On William Gaddis
From The Yale Review
William Gaddis was well-known for being little known. He notoriously refused to give interviews or make public appearances. He declined to share the anecdotes of personal hardship now routinely expected of novelists; few details of his life became public. Gaddis wouldn’t even allow a photograph of himself on his book jackets. In an age of confessional literature and over-exposed celebrity, his stubborn renunciation of the public sphere endowed him in some quarters with an air of oracular authority.
The legend of his neglect and the mystery of his withdrawal have nourished the fantasies of his followers, and at the same time energized the vehemence of his critics. While acolytes attribute to him magical powers of prophecy and a God-like intellect, detractors see his retreat from publicity as an exercise in snobbery, an arrogance supposedly confirmed by his long, complex novels. His reputation for "difficulty" is the one thing most people know about him. Writing in the New Yorker in 2002, the novelist Jonathan Franzen labeled Gaddis simply "Mr. Difficult,” as if with that pithy title, he could dismiss the man and his work forever.
    The occasion for this burst of scorn was the posthumous publication of a new Gaddis book, Agape agape, a work that is less of a novel than a final statement, an intensely personal coda to his great fiction. Franzen’s long vituperative essay might seem like heavy artillery to bring out against this slender volume, which did not burden the shelves of Barnes and Noble for long, but Gaddis has always inspired an odd degree of animosity. The reviews of his first novel, The Recognitions, were exceptionally vicious, and, almost fifty years later,  Franzen echoes their complaints. What’s striking about Franzen’s essay is that he considers himself an "ex-follower" of Gaddis. Gaddis was in fact his "literary hero" once. He acknowledges that the title of his immensely successful 2001 novel, The Corrections, was partly a homage to The Recognitions. And yet, with the vitriol of a parricide, he describes Gaddis as "an author who has nothing interesting, wise or entertaining to say… the kind of boor who propagandizes at friendly social gatherings… constipated to the point of being unreadable, sometimes even unintelligible."
    Like many significant American writers, Gaddis is a splendidly solitary figure, an inconvenience for those who insist on dividing writers into simple categories. Despite his reputation as an intellectual heavy-weight, Gaddis was much more interested in exploring the possibilities of the novel form than in abstract philosophical questions. While ideas abound in his work, they never stand alone, apart from the characters. The influence of his absurdist dramas can be seen not only in Franzen’s work but in that of many younger writers. Yet Gaddis never found a general readership proportionate to his influence on other writers. It is hard to be optimistic about the survival of his work in a culture so deaf to the ironies that engaged him. Yet when the most successful novelist of the moment feels the need to attack him so stridently, it might be a sign of hope: something about Gaddis continues to matter.
    Towards the end of his life, Gaddis made an effort to shed his reclusiveness. He gave interviews, spoke in public, published small essays, and prepared this final book, a monologue from his deathbed. As a novel, Agape Agape is decidedly weak, a wooden shack compared to the elaborate mansions of the past. Yet it has some interest, since it is the closest thing Gaddis has given us to an autobiography. Although the narrator is never identified, he can be no one but Gaddis himself, broken by illness, on a hospital bed, trying to make sense of the messy pile of notes and books which surround him. This glimpse into the chaotic scene of composition, the most private space of this most reclusive writer, seems more intimate than any gossip-filled memoir would have been. For all its flaws, Agape Agape has a vulnerability only barely discernible in the earlier novels. If it diminishes the magic of Gaddis’ authority, it also augments our sense of his humanity.
    Franzen suggests that Gaddis’ disinclination to promote himself was a retreat "into coldness and abstraction." Basing his amateur psychoanalysis on a few meager facts, Franzen diagnoses a case of parental abandonment. Gaddis, he concludes with condescension, was an angry child who never grew up. Franzen admits that he loved The Recognitions when he himself was an angry young man, but now that he’s grown up, he can only look with pity on Gaddis’ inability to get over his rage. Gaddis set himself up for disappointment, Franzen argues, by "nurturing the hope that (his) marginal novel will be celebrated by the mainstream." Then after the failure of The Recognitions, "something went haywire" and Gaddis grew "so angry that he stopped making sense."
