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?
A quick program interruption here to announce Infinite Boston, in which a fan of David Foster Wallace’s work shares photos of some of the real life places in Boston that we find referenced (some modified, some not) in Infinite Jest. So far, he’s covered the Enfield Marine Public Health Center, Ennet House, Comm. Ave., the Green Line’s T-Stop, Enfield Tennis Academy, and several other spots. If you played along with Infinite Summer a few years ago or are just a fan of Wallace’s work, it’s definitely worth a look.
As early as page 45, we see a reference to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles, who was responsible for things like the notion of the four elements and the idea that sight was the product of beams of light streaming out of our eyes. He also happened to basically go crazy and fling himself to his death in a volcano if the legends are to be believed. And he wrote about combatting forces Love and Strife, which basically battled to bring about mixtures of the four elements to form things in the world, many of which were strange and short-lived, but some of which were good combinations and stuck around to become things like human beings. I’m paraphrasing from the Wikipedia article here, though I confirmed some of it by skimming bits and pieces of The Presocratic Philosophers: A Critical History with a Selection of Texts, available here.
The first mention of Empedocles in J R falls from the mouth of Jack Gibbs, who goes on as follows (ellipses both mine and Gaddis’s):
– I think it’s a fragment from the second generation of his cosmogony, maybe even the first . . .
– When limbs and parts of bodies were wandering around everywhere separately heads without necks, arms without shoulders, unattached eyes looking for foreheads . . .
– Never read it? In the second generation these parts are joining up by chance, form creatures with countless hands, faces looking in different directions . . .
This is in the midst of the chaos surrounding Bast’s televised lesson on Mozart, and that word chaos is really the crux of J R, both its content and its form. In fact, even earlier in the book, way back on pages 20 and 21, we have this from Gibbs:
Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from outside. In fact it’s exactly the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
He goes on to try to define for his class the term “entropy,” which of course has a meaning specific to thermodynamics but also pertains to measurements of both disorder and loss of information in a transmitted message, both of which escalate to the point of hysteria in the book. (Curiously, the more fragmented information Gaddis flings at you in the mounting maelstrom, the more certain bits of the plot begin to come together in spite of it all.)
I’m reading ahead a bit and am going to go ahead and quote ahead a little, but not in a spoily way. On page 403, Gibbs again:
. . . read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on . . .
And on 406:
. . . looks like the God damned dawn of the world in here necks without heads arms seeking shoulders, only God damned person live here’s Empedocles . . .
And again on 407:
– Point God damned point only audience sit through it’s Empedocles, shambling creatures with countless hands eyes wandering around looking for a God damned forehead parts joining up all wrong make a hell of a musical just telling Bast . . .
So, love and strife, chaos molded into a sort of order from a stew of disparate parts, and that cacophony of voices that we as readers begin over time to assemble into something meaningful. It’s neat how all of this comes together, and it makes me think that while I had previously figured a reading of the myths that informed Wagner’s Ring might be central to an even cursory understanding of J R, maybe it’s more important to go back to some of the old Greek philosophers.
–Like a novelist? Only problem is a novelist has to understand women.
–Apparently not, from all the…turned full to share her smile he found it gone, only her eyes wide through the lenses. –What’s the matter.
–I wish you hadn’t said that, she said looking away as quickly.
Does William Gaddis understand women? Are the women in J R living characters drawn with the same depth as the male characters or are they caricatures and plot devices for the men in the novel? The first difficulty we face in answering this question is the fact that the novel is completely devoid of psychological interior. Gaddis reveals nothing of the characters’ interior lives; readers must discern each person’s character exclusively through their words, and the few actions that other characters may remark on. In a comic novel such as J R, without an indication of what is happening inside a character’s mind, it can be difficult to create a fully rounded, complex character. Yet, because Gaddis is a capable artist, many of the characters in the novel transcend the sea of talk and become fully fleshed and alive. We believe Gibbs’s rage and Bast’s failure and J R’s naïve ambition. They are not just targets for Gaddis’s spleen, but are human and demand our sympathy, or at least our understanding. Is Gaddis able to bring any of the women in the novel to life in the same way?
