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…

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