Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Through the Lens of William Gaddis' "J R" & More

I think "J R" came into my life at just the right time. I consider this true from a variety of standpoints, namely 1) broadly, within the context of the nation's political and economic climate 2) as an educator who greatly fears the perils of complete acquiescence to psychometricians and high-stakes testing 3) as a busy, busy, busy person burning the candle at all ends because I must and because I desire the challenge, I know what it feels like now to be thrust into a seemingly unending stream of noise and human interaction, constantly talking to someone about something and then switching on a moment's notice to talk to someone else about something completely different 4) as a fan of literature and in admiration of the tremendous feat of literary derring-do represented by "J R". 5) More specifically as a fan of the 1950s-60s suburban angst of writers like Cheever and Yates, and now Gaddis, (even in certain respects Ken Kesey) and the demonstrative power they possess to elucidate the plight of those characters inhabiting this malaise-laden scene, which has if anything only further stultified in the years since.

It is a difficult novel, but I'm not convinced that the vitriol at its core (if it can be said vitriol or anger is what motivated Gaddis) causes it to lose all sense of whatever its guiding idea was, which is one among many criticisms Jonathan Franzen put to it quite a few years back.

Franzen emphasizes his difficulty in trying to come to terms with the feeling that he should be reading authors of modern and postmodern persuasions, whose work expresses concerns more overtly political and decrying of the establishment than the character-driven classic novels of authors like Dostoevsky and Dickens, or more contemporaneously Saul Bellow and Ann Beattie. For a variety of reasons I couldn't agree less with said assertion (especially since Dostoevsky and Dickens were profoundly political for their day). Still I, too, wrestle with the dichotomy he describes, of characterization being ancillary to more conceptual narratives. Franzen also uses the fact that he quite enjoyed "The Recognitions" -- Gaddis' first novel and arguably his most difficult (certainly his lengthiest: a whopping 950 plus pages) -- to defend his stance, which is a tenable position to argue from, admitting an affinity for an author but then describing the impasse other aspects of his / her oeuvre have brought to bear. Although I find his opinion, that Gaddis didn't craft characters per se, to be remarkably unfair, if not entirely unfounded. Gaddis wasn't like Pynchon, Coover, Barthelme and so forth. Characterization was a very important part of Gaddis' fiction. I hope what follows will demonstrate that somewhat.

Here's a quote by Franzen, taken only slightly out of context: "Battling through 'J R,' I'd wanted to grab Gaddis by the lapels and shout, 'Hello! I'm the reader you want! I love smart fiction, and I'm for a good Systems novel. If you can't even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?'"

As I say, though, I liked "J R" in part because I found it so eminently relatable to my own life at this point. Over the course of a harried slough of cross conversations in classroom environments, both as instructor and student, or as an employee of a retailer like Costco Wholesale (which have I mentioned I'm currently employed by Costco Wholesale Corporation? Good company, on the whole, I really must admit). Fact has been, people seem always to be talking at me and I at them. Hopefully much hearing occurs between us, but no doubt in fragments. What's more, occasionally real humanity breaks through the din, and something such as the following utterance by Amy Joubert from "J R" might be expressed:

. . . someone came to dinner he was a man who made fine china and, Mama'd been cremated and he said if, he said right at the dinner table he told Daddy if they'd give him her ashes he'd, he'd make a fine chop plate human ashes make the finest china he said but, but why a chop plate why he said a chop plate . . .

