I. The Problem
I lost my copy of J R. It is in my house somewhere, but I cannot find it. Here is what happened.
After my last post, my wife and I went on vacation to the panhandle of Florida. We drive from Virginia, so it takes us a few days to wind our way through the South. We are off of the interstate much of the way, sailing along the back roads of rural Alabama and Florida. The dried up farms and abandoned curio shops and collapsing porches make you feel like you are in Night of the Hunter. Though I brought J R to read at the beach, the first several weeks of dedicated reading and writing made me want to take a break. One of my favorite bookstores is in a neighboring town from where we vacation, so I decided to buy a few new things to read for the week and enjoy myself. I read Satantango by László Krasznahorkai and began Vassily Grossman’s Life and Fate, with which I very quickly fell in love.
My first mistake was taking a break from J R. Though I’ve read J R before, it is not the kind of novel that allows for easy returns after time away. It is difficult to rejoin the choir mid-song. My second mistake was taking up a novel like Life and Fate, which is over 800 pages long and contains so many characters that it requires a seven page appendix of names to keep them straight. Add to this the fact that the novel is really good and completely engrossing, and it was almost inevitable that I would fall victim to my own bad decisions.
The Wednesday after my wife and I returned home from the beach, we closed on the purchase of our first house. In the days leading up to the closing, we were frantically packing and dealing with the last minute problems of home ownership. It was a thrilling, though exhausting, time, but it led to a third problem. When I returned home from work, I didn’t have time to read in the evenings like I usually do. I am not a reader that can read small snatches here and there. I require a few hours at a time to sink into a novel and splash about. It wasn’t possible for me to spend the time I usually take each night to read Life and Fate and J R. I didn’t read all week, falling even farther behind in my J R duties and at the same time, completely losing the thread of Life and Fate. So at this point I have two novels–one of which I love and have a duty to write about and another that I am really enjoying–that I have completely lost the thread of, hanging from my neck like stones.
So then we moved and spent hours carrying boxes and filling boxes and stacking and unstacking boxes and somewhere along the way I lost J R. I have no idea where it is. I’ve looked through every box I own and it is nowhere to be found. I spent over a week looking for it in the new house and when I finally confessed that is was lost, my wife was nice enough to purchase a new copy for me on her Kindle (we live in a rural area and I cannot easily buy a new physical copy).
And so after nearly a month of not reading, I tried to pick J R up again on an e-reader and learned that it is not the right book to read as your first e-book. While its undivided ribbon of text seems like it would be a perfect fit for the electronic age, it is really difficult to keep track of where I am. I don’t mean that I forget what page I am on–the machine keeps track of that for me–but that I have no sense of where I am in the book. With my physical copy, I am able to flip back and forth and find what I am looking for almost instantly because I remember where it was on a page and how far along I was. The machine has a search function, which works wonders when I want to search for a certain term, but for finding something I have a general recollection about, it doesn’t quite work. And so, not only have I lost J R, but I am not lost in J R.
I do not want to give the impression that I am leveling some dust-covered lament against technology. E-readers, like books, are tools to deliver a reading experience. They are different experiences, just as a paperback differs from a hardback, but they are only tools. For me, I think it is maybe the wrong tool for this book.
II. Worry and Shame
In the end, though, my inability to keep up with reading the novel has nothing to do with the machine and everything to do with me. J R is one of my favorite books, but I was lazy and got away from it and my mind moved on. I intend to finish it again and write more, but I fear I’ve lost the spark. I read and comprehend and enjoy, but the part of me that had something to say a month ago, has fallen silent. I am not a book blogger and though I read a great deal, I rarely discuss what I’ve read with anyone or write about what I’ve read. Perhaps I don’t have anything to say of any importance at all. Perhaps I am trying to hide that lack of something to say behind a series of comic excuses. The beach, the closing, the move, losing the book, the e-reader–none of them are really stopping me from sitting down in the evening and reading and thinking and writing. The only thing stopping me is the empty sound of wind blowing through my brain when I look at the pixels spread out before me.
And then comes the shame. Getting interrupted while reading a book and being unable to jump back in is something that happens to everyone. When it happens to me, I begin to feel guilty that I have this book that I bought and haven’t finished. I want to find something new to read, something that I have that sudden flush of curiosity and excitement about, but the unfinished book sits there on a nightstand, half-alive, like a reproach to my profligate ways. So then I spend hours and days that I could be reading—could have been reading—my unfinished book, looking for a new book to read and I am unable to even do that. Each book that I could pick up just reminds me of another book I haven’t read that I should read first. Suddenly there are too many options and I am stymied and spend hours sitting in the semi-dark, calling out for my mother. It really is a terrible scene. Having finished J R before, I don’t have the same welling of shame for not finishing it, but I have agreed to blog about it and I’m not doing that now, and that failure is public. Again, to the semi-dark to call out for my mother.