As I mentioned previously, Amy Joubert exists at the center of J R’s many noisy worlds. She teaches at J R’s school and is the daughter of the head of Typhon International. She is acquainted, by my reckoning, with most of the novel’s major characters. When she isn’t present, other characters often refer to her, and to her breasts in particular. Much like J R himself, Amy Joubert is a character around which many of the novel’s characters revolve.
In the scene where she wakes to find her husband and child gone, Amy Joubert becomes real. Prior to this moment, she has simply served as a component of Gaddis’s savage commentary on the ruination wrought by money. With her championing of “buying a share in America” and pushing the students toward an understanding of America a nothing more than a collection of corporations, Amy Joubert has been heretofore a two-dimensional parody; someone to be made fun of. And yet, in a span of two pages, in one of the novel’s few extended scenes of narration, Gaddis suddenly brings her to life. We see her broken marriage. We learn about her worry that her husband will take their son to Geneva. The feeling of sadness and loneliness when she wakes and they are gone is overwhelming. When she reads the goodbye note from her son three times in the taxi, we can feel her heartbreak and loss.
Previously, her size of Mrs. Joubert’s breasts has been something of a running joke. Mrs. DiCephalis accuses her husband of sabotaging her tele-class so that the men could stare at Amy Joubert, calling her “Miss Moneybags” with the “bazooms.” Principal Whiteback, among others, makes oblique references to her body. Yet, when she rides the elevator up to the Typhon International offices that morning, it is through the nameless young man with the open shirt that all of these people staring at her suddenly become extremely threatening.
In the short transitional moments of narration, Gaddis changes from the direct and ultra-realistic mode of the dialogue to a languid and poetic style. He deploys this style for nearly a page, the longest use of it to this point in the novel, to describe the elevator ride and this technique lends the scene a dreamy and surreal feel. A young man, with a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, gets on and stares at Mrs. Joubert’s chest for two floors, then gets off and pushes all of the buttons so the elevator will stop on every floor. She gets off and tries another elevator, only to end up on the elevator with the youth again, after he sticks his hand in and stops the doors from closing. She tries not to look at his sweaty chest, but he puts his arm by her waist and asks –You like to give head?
Gaddis initially lures us into seeing Amy Joubert through a very male point-of-view. At first, we see her in these broad, comic terms—peppy pro-corporations teacher, hot young woman that all the men want gawk at and talk about. Between the serious critiques of capitalism and art and education, the humor related to Amy Joubert seems light. But in that scene, he turns it on us. Suddenly, the woman we’ve thought of as less than a real person becomes a wounded human with unhappiness that we can understand. We become uncomfortably aware that what had prior seemed like nothing more serious than common male comic bravado about her body is something that is terribly uncomfortable for her; something she has to deal with on a daily basis in a world where she probably gets called “little lady.”
It is interesting that Gaddis has to change his technique here to make this point. This scene is not one that Amy Joubert could describe in a passage of dialogue. Though she talks to Beaton about her worries about her son, she isn’t going to tell him that she reread the boy’s letter several times in the taxi. She isn’t going to tell someone about the man in the elevator, and even if she did, it wouldn’t have the same power to unsettle as Gaddis’s own narration. By departing from the novel’s primary style for that scene, it is clear that Gaddis wants to make us feel sympathy for Amy Joubert and to share in the discomfort that she feels. It is in this moment that he makes us reconsider what we’ve seen, and perhaps chuckled at, previously.
The creeping creepiness of the obsession with women’s body parts is underscored by the novel’s repeated references to women’s body parts. On a couple of occasions, someone remarks on J R’s catalogs, which contain adult advertisements, and J R responds –What. That tit? (J R, being who he is, seems to care little for the flesh on display.) When the children are on their class trip to Manhattan and Edward Bast accidentally leads them past several adult movie houses, the students marvel at the parade of nudity around them. At first, Gaddis presents these moments in a humorous light. While everything everyone in the novel says is a critique of itself, these moments start off seeming lighter—closer to sitcom style humor than a serious criticism of misogyny and the objectification of women.
