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.
The same goes for the legal documents that are interleaved throughout the book. The cases on which they touch may be farcical, but the attention paid to them by Gaddis’s crew of lawyers and judges is of a quality for which one might reasonably pay Mr. Madhar Pai his fantastic hourly rate. This is not Bleak House. In A Frolic of His Own the language of the law is treated with affection and respect, and the lawyers themselves are honored as the last surviving instruments (even though some of them are very imperfect ones) of order in this disorderly world. The cleverest, most likable character in the novel is old Judge Crease, who appears in written opinions that combine a waspish commonsensicality with bouts of unexpected mental acrobatics. From Crease on Szyrk [the creator of the huge piece of sculpture Cyclone Seven] v. Village of Tatamount et al.:
We have in other words plaintiff claiming to act as an instrument of higher authority, namely “art,” wherewith we may first cite its dictionary definition as “(1) Human effort to imitate, supplement, alter or counteract the work of nature.” Notwithstanding that Cyclone Seven clearly answers this description especially in its last emphasis, there remain certain fine distinctions posing some little difficulty for the average lay observer persuaded from habit and even education to regard sculptural art as beauty synonymous with truth in expressing harmony as visibly incarnate in the lineaments of Donatello’s David, or as the very essence of the sublime manifest in the Milos Aphrodite, leaving him in the present instance quite unprepared to discriminate between sharp steel teeth as sharp steel teeth, and sharp steel teeth as artistic expressions of sharp steel teeth, obliging us for the purpose of this proceeding to confront the theory that in having become self referential art is in itself theory without which it has no more substance than Sir Arthur Eddington’s famous step “on a swarm of flies,” here present in further exhibits by plaintiff drawn from prestigious art publications and highly esteemed critics in the lay press, where they make their livings, recommending his sculptural creation in terms of slope, tangent, acceleration, force, energy and similar abstract extravagancies serving only a corresponding self referential confrontation of language with language and thereby, in reducing language itself to theory, rendering it a mere plaything, which exhibits the court finds frivolous.
This might be William Empson in a wig and gown. It is a fierce and well-grounded attack on trivial postmodernist pursuits and, in itself, a vindication of Gaddis’s own way of writing novels.
True, all his books entail a “confrontation of language with language,” but the confrontation is not “self-referential” and never reduces language to theory. In Gaddis’s work, language is where we live and what we are. It’s all we have. So the play Once at Antietam has its own power: it may not be a very good play, but it is, we are made to feel, the best play, the best reckoning with the paradox of his own history, that its author (call him Gaddis, or Eigen, or Oscar Crease) could make under the circumstances. So, too, Judge Crease’s own legal opinion, laboring as it does to say something eloquent and true within the constricting conventional frame of the legal opinion, is the best that can be done under the circumstances, which in Gaddis are always adverse. A Frolic of His Own is not another novel about narratology: its sharp teeth are genuine sharp steel teeth.
In the most realistic way possible, Gaddis’s characters have to struggle to stay afloat on the flux of late-century daily life. The Crease house is under permanent siege—its verandah stormed by callers, its phone ringing off the hook, newspapers piling up in the kitchen far faster than they can be read, and the television in the drawing room pouring out a continuous unlovely medley of bomb-blast pictures interspersed with Jeopardy-style questions (“Name three African countries beginning with C…. What breed of African antelope is named after an American car?”) and commercials for laxatives and hemorrhoid creams. Oscar is addicted to nature programs, filmed to prove that animal life is as red in tooth and claw as the human variety. On the screen are exhibited pictures of such familiar domestic situations as: “two acorn woodpeckers sharing a nest where one laid an egg and the other ate it”; “the Australian red-back spider jumping into the female’s jaws in the midst of mating which he continued undismayed as she chewed at his abdomen”; a “battle among the notorious burying beetles over the corpse of a mouse nicely scraped and embalmed by the victorious couple for their young to eat and then eating the young when they hatched to ensure the survivors of enough food for a stalwart new generation to start the whole thing over again.” The TV set is kept switched on throughout the book: it is both a loud source of colored chaos and a faithful mirror of the Crease family in action. In the refrigerator, another chaos, a cole-slaw carton holds the “jelly implants” removed from the breasts of Oscar’s infantile and dippy girlfriend, Lily.
Gaddis is at his most Waugh-like in the formal grace with which he manages the wild disorder of the plot. The faster the whirlygig spins, the more one admires its ingenious workmanship. As in Waugh, the proprietor of the machine appears to be standing at some distance from it, his face perfectly impassive, while the riders scream.