    The twenty years between the publication of The Recognitions and JR were obviously a difficult time for Gaddis. Having received little acclaim as a writer, he had to rely on corporate jobs in order to support his family. It’s doubtful, however, whether anything could be angrier or more despairing than The Recognitions, which sets a pretty high bar for bleakness. His change in style probably does not reflect a personal trauma as much as a refinement of his technique. Brilliant, exuberant, excessive, The Recognitions offers something for everyone: absurdist farce, poetic lyricism, bitter satire, theological speculation, psychological analysis, dark prophecy. The rotund contortions of Henry James have obviously left a deep impression on the nuanced prose. But Gaddis did not want to write his first novel over and over. Instead he set himself a new challenge, following the Jamesian dictum cited in The Recognitions: "to work successfully beneath a few grave, rigid laws."
     In JR the long sinewy sentences are gone – in fact, all the prose is gone. The law of the book is simple: there is virtually no narrator, no one to indicate "Max said" or "he picked up the gun." The later books are almost all conversation. No poetic descriptions, no interior monologues. Readers are left on their own to figure out the motivations of the characters. These books may be the ultimate fulfillment of Flaubert’s famous insistence on the absence of the author. What is amazing is how so much of life manages to squeeze through this narrow filter. Those young writers who imitate Gaddis, who are impressed by the dazzle and scope of his intellect, often fail to grasp the lesson of his restraint. They emphasize their symbols in a heavy-handed way, pad their narratives with awkward exposition, put forth rambling views on contemporary events and explain their characters to such a degree that all possibility for surprise has vanished. Everything is consumed by the author’s need to speak; nothing is left to the reader’s imagination.
    Gaddis had a genius for understatement, but the purity of his style can sometimes throttle the life of his novels. What saves them from claustrophobia is the vividness of the dialogue. Gaddis had a great ear for American idiom. It may be that the rhythms of ordinary speech have never been so uncannily transcribed. The dialogue is both realistically incoherent, filled with mumbling and evasion, and yet somehow musical. The tragic joke of his theater is that no one really listens to one another; the maelstrom of lonely voices turns into a symphony of solitariness.
    Franzen sneers at Gaddis’ fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, the last published in his lifetime, but it is Gaddis’ funniest, most accessible book. The Recognitions may attain greater poetic heights, but A Frolic of His Own has a narrative drive and formal symmetry unmatched by the earlier book. Its hero, Oscar Crease, launches a battery of lawsuits: ostensibly for the money to keep hold of his old family house, but actually as a way to solve what The Recognitions called "the one dilemma, proving one’s existence." In general, the later novels are humbler, more concerned with the mundanities of daily life. While The Recognitions unfolds in bohemian parties and glamorous European locations, the subsequent novels take place almost exclusively in the New York suburbs, amidst struggling commuters. These characters attempt to ruminate eloquently on art and ideas, but they are brought down to earth by the grubby urgencies of survival: lawsuits, investments, wills, unpleasant jobs. The trivial tasks which ensnare them are merely the ordinary aggravations of life, but in Gaddis’ hands, they become almost mythic, some elemental force of destruction with which we all must struggle.
    While his work evolved over the years, there is a remarkable continuity to Gaddis’ obsessions. A Michelangelo verse appears in The Recognitions, and then again fifty years later, in Agape Agape. When Gaddis died, his publishers announced that he had written a final novel about the player piano, which also happened to be the subject of his first publication, a short piece for Harper’s in 1951. Twenty-five years after that initial stab, in the 1975 novel JR, one character reads out loud a few pages from his history of the player piano. Apparently Gaddis intended to write such a history, a book he never was able to complete. Agape Agape is what he wrote instead, a monologue about a man trying and failing to write a history of the player piano.
    Gaddis considers the player piano a symbol for the mechanization of the arts, a development that he deplored. The variety and fallibility of an individual hand on the keyboard has been replaced by the standardized performance of the perforated roll of paper. What particularly bothers him is that it offers the facsimile of playing. Even if you have no talent, even if you aren’t willing to work to learn how to play, you still can enjoy the illusion of participation. Through machines such as the player piano, he fears, art will become a mere industrial process: "art designed for its reproducibility." This will finally lead to "art without the artist", since the artist, representing the unique and the imperfect, will always be a threat to the homogenized society.