"Why a chop plate why he he'd never met her but why he couldn't think of, couldn't even think of her as something less . . .
pg 505
Yes, there's the literal commodification of a deceased loved one there, a postmodern trope if ever I've seen it, an idea akin to Fausto Maijstral's ossification to "non-humanity" in "V.", but more to the point there is a woman who can't stand the thought of it, of her mother made into some cheap ware. There is humanity. And the story is rife with humanity. Had Frazen stuck with it, he would have discovered a particularly touching scene unfolds when Edward Bast, the long-suffering envoy of J R Corp. and its eponymous preteen founder, is laid up in a hospital next to Mister Duncan, one of the countless business reps who come in and out of the story, a man who was hospitalized after being beaten up and left to his fate by a prostitute. Mister Duncan espouses an angry philosophy much the same, but probably coarser, as that which Franzen accuses Gaddis' of harboring, i.e., Duncan sez, "It's taken me fourteen years to get out of the wallpaper business people think winning's what it's all about just ask those son of a bitches who ran that war, ran the whole country into the ground while they were at it . . ." and, later, ". . . give them a string of high p e ratios and a rising market it's all free enterprise all they howl about's government restraints interference double taxation, all free enterprise till they wreck the whole thing they're the first ones up there with a tin cup whining for the government to bail them out with a loan guarantee so they can do it all over again . . ." (This latter quotation striking me as more relevant today than when it was written, fool me twice and whatnot.)

But beneath the crotchety, lecherous veneer there's a guy in Duncan who likes people. Duncan's mad as hell and he's not gonna take it anymore, sure, but also Bast reminds him there's still a lot of humanity behind that Darth Vader cast that encircles world economic affairs. In a fit of creativity and the stifling after effects of employ by J R Corp. (he has been terminated by mandate of the board), Edward Bast insists he must complete some sort of work before he dies. He's being a bit melodramatic, and no one, nurse or doctor or anyone, attempts to humor him regarding this want, and he's left to compose (seeing as that's his creative discipline and labor of love, music composer) with a crayon and scrap sheets of paper. Duncan is dismayed by this treatment, saying, "Well then give him his fifty pencils, how do you know who's to die Waddles [a nurse overseeing their care] you give him this drawing paper and one purple crayon all he can write is something for one instrument, give him his fifty sharp pencils he can probably write us a whole concert and bring me some more newspapers. . .!" Then, slowly and finally Duncan moves into candor and opens up to Bast, saying:

. . . I lost a daughter, did I tell you that Bast? . . . she was taking piano lessons when they took out her appendix son of a bitches never let you down do they it wasn't her appendix at all. ... she was learning a song called for Alise's something like that I never did hear it like it was supposed to be, she'd missed notes leave little parts out and start again I always thought maybe someday I'd hear it right hear what I was supposed to . . . though that's all I, all I want, I can still, hear it? hear it . . . ?
Bast devotes himself to finding out which song it was Duncan wanted to remember, but Duncan passes, presumably from his injuries, before Bast can tell him who wrote it, Beethoven, most likely. But that's beside the point -- the point is humanity in slivers. Slivers of giving a shit amidst the all for one and one for one defining everything else, just as J R can only see things as commercially viable or not, much to Mrs. Joubert's chagrin in one memorable scene on page 473 of my edition. (i.e. J R: "like did you ever think Mrs. Joubert everything you see someplace there's this millionaire for it?" To which Mrs. Joubert takes J R outside and asks, "Yes look up at the sky look at it! Is there a millionaire for that?") Bast shares a similar scene with J R, as their relationship deteriorates to the point of no return. On page 655 Bast unsuccessfully exhorts J R as follows:

listen all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it's a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can't you understand what I'm trying to show you there's such a thing as as, as intangible assets?

There's so much unreason to the pursuit of wealth, and it takes a special kind of oblivious or apathetic naivety to care only for it, so seems a true message of "J R."


  1. As busy as you are, how did you find the time to write such a fine, lengthy review? Heads up: I'll be writing a smallish bit on a reading experience I had in Chicago at a coffee shop. It contains a question, which I hope either you or Nicole answer, you two living in Chicago and all. Cheers, K

  2. Hey thanks, Kevin! Yeah, strange though it may seem, somehow, I always have energy enough to talk about books and writing and all that.

    And I look forward to reading of your experience, question and all. Be hearin' from me, no doubt.