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At Home in Babel

A Frolic of His Own

by William Gaddis
Poseidon, 586 pp., $25.00

Every William Gaddis novel tells its story in such a cryptic and allusive way that it can become a cerebral torture, like a crossword puzzle whose setter is named after a famous inquisitor—Torquemada, Ximenes. Reviewing JR in the New Yorker in 1975, George Steiner called it an “unreadable book”—a remark that got him into hot water with the professional Gaddisites, a solemn crew themselves given to sentences like “Read from this perspective, The Recognitions demonstrates the essential alterity of the world, the meta-ethical virtue of agapistic ethics.”* Certainly Gaddis tries one’s readerly patience to breaking point, strewing the foreground of his fiction with obstacles designed to trip one up, slow one down, and generally bring one face to face with the (as it were) essential alterity of the novel as a willful tissue of words. Scaling The Recognitions and JR, one keeps coming on the remains of earlier readers who lost their footing and perished in the ascent.

Yet on most of the important counts, Gaddis is an engagingly old-fashioned writer. The Victorian spaciousness of his books is in keeping with their big Victorian subjects—forgery and authenticity, wills and legacies, the circulation of money, the workings of the law. His best characters, though never directly described, have a powerful fleshly presence on the page. The loutish pathos of J R, the boy capitalist, Liz and Paul Booth’s burned-out marriage in Carpenter’s Gothic, are examples of solidly credible realistic portraiture of the kind one feels that Trollope would have recognized and admired. More than any other writer I can think of, Gaddis really listens to the way we speak now. The talk in his novels is brilliantly rendered, with a wicked fidelity to its flimsy grammar, its elisions and hiatuses, its rush-and-stumble rhythms. When Gaddis’s characters open their mouths, they’re apt to give voice to sentences like car pileups in fog, with each new thought smashing into the rear of the one ahead and colliding with the oncoming traffic of another speaker’s words.

If readers of Gaddis are often hard put to it to follow the novelist’s drift, their difficulties are precisely mirrored by those of the characters inside the novel, as when Liz Booth sacks her Martinican cleaning woman in fractured Franglais:

—Le mardi prochain Madame?

—Next Tuesday yes will, well no. No I mean that’s what I wanted to speak to you about, I mean qu’il ne serait pas nécessaire que, that it’s maybe it’s better to just wait and I call you again when I, que je vous téléphoner…

—Vous ne voulez pas que je revienne.

—Yes well I mean but not next Tuesday, I mean I’ll telephone you again I hope you understand Madame Socrate it’s just that I, que votre travail est très bon everything looks lovely but…

—J’comprends Madame…the door came open,—et la clef.

—Oh the key yes, yes thank you merci I hope you, oh but wait, wait could you, est-ce que vous pouvez trouver le, les cartes…with a stabbing gesture at the mailbox,—là, dans le, des cartes…?

Madame Socrate is not so named for nothing. Like a good reader, she understands that the static interference in which the message appears to be shrouded is in fact the message itself. As for the mysterious appearance of Descartes in the morning’s mail, it is one of those suggestive coincidences with which Gaddis likes to tease, and sometimes torment, his readers.

He can be very funny, in a way that pointedly recalls the exasperated laughter of Evelyn Waugh, for whom Gaddis has often expressed his admiration in articles and interviews. Waugh’s favorite cloak—that of the last surviving patrician in a fallen world of thugs and philistines—has been taken over by Gaddis and trimmed to a (slightly) more democratic American pattern. Like Waugh, Gaddis is funniest when he’s gunning for the barbarians at the gate—for the culture of the game show, the shopping mall, the tabloid newspaper, the matchbook cover. Waugh saw the fall of Christendom in the rise of the commercial lower orders. Gaddis sees entropy: the world is not so much going to hell as suffering from the inevitable degradation of energy in a closed system, its language wearing out from overuse. So where Waugh invoked Ecclesiastes and the Book of Lamentations, Gaddis calls in Willard Gibbs and Norbert Wiener (which might in itself be seen as a kind of entropic diminishment). His eccentric personal version of thermodynamics chimes very closely with Waugh’s eccentric personal theology, suggesting, perhaps, that gods, physicists, and novelists may share a common black humor as they contemplate the experiments in chaos over which they separately preside.

A Frolic of His Own, Gaddis’s fourth novel in nearly forty years, is a country-house comedy, faster in pace and lighter in texture than anything he’s done before. It reassembles themes, images, and a large number of characters from the earlier books. There’s fresh news of Dr. Kissinger, the globe-trotting proctologist and cosmetic surgeon, of the Rev. Elton Ude, his son Bobby Joe, and of Wayne Fickert, the boy who was drowned by the Rev. Ude at a baptism in the Pee Dee River. The huge postmodernist sculpture, Cyclone Seven, last seen in JR, in the Long Island town where a child was trapped inside it, has here been moved to Tatamount, Virginia. Its steel jaws now imprison a dog named Spot. Oscar Crease, the gentleman-amateur playwright at the center of the story, is a reworked version of the character of Edward Bast in JR; his half-sister Christina and her friend Trish were schoolmates of Liz Booth and her friend Edie Grimes, the “Heiress Slain In Swank Suburb” of Carpenter’s Gothic. Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, had its first performance, in brief quotation, in JR, where it was the work of Thomas Eigen (and was dismissed by Jack Gibbs as “undigested Plato”).