    Gaddis traces a somewhat fanciful connection between the perforated roll of the player piano and the "punched card" of Baggage’s Analytic Engine, the so-called grandfather of the computer. The aim of all this technology is "to eliminate chance, to eliminate failure." He fears a world where human values have been extinguished, where technology stamps out the individual and authentic. And yet, despite his gloom, he still holds out hope for the survival of the imagination, that "inner ecstasy" which apprehends a deeper reality. Only through art can we escape an age in which, as he once wrote, "the things worth being are so easily exchanged for the things worth having."
    The length and density of The Recognitions has often inspired comparison to James Joyce’s Ulysses, although Gaddis did not read Ulysses until years after finishing The Recognitions. And in fact Gaddis has little in common with Joyce, aside from a pack of scholars hunting down all his obscure references. The prospect of weighty footnotes would only be an obstacle to the ordinary reader, who does not need to grasp every single allusion in order to enjoy the novels. Lost in the blizzard of scholarship is Gaddis’ essential silliness, his fondness for the absurd. Asked in a 1987 interview with The Paris Review about his influences, Gaddis discounted Joyce but mentioned instead comic writers like Nathanael West, Evelyn Waugh and Mark Twain – "we all came out of Mark Twain’s vest pocket." He intended The Recognitions to be a "large comic novel" in this tradition.
    Franzen portrays Gaddis as a card-carrying "postmodernist," one of the "intellectual, socially edgy white-male American fiction writers," whose "suspicion of realism," led them to "the notion of formal experimentation as an act of resistance." This sounds dreary, and according to Franzen, even defenders of such books do not really enjoy them, only promoting them as a necessary tonic for the evils of the age. Having classified Gaddis as a "postmodern" writer, Franzen then accuses him of hypocrisy, because "his own tastes were notably conservative." Franzen goes so far as to make the bizarre accusation that Gaddis didn’t like his own books. It never occurs to him that Gaddis’ work may have been perfectly in line with his "conservative" tastes. In his Paris Review interview, Gaddis seemed baffled by the word "postmodern." He made clear that he did not think of himself as an "experimental" writer. "The task," he said, "is to make the characters alive and come off the page as real." He hoped that readers "would not read too agonizedly slowly… It was the flow that I wanted, for the readers to read and be swept along… and occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way." This sounds very different from the theoretical killjoy Franzen depicts.
    Postmodernism has many definitions, but none of them help us to understand Gaddis. He is guilty of exaggeration and digression, eccentricity and whimsy, but these sins can be found in writers so ancient the term postmodern loses all meaning. If anything, the difficulty of his work comes from an excess of realism: he follows his characters through every trivial action and thought, recording every hiccup and hesitation. He includes quotidian details which a novel usually excludes, repetitions and banalities. This can be exhausting, but it does not represent a "suspicion of realism." Gaddis did have a preference for complexity; he clearly was not enthusiastic about the influence of Ernest Hemingway, judging from this passage in The Recognitions:
That’s why most writing now, if you read it they go on one two three four and tell you what happened like newspaper accounts, no adjectives, no long sentences, no tricks they pretend, and they finally believe that they really believe that the way they saw it is the way it is…. It never takes your breath away, telling you things you already know, laying everything out flat, as though the terms and the time, and the nature and the movement of everything were secrets of the same magnitude.