III. The Art of Failure
My failures as a reader remind me of the failures of the artist in J R. Unfinished novels sitting in a squalid apartments. Composers composing for money. Painters selling blood for paint. J R is the only artist who is thriving. Normally, we don’t think of financial transactions and the accumulation of capital as an art form, but the way that J R practices his trade, they become an art.
Think of the tropes of the Romantic Artist: living in poverty, pursuing an absurd and unattainable goal with unstoppable passion, creating an masterpiece through genius and willpower. These indicators of Artistness all apply to J R. He is poor. He wears the same worn clothes all the time. His mother works long hours and is never home. His father is completely absent. Bast is the son of a famous composer, but has so far failed to succeed. Gibbs has worked on his novel for years and been unable to finish. Yet, J R, a 12 year old child, through nothing more than his inability to understand that what he wants is impossible, creates an empire out of junk and trash and that which the adult world has cast-off. He follows his muse despite being told by his friend and by his teachers that his object is unattainable or not worth his time. Like an artist, the world that J R creates revolves around him even though he is invisible to most of those involved. Gaddis created J R, but his characters don’t see him. It is the same with J R and his empire.
Why does J R succeed where Bast, Gibbs, and I fail? We failures waste our time thinking about how we would like to write a great novel or compose a great symphony or read all of the great novels in the world, time that is wasted, time that should be spent writing and composing and reading. J R is not bound by such worry. He does not contemplate his failure. He only moves forward, unafraid of seeming foolish or seeing what he wants left in ruins. Or worse, incomplete.
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.
When James and Thomas Bast meet in a foreign city, they put down their suitcases and fight.
–It was more of a philosophical dispute, Thomas insisting the magic touch of these virtuosos could be preserved on these piano rolls, and James…
For people who listen to music that exists primarily as unencrypted bits floating in the atmosphere, the argument about whether a roll of paper can contain the beauty of music may seem quaint and distant. The mechanical reproduction of music is now taken for granted. Like money, one copy of Thriller is the same as any other. In fact, most popular music of the last 40 years never existed anywhere other than on a 2” strip of magnetic tape or on a computer’s hard drive. A series of sounds created primarily for the purpose of replication. This carries over into live performances, events where most people have a certain expectation about how the music they will hear will sound. Imagine if you had gone to see the Grateful Dead and they didn’t jam.
In a way, the recording and replication of music is our age’s version of sheet music–the instructions by which a piece of music will be heard. What would James Bast’s response be? Would he suggest that between the lifeless piece of paper and the sounds we here, the musician adds something that a machine cannot? That a laser interpreting ones and zeros off of the face of a spinning piece of plastic cannot compare to being in the same room with a musician as the music is created?
–I thought people had radios and things today.
And even now, the world of records and tapes and compact discs that I grew up with is gone. Limitless copies of limitless songs exist. Songs are silently filling the air all around us at every moment. At this very moment, someone may be downloading a song you hate through your body.
In my earlier years, some part of the beauty of music I loved came from its scarcity. Growing up in rural Kentucky in the late 80s and early 90s, it was difficult to find music. Not just music that I liked, but any sort of music at all. There was a record store for a short time, but it closed not long after I started high school. My only other option in town was Wal-Mart, and while many of my first cassette tapes came from there, I soon outgrew their stock. So I had to wait until my family made a trip to Fayette Mall in Lexington before I could buy new tapes. These trips’ infrequency didn’t bother me, since I rarely had enough money to buy anything. Acquiring a new album was a strange and unusual thing. I listened to those records until they were warped beyond listening, curled under my covers at night, my Walkman’s red light on, the tape reels whining, taking in each sound and silence as thought they were the only songs ever recorded.
–But without them where do you get art?
–Get it? Art? You get it where you get anything you buy it, listen Gibbs don’t try to tell me in this day an age there isn’t enough around for everybody great art, pictures music books who’s heard all the great music there is, you? You read all the great books there are? seen all the great pictures? Records of any symphony you want reproductions you can get them that are almost perfect, the greatest books ever written you can get them at the drugstore…
Now I have no trouble tracking down the most obscure music, conjuring it on my computer instantly and deleting it off of my iPod a few days later when I realize I don’t really care for it much. The ritual aspect to listening, fed by exiguity, is gone now. But, I recognize that this lost of ritual on my part is not a problem with the medium, but with me. I developed my habits in a different time. The young people who are now discovering music are developing their own rituals, ones that will be as different from mine as the ritual expectations of the generations who came before me—who had to go to go to music halls or read sheet music.
