William Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions (1955), was initially famous for its inaccessibility. More talked about than read, the book perplexed critics with its seemingly endless allusions and erudite tangents. Despite this initial reception, however, the novel was eventually recognized as a major achievement, whose formal complexity signaled postwar fiction’s evolution beyond its vestigial modernism. Gaddis’s second novel, J R (1975), won the National Book Award, an honor he would receive again almost twenty years later, for A Frolic of His Own (1994). By the time he died, in 1998, his influence on American fiction had become pervasive, extending from the encyclopedic systems novels of the Seventies and Eighties to the more recent excesses of hysterical realism. Among the great postmodernists, only Pynchon, himself a Gaddis acolyte, comes close to exerting the same planetary attraction.
Yet despite their marvelous comic velocity, Gaddis’s landmark novels remain outliers from their era. The Recognitions and J R, reissued this year by New York Review Books, both emit an unmistakably patrician hostility. Gaddis was temperamentally conservative, a Spenglerian who saw evidence of deterioration wherever he looked. “Hope is on the decline,” he told Der Spiegel in 1996. “America today? I am deeply convinced that no good will come of it.” As in many significant postmodern novels, Gaddis’s works dramatize the proliferation of crass commercial forces. But unlike many of them, his books juxtapose these malignant currents with the vitality of what were rapidly coming to be considered—at least by his fellow artists and intellectuals—a set of outmoded traditions. Like Waugh before him, Gaddis casts himself as the last aristocrat, taking aim at apostates and philistines alike. In a letter to the writer Katherine Anne Porter, he exalted the conservative virtues of Costa Rica, to which he’d previously travelled, as presenting an alternative to American vulgarity:
Costa Rica is still traditional—and largely I suppose due to the hold of the Church—and the family is still family, and it is splendid and interesting to see the hospitality that such a traditional society can afford, as to one rootless, which our (eastern) society cannot because it is rootless itself.
The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of this sense of rootlessness. Gaddis’s America is cut off from the redemptive potential of continuity, be it in God, or art, or a shared sense of tradition. He is an heir to Eliot, whose quests, imposters and enervated landscapes haunt his novels, as well as the great Russians—Dostoevsky, Gogol, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Turgenev—with whom he shared the hope of civilizing a benighted nation. That such an undertaking was doomed to failure lends his work its paradoxical idealism. His novels refute utopian imagination, but always with a sense of frustrated longing. This longing—contemporary in its contradiction—is the skeleton key to his fictions. Where so many postmodernist writers envisaged a range of possible futures, Gaddis dreamt of an unbroken past that would render his satire unnecessary.
The Fifties were a Janus-faced decade in American culture. While the country moved in one direction—toward material prosperity, Cold War-fueled patriotism and industrial growth—fiction went in another. It was headed “toward rejection,” the critic Frederick Karl wrote, “withdrawal, aggressive hostility to systems, imitation as a mode of life.” Borrowing from Adorno, Karl suggested that this “schizoid country” goaded novelists toward a dualism that reflected the discrepancy between appearance and reality. There was not one America but many. Its representation therefore depended upon irony, discontinuity, hallucination. The counterfeit proved an ideal imaginative form, in some ways more real, or at least more recognizable, than the actual.
The Recognitions, published in 1955, is perhaps the most representative novel of this decade of warring realities. It tells the story of Wyatt Gwyon, son of a heretical Calvinist clergyman, who rejects the ministry to pursue the life of an artist. After a period of failure and disenchantment in Paris, he settles in New York City, working as a draughtsman. By chance, his work is noticed by a criminal art dealer, Recktall Brown, for whom he begins painting flawless forgeries to sell on the private market. Wyatt’s reconstitution of art history—“discovering” the rumored lost classics of Memling, the Van Eycks and others—offers an ironically original creative ethic. As the fastidious art critic Basil Valentine says, “his work is so good it has almost been taken for forgery.”
The enormous cast of writers, musicians, drunks, assassins, poets and saints that whirl about Wyatt’s quest for truth makes up a demimonde of characters living in one way or another as counterfeits. Much of this group orbits Wyatt’s lonely wife, Esther. She conducts an affair with a young man named Otto Pivner, a pathetic, striving figure and would-be artist much enamored of Wyatt. He has just returned from Costa Rica with a healthy arm in a sling and a phony story about a revolution. He is writing a stilted play made up of the words and ideas of other people. (He routinely tries to sell it to no avail; everyone feels as if they’d heard it before.) Later, Otto sets out to meet his estranged father at a hotel bar, instead finding the counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who believes he is meeting a client. Mistaking Sinisterra’s bag of counterfeit bills for a paternal gift, Otto begins spending the fake money around town, setting in motion the grand, continent-spanning confusions of the novel’s second half, which ends with Wyatt and a disguised Sinisterra in Spain attempting to forge an Egyptian mummy.
