I first encountered the work of William Gaddis in his book J.R., which I selected randomly from the two or three of his books available at my local library. I heard about Gaddis as an influence on one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace, who had also been compared to Pynchon and DeLillo, both of whom also were new names attached to works a few of which I later read. I kept forgetting about Gaddis until recently. J.R. is among the hardest books I’ve ever read. It’s one that you have to learn to read as you read it, and much of the text is cant and jargon with no immediate context. I was briefly inclined to suggest that it was a work of Impressionistic fiction, and maybe it does fit that description in some way, though Impressionistic fiction I’ve more recently learned tends to be work of a more personal nature. This distinction courtesy of the Holman and Harmon (formerly Thrall, Hibbard and Holman, I believe) A Handbook to Literature. After giving it some more thought, I’m inclined to label J.R. something closer to cubism. It’s a fragmented story for sure, done almost completely in unattributed dialogue (and it’s a long book, weighing in at 700 – 800 pages) with no transitions and precious few plot markers. As you learn to read it, you begin to see the larger story, and a vaguely unified whole emerges by the end of the book. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever read.
But this entry is about The Recognitions, another book by Gaddis that I’ve just begun. I had read reviews of this book after finishing the other, and it’s reported to be an even harder read, longer and at least as complex. I’m only 40 pages into about 1000, but I’m so far not finding this to be the case. The Recognitions reads sort of like something out of Steinbeck so far.
Because my memory’s bad and I think this is a book I’ll want to remember, I’m recording here some notes and impressions from the first few pages.
The blurb on the back cover describes Wyatt Gwyon as someone who “forges not from larceny but from love… exactingly faithful to the spirit and letter of the Flemish masters.” Further, “In an age of counterfeit emotion and taste, the real and the fake have become indistinguishable; yet Gwyon’s forgeries reflect a truth that others cannot touch.” So naturally I’m on the lookout for things that suggest falsehood or counterfeiting.
At the beginning of the book, young Wyatt’s mom dies overseas. She contracted appendicitis aboard a ship and was butchered by the ship surgeon, who it turned out was not a surgeon after all but a counterfeiter who had forged his papers. There’s falsehood number one. Within the first few dozen pages, there are several odd turns of phrase, descriptions of things in negative terms or in ways that suggest an uncertainty of appearance or validity, of which just a few follow:
- “Now he found himself rescued from oblivion by agents of that country not Christian enough to rest assured in teh faith that he would pay fully for his sins in the next world… bent on seeing that he pay in this one.” (5)
- “Since it is not true…” (5, just a couple of sentences later)
- “for to tell the truth, none of these excellent fellows knew for certain what a woman looked like” (9)
- mention on page 10 of a monk dissembling tears by rubbing quicklime in his eyes so that he might be remembered as “Epiclantos” or “weeping so much”
- Wyatt Gwyon’s dad manages to get his dead wife carried in a funeral carriage reserved for virgins
- The elder Gwyon, a minister, is open-minded about other religions and is chastized for it, though he seems one of the more humane and sympathetic of the early characters.
- By contrast, Aunt May, who plays a central role in Wyatt’s rearing, is a Pope-hating fundamentalist who preaches a doctrine of hellfire and suffering rained down from an apparently benevolent god.
It’s important to watch for duplicity of character in this book, I suspect, as the last two bullets (and the theme as noted by the cover blurb) suggest.
Something else of note is Gaddis’s use of a word new to me, “fainaiguing” as in “though some fainaiguing had been necessary at Italian customs, confirming it a fake to get it out of the country” (25). (Note yet more duplicity heaped on duplicity: a minister is having an original artwork certified fake so that he can get it illegally out of the country.) This must be the Italian word we bastardized to get “finagling.”
And finally (for this installment), Gaddis calls to mind an old story I had forgotten (which incidentally may not be irrelevant to the theme of counterfeiting/dissembling): “[Gwyon] was called back to the Seminary for a refresher course, and it was at that time that he developed a taste for schnapps, and started the course of mithridatism which was to serve him so well in his later years” (8). Again, we’ve got some duplicity here (along with a later mention of his forming a schnapps-sized hollow in a book in his study) — a difference between the behavior one might expect of a minister and what’s actually the case. But back to the story. I probably wouldn’t even have gotten the reference (glossing over it as a reference to mithraism) had I not recently been thinking of A.E. Housman’s poem “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff,” which was called to mind because I had begun rereading Paradise Lost. In “T,TiSS,” you find the line “Malt does more than Milton can/to justify God’s ways to man,” which is a reference to Milton’s suggestion that his goal in PL is “to justify the ways of God to man.” Housman also tells briefly in his poem the story of Mithridates, a king who, fearful that his henchmen would poison him, began taking small (and progressively larger) quantities of poison each day to build up a tolerance. (More duplicity here.) Of course this all coincidentally comes together very nicely. It’s also striking (to me) and a little weird that I had begun (and as quickly halted) a rereading of Milton’s Aereopagitica, in which he defends a free press and in which part of his argument is essentially that it’s how who’s reading something uses/interprets it that makes a book fit or unfit rather than the book itself. This meshes nicely with the idea of Gwyon as a minister who reads profane works but maintains a basic humanity that most would do well to emulate.