Lee Konstantinou put out the challenge in two posts (1, 2) at the Los Angeles Review of Books Tumblr site: through the summer of 2012, read 10 pages a day of the 1975 William Gaddis tome JR, taking a leisurely pace through a seemingly dense thicket of experimental prose. Then, as a virtual community — via Twitter using the hashtag #OccupyGaddis and by blog — assess, discuss and (hopefully!) enjoy the book, and see where we end up with a work known to be “difficult” (but one also full of satire and humour.)
I go into JR fresh, having never experienced Gaddis before, unecumbered by previous academic commentary (save for the two introductory pieces by Lee). No bias or baggage: just the book itself, and the ongoing reactions and interactions of readers as we delve into it over the coming weeks.
My approach here (by way of intermittent updates) will be to quote snippets of text from the work that pique my interest and record associations or thoughts sparked by the words or ideas in those passages.
Let’s begin the begin.
Order, chaos, bureaucracy and money: these are the ideas that seem to emerge from the stream-of-consciousness exchanges that mark the opening pages of JR. Lawyers, teachers, foundations, musicians, learning and tests are discussed. As well as machines and family entanglements.
Early on, we are given examples of the ridiculous rhetoric of bureaucratic discourse, which defies understanding and may just be gibberish. A lawyer (page 16) notes the legal ramifications of inheritance matters related to one Edward (young, but age undetermined):
—To protect his interests as well as your own re, recalling Egnaczyk versus Rowland where the infant sought to recover his car and disaffirm the repair contract the infant lost out in this case ladies, the defense of infancy in this case ladies, in this case the court refused to permit it, using infancy as a sword instead of shield...there!
There! Whatever that amounts to. The ladies (sisters) are barely listening, instead choosing to respond here or there (sort of), but generally talking amongst themselves. The lawyer’s glasses are broken at one point ("Predictable, deliberate, you might even say prescheduled breakage...") as are the attention spans of the sisters—repeatedly.
In a later scene, in a school setting, we have a similar bit of jargon in relation to a testing machine for students:
Now the need to justify the test results, of course, in order to justify the test results in terms of the ongoing situation, in other words, this equipment item is justified when we testor tailing, tailor testing to the norm, in terms of the ongoing situation that is to say, is by the testing itself, somebody is going to get left out in the cold, right?
Cold: systems and structure, and then discussions about dollars and cents follow (and a foundation, a cultural centre and a closed-circuit TV in school classrooms). The business of American life. Much of this may be summed up in this statement by the teacher Mister Gibbs:
Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that?
Shortly after reading this, I saw a retweet (by writer David Brin) of words from Michio Kaku in 2010 on testing, science and imagination, which resonates with the above:
We teach science as a list of facts and figures to memorize and we crush, literally crush, any curiosity and spirit of innovation and imagination from young children.
Stylistically, JR is ambitious, if confusing at times, in its continual rush and merging of dialogue and description. At the same time, there are exhilarating passages and absurdist dialogue contained within the flow, and numerous ideas introduced. We will see where they lead us as we continue.
In the June 21, 2012 issue of The New York Review of Books, Alan Ryan says this about the book Reality Hunger by David Shields:
Its theme is the obsolescence of the kind of coherent narrative to which the traditional novel is committed in a world where reality thrusts itself upon us in a fragmentary and chaotic fashion.
JR fits into this postmodern landscape; it is anything but traditional. The entire narrative of the book is propelled forward by frenzied and fractured dialogue—“spreading to overwhelm the eye”—in which individuals seem virtually unable to complete a coherent thought, their sentences ruthlessly cut off by the words of another, or by external action. Articulation of character and plot isn’t necessarily a given, making a reader work to extract essential developments and ideas. This can be a bewildering experience. Brian McGovney wrote two apt tweets about this during an interesting discussion on the topic via Twitter:
I’ll admit it; yesterday’s #OccupyGaddis reading was work. Were I reading it for enjoyment, it might have failed my standard 50-page test. I’m still in it for the sake of learning and finding the greater enjoyment of understanding a complex work.
I think that complexity in prose is worthwhile if it is in constant service to aesthetic style and intellectual content. If it is not, then its power and interest — as an exercise in originality and experimentalism? — is lost on me.
