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Worthwhile?

So, we’re well into the book now, significantly past the halfway point, and chances are that if you’ve put in the time and effort to get this far, you won’t be turning back. I am curious whether anybody else is finding the length of the book, and especially of some passages, to be taxing.

I find that the portions of the book that take place in boardrooms and offices or on the phone between people situated in these locales get old pretty quickly. Gaddis really beats the horse to death and back again. I don’t know how many pages of this stuff we get, but it takes only a couple of good long scenes of this sort of satire for me to get the point. Yet he keeps hitting us with it at great length, and I can tell you (having finished the book a bit early the other night) that it doesn’t really let up. So why does he do it?

Well, maybe it’s a matter of pacing, for the other thing he really rams down our throats is the anger and bitterness that Gibbs and Eigen express as they try to make it through their grubby workaday lives while abandoning (or being abandoned by) the writerly pursuits they think are worthwhile. If he didn’t give us a comic (if infuriating) break from these sections, we’d all pull a Schramm.

And then of course there’s poor Bast, stuck between the two godawful types of scene.

It’s at about this point in the book that I tend to become almost overcome with despair, for though it is the kind of book that leaves you clutching your belly with laughter, it’s also a ghastly work of hopelessness. Take for example this forecast from page 359:

See he worked here [says Norman Angel] for a while just before I came, just real brilliant but, I don’t know but just to give you an idea, one time when we’d all three had lunch and he’d taken a few drinks a bum came up to us on the street with his hand out and the wind blowing his torn coat, a whole wreck of a man that couldn’t hardly see us anyway, but Jack all of a sudden reached out and gave him a dollar and that really, well you know a long time after that I said something about it once to Stella and all she said was she said he did it because what he saw coming toward him was himself.

What an outlook for poor Gibbs, and it doesn’t seem at all off the mark.

This is a book about art and artists. If what Gibbs and Eigen and Schramm and Schepperman and Bast have experienced is what artists have to look forward to, well, it’s little wonder that Gaddis wrote such a bitter second novel. The reception of his first novel was very much, after all, like the reception of Eigen’s first important but little-read novel.

Jonathan Franzen got not much farther than our current milestone in J R before he famously gave up on the book, a fact he mentions in an essay titled “Mr. Difficult.” It’s worth a read, particularly if you’re wondering whether you can see your way to the end of this book (and even if — maybe especially if — like me, you wouldn’t spit on Franzen if he were on fire unless you spat high-octane gasoline). The problem with Franzen’s critique is that he didn’t finish the damn book. That’s not to say that the book turns around to end  with a Puckish intervention and weddings all around. But writing a long essay criticizing a book you haven’t finished is irresponsible if nothing else.

Which brings me back to the curiosity I mentioned up there above the fold. How’re you holding up? Do you think you can manage 265 more pages of bitterness and anger? Does the humor make it all worthwhile? Or does Gaddis go on too long and too repetitively? Is the book striking you so far as more a comic novel or a tragic one, or something else altogether? If you’re reading it as a comic novel, is the comedy itself a worthwhile endeavor? And what exactly does it mean to be worthwhile?

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  1. July 29, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    “I find that the portions of the book that take place in boardrooms and offices or on the phone between people situated in these locales get old pretty quickly.”

    I agree with this to a certain extent. These scenes are certainly the most exhausting in the novel, but there are a sufficient number of Easter egg jokes to propel me through them. They also contain the meat of the “plot” of J.R.’s financial pursuits, which is hard to follow but a joy to watch snowball from picnic forks to breweries to (maybe?) movie studios. I guess at this point I’m hoping that something evolves in the final 3rd to justify the book’s length and the complex machinations of J.R’s empire, beyond just a framework around the (more interesting) lives of Gibbs and Eigen.

    “The problem with Franzen’s critique is that he didn’t finish the damn book.”

    This I think is unfair. He wasn’t writing a review of the book, he was writing an essay on the very struggle to finish a difficult book. How could he write such an essay if he hadn’t in fact given up on a book due to its difficulty? It’s been nearly two years since I’ve read “Mr. Difficult”, but I’m planning to reread it after I finish “J R”, but my memory of that essay is that it’s a very compelling take on Franzen’s writing style, and a sly commentary on Wallace’s as well. Franzen’s personality aside, he’s marvelously self-aware as a writer.

