Big Deals


by William Gaddis
Knopf, 726 pp., $5.95 (paper)

We may expect that such a long and long-awaited book as JR will fall into one of two categories; either some work intellectually and emotionally gargantuan, like Don Quixote, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Magic Mountain, or else some huge and magnificent, generous, ingenious, and memorable entertainment, like Our Mutual Friend or Old Wives’ Tale. If one judged by the reviews that have appeared so far, one would imagine JR to be the former kind of work: obscure and full of boomings, perhaps even a true work of genius, which normally means pretentiously exclusive, turgidly self-indulgent, and awesomely unreadable, like Finnegans Wake. According to George Steiner in The New Yorker (and there are signs that Gaddis would like to think it’s true) JR is indeed that fashionable monster “the unreadable book.” Steiner scornfully quotes some passages, and to any one who hasn’t read JR, they’re persuasive. But if one has read the novel, one can only hop on one foot, spluttering in confusion and rage (like young JR), yelling “Crazy! holy shit!”—because Steiner’s right in a way. JR is, finally, bad art, but despite what Steiner thinks, it’s wonderfully and easily readable.

Except for the last two hundred pages or so, where the novel takes a turn toward rant—filling the reader with an indignation he would never feel at a writer’s betrayal of some lesser fiction—JR is a delightful, large and various, technically brilliant entertainment. But it is also false, in the end, because the novel’s self-righteous, emotionally uncontrolled last movement poisons what went before it, casting suspicion on what seemed at first basically generous and fairminded, genially satiric or justly sardonic.

In all fairness, Gaddis was apparently uneasy about bringing out JR. One of the characters in his novel wails, talking of his own difficult, long-unfinished book:

—Sixteen years like living with a God damned invalid sixteen years every time you come in sitting there waiting just like you left him wave his stick at you, plump up his pillow cut a paragraph add a sentence hold his God damned hand little warm milk add a comma slip out for some air pack of cigarettes come back in right where you left him, eyes follow you around the room wave his God damned stick figure out what the hell he wants, plump the God damned pillow change bandage read aloud move a clause around wipe his chin new paragraph….

And a little later in the same monologue:

—God damned friends getting indignant tell you bring him out, tell you bring him out like he is little crippled maybe don’t give a God damn, quick and dirty just dress him up a little bring him out anyhow go back waiting, plump the God damned pillow move a clause around…

Well, the invalid JR is out, more than a little crippled, though the trouble comes not from any faltering of clauses but from deeper forms of moral and aesthetic confusion.

For five hundred pages, give or take a few, Gaddis tells a crazy but interesting, tightly plotted story full of fascinating characters and caricatures, all of them more or less outrageous but viewed sympathetically or with comic detachment. The plot is implausible, and meant to be, shot through with coincidence and misunderstanding as in an old-time farce. But the tone is always right, and as in all good farce the characters are sufficiently rounded to make the foolishness important. And anyway, Gaddis is going for meaning in Ben Jonson’s way, not Aristotle’s. Events—however comically jerked around, however blatantly staged by the novelist-trickster—force values and ideas into collision. This is of course a technique that only works if the novelist has the sense to take no side, or at least to take none openly, and indeed for something like five hundred pages Gaddis does take no side.

True, he mimicks the language of so-called educators, bankers, Wall Street brokers, PR men, and the like; and true, the reader generally sides with the artists in this novel mostly about money versus art; but on the whole, the language and activities of the artists are as comic as anything the moneymen say or do. Both artists and moneymen can be clever or stupid, generous or selfish; and in two of the novel’s symbolically focal characters, the sixth-grader JR and his composer friend Bast, the two inclinations—money versus art—are mixed. (To a greater or lesser extent, they’re mixed in all the characters.)

