The last two summers I taught Ulysses in Summer Sessions, but not this year, this year I was supposed to be working on a writing project -- a book to be based on a course, "Gravity's Rainbow in Context," that I was able to teach twice at Yale, but altered to be more about the period 1955-75 in U.S. literature. THEN I got the bright idea that, since William Gaddis published his first two mammoth novels in 1955 and in 1975 respectively, I should get to know them. But reading Gaddis wasn't just a means to avoid writing during the hot sticky summer when it was more pleasant to be on my couch in front of the fan reading than at my desk, I had become convinced that this guy could be much more important than the general curriculum of post-1945 U.S. lit makes him out to be. And that situation persists because he's so "unreadable," apparently. But, since GR was famously called "unreadable," and since I've certainly read it with great profit, I felt that my time of Gaddis avoidance must end. And so I read The Recognitions. And read The Recognitions. And read...
GR, maybe the "first-timer" relation to any such book can only be a steady forward movement, to simply cover ground, to read in as short a period as possible so that one's mind doesn't wander too far from the fictional world. That much of the task I was equal to, since I could devote as much of my day to reading it as I liked, or felt compelled to ("liked" ceased to be an applicable term fairly early on). But what I tend to forget about my other first-time experiences with overwhelming behemoths -- Moby Dick, Ulysses, GR -- is that I didn't make it all the way through. I had to come back later, start over and try again. But then actually I had gotten much further in a previous reading of The Recognitions than I realized I had (up to Otto's sojourn with the banana company -- this time it put me in mind of that damn banana plantation in La Jalousie and I could feel the glimmers of a 50s obsession with trying desperately to place one's protagonist in some kind of "Mr Kurtz he dead" situation -- in other words, the postcolonial world was a-calling, impinging on the modernist empire; the fact that Gaddis quotes Rimbaud's line about "invalids back from the tropics" showed that I was reading this in the proper spirit). So, actually, this was the second attempt, more or less.
What Kept My Interest: In this novel Gaddis creates a kind of prose that is, in many ways, an outgrowth of modernist fiction: it has the audacities of verbiage, the narrator's tendency to put before you any information or event of his choosing without feeling compelled to relate it to any immediate, already presented context; in Gaddis' hands there's far too much precious refusal to use given names for his characters -- I mean, he'll introduce someone, but from then on you'll be called upon to "recognize" that person. I say "precious" because that sense of "recognition" as theme and manner gets a bit tiresome. It does lead to some funny ironies that come off only if one persists to the end -- particularly the bringing to full circle the bit about the saint (ongoing) and Wyatt's mother (intermittent), and of course the ashes in the bread. I will say that the ending, with Wyatt abroad (actually, in 50's "we must experience exile" fashion -- to be "absolument modern" -- "everyone" goes abroad) helped to restore my admiration (somewhat).
I say restore because the part early on about Wyatt's dad and Wyatt's childhood in which, stylistically, Joyce, Hawthorne, Melville (even Faulkner?) all seem to be mixing it up led my interest into the thing in the first place. After all, TP's early prose obviously owes something to Gaddis, and not only the prose; I kept being convinced, over and over, that this was a book that Pynchon "answered" with V. Maybe if I get ambitious I will patiently trace out, for the edification of English professors, the "recognitions" of V. I found in Gaddis' novel. Another interesting bit, which kept me going with hopes that were ultimately not sustained, was the Faust/Mephisto set-up of Wyatt and Recktall Brown. Brown is just Mephisto-like enough to keep an old Mephisto-fan like myself interested. But I wanted more from that than I got. Also, in the early(er) going, the forgery elements and Wyatt's dedication not simply to copying the Flemish masters but to becoming actually one of them, to live, as it were, his life from their perspective in the modern world, offered some rich possibilities.
So what made the book the unrewarding chore it became? Answer: modern times. The 50s, I'm convinced, were an era I'm glad I missed -- it's not just that at parties everyone is playing classical music (no jazz, no rock--the latter doesn't even exist yet!) -- it's the fact that they're all living in some kind of bland interregnum waiting for the '60s to happen. Because, poor fools, they already missed the '30s and most of the '40s. This is post-war and it's the time when the U.S. is still trying to be culturally as significant as it has become militarily and economically. So, the crassness and corniness of America -- which everyone's been giving us versions of from Sinclair Lewis to Dos Passos to Fitzgerald to Mailer -- is still very much the order of the day, and not yet in the cartoon-surreal colors of Pynchon, no, it's still way too earnest. And this puts Gaddis in the unprepossessing position of having to write--dreaming of Dostoyevsky and a world where even barflies had metaphysics--about inherently silly people in a debased bohemia. It's like Our Town for the Village: interminable voices of cultural steretypes just so happy to be heard from. Though, to give him his due, Gaddis shows the gays as funny and campy, whereas in Pynchon they just tend to be sad or sinister, and in Mailer...never mind.
My main criticism of all these "extras" (some of them have stories--Otto trying to meet his father, Agnes Dei's (there's a name worthy of Pynchon!) suicide attempt, Esme's (the Salinger connection!) sorta kinda transfiguration, Sinisterra the counterfeiter, mercurial Basil Valentine, poor Stanley's joke-tragic end--that "pay off," others just provide "scenes" but all provide talk talk talk) is that Gaddis resolutely refuses to make them a) characters in that old realistic sense, or b) symbols of something in modernist dress. Then again, maybe readers who find all those extras in Ulysses tedious, or who realize that you could expand the final party in Mrs. Dalloway endlessly, won't find a distinction here, but I do. Because I'm convinced that, under it all, Gaddis wants this to be Dostoyevskian, and one reason he develops at such length the absurdities of his post-existential intellectuals and artistes is that he can't ridicule them enough for being his contemporaries. For being what he has to work with, in other words. It's as if Melville had to base his great nautical epic on the cast of Pirates of the Caribbean, or something.
But there's something else, the reek of the 50s let's call it, that makes me want to claim, in the final analysis, that those ARE Gaddis' contemporaries. He's trapped there with them, trapped trying to work magic from his modernist correspondences and ironies and ongoing-plus-intermittent sightings of "motifs" and 'themes," while never overcoming my postmodernist sense that he's come at the wrong time, that, like Mailer, that other would-be Gargantua of their generation, Gaddis is an ambitious major talent trying to be a kind of novelist whose time had passed when he tried for it, which situation would only become clearer when TV, jazz, rock, drugs, and new wave film and counter-cultural everything made hipness the watch-word (as Mailer clearly saw, doing all he could to leap on that bandwagon). Of course, Gaddis is prescient with his attention to frauds and counterfeits when soon the culture-crit term will be "simulacra."
It would be twenty years before Gaddis tried again, with JR. I'm pretty sure he has a learning curve. If I get through that one, I'll let you know...