What makes this work so well, for me, is that many of the criticisms of the novel are easy for me to avoid feeling implicated in. I am not the director of a corporation. I am not on a school committee that values the budget over the students. I am not an artist allowing my work to be ruined by money. Yet, I am a man and I do laugh at these jokes. Gaddis draws me in and when he changes the perspective and suddenly shows me Amy in the elevator with the sweating, bare-chested man, I am implicated. After the terrifying elevator ride, Gaddis casts the characters’ obsession with Amy Joubert’s body in a new light. He casts that new light on me as well.
But what of the other women in the novel? Do the Bast Sisters rise above their dotty misunderstandings? Does Mrs. DiCephalis rise above her nagging and complaining? Does Stella Angel becomes something more than just Norman’s wife and Thomas’s daughter? Did Gaddis breathe the breath of life into them as well?
Hi everyone, I’m Paul Debraski. You may know me from previous blogging exploits like Infinite Summer, Moby Dick, Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow. I used to read big books like this back in college but I had kind of gotten away from them post college. But I’m back and happily in the midst of big, complicated books. I’m unofficially posting here (Daryl says it’s okay). I was really hoping to have more time to write my own posts and maybe even contribute here. But man, time is fleeting.
So, here’s a few thoughts that I’ve been pondering while reading the book.
When you first start to read this book, you slowly get used to the idea that there is a ton of noise and you have to pick out the important parts. Of course, how are you supposed to know what is important? I mean, I knew (from reading this before) that the book was about money and stocks, so I focused on the details of that. And yet, as I get twenty page after a conversation I realize that some little blow off detail was actually really important too.
Surely not everything is important here. (Can we assume that the porn jokes are just jokes and aren’t going to “mean” something in 100 pages?) But what about that water leak? Is that going to be significant, or was it just a way to get the kids out of the board room. (Of course, something bad is bound to happen with Monty’s speech, right? And yet, as far as chronological time, the section ends with the night ending, so did Monty even give the speech?
It would all be so frustrating if it weren’t so enjoyable to read.
So, if you like, I’m posting along at my blog. Although as I found out, I got a pretty big detail wrong last week (which I have since corrected). http://ijustreadaboutthat.wordpress.com/category/occupygaddis/
Mrs. Joubert takes her class and their paper bag of money to Manhattan to learn how America works. She consistently conflates the American political system with the free market system as though there were no question that they were one and the same. She tells Principal Whiteback, when she sees him outside of the bank, that they are going to the Stock Exchange to “learn how our system works” and immediately adds that they are going to “buy a share in America.”
To Mrs. Joubert, the daughter of the head of vast corporation, there is no difference between the United States and a corporation. It sounds cynical, but her view may not be that far from the truth.
–…and that’s what owning a share in a corporation means too doesn’t it, the right to vote…
On September 9, 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States of America heard oral arguments in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010).
–I submit that the Court’s decisions in connection with the First Amendment and corporations have in the past made no such distinction. However—
–Could they in your view, in the view that you are putting forth, that there is no distinction between an individual and a corporation for First Amendment purposes, then any mega-corporation, even—even if most of the investors are from abroad, Congress could not limit their spending?
–I’m not—I’m not saying that, Justice Ginsburg.
The issue was simple: Do corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals? Citizens United, a non-profit corporation, wanted to advertise its production Hillary: The Movie within 60 days of the 2008 general election, in violation of 2 U.S.C. § 441b which limited corporations from spending money on “electioneering communication” within 30 days of a primary and 60 days of a general election.
–I would not really call it an aggregation of wealth interest. I would say that it’s — it’s a concern about corporate use of other people’s money to –
In a prior case, Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, 494 U. S. 652 (1990), the Court found a compelling government interest in limiting “the corrosive and distorting effects of immense aggregations of wealth that are accumulated with the help of the corporate form and that have little or no correlation to the public’s support for the corporation’s political ideas.”
In a 5-4 ruling, the Court overruled Austin and held that the government could not limit the First Amendment speech rights of a corporation. In the Court’s opinion, Justice Kennedy writes, “When Government seeks to use its full power, including the criminal law, to command where a person may get his or her information or what distrusted source he or she may not hear, it uses censorship to control thought. This is unlawful. The First Amendment confirms the freedom to think for ourselves.”
