Long Live Aporia!

Hal Foster

  • Agapē Agape by William Gaddis
    Atlantic, 113 pp, £9.99, January 2003, ISBN 1 903809 83 5
  • The Rush for Second Place: Essays and Occasional Writings by William Gaddis, edited by Joseph Tabbi
    Penguin, 182 pp, US $14.00, October 2002, ISBN 0 14 200238 0

Off and on, for over half a century, William Gaddis worked on a manuscript about the short life of the player piano in the United States. Over fifty years on an outmoded entertainment? There is more here than meets the eye: ‘Agapē Agape is a satirical celebration of the conquest of technology and of the place of art and the artist in a technological democracy,’ Gaddis wrote in a proposal from the early 1960s. ‘As “The Secret History of the Player Piano”, it pursues America’s growth in terms of the evolution of the programming and organisational aspects of mechanisation in industry and science, education, crime, sociology and leisure and the arts, between 1876 and 1929.’ In fact there was too much here, and the project got away from Gaddis. Luckily, his four great novels also intervened, each satirical and compendious, too, and all crucial to the development of American literature after the war: The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter’s Gothic (1985) and A Frolic of His Own (1994). Yet the project didn’t disappear, and at times Gaddis borrowed from it: a figure furiously at work on an unwieldy treatise is a staple of his fiction (in JR a character named Jack Gibbs struggles over this very text), and over the years he wrote several essays on related themes (now collected with other occasional pieces in The Rush for Second Place). Then, in early 1997, Gaddis was diagnosed with terminal cancer, which prompted him to distil his mass of notes, clippings, outlines and drafts into a fiction of 84 manuscript pages, the version of Agapē Agape left when he died a year later.

The novel has some similarities to the others: it is nearly all dialogue, or rather all monologue, the soliloquy of a dying man in bed, who is and is not Gaddis. In a frantic state of distraction (heightened by doses of prednisone, which Gaddis also took for emphysema), he struggles to patch together both his book and his body in order somehow to conclude and to die. He has a deadline without extension: it is either edit or be edited once and for all. With the earlier novels Gaddis tracked his many characters and stories, ideas and riffs, through rows of notes pinned to the walls around him. Agapē Agape is also composed as a collage of texts, though it is much leaner than the others, a last delirious solo. More than the other books, this one makes a subject of its own (un)making, and dramatises the predicament of the author in the process. Imagine Proust, propped up in bed, rambling about his writing life, crossed with Benjamin, in his last days at the Bibliothèque Nationale, rearranging his Arcades notes, and add a little of the ‘I can’t go on, I go on’ of Beckett and a lot of the run-on ranting of Thomas Bernhard, a contemporary whom the Gaddis surrogate here accuses of plagiarism before the fact. (Agapē Agape does recall Concrete, a Bernhard novel about a writer unable to begin a biography of a composer.) In the end, as the dying man works to get his estate in order, he identifies with Lear, but he is a High Modernist Lear maddened by a neglectful world gone to the mass-cultural dogs.

Book and body in pieces before him, he fixes on a note here, a symptom there; he pulls them out like threads that he snaps and lets drop again in a great tangle of observations and obsessions. He has no time to lose, but with his veering thoughts and stuttering entreaties time is the thing that slips away:

No but you see I’ve got to explain all this because I don’t, we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organised . . . that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight, entertainment and technology and every four-year-old with a computer, everyone his own artist where the whole thing came from, the binary system and the computer where technology came from in the first place, you see?

For the dying man this struggle between order and entropy is personal, but it is also the philosophical crux of his book and the practical question of his age.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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