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 …

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