Does such abundance devalue art—devalue art? While we might be inclined to sympathize with James Bast, with the desire to have an authentic artistic experience and to shun the common, the phony and the commercially motivated, and while we might agree that the intrinsic value of art must be kept high, we must remember that there is a compromise embedded in this expectation. The higher the value of a thing, the fewer that will be able to experience it. The rarer the object, the more expensive. While I might be confusing artistic value with the economic value of an object, it is undeniable that they are related. Original works by famous artists or front row tickets at a Madonna concert are out of reach for most people. While intrinsic artistic value and economic value are not the same, the latter is a bar to experiencing the former. After the Penguin edition of J R went out-of-print, but before the Dalkey Archive announced their reissue of the novel, copies of the recent Penguin edition were selling on Amazon for over $300. While the price on the jacket is not an indicator of a novel’s value, scarcity can keep art out of the hands of those who want it, but cannot afford it.
Gaddis surprises us by allowing Thomas Bast, the business tycoon, to be the one to bring art to everyone, democratizing the artistic experience, removing it form the hands of those in the upper classes who can afford it. While money may bring art low, it can bring it to us who are low as well.
My first memory of money: Sitting on my mother and father’s bed one evening when I was very young, bathed in a red-orange light that only existed from 1978 to 1981, with a pencil and a blank piece of paper. My mother told me that I was now old enough to help out around the house and in exchange for my labor, I would be paid an allowance. She handed me the pencil and paper and told me to write down how much money I wanted to be paid. I was very young, I’d never had money of my own before and had little understanding of what money was, beyond the fact that I knew that quarters could be put into the mouths of machines in exchange for bouncing balls containing amazing colors. Suddenly given the opportunity to not only possess some of my own, but also to select exactly how much I would receive, a thrill filled my body. Images of vast piles of cash rose before my eyes and a vision all of the toys that I would buy crowded my eyes. I didn’t really know what money was, but I wanted as much as I could get. Boldly, and with the expectation that my parents, upon reading my demand, would scoff and possibly punish me for my greed, I wrote 60 CENTS.
J R opens with the memory of two kinds of money: money that is alive and money that is dead. Julia and Anne Bast remember the first time they saw paper money, a lifeless thing compared to the harmony of metal coins they remember making music in their father’s pocket. These two monetary visions are poles between which the world of the novel will move. Money is a primal thing, its existence taken for granted. The only question is what manner of money it will be. In law school I learned that money is fungible. One dollar bill is as good as any other dollar bill. This is not entirely true, however. Forests, rocks, oceans—all elemental forces contain spirits and shadows, some good and some evil. Money is just another haunted element.
And yet, J R’s subject is not just money. In the first twenty lines, Gaddis introduces money and immediately pairs it with art. Like Wagner, Gaddis introduces the novel’s leitmotif which will be developed over the rest of the novel.
When the Bast Sisters remember money, they remember its sound and how their father made a living teaching piano. They remember how he used the money that his piano students would pay him to improve their technique by placing the coins on their hands. This new, paper money may be lifeless, but the sisters remember a time when money was key in creating something good.
In the minds of most people, money and art sit on opposite ends of utility, yet they are inextricably linked. Throughout the novel’s first day, nearly every reference to art is paired with a reference to money.
The sisters remember when their father first fell in love with music, to his own father’s violent dismay (–We were a Quaker family, after all, where you just didn’t do things that didn’t pay.) Rachmaninoff’s insured fingers. The children unable to practice their Ring without a bag of money on the table in front of them (–See? Like for the Rhinegold, with real money so we can really pretend, see?). Mozart begging for support and writing himself into the ground. Schepperman selling his blood to buy paint. The great composer James Bast, unable to make ends meet with the money from his awards, engaging in real estate scams. Just as coins are paired to nurturing art, lifeless paper money is paired with lifeless paper music, the piano rolls for player pianos. James and Thomas Bast fight over whether or not music can live in those paper rolls that Thomas’s company creates.
–Nevertheless I would not have imagined that there was still so much money in piano rolls…
When we talk about money and art, we usually think in terms of commercialization and commodification. We think of art consumed into investment portfolios. We think of art as a tool for creating more money. Yet, money is there at the creation of art as well. Though some idealize the idea of the Starving Artist, it is a myth. If you don’t have some sort of income stream, you cannot create art.
—-rich people who commissioned work from artists and gave them money.
You must either be of independent means, have a spouse or parents willing to support you, a job that allows you enough spare time for your art, or people must pay you for your art. In every case, you must have money. Money to buy food while taking the time to write. Money to buy materials to sculpt or paint. Money to rent space to rehearse and perform.
–Hiring musicians to play his compositions, getting them recorded and all the rest of it his royalty checks aren’t a drop in the bucket, even the awards seem to cost twice what they bring in.
With a novel of this scope, it is fruitless to try and say anything definitive or profound about the relationship between money and art at this point. However, it strikes me as interesting that this first linking of money and art is not a corrosive one. The novel begins not by considering the corrupting power of money on art, but rather with the memory of money being used in a positive way to create art, to foster the talent of young musicians.
The question for us to answer is where this relationship goes wrong. Remember: that idyllic vision of Father Bast using money to teach ends with his sons–the composer and the business man–trying to sink his bust in the harbor, the old man’s ashes blowing back in their beards.