The Long Island house in which nearly all the action of the book takes place is (like the Bast family mansion in JR) an incongruous genteel survivor from another age. Its roof leaks, its verandah sags, and—as a visiting realtor observes—it is in desperate need of the attentions of “old Mister Paintbrush to brighten things up.” Its chief asset—worth several millions in “wetlands setbacks”—is a fine view from the drawing room of American literature’s most famous pond, which has been trucked in from Massachusetts for the occasion of the book. Like Walden itself, the Crease place is ringed by suburbia: the chainsaws, whose “unanesthetized aerial surgery” began in JR, are within earshot of the house, and the driveway now leads straight to the debased language of Chic’s Auto Body, Fred’s Foto, and the R Dan Snively Memorial Parking Lot.

The hideous red-taloned woman who sells real estate (she envisions the house torn down and replaced by a new one, to be built by “this famous postmodern architect who’s doing the place on the corner right down to the carpets and picture frames it will be quite a showplace”) bears a strong resemblance to Mrs. Beaver and her plans for Hatton in A Handful of Dust (“…supposing we covered the walls with white chromium plating and had natural sheepskin carpet…”). There may be another nod in Evelyn Waugh’s direction in Gaddis’s choice of the name of Crease. The only Crease I know of in the public domain is the Francis Crease who earned half a chapter to himself in Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning—a neurotic calligrapher and dilettante of independent means who might be Oscar’s twin.

Oscar Crease is the childish last scion of a distinguished legal family. His grandfather sat on the Supreme Court with Justice Holmes; his ninety-seven-year-old father is a judge in Virginia; in his fifty-odd years, Oscar has managed to write one unproduced play, based on what he believes to have been his grandfather’s experience in the Civil War. In a late and ill-advised bid for recognition, he sues the Hollywood producer of a Civil War epic called The Blood in the Red White and Blue for plagiarizing Once at Antietam and robbing him of his family history.

Broadly—very broadly—speaking, almost everyone in the novel is suing almost everyone else in sight for damages. Some are suing themselves—Oscar is both plaintiff and defendant in a personal injury suit involving his car, which ran over him when the ignition failed and he hot-wired it. People travel through these pages with their attorneys in tow much as people once used to travel with their maids. In the foreground are Oscar’s chickenfeed pieces of litigation; in the background are the great cases of the day, like the $700 million suit, known in the tabloids as “Pop and Glow,” brought by the Episcopal Church against Pepsi-Cola on the grounds that the church’s good name has been stolen by means of an underhand anagram. For every suit there is a countersuit, for every judgment an appeal. Gaddis peoples the book with a throng of injured egos whose only means of asserting that they exist is to go to court. As Christina reasonably observes in the first page, “It’s not simply the money…the money’s just a yardstick isn’t it. It’s the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves.”

Gaddis likes to set himself technical exercises. In JR he had to tell the story in dialogue; in Carpenter’s Gothic he obeyed the classical unities of time, place, and action. A Frolic of His Own is in part an immensely skillful exercise in the mechanics of farce. It is a wonder that the ailing verandah of the house doesn’t collapse under the weight of the stream of surprise exits and entrances of lawyers and litigants that it has to bear. Like all good farces, after the sound of laughter has subsided it turns out to have been in deadly earnest.

Gaddis is a mimic of genius and he runs the gamut of stylistic imitation from undetectable forgery to ribald satire. Oscar’s play, for instance, of which the reader gets to see about seventy pages, is, unlike the usual text-within-a-text, a real play whose very unevenness convinces one of its authenticity. Brilliant passages, mostly in soliloquy, lead into long stilted debates, which themselves suddenly catch fire and come alive for a few minutes, then go dead again. Unlike the author of the novel, the playwright doesn’t know how to move his characters on and off stage nearly fast enough. Yet the central confrontation, between Thomas, the southern heir to northern property, and Bagby, his agent, a commercial “new man” and an early example of the Barbarian genus, is engrossing enough to transcend the play’s wonky stagecraft. Once at Antietam’s debts to Plato, first exposed in JR, are teased out here in detail by a smart Indian attorney, Madhar Pai, in a legal deposition taken during Crease’s case against the Hollywood producer; but the play’s more immediate debts are to the thoughtful, talkative middlebrow theater of the 1950s, to plays like Anouilh’s Antigone and Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons in which large moral questions were acted out by people in period costume, and it has a lot of their dusty charm.

  1. *

    From Gregory Comnes, The Ethics of Indeterminacy in the Novels of William Gaddis, to be published next month by the University Press of Florida, p. 176.

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