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?
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.
Sonia Johnson is a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa working on a dissertation on William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace, so she’ll fit right in as a blogger here at Infinite Zombies. Although she’s currently studying in Iowa, she’s a New Zealander and professes therefore to be culturally inept at self-promotion. She’s researching gender and marketing in and around the works of the aforementioned authors and will be writing a few posts for #OccupyGaddis at the LA Review of Books blog and contributing a bit here as well. Welcome, Sonia!
#OccupyGaddis “such a meaningful learning experience that these kids won’t forget it for one hell of a long time”
This is my first time doing this, really. Sure, I followed along with Infinite Summer, and a few of you might recall that I wrote a few things back when the Zombies were doing Ulysses, but in both those cases I had read the book several times before, and so wasn’t putting myself in the very vulnerable position of musing, publicly, about something unfamiliar and new. I’ve always respected the people who do that, but I’ve never been one of them.
Until now. This is my first time reading J R. I’ve read The Recognitions, once, a few years ago, and without any great care: I glanced at the wonderful annotations by Stephen Moore once or twice, but for the most part I just read it through, taking what I could get, enjoying the prose, not worrying about all the stuff (a lot!) that I was probably missing. That’s my preferred approach to a new book: taking it on its own terms, without any help from external sources to color (and potentially spoil) the process. You can always go back for that stuff, preferably on a second reading. And that’s what I am trying to do now. I’ve seen the lists of characters and scenes compiled by Moore, and I am sure they are helpful, but with a book like this I think it’s worth trying to figure it out on its own. As Lee Konstantinou (the originator of this little summer diversion) put it in a tweet, a book like this has to “train” you to read it, and reading someone else’s take on it before you’ve been properly trained seems a little bit like, well, I don’t want to call it cheating, but like you are missing a bit of the point, and depriving yourself of a significant part of the experience.
That’s sort of what I want to talk about, reading as a learning experience, because as much as this is a book about money and commerce (or so I’ve heard from book jackets and what not), it also strikes me, 75 pages in, as a book about education (same difference, right?). Of the scenes we’ve read so far, about half of them are set in or near a school. So, as a teacher, I want to think about what is this book saying about school: Nothing good, right? I mean, the focus on testing seems prescient: I don’t know the whole history of standardized testing, but it certainly hasn’t gone away since 1975, that’s for sure. Of course, they are also talking about predictive testing here, not just evaluative: they are puzzled by results that “aren’t consistent with forecasts in the personality testing,” by the fact that a boy (JR? I don’t think it’s him but I’m unclear, so far, who they are referring to; like I said, I’m trying to figure it out on my own) who “scores out at the idiot-genius level, this math-music correlation, perfectly consistent but he’s running around town sticking people up with a toy pistol” (23). They want order, to organize the students, to fit them into little boxes, but as Gibbs points out:
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 . . . (20)
And he goes on to begin to explain entropy (until the bell rings). Chaos and entropy, knowledge and noise: Gaddis seems to be telling us exactly what to look for. (And is it any wonder people thought [perhaps still think] he and Pynchon were the same person?)
It’s a pretty bleak picture of the education system, to be sure. And a pretty hilarious one, as well. The use of TVs as pedagogical tools is fascinating (as a look at #OccupyGaddis on Twitter will reveal), especially from our instructional-technology-obsessed 21st-century point-of-view. I look forward to seeing where this is going to lead, in the text. (Possibly nowhere, I don’t know. That’s my point.)
One other pedagogical note: how the hell would you teach this book?
It’s curious, given all my false starts with books like Gravity’s Rainbow and Ulysses — which share with J R long passages of rambling, essentially contextless prose — that the first time I read J R years ago, I made it through without major impediment. Oh, sure, bits of it were rough going, and I was lost a lot of the time, but I never hit the sort of wall that I did with these other books.
This’ll be my third full time through J R, and I’ve done a partial read at least once before, so there’s a lot of distance between my current impressions and how I received the book as a new reader. For years (pre-Ulysses), I think I labeled J R the hardest book I had ever read, but now I’m thinking it’s not so hard after all. Maybe that’s just experience and familiarity talking. At any rate, having now read Joyce’s novel (which Gaddis purports not to have read, though I have trouble believing it, especially given echoes both allusive and quoted outright of other Modernist writers like Yeats and Eliot that appear in J R), I’ve developed a little theory as to why I managed to get through it the first time.