It’s obviously impossible to summarize the plot of an intricately plotted, concisely written, intelligent, and enormously compressed work of fiction that runs 726 pages; yet since Gaddis wastes nothing, neither actions nor words—since here as in The Recognitions everything hangs on repetitions, parallels, juxtapositions, mirror images—the plot must somehow be suggested. Very well then, this: One plot concerns a school where the chief administrative official, Mr. Whiteback, is also a banker and has his bank phone (among others) on his desk. He deals in PR, educational machinery, politics, and finance, and has terrible worries about meddlesome taxpayers, elderly citizens (who watch, in horror, his school’s “packages” on TV), teachers, and students. He and his toadies speak a wonderful gibberish—“tangibilitize our goals”—and books, for him, are always quite naturally and rightly the first things to go.

Among his mad teachers are a scientist-technician who makes machinery lively by making it sound like sex; two struggling artists—Edward Bast, composer, and Jack Gibbs, novelist—who make more trouble, for others and themselves, than art; and beautiful Amy Joubert, daughter of a brilliant and vicious Wall Street broker. All the characters who are old enough are either falling in love, miserably married, or fighting for divorce.

The trouble begins—or some of it—when Amy Joubert takes her sixthgrade class, including our more-or-less hero JR, to Wall Street to “buy a share in America,” that is, buy a few dollars worth of some miserable, foundering stock. Half by brilliance, half by luck, JR, who has partly the soul of an artist (also sneakers, a runny nose), turns that stock—without consulting Mrs. Joubert or the class—into an empire. He is ambitious, generous, and humane; but the results are bad. To free his friend Bast to write music as he’d like (though JR has not the slightest understanding of music), and because Bast, in turn, can help JR in his schemes, JR makes timid, always well-meaning Bast the company’s one visible executive (JR is, himself, too young to show his face) and thus incidentally drowns Bast in laborious trivia, throws his life into even more than usual chaos, and unwittingly forces the composer to write music he hates. JR’s energetic idealism—along with other forces—has further bad results: a suicide, some murders, some careers destroyed, some deaths by economic pressure—above all the debasement of JR himself.

JR’s moral ruin is one of the few things still moving in the novel’s diabolical, dogmatic close. JR, who has tried to free Bast for composition, who has also tried, at least in his own view (partly rationalization), to advance not only himself but also the stockholders and workers in the companies he buys, is trying to catch up with the outraged, sick, and demoralized Bast—JR tripping on the laces of his sneakers, calling to Bast through sleet and darkness, half-furious, half-crying, defending the change of policy he’s imposed on a recently acquired FM station:

—Look is it my fault if this here symphony takes like half an hour to play it! And I mean you say cheapen [Bast has accused JR of cheapening and debasing all he touches] boy this whole deal it’s like two million dollars in it and I mean like who wanted to buy their lousy station anyway! I mean this here Pomerance’s agency they go around there for us where all we want is like this one hour a night to get our message acrost so they tell us how much and then they get real snotty and say they still control the program content which that’s these here symphonies and all so I mean how many messages are you suppose to get acrost in this here hour where it takes this band half of it to play this one symphony for these here people which aren’t hungry where this other crap takes like three minutes each, I mean what do I care what they play there! Like we’re paying them for this here whole hour aren’t we? I mean if they could get through these here symphonies in like five minutes where we’re getting this bunch of messages in we’re paying for I mean what do I care what they play! I mean who’s paying them to play all this here great music these people which aren’t hungry like at Russia? where the government makes everybody listen to it? Like I mean this here station it’s losing so much money it can’t hardly last anyway so I mean we have to buy it to help them out I mean what am I suppose to do!

Everyone in the novel howls about or suffers the unfairness of things—finally the unfairness of an unbalanced universe (as the novelist manqué Jack Gibbs points out), not merely the good and evil in capitalism. That vision, if Gaddis had been true to it, might have made JR a fine novel.

The intricate, serio-comic plot, the glorious plethora of vividly imagined characters, and the bite of the social criticism could have set JR on a level with the best of Dickens. And these leave out of account the brilliance of technique. Gaddis introduces the reader by easy stages to his method, narrative through dialogue. He opens the novel with a classical scene from farce, two dotty, chattering old ladies and their frustrated lawyer. Notice how quickly, guided almost exclusively by dialogue, one catches on to the comic characters and situation:

—Money…? in a voice that rustled.

