Big Other pretty much inspired this post with Greg Gerke's report from halfway through William Gaddis' "The Recognitions." But it might also have been inevitable, considering "J R" is long enough that it warrants a halfway-through report in its own right. It's good, first thing. And then, also, it's hard to contain everything in just one epic post, so this is the first of however many it proves to warrant.
"J R" is my tome of the year, also. I most certainly may read other tomes in 2010 (I've acquired Adam Levin's "The Intstructions," which has a rather tome-ish quality accompanying its very many pages). But "J R" is the only one I've consciously set out to complete before year's end.
Now, works like "J R" are long and abstruse, which is true for a variety of reasons, though primarily this is because of characteristic disjointedness engendered by the great, near infinite many stylistic choices available to an inventive author. In that regard, I believe few people start out with a natural affinity for writers of an experimental bent. You kind of have to slog through them a little, find your rhythm, your own method for appreciating the experience of a more challenging literary endeavor, persevere a little. You acquire the taste. It's more a posteriori than a priori -- to finally reference Immanuel Kant on this here blog.
The Dalkey Archive Press has a great assortment of these type authors, lesser knowns than your Nabokovs, Pynchons, Ballards, Barthelmes, Barths, DeLillos, Calvinos, DFWallaces, and, yes, Gaddis (or is it Gaddi?). Two in specific I've enjoyed or am enjoying are David Markson and Curtis White. I'm also excited for Robert Coover's (and published by Dalkey Archive Press) "A Night at the Movies," since I had trouble getting going with "The Public Burning." Joseph McElroy is another writer whose work has been published with Dalkey whom I look forward to reading. Steven Millhauser is another. John Hawkes very possibly another still.
And my big overarching point is, while I see how people could find these authors and their stories disjointing and too abstract, they're wonderfully unusual is the real thing. Because they're unusual you might not know how to react at first, but that's why exposure is key, continued exposure and learning how to love that which does not come naturally (or necessarily easily). "Moby-Dick" is indisputably a classic novel, but it didn't get that way over night. It wasn't even the "Gravity's Rainbow" of its day, being that it was so often dismissed by its contemporaneous critics. From my Bantham Classics copy of Moby-Dick" was a notable scathing criticism. In the Atheneum, London, October 25, 1851 (just shy of 160 years ago, today): "Ravings and scraps of useful knowledge flung together salad-wise make a dish in which there may be much surprise, but in which there is little savour." Could this not be said of today's more unusual fictions? Read "Blood Meridian" by Cormac McCarthy, and you'll see what I mean, I think.
As to that notion's specific relevance to "J R," William Gaddis' National Book Award winning novel, here's a good quote to acquaint you with its flavor:
Gibbs: I worry about you sometimes, doesn't it ever occur to you to give up one or the other? the bank or the school? When you stop and . . .
Whiteback: Yes well of course the ahm, when I know which one of them is going to survive . . .
In a paltry few words: money and the miscarriage of its use factors into the story heavily.
Having thus made it half way, here are a couple observational items I've amassed so far:
1) As with "A Frolic of His Own," "J R"'s characters are constantly locked in a will-to-power struggle with one another in which the stronger personality seems (to lesser or greater extent) plainly evident, whether the dynamic is a hen-pecked husband and his wife, two colleagues of either sex, child(ren) and adult, and in any other permutative combination to be found therein. Which, to me, this gives the story a sense of the defining ethos of a fiscally driven world, a world driven by these power relations. People don't love; they shout to be heard, so that maybe they're remembered when it's time for the money to be made. If they cannot shout to be heard, then they probably didn't have anything valuable to say in the first place.
2) I like that I don't always understand / notice the characters' shifts, knowing who exactly is speaking. Gaddis became famous for writing novels of near-to-total dialogue, with almost no narration. Sometimes this is annoying, yes, as when I think I'm reading the thoughts of one character and in reality they are the thoughts of another, and so both characters get somewhat blurred. But mostly it's easy enough to delineate speakers. And the frenetic pacing that ensues is spectacular. The novel really gets going with some momentum, after the initial difficulty. It's like a freight train's slow methodical inertia back to life and, eventually, great speed. Like a train would be, it's then sometimes difficult to stop this momentum as the story takes you in.