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.

The books are crowded with voices and short on punctuation, but are they then unreadable? Some sort of late Modernist nightmare, experimental art at the end of its tether? This is what many hostile critics have said, and even a friendly critic, like William Gass (no relation, I think, except through the alphabet), introducing The Recognitions as a Penguin 20th-Century Classic, suggests we don’t need or are not likely to finish reading the work. ‘Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed Finnegans Wake? What does it mean to finish Moby Dick, anyway? Do not begin this book with any hope of that. This is a book you are meant to befriend.’ The idea of befriending a book is attractive, but these are all the wrong comparisons, surely. Gaddis is not difficult or unapproachable, once we get the hang of his shifts from monologue to dialogue, and from dialogue to narrative. We pick up a habit, realise that the puns and misunderstandings and false starts that litter our reading are an unshakeable part of his and our world; that we are not missing things, just getting too much. If you say ‘suit’, to take an example from A Frolic of His Own, do you mean lawsuit or clothes? What if the point is the chance of slithering from one world to the other? If reference is always getting away from you; if it’s not meaning that’s the problem, but our not knowing where to hang it, or hanging it too soon in the wrong places?

There are lots of shifts of plot, always surprising, often hilarious; plenty of knockabout gags; endless amounts of shrewd observation of contemporary America, with its particular, self-consuming madnesses. The trouble with Gaddis is not his prose or the ambitions of his works. It’s time. Our time, the time we haven’t got. The books are wonderfully readable but you feel you need another life, or nothing else to do in this one, in order to read them. This feeling can be overcome.

The term ‘a frolic of one’s own’, we learn in this new novel, is an ancient legal technicality. If describes the activities of an employee who is at work but engaged in private pursuits. The inference is that the employer is not liable for any damage that arises. It looks like a let-out, and Gaddis has a fine time applying it to God, as the always absent boss of people who say they are doing His work. American fundamentalism is one of Gaddis’s favourite targets, and he develops here a black joke he started to sketch out in Carpenter’s Gothic, where the Reverend Elton Ude inadvertently drowns a child he is trying to baptise. The case now comes to trial.

There can be no question that, in bringing a new soul into the fold through the baptismal ceremony, he was engaged on his master’s business much as, we may recall in Luke 2.49, this self-same master at age 12 found lagging behind at the temple in Jerusalem by his anxious parents, rebuked them saying ‘Wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?’ and not, in the word of a later English jurist, ‘going on a frolic of his own’. In carrying out this solemn assignment, even were there reliable testimony that this omniscient master must have been aware of the risk and told his servant to act carefully, the law still holds him liable for a prevailing share in the consequences. In other words, the master may not delegate responsibility for the servant’s acts to him, since under terms of their relationship he remains ultimately responsible for protecting his servant. This must hold all the more true where the instrument of imminent catastrophe is the master’s to control, as must the crest and current of the Pee Dee River have been for one who had shown himself capable of stilling a great tempest to save a ship from foundering by merely rebuking the winds and the sea in Matthew 8.26, with which I am sure you are all familiar.

This is a piece of the judge’s instructions to the jury, and it is full of sarcasm and mischief, fundamentalism turned against the fundamentalists. He is about to grant the unfortunate boy’s father compensation in the amount of $19.76. But he (and Gaddis) are having fun with the idea of an act of God; and elsewhere Gaddis sets up the frolic of one’s own as a definition of the artist. He or she is at work, and working, but not doing the job they are supposed to do; defecting even from their own projects. Does this make them deviant professionals, or just amateurs? Gaddis probably wants to say that it makes them unclassifiable. There is something sentimental and mystified about this claim, which implies an old romance of the ornery individualist, all rebellion and refusal. Still, Gaddis’s world offers us plenty to refuse, and in context the frolic represents an escape not just from conformity but from the law itself, and from the idea that the law is ubiquitous and sufficient, ‘all laws, and laws, and everything’s laws’, as a character says.

The chief frolickers in the novel are Oscar Crease, a (one-time) playwright and (casual) history instructor, described in the newspapers as ‘a wealthy recluse living on Long Island’; and his 97-year-old father, the judge giving the instructions to the jury in Virginia. Oscar’s girlfriend Lily thinks the papers have called him ‘a wealthy excuse’, which is perhaps more appropriate. He watches nature programmes on television, drinks a lot and broods over his various litigations. He is suing a car firm because his own car started while he was standing in front of it, and ran him over; and a movie company for plagiarising his play about the Civil War, a work which is in turn a rambling rip-off of O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra and Desire Under the Elms, with dashes of Plato and Rousseau and Camus thrown in. We have legal opinions, complaints, answers to complaints, depositions, more opinions, all done with admirable, patient attention to the detail and manner of the language of the law, touched with parodies and escapes, frolics of Gaddis’s own, only in the lightest possible way. Oscar’s case at first seems ludicrous, then plausible, then absolutely convincing: the movie took all of its essential plot and character features from him. It looks as if he’s won, but then an appeal, accepting this indebtedness, gets a court to quantify. How large was Oscar’s contribution to the financial success of the film, in comparison to that of the stars, the studio, the movie medium, salacious advertising, lots of nudity, bloody battles etc? You can hear Oscar’s imagined money trickling away.