—Paper, yes.

—And we’d never seen it. Paper money.

—We never saw paper money till we came east.

—It looked so strange the first time we saw it. Lifeless.

—You couldn’t believe it was worth a thing.

—Not after Father jingling his change.

—Those were silver dollars.

—And silver halves, yes and quarters, Julia. The ones from his pupils. I can hear him now…

Sunlight, pocketed in a cloud, spilled suddenly broken across the floor through the leaves of the trees outside.

—Coming up the veranda, how he jingled when he walked.

—He’d have his pupils rest the quarters that they brought him on the backs of their hands when they did their scales. He charged fifty cents a lesson, you see, Mister…

—Coen, without the h. Now if both you ladies…

—Why, it’s just like that story about Father’s dying wish to have his bust sunk in Vancouver harbor, and his ashes sprinkled on the water there, about James and Thomas out in the rowboat, and both of them hitting at the bust with their oars because it was hollow and wouldn’t go down, and the storm coming up while they were out there, blowing his ashes back into their beards…

Thus by half the first page, Gaddis has his themes going (art, money, education, and value), his heightened, comic reality established, and the voices of his characters carrying the story. He can do nearly anything with voices. Characters who appear for only a moment (a crazy rock musician, a train conductor) become solid presences, and slapstick events (people stepping on one another’s toes, comically symbolic) are made instantly vivid through dialogue alone. The wit seems inexhaustible—in the farcically symbolic names, for instance: Bast, phloem, related to Greek phallos, and short for bastard (child of opposing values), and a cheated African leader named Nowunda, to mention only two. A marvelous novel for pages and pages—one frequently laughs aloud—and then something goes awry.

Dark satire is not an easy literary game. Melville managed it in The Confidence Man; Swift managed it several times; so did Ben Jonson. It requires active control over the reader’s outrage—otherwise the satire turns to melodrama. Gaddis is fine while the satire remains light; but in the later pages of the book he is determined to go dark—black-hearted and terrible as Swift, or Melville at his angriest. It’s a worthy enough ambition, but he fails to pull it off. He gradually seems to distrust his material, begins to force it, loses his ironic detachment, gets too angry. Feeling life’s pressure, as Jack Gibbs might say, Gaddis stops studying the invalid to discover what it needs, begins, instead, to ram down pills, demanding that the invalid get up, try to walk. The wildly cluttered mail- and machinery-filled office where Bast tries, comically, to work, begins to be unfunny, especially after Jack Gibbs moves in, trying to write his novel.

Everything begins to be the fault of the moneymen, a crass world’s stupid imposition on intelligent and decent artists. Bast has in a sense deserved his troubles; through weakness and misguided gentleness he went along with JR’s schemes; but Gibbs is not to blame for the foolishness all around him, keeping him from work—JR’s phone calls and mail, the sponging of fake artists, his estranged wife’s viciousness. We begin to hear more often, at higher and higher pitches, the novel’s refrain line, “believing and shitting are two different things”; and though Gaddis makes an effort to keep the forces balanced—Bast’s “father,” a musical conductor, was as selfish and unloving as Amy Joubert’s father, a Wall Street broker—the balance is at best intellectual. Bast and Gibbs become simply sentimental victims.

The mask falls, the writer is mad as hell. Whereas Gaddis could earlier legitimately jerk his plot around, since he was then still faithful to his characters’ emotions and ideas (however lunatic), his piling up of coincidence aims now at driving home a skewed, selfrighteous argument: true artists “believe,” false artists and moneymen (the two can be the same) merely “shit.”

Jack Gibbs speaks of the values of true art, and Bast explains them, more or less, to JR when he tells the boy that in listening to true music one is raised to selflessness: “you weren’t supposed [i.e., expected or required] to hear anything….” True art one sees or hears with one’s own, godly, dispassionate, and compassionate eyes and ears. (The Wall Street broker, Amy Joubert’s father, sees and hears with eyes and ears that are transplants. His wife says of him, quite rightly, that he should be declared null and void.) True art, to put it another way—Bast’s way—never plays to win.