    Rather than labeling him a post-modernist, it might be more useful to consider William Gaddis as the last Victorian. His propensity for allusion is reminiscent of Robert Browning at his most complex. His dismay at the ugliness of the mechanical world recalls the passionate fury of John Ruskin, and like Ruskin, he did not attempt to distinguish aesthetic scorn from political protest. The tradition of the novel-in-dialogue extends back to early twentieth century novelists like Ronald Firbank and Evelyn Waugh, and beyond that, to the severe stylishness of Oscar Wilde’s plays. Like Waugh and Wilde, Gaddis wrote farces of upper-class life, giddy satires with apocalpytic intimations, chock-full of witty epigrams. Originality, for example, is "a device that untalented people use to impress other untalented people." Money is "the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves." This is his characteristic tone: condensed, paradoxical, mocking. His work is a testament to what Wilde might have called the impossiblity of being earnest. His characters all have something urgent to communicate, but, again and again, they fail. No matter how serious their intentions, their words tumble helplessly into absurd incongruities, nonsequiturs, and puns. In many ways, Gaddis was a throwback to an earlier era. In Agape Agape, he fixes on the year 1890 as an almost mystical turning point, the beginning of "the ascendancy of the crowd," symbolized by the deaths of Whitman and Melville, the invention of the diesel engine and the start of the motion picture, and last but not least, the heyday of the player piano.
    An early version of Agape Agape was performed as a radio play in Germany under the title Torschlusspanik – one of those long German words with multiple meanings. It typically describes a spinster’s fear of being left unmarried, but also can refer to a book going unread or an opportunity missed. A sense of futility pervades Agape agape, as the narrator looks back on his life and sees only failure. Franzen interprets this as Gaddis repudiating his own work. What he doesn’t understand is that, for Gaddis, failure is the whole point, failure is what makes us great. In JR Jack Gibbs says, "invention was eliminating the very possibility of failure as a condition for success precisely in the arts where one’s best is never good enough." This insistence on failure is Gaddis’ great theme, the necessary result of limited gifts and sublime aspirations. It is only by being "never good enough," he suggests, that we are any good at all.
    All his novels are about unsuccessful artists, from the various blocked composers and writers in JR to the mediocre playwright Oscar Crease of A Frolic of His Own. Franzen thinks that the message of Gaddis is "the everyday world’s indifference to the superior reality of art." In The Paris Review, Gaddis made a preemptive reply to "careless or predisposed readers" like Franzen who assume he wrote "chronicles of the dedicated artist crushed by commerce." What he actually intended to dramatize was the artist’s "own appetite for destruction, their frequently eager embrace of the forces to be blamed for their failure…" His artists are more ridiculous than heroic, so ineffectual and self-deluded they are heartbreaking.
If his novels only consisted of whining on behalf of neglected artists, they wouldn’t be very interesting.         Franzen asserts that Gaddis was an "old-fashioned Romantic" who believed in "the work of art as singular and sacred." But this is a bizarre claim. In fact, Gaddis saw that the only genuine way to be Romantic at this late date in history was to make fun of Romanticism. Far from viewing the work of art as "singular," Gaddis saw it as hopelessly corrupted. Plagiarism is the joke around which most of his books revolve. All art turns out to be derivative in this belated world, already so crowded with stories and images. Everything is a recognition, a repetition, a parody. All the artists in The Recognitions greedily pursue originality, except for its hero, Wyatt Gwyon, who paints forgeries of old masters instead. Wyatt is selling his soul to the devil, turning his talent to fraudulent purposes. But there is also a strange integrity to his renunciation, as if he were the only honest character, because he knows he is fradulent.
    Oscar Crease, in A Frolic of His Own, sues a producer for ripping off his one creative work, a portentous and unproducible play about the Civil War, which Hollywood has transformed into a bloody blockbuster movie. The idea was clearly stolen, but the charge of plagiarism comes undone when the opposing lawyer shows that Oscar’s play also draws upon a variety of sources, including Plato and Eugene O’Neill. Oscar protests that the purloined passages are "homage" and "parody." But the distinction between homage and plagiarism is hard to sustain; Gaddis implies that every artist is a kind of thief, a counterfeiter.
    Gaddis is poking painful fun here at his own hapless  propensity for allusion and quotation. As with all his novels, Agape Agape is chock-full of references, ranging from Nietzsche to Glenn Gould. He gives the somewhat obnoxious impression of having read his way through the Library of Alexandria and mastered an impossible number of subjects. However, scholars have found it surprisingly easy to track down his citations, culled from a relatively few books. Far from being the systematic thinker he has been mistaken for, Gaddis seems more like an auto-didact, an enthusiastic young boy all abuzz with the latest book he’s read. His characters talk about ideas, but without confidence: they are awkward, inarticulate, often making comical mistakes as they grapple with grand ideas.