JR is a mixed story in this regard, inasmuch as difficult sections are often followed by others that flow in a much more natural manner, without being conventional or dull. And within the rush of dialogue (difficult or otherwise), there remain wonderfully evocative descriptions, incisive wordplay, and considerable absurdist humour. And ideas: about the automation of art, the dimensions of apprenticeship and education and, of course, the looming power of money and the convoluted schemes that inevitably surround it.
In this portion of the book, we are at the local school and see composer Edward Bast rehearsing Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold. He meets the title character, JR (in a “cheerless patterned sweater of black diamonds”), who plays the role of Alberich the dwarf, a role he took, as one other member of the cast says, “to get out of gym.” The ensuing scene shows a frustrated Bast and an iconoclastic JR, who ends the rehearsal by taking off with the scene’s central element, a bag of Rhinegold “cash.” (—“It’s not that it’s the money, it’s the money...”)
Subsequent to this, we have an extended, surrealist scene in which Bast’s in-school television piece on Mozart is screened, an off-the-script, cynical manifesto featuring a “mysterious messenger of death,” a “cheap coffin in the rain,” and the image of artistry and genius used and abused (“…he wrote three of his greatest symphonies in barely two months while he was running around begging for loans…”).
Art has to be made into a strange, televised spectacle (“…if we can’t rise to [Mozart’s] level…we can drag him down to ours…”) to be palatable, and apprenticed to a Foundation of uncomprehending corporate and political culture — the dumb and the dumbfounded.
After this screening is derailed, and prompted by the dedication in Greek “hewn over the entrance” of the school, we get a quick reference to the cosmogonic cycle of Empedocles. This is the cycle of Love (unity) and Strife (division), “the balance between destruction and realization,” to use Edward Bast’s words about the liminal state of (artistic) ideation.
Later, we are in the Bast household and a discussion between Julia, Anne and their niece Stella Angel ensues, focused on James and Thomas Bast. Some cryptic business matters (like the dubious sale, by James, of “waterfront lots” some years) are referenced, and some interesting words are exchanged about the duty to artistic talent and what real apprenticeship means.
We end this section with Edward Bast in his studio with Stella Angel in a scene played out to orchestral music — Stella drops the needle on a record player when she walks in — leading to a dramatic, furtive confession from Edward about the “spirit deeply dawning” in her eyes on a night long ago, haunting him, when he fell for her. It is in the darkness of the studio, in composing music, “unfinished vision[s]” and unrealized fantasies, where we get a glimpse into the secretive and awkward sources of artistic inspiration.
Inheritance is fundamental to JR; it opens the book and is a chord continually struck moving forward. What values are passed from one generation to the next? How do they inform and create the society we are born into? How do they infect the (ideological) air we breath?
Lessons on these matters are presented in a long scene in which the students in Mrs. Joubert’s class (JR included) are taken on a field trip to Wall Street, and then to Typhon International (a massive, politically-connected corporation run by Mrs. Joubert’s father), where they are to buy stock in Diamond Cable and learn something about owning a share in America.
Their teachers are board members and politicians, strutting and loud and brash, who deliver a rhetorical fog of business-speak to the kids, utilizing fairy tale notions of American business and democracy. (Occasionally, inadvertently, a colourful truth slips through the verbal murk, followed by a fumbled apology or an anemic rationalization. And out of earshot of the students we see the nefarious background: subverted democracy and business as evasion, collusion, and corruption; of taming and hunting prey.)
All of this is a lesson in propaganda; in the subtle transmission of complicity; in education as indoctrination. The precocious JR attempts to break through the fog to provide some clarity. He is groping for sense and order in the chaos of words poured forth from the adults around him; always questioning; always aware of how he may “use” information, and not just absorb it. What are the values that inform his choices, his questioning, his future? There are hints, but we must wait for his character to develop, for the larger picture of his place in the world to emerge.
And we also have the “truth” of Mr. Gibbs: cynical and unabashed, poking and prodding and sharp, if not off-putting. He enters these scenes to let Mrs. Joubert and later Edward Bast know where things really stand. They are made dizzy in his presence. To Mrs. Joubert:
the thought of you herding [the students] out across these filthy streets and the train that train, staring through dirty panes at the waste out there train creaking along the sun gone down leaves blowing and the wind, dead leaves blowing you and these kids along from behind…
One is carried along in the filth, it seems, partaking of it whether one likes it or not. Or unaware that it is filth.