    • July 29, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      Re Franzen, well, sure. But I still think it’s kind of hasty to just stop 500 pages in without even peeking ahead to see if there’s some kind of payoff. I also think that by the time you’re that far in, you’ve pretty well gotten over most of what makes the book difficult (that is, you’ve learned how to read it). It becomes then a matter of endurance, which I think is also a factor in a book like The Recognitions, which Franzen applauds (and which for me was a lot harder going at times than J R).

      I think it’s strange that Franzen gave up on J R with some 200 pages to go but then had it in him to go read all of Gaddis’s later stuff (including the nonfiction, which admittedly is kind of dreary) and critique it all in a longish piece about how hard J R is. It’s just a bizarre move to me, and maybe what you say about the piece as a reflection of his own style and indirectly on Wallace’s is on target and, frankly, typical.

      • Sonia
        August 5, 2012 at 6:25 pm

        To me, the most irresponsible thing about Franzen’s essay is how much of it is fiction presented as fact. Most of the bio stuff is (incorrectly) speculative or cherry-picked, and the whole account is misleading where it isn’t factually incorrect. I know that most of biographical stuff is still in the archives now but even basic research would have falsified some of the claims he makes, so I’m assuming he just chose to ignore the parts that didn’t work for him.

        And maybe I’m being cynical here, but I think he got away with that because not many other people have read Gaddis or know anything about his life. So, yeah, to me it seems like he exploited the ignorance of his audience to make himself look good at Gaddis’s expense.

        I also find the Freudian logic he uses kinda gross and self-absorbed. Whereas “contract” writing is something that his mother liked, “status” fiction and Gaddis specifically are aligned with his father. Furthermore, he wrote his big hit under the heavy influence of Gaddis. The whole thing seems to be, on one level, a strange enactment of Oedipal conflict which has everything to with Franzen (and Franzen’s need to be bigger and better than Gaddis) and very little to do with Gaddis’ works as they might be for other people.

  2. August 3, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    I think the hardest thing is to read very large chunks because it’s so exhausting. And yet at the same time, if you put it off too long you miss all of the wonderful connections.

    All of those pounding one-sided conversations are clearly satire, but they also convey information, and I suppose the point is that there is a point in there. Not to mention, if he stopped doing it at some point you’d be like “hey what gives, Gaddis?”

    The book reminds me of Gravity’s rainbow in that concepts and people are introduced but not explained until a little later. And of course that’s all intentional since everyone is speaking too fast to actually clarify anything.

    When I look ahead and see that I have over 200 pages left, I am daunted. And yet, there are several plot lines that are starting to develop (Gibbs & Joubert, and of course the whole JR enterprise) that I’m curious to see where it’s going.

    There’s a lot of stuff that seems like “filler.” Stuff that could be funny and may pay off but for now there’s so much of it (like the Indian/appliance plot and all of Bast’s musical attempts). And obviously Bast’s music exploits are essential to his character, there’s just so much of it!

    I think the thing that surprises me is how many characters we haven’t see for a long time (Stella, the aunts) who were essential to getting the ball rolling.

    I fell like the story is saying to us: “Will you look at this shit? Can you believe it?” And laughing hilariously at itself and the world that created it. As if Gaddis did nothing but take notes about the world for twenty years and put them all in his book. What I really like though is that the humor is all over the place. From pee and shit jokes to more substantial jokes (Beamish as the voice of reason during the freezing-of-speech idea).

    It’s very dark, yes, but as Monty Python put it the humor in the book is like a stream of bat’s piss. It shines out like a shaft of gold while all around is dark

  3. Sonia
    August 5, 2012 at 6:40 pm

    There’s also the possibility that the book is supposed to induce the same feelings of exhaustion and overload that the characters are experiencing and this is why it needs to be so long and so chaotic. That is, it requires you to affectively experience the novel in addition to rationally interpreting it. I’d suggest that the point with those long scenes that seem to happen over and over is less whether you “get” the satire and more to make you really, really have to face the grinding, on-going otherness of it, kind of like Jeanne Dielman. The question I have then is whether a book, which a reader has to choose to continue with, can do this the same way as a film or a theatrical performance.

    I’d also say that it’s hard to know what’s “filler” in any objective sense because different people seem to pick up on different parts of the novel.

  1. August 7, 2012 at 9:25 am

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