One of the traditional rewards of the novel is its capacity to inculcate in the reader a delight in sensory perception, a joy in the surface of things. This sensibility is what many people find missing in his work, but Gaddis was not immune to this pleasure. Every so often, even in the later works, there will be a description of nature so intensely lyrical that it quickly becomes overwhelming; metaphors of drowning inevitably arise, as if to look too hard at the world inevitably means being swallowed up. His reaction to the myths and ideas of the past follows the same pattern: a burst of excited inspiration followed by an almost suicidal self-diminishment. Agape Agape does not pride itself on its original ideas. On the contrary, its obsessive fear is that other writers, such as Walter Benjamin and Thomas Bernhard, have already said everything Gaddis wants to say, that he is only "thinking another man’s thoughts." Anxiety haunts him: is he merely derivative? Is he in fact just a literary version of the player piano?
     This is the weird development that makes Agape agape suddenly more interesting. Somewhere along the way Gaddis has begun to identify with the device which he has despised all these years. The player piano converts unexpectedly into a metaphor for the figure of the novelist, and for Gaddis’ art in particular, which relies so much on other voices and other minds, what he refers to as "second-hand material." The novelist is a medium for the speech of others, just as the "phantom hands" of dead artists still resonate through the player piano. As the disparate voices of Gaddis’ artistic heroes speak through him, Agape Agape starts to resemble a literary séance.
    One of the overheard voices is Tolstoy, from The Kreutzer Sonata:  "Under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I can do what I cannot do." Here is the reason for art: the enrichment of the soul, the merging into another being. Yet in Gaddis as well as Tolstoy, there is a danger to this ecstasy. The rapture of becoming someone else can lead to a frightening fragmentation. Montaigne’s notion that "there’s as much difference between us and ourselves as between ourselves and others" might be the epigraph of Gaddis’ collected works. The narrator of Agape Agape suffers from a self-alienation so profound as to be almost schizophrenic. As he documents the collapse of his mortal body, he is tormented by what he calls his demon, "the self who can do more," a phrase that recurs in every one of Gaddis’ books. "The self who can do more" represents his visionary ambition, his untapped potential: the shadow of the great writers whose accomplishments he has tried to equal, the memory of his younger self who knew no fear.
    Gaddis quotes old advertisements for the player piano, written in the cheerfully banal style he loved to ridicule. "Discover your unsuspected talent… The biggest thrill in music is playing it yourself. It’s your own participation that rouses your emotions the most… What stands between you and the music of the masters?" But citing them in mockery, Gaddis is struck with nostalgia for "these cockeyed embraces with Beethoven and Wagner." How innocent it seems now, to bring the music of the masters into ordinary homes, now when culture has been reduced to what Gaddis called "this bleary stupefied pleasure seeking… this insatiable thirst for trivial recreation."
    In the end, Jonathan Franzen’s New Yorker essay is not really about William Gaddis at all, but about "the problem of hard-to-read books." These books and their advocates evidently persecute Mr. Franzen, and he wishes to liberate us from their imposing authority. How these books manage to oppress him he does not explain. Who has been making him feel guilty? And why should he care what they think? Franzen writes as if you can hardly open a newspaper without reading about William Gaddis.
    The essay begins with an anonymous reader accusing Franzen of being a pompous snob. This accusation evidently galls Franzen, who considers himself "egalitarian" and "friendly." I am not the elitist, he seems to say, but let me show you someone who is. He confesses that he once participated in the "collegiate worship of Art," but now he regrets it. He would like to leave the "small, embattled cult" of art without hard feelings, but "the guilt-provoking authority" of Gaddis haunts him. In order to kill the ghost of Gaddis, he must first distort him into a monster. Franzen is not content to dislike Gaddis’ novels; he must insist that no one actually enjoys them, that their only admirers are exponents of "the aesthetics of difficulty," those who believe that "if you’re having a good time with a novel, you’re a dupe of the postindustrial System."