To Edward Bast:
[Mrs. Joubert] told me you’re talented sensitive purpose Bast sense of purpose need help and encouragement lock yourself in writing nothing music, take defeat from any brazen throat get to be like Bizet only not Bizet…
And Gibbs offers a key to Bast for an apartment, a place where he can lock himself in, presumably away from the filth of the world; from the forces that drag one down into the muck. This is a seemingly small reaction against the inevitability of inheritance: the possibility of originality and newness.
Art again provides an avenue of potential transcendence, but what chance does it have in a world dominated by the forces of Commerce and Politics — the twinned edifices of looming and inescapable power?
Jack Gibbs is sometimes the mouthpiece for William Gaddis, it seems. Throughout J R, Gibbs spews life lessons — usually through a haze of half-drunk semi-coherence — cynically and harshly, not to say obnoxiously, but with entertaining bravado and abject honesty. On page 289, he says this to Edward Bast:
…most God damned writing’s written for readers perfectly happy with who they are rather be at the movies, come in empty-headed go out the same God damned way … Ask them to bring one God damned bit of effort want everything done for them they get up and go to the movies…
This is unabashed elitism: writing demands effort and intelligence from a reader or it isn’t worth much. To what degree is this true? Sonia Johnson perceptively explores the obligations a writer owes to a reader (and vice-versa) in her recent LARB post, along with providing some much-needed clarity when it comes to J R’s storytelling technique. “Gaddis frequently talks about his writing as though it was something autonomous with a life of its own and its own logic,” she writes. In so doing, he creates a kind of literature that “transcend[s] the potential narcissism of writer and reader.”
This is writing as object and artifact, dialogue and action in the novel mirroring the flux of reality — its tumbling messiness, its entropy — with the hand of overarching order (the author, the context) largely removed. The resulting work is notable for its unique voice and rhythms, but also for its occasional lack of clarity and aesthetic form. In the end, how does a reader take this in? How is it perceived?
An interesting perspective on this can be provided by Patrick Somerville’s recent piece in Slate, in which he attempts to come to grips with Janet Maslin’s fairly negative review of his latest novel, The Bright River. Maslin misunderstood some action early on in the novel, and Somerville attempts to discern the degree to which this misunderstanding affected her view of the work as a whole. After some amusing reflections on the matter, he decides that the misunderstanding is likely irrelevant; that the book itself is not for everybody.
The goddamned thing rambles, I know! It’s big and unruly and everywhere! But that’s why I love it! It had to be that way! But some people won’t love it! And hopefully some will!
His summary statement about the novel says much that is relevant to J R:
In the end nothing matters but the work. You can’t control how it’s taken, and the act of telling a story always involves a gap. Sometimes confusion is the risk of ambiguity — I say that to students all the time. It’s true at the fireside and it’s true in the parlor, and it’s true in made-up towns and New York. Two humans face one another, words come out of one, words go into the other mind through the ears and eyes of the listener. It’s a story. It’s simple. The gap is the thing. Make sure you build the bridge.
Was Gaddis interested in building that bridge? Or is the gap itself truly the thing: the book suspended between reader and writer; a (thing-in-itself) object that attempts to mirror life in all of its messy imperfection? What, ultimately, is the artistic value of such an approach?
(An experiment: a J R blog post, Gaddis-style.)
The squeal of the chair as John shifted his weight, the gleam of sun on the faded teak of the table with two black-filled white cups, a half-crumpled napkin and the din of voices ineffectively jabbing at coherence.
—So, listen, Bill, have you noticed the reversal thing in the book, in J R, where like, as soon as…
—What? What reversal, are you…
—Listen listen, I mean, in the book, you will again and again hear somebody say yes and then no, like right away, yes after no and no after yes, and…hands move down, grasping, he shifts, pulls the chair forward—that reversal, you know. So, like in that long scene where the kids learn about stocks, then buying America, the projector was backwards at first, it was wrongfacing and when people talk, like Whiteback, like he will say yes and then no and then yes…
—Yes, I think that, I have noticed that but what do you think it means, that something, uh...