While Gaddis rapidly changes voice and context time after time in J R, he maintains a consistent method of story-telling throughout the book. Once you’ve begun to get a feel for how the book works and have begun to suss out the various voices, it goes down a lot more easily than when you first encounter the book’s cacophony. By a third of the way through the book (if not before), you’re probably pretty comfortable with how the book operates, so that the mechanics of understanding it require much less effort and you can absorb the voices.
I had something similar to say about the Ulysses a couple of years ago:
When I started reading “Ithaca,” I flipped forward after just a couple of pages because I feared that all of the 70+ pages in this batch would follow the question/answer format that opened the episode. I may have groaned audibly when I saw that they would. It was a cute trick, I thought, but who needed 70 pages of it? Who needed 20 pages of it? But as I read on, a neat thing happened that has happened several (though by no means all) times for me in this book: However unsettling the form of the episode was at the beginning, I internalized it somehow and found a way to read past the form, or maybe to embrace it. What had at first seemed an obstacle or a cutesy-pie trick turned into maybe a sort of prism through which to read the content of the episode.
Of course, Joyce switches modes on you every few dozen pages, so that once you’ve begun to learn how to read a given section, you have to start over and adapt to a new method of storytelling. Pynchon does something similar, though with less clear demarcation than Joyce provides. So Gaddis, for all that he may be considered antagonistic to his reader, is actually in some ways gentler to his reader than these other difficult authors, requiring endurance more than malleability once you’ve settled in.
As you read on and on, the effect is pretty amazing. You learn to determine very quickly who’s speaking what unattributed line of dialogue and when you’ve moved from the school to the train station to the old Bast house. You begin to hear the voices intuitively more than to read and parse them, and a real world begins to emerge. It turns out that Gaddis had something similar to say about Wagner on page 111:
— Yes but that’s what you mean isn’t it, about creating an entirely different world when you write an opera, about asking the audience to suspend its belief in the . . .
— No not asking them making them, like that E flat chord that opens the Rhinegold goes on and on it goes on for a hundred and thirty-six bars until the idea that everything’s happening under water is more real than sitting in a hot plush seat with tight shoes on and . . .
If you’re having trouble getting used to Gaddis’s storytelling, stick it out a bit longer. The noise begins to make sense over time, and there’s reward aplenty.
Those who participated in the read of Gravity’s Rainbow may recall the occasional comments of David Nahm (DCN in those comments). Well, it turns out that he’s a big fan of Gaddis and is excited to write about J R here at Infinite Zombies. I’m excited to add a new voice to the mix. David lives in the mountains of Virginia where he practices law and teaches Constitutional Law and Law and Literature.
Well, I was going to go and spend a few months reading short things and producing things of my own after Gravity’s Rainbow, but then Lee Konstantinou had to go and spring #OccupyGaddis on us. It’s to be an Infinite Summer style read of Gaddis’s JR, which I’ve read a couple of times (but not in many years) and had been hankering to reread soon anyway. I don’t know that I’ll have time to give it a close reading or to blog about it here (famous last words for me), and I had hoped to do some pre-reading, but this thing starts in four days, so pre-reading’s out the window. In any case, I thought I’d spread the word here. If you’re on Twitter and want to follow along, keep tabs on the #OccupyGaddis hash tag. The schedule’s a 10-pages-per-day schedule blocked out as follows (note that those are two week blocks):
June 29: pp. 150
July 15: pp. 300
July 31: pp. 460
August 15: pp. 610
August 26: done!
I don’t think I’ve got it in me to make this an official read here. If you’re already a blogger here and want to write about the book, by all means do (Paul will be writing as he can over at his blog). If you’ve been pretty active in the comments in the past or are especially keen to write about JR here at IZ, let me know and chances are pretty good that I’d be willing to set you up with an account. If you’ll be writing about JR elsewhere, please do let us know in the comments.