as a sinkhole of entropy and accumulation. It also attracts some of Schramm’s friends, variously damaged and blocked in their relationships and aspirations.

These people are not only adrift in their lives but adrift within the book. Thanks to the twenty-year gestation period of JR (attested by that 1956 registered letter), a group plausibly shattered in early drafts by a recent world war, the direct cause of Schramm’s mental struggles, has aged away from topicality, as their country enters another war. (Joyce made the wise decision to future-proof his narrative project by setting Ulysses securely in past time.) Dutifully Gaddis inserts the hippie Rhoda into the generational gap that has opened up. She’s an empty-headed freeloader, cheaply sexual, shoplifting and claiming welfare in three states – she complains about the travel involved – who never rises above the lower levels of caricature. Gaddis’s hatred for cultural debasement is intense. He worked as a copywriter during the period of the book’s composition and came by this loathing either honestly or dishonestly, depending on how you look at it.

Edward Bast is a composer, trying to express himself in the dead heart of this capitalist maelstrom. In The Recognitions a Bach aria (from Cantata 78), hummed by one character and recognised by another (it’s ‘We Hasten with Eager but Faltering Footsteps’), testified to a hidden affinity between a tortured believer and a tortured atheist. There’s another cantata in JR, number 21, which Bast plays to JR as a way of proving to him that there is such a thing as an intangible asset. JR does his best to respond:

I mean what I heard first there’s all this high music right? So then this here lady starts singing up yours up yours so then this man starts singing up mine, so then there’s some words she starts singing up mine up mine so he starts singing up yours so then they go back and forth like that up mine up yours up mine up yours that’s what I heard! I mean you want me to hear it again?

No, Edward doesn’t. He has learned his lesson. Gaddis, though, hasn’t learned the great unwisdom of using Bach’s expressive economy as a touchstone of value in such disorganised books.

At one point the young tycoon gets into the publishing game and Gaddis lists a number of forthcoming titles, among them I Chose Rotten Gin, The R I Coons Ignite and Those Niger Conti, all anagrams of The Recognitions, though that key is withheld. This whole passage is necessarily baffling to readers who don’t spot the recurring pattern, not necessarily impressive to those who do. These are not great feats of letter-play but lazy, unnatural-sounding efforts. Even the neatest, Ten Echoes Rioting, would get low marks from a setter of cryptic crosswords. All it takes to devise smooth anagrams is time and a little finesse, and this particular Scrabble-bag of possibilities is entirely tractable, even co-operative. It yields plausible book titles across a range of genres. What is it that you want – a monograph on music and sensuality? The Erotic in Song. Children’s poetry book about World War One? Into Trenches Go I. Love story between orchestral players? Tonight Is Encore. This obliging matrix can be coaxed into providing taglines for both The RecognitionsGothic-Intense Or … ? – and JR: It Gets No One Rich. The guy had two decades between books to machine-polish his in-joke so as to camouflage the resentment that lies behind it, shown for instance by the imaginary blurb for O! Chittering Ones, credited to ‘M. Axswill Gummer’: ‘The outside world of American life is described so imperfectly as to make us feel that the novelist himself has never known it.’ Gaddis can afford to revive that just criticism of The Recognitions, having learned from it, but he holds tight to the rancour. It seems to have made him forget that blurbs don’t quote negative reviews. But if you’re going to foreground your cleverness you’d better be sure your technique backs you up.

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