—Well I don’t know, I mean I think it’s just some thing about backwards society, like the whole damn world is upside down and we don’t notice it, like it’s right in front of us, nobody knows they are all so conflicted, just stumbling always, you know, like it’s an indication of things...Shifting his view, he glanced at a woman’s legs, bare well above the knee, as she stood before the beeps of cash exchanged and then slid his gaze back to the table and then up.—Things are all mixed up. You know, and dirty, have you seen that every...
—Yes, constant messes, you know, uh, or did you mean dirty as in sex seen, as seen, uh, as seen to be...
—I think it’s both, like you don’t see romance, only messy sex scenes and bad relation…she brushed by them now and his eyes lowered, following an arc of sun as it curved down the length of her legs towards an uplifted heal.—Romance is pretty bad, degraded, and often seen as dirty, like those adult movie theaters the kids walked by, and the way women are treated, as if they, and, you know, there is...
—Everything is messy, like that 96th Street place, I can’t even comprehend the products strewn around, uh, and Gibbs talks about dirt in the streets, shoes coming apart, and what about Bast’s place, and like J R always dropping stuff, papers and brochures and things falling out everywhere, and is that just a commentary on life, like an attempt to see life for what it is, for what it really is for all of us, messy, unromantic, chaotic...
—Chaotic, yes. That word comes up early, like it sets the stage, and entropy is there, you know, it’s always there, things spilling out, uncontained, uncontainable. I mean, what George Carlin said, he said all systems in nature are breaking down, that is entropy. And he liked that, wanted to contribute to it in his own way, he said, and cynically that is what Gaddis is after, isn’t it? I mean...
—Yes, is the book like a take on entropy, uh, a way to sort of express it as a text, as a document that is sort of a novel but really not structured like a novel but like life, or like life without being cleaned up at all, uh…cup to lip and then down, and he glanced to his left at the hulking black of a dog through the window whose head had lifted, one wide eye seeking contact—like that 96th Street apartment, you know, with stuff all over, constantly unmanageable, like human relationships and every other kind of thing that...
—Yes, but no, then there’s order in J R, I mean the character now, he’s messy, there are messes, he doesn’t know quite what he’s doing and he stumbles through sort of, but he creates a kind of logic and order in the chaos, through the chaos, with stocks and manipulation. He has a focus, you know, he focuses on creating order, doesn’t he, I mean, we see he’s successful at that, that...
—So capital is order? What kind of order? Uh, like all those hunting images from Crawley, that’s about some idea of, uh, creating order, but how is that done? It is killing jobs and lives, stealing votes and contorting stories for the press, uh, fighting, always fighting, it’s all predatory, become a predator that...
—I don’t know, but then J R, he pushes through that, he has a mind, he has something, he goes...
—But to what does he put his mind, I mean what options does the society give to us, only predation, it’s like how women are treated, uh, that effort and intelligence can only go to this hunting and prey idea, of conquering, you know, of counting shares and finding a power bloc where you can dominate over another bloc you know…This battle over shares, it’s always...
—That’s why, those, you know, those ridiculous hunting images and that conquering America image, there was a mention of Indians, and, early on in that scene when the kids learned about stocks, Indians and...
—Yes, so, like entropy, like chaos, but then like a jungle, you know, where, uh, where only the strong, the smart too, rise up, and what do they do to the weak? You know, they hunt, they just hunt and prey on them, and art is left behind, you know, music as little projects for no money, the struggle, the struggle that constantly comes up when Gibbs talks about artists or, uh, with Bast. Just look at Bast. Look, he’s...
—Yes, that’s the other thing, there is no place for art or education, or the education of arts, or culture, you know all the school stuff is about money and the kids are nothing, they are practically nothing, no wonder J R is on his own in that way too, he finds his own way, he sees how the world, you know, how it works and that is the only way he can see it, that’s the only way we...
—Yes, people, he can’t really see people as valuable, in a way, uh, it’s like he hasn’t learned that, he doesn’t see…
—So, like J R is the center, you know, of a vortex, and he somehow has an eye for it, the eye of the storm calm and clear while all kinds of stuff blows around him and he picks out the right bits, and knows what to pick out, kind of god-like or something, he...A tray suddenly looming with tiny cups topped with white, someone’s face obscured by light.—What, uh, no, sample of what, no don’t want that, I don’t, do you...