But Gaddis himself plays to win. Despite all he knows, Gaddis joins the enemy he himself has identified: he manipulates, brays, whines, refuses to risk writing the book Jack Gibbs at one point says he would like to write, one that boldly runs the risk of being misunderstood. This charge is a hard one to prove, short of a line-by-line analysis of the last two hundred pages, but some of the ways in which Gaddis overloads his argument can perhaps be suggested.

When Bast has been all but crushed by catastrophes largely brought on by money people and phony artists, we get a scene in which, feverish and delirious after a train ride and painful conversation with JR, Bast talks with the lawyer, Coen. Bast rambles, echoing one of the novel’s refrain lines after another, page after page—his father’s line, “believing and shitting are two different things,” several lines spoken earlier by other characters, especially lines spoken by JR, “Not pissed off at me are you…?” “I mean why is everybody always getting mad at me?” “Get to start over right?” and so on.

The scene is unconvincing, for two reasons. First, delirious speech, like dreams, can rarely be made convincing in fiction: either the character speaks nonsense, which is convincing but boring, or we feel the authorial manipulation. And second, refrain lines in fiction always have a special emotional charge, and when touching, symbolic, or otherwise significant refrain lines are presented page after page, one after another, the reader can react in only one of two ways, with strong sympathetic emotion (because the poetry has worked) or with revulsion (because the writer’s attempt at poetic effect has failed). In this scene, the writer’s manipulation is painfully obvious, and can have only one purpose, to bully the reader into feeling pity for Bast and (to some extent) JR, and make him hate all those wicked capitalists.

People are not very loving in the world of William Gaddis. The generous reader can imagine JR as a young man who, though he uses people, does honestly intend to do them good at the same time, so that the fact that his work has the opposite effect is no proof of malevolence. Gaddis sets up that possibility, but he doesn’t seem to believe in it. Notice how misanthropically he rigs things. The music teacher, Bast, forces JR to listen to a snippet of Bach’s twenty-first cantata. Almost violently (because of his feverish condition) Bast demands that JR tell him what he’s heard. JR answers literally and according to his lights:

—Okay okay! I mean what I heard first there’s all this high music right? So then this here lady starts singing up yours up yours so then this man starts singing up mine, then there’s some words so she starts singing up mine up mine so he starts singing up yours so then they go back and forth like that up mine up yours up mine up yours that’s what I heard! I mean you want me to hear it again?

Bast raves in furious righteous indignation—and because he forces it, the voice seems not Bast’s, but mainly Gaddis’s own—and eventually says, in answer to JR’s “is it my fault if….”

—The minute you get your hands on something the power to keep something like that going [the FM classical music station] you couldn’t do it you couldn’t even leave it alone for a few people still looking for something beautiful, people who’d rather hear a symphony than eat who can still, who hear a magnificent soprano voice singing ach nein when you hear this here lady singing up mine you can’t get up to their level so you drag them down to yours if there’s any way to ruin something, to degrade it to cheapen it…

It is true that JR cheapens things—his favorite expression is “holy shit” (often repeated pay-off to the often repeated tag-line, “believing and shitting are two different things”)—but it is also true that JR is an eager, energetic student, by no means stupid, and none of the supposedly enlightened people in the novel has made the slightest effort to teach him anything at all—with one exception, Amy Joubert, who fails because she makes sentimental mistakes. Bast and Gibbs, and others of their kind, are so cynical, arrogant, criminally selfcentered, and cheaply enraged at “mechanization” and other modern evils that they never notice for an instant that a student like JR might need them. No evidence anywhere suggests that Gaddis thinks them wrong in this regard.