–That’s what people’s capitalism is, isn’t it everybody. As one of the company’s owners you elect your directors in a democratic vote…
By the end of the nineteenth century, corporate personhood was a well-established legal concept. Corporate personhood exists to shield investors from liability for a corporation’s actions.
Corporate personhood allows a corporation to own property, to sign contracts, or to take any other legally significant action. This fictional creature—the corporation—created on paper from the accumulated wealth of investors, created to accumulate more wealth for those investors, is invested by the State with an animating spirit. Because of Citizens United, corporations have a limitless voice.
While being heckled at the Iowa State Fair in August of 2011, Gov. Mitt Romney said, “Corporations are people, my friend.” Imagine the warm summer air heavy with the scent of fried Coke. His hecklers laughed at him, but he was correct. The decision in Citizens United proved it. Corporations are people, with full First Amendment protections.
–Then that — in that — but expenditures, which is what we are talking about today, do not concern the — the question, the actual threat of quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. And you know, Justice Breyer, what the Court said in that case is because it’s not inhibiting someone from actually speaking, it’s — it’s giving money to someone –
Originally, most states limited voting rights to white men who owned land. One of the few individual liberties protected by the Constitution as originally written was a prohibition against Congress banning the importation of slaves. The linking of voting, citizenship and ownership was there from the beginning. The law preferences ownership. We are restless spirits until we possess property that makes us fully corporeal. Mrs. Joubert takes her class to the Stock Exchange to buy a share of America because she believes that without owning something, they can never be part of the country.
Much like a corporation, the United States is a creature created on paper. Constitution or Corporate Charter? Citizen or Investor? One Vote, One Person or One Vote Per Share?
Both creatures are aggregations of capital—financial and human—expended toward expanding market dominance. Mrs. Joubert exists at the nexus of these worlds, private and public. We are introduced to her and the principal of her school not on the school grounds, but outside of the bank. Her father is the head of Typhon International, but is leaving the post for a position as an undersecretary in Washington.
Repeatedly, she refers to the democratic process not in relation to a citizen’s right to vote for a president, but a shareholder’s right to vote for a board of directors. In light of the Court’s decision in Citizens United, her unification of public and private is appropriate.
–With one share we get like one vote?
–You certainly do, and what’s more you’re entitled to…
–And like if I owned two hundred ninety-three thousand shares then I’d get like two hundred ninety-three thousand votes?
–That’s not fair! We get this one lousy vote and he gets like two hun…
–What’s not fair! You buy this here one share so you’ve got like this lousy twenty-two fifty working for you when I’ve got like six thou…
Gaddis’s vision of America’s conflation with the corporation is bitter and cynical, but it is not outrageous. It is not a foreboding vision to warn us of extremes that may come if we do not change our ways, not a Ghost of Countries Yet to Come, but rather accurately, and without exaggeration, reflection of the nation as it is. J R is a chaos of voices, all striving to rise above the rest, swarming with words and broken sentences. It captures accurately and without exaggeration our discourse. Consider the Citizens United oral arguments quoted above.
Even in that most stylized and formal of dialogues—an argument before the Supreme Court of the United States of America—the voices swell and fall, stumble and backtrack, interrupt and suddenly cease. But the voice of the corporation, made up of the voices of investors large and small tethered together for the benefit of the majority shareholders, speaks louder and freer. It rises above the din of the public discourse beneath it, silencing everything in its path.
When I was in sixth grade, I got in trouble for starting a business at school. It was 1986 and friendship bracelets were a BIG THING. It felt like everyone had those braids of thread tied around their wrists and ankles, gifts from friends or secret loves. Everyone but me. Feeling left out, I stole some of my mother’s thread and tried to make my own, but the raveling mess was a metonym for my essentially friendless state. That I was friendless was largely my fault. The year before I’d stopped hanging out with my best friend because a girl I had a crush on didn’t like him. Of course, she didn’t like me either, so my plan backfired.