Meanwhile the judge has problems of his own, ‘a lot on his plate’, as the resentful, father-haunted Oscar keeps saying, with some satisfaction. Gaddis has really outdone himself in macabre humour here. A dog belonging to a black boy in the village of Tatamount, Va, runs into a large free-standing modern sculpture, called Cyclone Seven, and can’t get out. The fire brigade is all set to release him with the aid of acetylene torches, when the artist, a fellow with a foreign name living in New York, gets an injunction to stop the village interfering with his masterpiece in any way. The judge, in another sarcastic opinion, upholds this injunction, the media arrive, and everyone wants a piece of this act, animal rights and artists’ rights, local law and federal law, people making T-shirts, toys, the lot.

There is much malarkey along these lines, until the dog is killed by a bolt of lightning – an act of God or one of God’s frolics – and the dispute now centres on the dog’s remains, and the question of compensation for the bereaved boy. Most of the parties change sides several times, and at one point the village is anxious to keep the sculpture as it is because of the revenue it creates, while the artist wants to dismantle it and take it away. The judge is infuriating everyone, and there are calls for his impeachment.

The plot also involves Oscar’s stepsister Christina and her husband Harry, a lawyer; a socialite friend of Christina’s and her dog; a supposed lawyer who turns out to have forged his credentials; another lawyer with unbearable British manners and mannerisms. Oscar’s father anonymously helps him out with his case, writing a brief that someone else presents; and dies. Oscar learns about this help, so there is a reconciliation, but only in two separate minds, and the judge did it for love of the law anyway. There are suits everywhere, bills mount up, careers are made and broken, but no one actually seems to win or lose. It’s as if the Marx Brothers had rewritten Bleak House.

  – It’s garaged at your, at the place of the accident I can’t find the, what kind of car is it?

  – Sosumi.

  – I’m being quite serious, Mr Crease.

  – So am I! It’s a Japanese car, a Sosumi.

  – Oh. Oh dear, yes I’m sorry, it’s so hard to keep track of them all nowadays. We had a whole family killed last week in an Isuyu and I made a similar error.

Some of Gaddis’s jokes are pretty broad – even broader than the above, like the name of the actor Robert Bredford, or the career of one Clint Westwood and his film A Hatful of Sh*t – and there is one long argument about the follies of organised religion that feels as if Gaddis, and not his characters, were indulging a bee in a bonnet. But the ingenuity and the intelligence of the comment on the law, and the speed with which people talk and things happen, take us into something beyond satire. In the following passage about a US Senator for North Carolina (the one we’ve already heard talking about dictator atheist countries), almost every clause has a fresh sting or gag:

The latest disturbance centred about an outdoor pork barbecue rally for US Senator Orney Bilk, who is visiting the area on a campaign swing for the first time since he left his boyhood home in nearby Stinking Creek to enlist in the army following the end of hostilities in Southeast Asia. After graduating from army cooking school he was placed in charge of a field oven unit at Fort Bragg, NC.

The start of his senatorial career, no doubt. The language here is a trail of clues and disguises, and A Frolic of His Own is a book about language and desire; about how language misnames desire, perhaps must misname it; how a language like that of the law lives its own expensive life. ‘I mean you talk about language how everything’s language it seems that all language does is drive us apart.’

What people in this book think they want is money and fame and prestige, and they regard the law as the road to those things. But it’s not even the road away from those things. It’s what promotes those goals and consumes them, continues to dangle them ahead of every eager nose. A distinction is made several times between who Oscar is and who he thinks he is, and perhaps only the person he thinks he is can be made intelligible, to himself or others. Only the imagination can sue.

What people want, the novel strongly suggests, is attention. Harry the lawyer claims they want order, a form of fascism; but his wife Christina says they’re just ‘trying to be taken seriously’. That’s what money is, she suggests: ‘It’s the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves. I mean that’s all they’re really asking for isn’t it?’ It’s a generous estimate, and Christina, in her scatty, loquacious way, is a generous person. But it’s also too much; more than anyone can expect in the world Gaddis elaborates for us.