    Franzen proposes a dubious opposition between two modes of fiction: "Contract" and "Status." "Contract" prioritizes "the audience’s legitimate desire to be entertained" whereas "Status" believes "the value of any novel… exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it." "Status" writers are only interested in appealing to their snobbish brethren; "Contract" writers wish to reach a broader public. "Contract" is "a discourse" of "pleasure and connection." "Status" believes that "easy fiction has little value." Gaddis, according to Franzen, is the preeminent representative of the "Status" philosophy, and since Franzen has now decided to identify with the "Contract" model, Gaddis has gone from "literary hero" to sworn enemy. This is the real reason why Franzen has turned on Gaddis: not for the difficulty of his work, but for his values, those "old-fashioned Romantic and high-modern notions of the artist as savior and the work of art as singular and sacred."
    And yet the polarity Franzen imagines is all in his head. "Difficulty" is simply a matter of taste. One person’s entertainment is another’s drudgery. Some may find Gaddis difficult to finish; others may find Barbara Cartland difficult to finish. A few might enjoy them both. A writer such as Stendhal could not "connect" to the readers of his own age, but his work does not seem difficult now. Conversely, the novels of Walter Scott, now largely unreadable, were once hugely popular. I doubt there has ever been a writer who did not wish to provide pleasure to his audience, and I can’t imagine even the most elitist critic would categorically dismiss "easy fiction," unless that fiction happened to be bad.
    College, according to Franzen, is "a place where people are made to read difficult books;" but once the degree is in hand, the "bourgeois reader" is rightly only interested in the "conservative and conventional." Boasting about his "egalitarian" background, Franzen lists some of the books he’s been unable to finish, including Don Quixote, Moby-Dick and Rememberance of Things Past. Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett are among the authors who sit "on the shelf unread – unless you happen to be a student, in which case you’re obliged to turn the pages." It’s hard to know what would be left of literature once the shelves had been purged of the supposedly difficult and boring. Franzen can dispense with Cervantes or Melville, but he still likes Dostoyevsky and Conrad. But what if the "conventional" majority decide that Conrad’s tortured plots and Dostoyevsky’s philosophical meandering are not sufficiently entertaining? Can’t all literature of the past be called "difficult" in some sense, because its language and concerns are so different from ours?
    Increasingly, even college students no longer have to read challenging books. Our literary heritage is passed on only by those few who believe in the "Status" model, that "the best novels are great works of art." The "discourse of genius" is unfashionable in the university today. Franzen writes as if he were proposing something new, but in fact the "Contract" model is triumphant; the "legitimate desire" of students to be entertained trumps all other concerns. Literature departments revolve around questions of class, race and gender, not aesthetic achievement. Genius has no constituency in the "democratic" marketplace Franzen celebrates.
    It is unclear what sin Franzen has committed for which he thinks Gaddis would judge him with "fanatical fervor." Gaddis never insisted that all novels be like his. He seems to have admired a great variety of authors. It is Franzen, not Gaddis, who sees things in a black and white way, as if we all had to choose sides between snobby artists and ordinary readers, between entertainment and art; as if Gaddis must either be the greatest genius ever or a complete fraud.
    Gaddis is often called a cynic, but what’s astonishing about him is his stubborn innocence. His outrage never ran dry, his disappointment never dimmed. Literature was an ordeal for him, but also an ideal, a redeeming faith in a wicked world. He attempted something heroic and new with the form of the novel; if he didn’t succeed completely, he certainly dared greatly. We do not have to embrace his unrelenting standards in order to enjoy what his struggle produced. He is the exasperating outsider, the prickly man who refuses to be embraced. But even at his most irritating, he is a useful gadfly: a perpetual challenge to complacency, a source of inspiration for “the self who can do more."
    Jonathan Franzen is too good a novelist to believe this nonsense about "status" and "contract", but his essay is a disheartening spectacle. No doubt it’s hopelessly old-fashioned to believe that "the best novels are great works of art" or that "the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit." Perhaps the art of the future will be produced solely by machines and university students will analyze video games instead of literature, since entertainment is all that we need to be happy. This may be our inevitable direction, but it’s sad to see artists and intellectuals leading us over the cliff. All this is what Gaddis predicted long ago. His prophecies are now fact, not fantasy, but his work should still be read, if only to remind us of what we are leaving behind.