One day during recess, I watched girls in the shadow of the school, their backs against the windowless brick wall, making the bracelets—and I had an idea. I told them that if they would make me some bracelets, I would sell them to people and split the money with them. They’d been buying embroidery floss and giving bracelets away to people they liked, but faced with the possibility of having some money for gum and Little Debbies, they agreed. Realizing that I wasn’t popular enough to convince anyone to buy something that had previously been free, I approached two of the most well-liked boys in the class and told them that if they talked people into buying the new bracelets, I’d split the money with them. My business model was a success and after a few days I could afford to pay a much taller classmate to be my bodyguard. The problem arose when everyone realized that I was making most of the money and was doing none of the work. My bodyguard turned on me, took my money, called me a few pointed names, and just like that, I was on the outside again. To make matters worse, later in the day, our teacher pulled me into the hall and tell me that selling things on school grounds was against school policy and that she was going to have to write me up. I tried to explain to her that she should be proud of how smart I was. This argument did not gain traction.
…his cheerless patterned sweater of black diamonds…
While I was an awkward child and far from the most popular boy in my class, I was well aware that I was also nowhere near the bottom. While it felt like everyone had friendship bracelets but me, it was only because I didn’t notice those in my class less fortunate than I. One of those on the bottom of the school social pyramid is J R. A true social outcast: poor and unkempt and unpopular. His hair sticks out at rough angles, uncombed. He wears the same sweater on consecutive days. His classmates barely seem to know his name.
In Edward Bast’s Ring, J R is Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rheingold from the Rheinmaidens. In the opera, Alberich is an outcast as well, mocked by the Rheinmaidens that he has professed his love to. Like Alberich, J R is spurned by his classmates. The girl playing Wotan refers to him dismissively as “that boy J R” and says that “[h]e’s already littler than us.” Wotan chides him for not having a costume like the rest of the class, but we can see that he probably doesn’t have a costume because he can’t afford one. In just a few lines, J R’s social position is clearly marked: poor, small, unpopular. Spurned like Alberich, J R swoops in, rejects the love of others, and steals away with the class’s bag of Rheingold.
The power of money radiates through the ages of myth and through the quotidian chatter of children. While it appears comic to us to hear the teachers and businessmen attempting to talk to the students about stocks and corporations, money is just as much at the core of their world. Were J R the handsome son of a wealthy family, his lot would be different and the Rheinmaidens would be singing to him.
–I just mean, maybe we can use each other sometime…okay?
J R is not totally alone in the world, but he has turned every relationship into an exchange. His only friendship, with Major Hyde’s son, is based solely on trading the catalogs and free offers that will be the basis for his empire. J R’s real companionship comes from the offers and not the Hyde boy. It is, after all, the advertisements that address J R as “Dear Friend.”
When he walks home with Edward Bast on the night before the trip to Manhattan, rather than have a moment of teacher/student bonding, J R exploits the walk as an opportunity to network, offering Edward inside information about the zoning near his family’s home. The next day, J R walks home with Edward again and tries to get money out of him, calling as Edward runs away: –didn’t I tell you we could maybe use each other?
During the class trip to Wall Street, J R’s voice lurks behind the noise, one of the few that asks questions. J R is hoping for an actual answer, rather than just waiting his turn to talk. J R takes every piece of information he can get his hands on and uses them as the fundamental building blocks of his new self that he is creating.
—-It means a very poor person and and, yes and we don’t like to think about poor people, no…
We all remember what middle school was like: If you weren’t someone, you were no one. J R is no one, cast out from his classmates. He is just a voice in the void. Of course, everyone is just a voice in J R, but it is his novel. Just as he has been reduced by his classmates, he has reduced everyone else to a tapestry of voices and information for him to pick through.
Like I did twelve years later, J R uses money and business to craft a new identity. While I was only seeking entry into the middle school social market, J R, having renounced love, is seeking something higher, something that reaches beyond the confines of the playground. In truth, no matter how much of an outcast I felt like at the time, I was not J R. I had friends and family, and I never had to wear the same shirt to school two days in a row. My middle-school scheme was never about money—it was about crafting something to bond me to my classmates; the fact that I could get the business up and running speaks to how non-outside I was. And my fall just became a funny story I could tell, a different kind of social capital that I could use to work my way into social circles. If I had been J R, no one would have even heard me asking about the friendship bracelets. If I had been J R, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have renounced it all and disappeared with the Rheingold.