Except for his inarticulate ranting and raving at the end, Bast gives only one lecture in the course of the novel: asked to deliver a TV lecture on Mozart, and given an idiotic script which speaks of the composer as “this little Peter Pan of music who never really grew up,” and so forth, Bast departs from the script, vituperatively mocking the script in his hands and whining about the victimization of artists by the rich and crass—never recalling for a moment that he is being listened to by people who might learn something from him.

Still reading from the script Bast says: “His wife’s name Constanze means constancy, and she was constant to her dear childlike husband all the rest of his”—then Bast begins to stumble, furious—“of his, his cheap coffin in the rain that….” Now Bast goes crazy:

—the um, constant yes she, she constantly spent what little money they had on luxuries and she, she was constantly pregnant and she, finally she was constantly sick so you can see why she, why Mozart burst into tears when he married her. He was always the, this little darling of the gods [the script earlier translated Amadeus] he’d supported his whole family since he was a child being dragged around by his father and shown off like a, like a little freak….

And after more rant,

and oh yes this mysterious stranger dressed all in gray who Mozart thought was a messenger of death, it was really just a messenger from a crackbrain count named Walsegg who wanted some music for his dead wife. He couldn’t write a requiem so he wanted to hire Mozart to, and then pretend he’d written it himself. What else could Mozart do? He’s sick, worn out, used up, he’s only about thirtyfive and he’s been supporting everybody in sight for thirty years….

Well, you will say, artists are temperamental. (Gaddis returns as if obsessively to Van Gogh’s chopped off ear, conveniently forgetting a number of things as, above, he forgets Mozart’s kidneys.) But temperamental or not, Bast has shown only contempt for JR and his fellow students, and given them nothing. Or worse: he has presented the artist as a weakling and financial sucker who ought to get his silly wife in line and start entering his checks. This does not, of course, prove Bast a bad artist—he’s the book’s one survivor. But since Gaddis seems to side with Bast, it leaves the reader with a legitimate objection: how are the values Bast drubs JR for not possessing to be passed on?

Though I’ve pointed to signs of it—the writer’s manipulation of a delirious character, and the writer’s attack on so-called educators whom he hates without noticing the failure of those he approves—it’s not possible to prove here that Gaddis loads the dice. But page after page through the novel’s last movement, the reader gets a stronger and stronger sense of the writer tilting the machine, not following the argument to see where it leads or where the characters want to go, but forcing, bullying; like a trial lawyer or a Marxist in debate with an innocent.

One leaves the novel, or anyway I do, annoyed and frustrated, wishing that Gaddis might have been less arrogant in his scorn of all things crass and more in favor of the artist’s pursuit of truth—wishing that he might have abandoned his own fierce and fashionable prejudices (which every reader he gets will share anyway) for the sake of learning what would make the invalid whole and well, a wise and balanced work. It is easier to imitate Proust the bitchy man than to imitate his careful and judicious art, easier to imitate Poe as Griswold understood him, or Beethoven as all but his best friends understood him, or Goethe the real-life monster, than it is to do justice to their full and finally humane vision.

Jack Gibbs, the character closest to Gaddis himself, is at work on a virtually endless book about art and mechanization. He takes pride in his knowledge that his book will not “communicate,” that is, it will be full of big words, hard to read. When another character remarks that the book sounds “difficult,” Gibbs says smugly, “Difficult as I can make it.” One is reminded of the remark William Gass made not long ago (in Joe David Bellamy’s The New Fiction: Interviews with Innovative American Writers): “I began The Tunnel in 1966. I imagine it is several years away yet. Who knows, perhaps it will be such a good book no one will want to publish it. I live on that hope.” The difference is that for a man as conscious of nuance as is Gass—a man preternaturally sensitive to language, and a master humorist when he chooses to be—the rhetorical I live on that hope can only be comic self-mockery, a joke at the expense of exactly that posturing misanthropy which seems to lesser men the proper mark of genius, and which ruins Gaddis’s book. It pays, of course, that scornful sneer; people love to be told everything stinks. It sounds so intelligent.


Not a Broker October 14, 1976