—Uh, no thanks, but, but J R, is he a genius or is he just, is all of that a sort of precocious creativity, uh, just innocence, you know, a game, is he just playing...
—Oh, look, sorry, the time, look at the time, I really have to go, can you look after the… I have to…Creak of a chair, voices suddenly loud, the slow grating squeal of a door trying to close, the sudden rush of wind and the sound of swirling leaves. The sun glared at the window, above a black dog sleeping. Minutes followed by seconds threatened to overrun the hour, pushing precipitously towards the clock summit, striving, then stumbling badly, falling, failing.
And so it goes. 700 pages later, just over 2 months, at 10 pages a day, and the beast that is William Gaddis’s J R is complete: an unsettling, strange and often maddening journey; variously enlightening, funny, chaotic, bedeviling. The book is all these things; and perhaps too much.
I vacillated between a dividing line of enjoyment and frustration throughout, thoroughly admiring the audacity of the novel’s technique, but often bristling at its harshness and lack of eloquence; enjoying the abjectly cynical humour, while sometimes having disdain for the unbearable caricatures mouthing inchoate or hysterical ideas; being driven forward by the intertwined drama of art and commerce and the very human insights along the way, while alienated by a mess of legal, financial and political transactions that are exceedingly dull and unworthy of detailed explication; finding power in the emotions of characters torn from loved ones, alienated from the world, grasping for meaning, but unable to take those same characters too seriously, as the world they are in often shades into cartoonish absurdity.
The narrative of the book is propelled forward by letting the “system,” the chaotic flux of the world, undergird all character and action, making people and place subservient to ceaseless process. Coherence is (often) torn to shreds in favour of a feverishly exposed entropy, the delirium of individuals in various states of (slipping) sanity, and thoughts and words cut down mid-sentence — ruthlessly, repeatedly — so that no idea is allowed to cohere for the speaker; no circle is closed.
In Slavoj Žižek’s thousand page tome Less Than Nothing, he goes to some length discussing the ‘dialectical gymnastics’ on One and Being in Plato’s Parmenides. He makes this summary statement:
The exact status of this exercise is not clear; what is clear, however, is that there is no positive result, as if the exercise were its own point. The only result is that there is no consistent totality; no “big Other.”
Such is the world of J R. There is no overarching support; all is flux. The rush of unattributed dialogue — the ceaseless engine of the book — is a swirling and dizzying vortex of life, good and bad, that has an unsettling quality well after you’ve finished the book; the specter of that constantly shifting landscape remains; its uniqueness and power is undeniable. And yet there are too many obstructions along the way; too much of an indulgence in a style that is experimentally interesting, and often produces wonderfully unique verbal outbursts and exchanges, but obstructs clarity for the sake of fidelity to chaos and fragmentation. As was aptly noted by Michael Moats in a blog post mid-way through the book: “It is one thing to read a book about entropy. It is another thing entirely to read a book that is entropy.”
Thematically, there is much of interest that is touched upon in J R: demonstrations of the naive coldness, and abject ruthlessness, of predatory capitalism; insights into how noble personal and artistic aspirations are rationalized into the unattainable, or wasted by inescapable external and internal intrusions; compelling reflections on the inheritance of values, from parents and teachers to children, who have to take in what their “betters” tell them is the way of the world, no matter how dark and depraved it often is. Characters embody these ideas — their stumbling or drunk or naive journeys are largely the “story” of the book. The world they are in is often an unpleasant place; but here and there a good thing happens; there is a moment of hope or joy; a scintilla of light emerges from somewhere in the muck.
And then there was the social reading experiment called #OccupyGaddis — Twitter, Good Reads, Blogs and the LA Review of Books Tumblr site became the matrix for an engaging discussion on the book and its ramifications. I did not read all blog entries about J R along the way, but I think I read most of them, and I cannot recall a dull or an uninteresting one; the voices and styles varied, befitting a range of approaches, but they all carried an intelligence and honesty about the experience that was illuminating and enjoyable. It was like reading a book with footnotes every few pages, each one written by a different individual; intermittent reflections on scenes, characters, themes — along with difficulties and wonders — sparked by passages and moments in the mad and frantic world of J R. For that alone, it was a journey worth taking and a book worth reading.