Chaos is a state where the whole system of cause-and-effect appears to have given way, where everything happens by accident. In Gaddis’s highly controlled version of chaos, the chance properties of the language itself, the puns, anagrams, and co-incidental allusions, serve as vital connectors. So we get EPISCOPAL/PEPSICOLA—or the two brands of Japanese car that figure in this legal fiction, the Isuyu and the Sosumi—or the name, Jonathan Livingston Siegal, of the producer of The Blood in the Red White and Blue—or the way in which a negotiation over the forth-coming lunch break is recorded in a legal deposition as “Break, break, break on thy cold grey stones, O…” In a TV commercial for a diarrhea cure, a man is seen running for an airport bathroom; several hundred pages later in the novel, at an airport, an identical running figure is wrongfully accused of stealing a pocketbook belonging to Christina’s friend Trish. In another chance collision, the infectious meter of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, Oscar’s favorite childhood poem, insidiously works its way into the later, hurrying scenes of the book, giving Longfellow the opportunity to write a description of Oscar’s fishtank (where rapacious nature is again contained by glass):
neither rose Ugudwash, the sunfish, nor the yellow perch the Sahwa like a sunbeam in the water banished here, with wind and wave, day and night and time itself from the domain of the discus by the daily halide lamp, silent pump and power filter, temperature and pH balance and the system of aeration, fed on silverside and flake food, vitamins and krill and beef heart in a patent spinach mixture to restore their pep and lustre spitting black worms from the feeder when a crew of new arrivals (live delivery guaranteed, air freight collect at thirty dollars) brought a Chinese algae eater, khuli loach and male beta, two black mollies and four neons and a pair of black skirt tetra cruising through the new laid fronds of the Madagascar lace plant.
The book is full of riffs and games like this, each one designed to forge some sort of punning link between one part of the battle and another. Taken together, they have the effect of falling into a pattern that grows more and more intricate the longer you look at it, like the sequence of enlargements in a Mandelbrot set.
Readers—and reviewers especially—ought to feel a disquieting pang of recognition as the climax of the book approaches and Oscar, armed with ice cream and Pinot Grigio, settles in front of the TV set to view the screening of The Blood in the Red White and Blue, the catchpenny epic, whose plot somewhat resembles that of his own play. The titles have barely started to roll before Oscar is off, reading into the images on the screen meanings that cannot possibly be there. By the time the Battle of Antietam starts, he has fallen into the language of a demented football commentator:
—there! a man’s shoulder blown off—look out! too late, the boy in butternut hit full in the open mouth, mere boys, mere boys in homespun and blue in a screaming frenzy of bayonets and shellfire—unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet we’re taking the cornfield there’s Meade, there’s Meade in the midst of it there’s Meade look at the flags, battle flags the Sixth Wisconsin, Pennsylvania regiments and three hundred of the Twelfth Massachusetts with two hundred casualties now! We’re almost there, the Dunker church Georgia boys trying to get over the fence pffft! shot like laundry hung on a line listen! The Rebel yell listen to it, Hood’s division counterattack makes your blood run cold they’re coming through! Driving us back they’re driving us back, A P Hill coming in from the East Wood I mean D H, D H Hill’s division right into the, ooph! Battery B, six old brass cannon it’s Battery B charging straight into it look at that! Double rounds of canister hitting them at fifty feet the whole Rebel column’s blown to pieces blood everyplace, blood everyplace that’s Mansfield, wild white beard’s got to be General Mansfield Hooker sending him in with his XII Corps riding down the line waving his hat hear them cheering he’s, yes he’s hit, horse is down and Mansfield’s hit in the stomach God, get him off the field!
No critic with a bee in his bonnet could be more capriciously inventive than Oscar as he deconstructs the blockbuster on the TV screen and reassembles it into a Super Bowl version of the Civil War. What Oscar sees here is neither the movie nor Antietam itself, but his and Gaddis’s chief source of information on the battle, Bruce Catton’s 1951 book, Mr. Lincoln’s Army. Oscar’s passionate explication of The Blood in the Red White and Blue turns out to be Gaddis’s devastating parody of Catton’s blow-by-blow, newspaperman’s prose. (It’s strange to turn to Catton’s book after reading Gaddis: Mr. Lincoln’s Army reads exactly like an overexcited football commentary…)
So it is with the silent pond beyond the window, whose prospect haunts the book. Again and again Christina (who is most nearly the reader’s representative in the story) turns to it: while people fight in the drawing room, and animals dine off one another’s carcasses on TV, and fish chase fish around the fishtank, life on the pond is orderly and serene. Things there happen in their seasons. The passage of time in the book, as autumn deepens into winter, is marked by the noiseless flight of wild duck, geese, and swans over the water. Each time the pond is sighted, it provokes a burst of beautiful, descriptive prose:
And where they looked next morning the frozen pond was gone in an unblemished expanse of white under a leaden sky undisturbed by the flight of a single bird in the gelid stillness that had descended to seize every detail of reed and branch as though time itself were frozen out there threatening the clatter of teacups and silver and the siege of telephoning that had already begun with—well when, just tell me when I can talk to him, will you…
—beautiful, but anachronistic. To write like a contemporary of Thoreau (even a commaless contemporary of Thoreau) is something that can be managed only for a few clauses at a time, before the words are drowned out by the noisy desperation of the present moment. We’re separated from the tranquility of the pond by a panel of glass and roughly 150 years.
Gaddis builds around the reader a magnificently ornate and intricate house of words. Every room is furnished in a different style, and one quickly loses count of the competing dialects and idiolects, archaic and modern, literary, legal, vernacular, that are represented here. Christina snaps at her husband: “I mean you talk about language how everything’s language it seems that all language does is drive us apart” (which, of course, does exactly what it says). That Gaddis’s tall building is Babel, where the Lord did confound the language of all the earth, hardly needs to be spelled out. What makes the novel so enjoyable is how very homely and familiar Babel is made to feel. There’s a bed for us all in this oppressively realistic, beautifully designed Long Island madhouse.
February 17, 1994