The effect of The Recognitions is palimpsestic. We descend through layers of artifice, one after another. Double-talk pollutes the novel’s atmosphere. Counterfeit currencies circulate continuously. Words are recycled, or regurgitated, or falsely attributed. Originality—“that romantic disease,” as Wyatt’s teacher calls it—is routinely disparaged as a misunderstanding of the artist’s duty. To be original is to do something one’s own way because one couldn’t do it the right way. The reproduction of an archetype—in this case, the fifteenth-century Flemish painting—is transfiguring only insofar as it is devotional. Before Wyatt meets Recktall Brown, his forgeries are pious acts of appreciation. But the moment the unscrupulous dealer asks him to sign his recreations—as Hugo van der Goes, say—their sanctity is destroyed. A once reverent act has become complicit in the market’s depredations. (Wyatt discovers he can only be prosecuted for the signature itself, which “proves” the image’s authenticity, and thus its value: “The law doesn’t care a damn for the painting,” Basil Valentine explains.) The Faustian nature of his arrangement with Brown precipitates Wyatt’s nervous breakdown. He burns his work in expiation.
What gives meaning to reality? The novel’s many characters debate this question insistently. For Wyatt’s father, Reverend Gwyon, it is arcane mysticism; for the choleric poet, Anselm, it is the primacy of despair; for Esme, Wyatt’s model, it is poetry and drugs; for Recktall Brown it is money; for Basil Valentine, ascetic bitterness; for Otto Pivner, approval. Each seeks a cohering structure in a desacralized world. The antic desperation of Gaddis’s novel comes in part from the unrelieved nature of this seeking. “Nihil cavum neque sine signo apud Deum,” reads the novel’s epigraph: “Nothing empty nor without significance with God.” But God is hidden from most characters, an eminence veiled by disenchantment. Each is profoundly, catastrophically alone. In the novel’s own terms, their great tragedy is to live outside the possibility of “recognition.”
Recognition is the most developed of Gaddis’s conservative gestures; it is what most sharply distinguishes him from many of his postmodern followers (Pynchon, DeLillo), allying him instead with those modernists who saw themselves as waging a rearguard battle against the amnesiac sweep of contemporary life. It is akin to Joycean epiphany, or Wordsworth’s “spots in time,” or Pater’s “hard, gem-like flame.” It is a moment of charged consciousness, a “sudden familiarity.” To live without recognition is the plight of the historical subject cut off from any sense of tradition. Like the Flemish masters, Wyatt locates recognition most readily in the divine attentions animating reality: “There was nothing God did not watch over … and so in the painting every detail reflects…God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life.” To become aware of this concern—to find the permanent within the mutable—is the difficult work of recognition. It is to make continuity legible through a shared depth of value.
Stanley, an anguished Catholic composer and member of the novel’s shabby Greenwich Village arts scene, shares Wyatt’s capacity for recognition. He is something like Wyatt’s second self, a disciplined artist with a similar disdain for the popular. What separates him from his double is a genuine religious faith. He is in many respects the novel’s hero, an Alyoshan figure of spiritual purity. His work results not in Wyatt’s acidity and isolation but rather great, self-propelling love. In his description of the music he creates, one hears Gaddis’s own contempt for creation untouched by recognition:
How could Bach have accomplished all that he did? and Palestrina? the Gabrielis? and what of the organ concerti of Corelli? Those were the men whose work he admired beyond all else in this life, for they had touched the origins of design with recognition. And how? with music written for the Church. Not written with obsessions of copyright foremost; not written to be played by men in worn dinner jackets, sung by girls in sequins, involved in wage disputes and radio rights, recording rights, union rights; not written to be issued through a skull-sized plastic box plugged into the wall as background for seductions and the funnypapers.
Stanley escapes the fate of inconsequence, if not death. (While playing a medieval organ, he causes a cathedral’s roof to collapse with him beneath it—another martyr stoned to death.) Others are not as lucky. The novel is replete with characters whose deepest feelings are mitigated by advertisements, exaggeration and narcissism. They remain unaware of their place in a larger cosmic order, or that such an order may yet exist. They are largely unknown to themselves, their very names given up or adopted without consideration: on the lam, Wyatt becomes Stephan Asche; Sinisterra assumes the alias Mr. Yák; Basil Valentine transforms into the Cold Man; Otto goes by Gordon, the protagonist of his failed play. This metaphysical farce is often very funny. It is also something like an intimation of hell. The social reality of The Recognitions is as claustrophobic as the Bosch canvas Wyatt forges early on, a panoply of human foolishness and misery. Opposing this disorder, Gaddis offers the consolation of traditions that may yet constellate the vanishing light of his frolicking, fabulating souls.
Such consolations are less apparent in Gaddis’s second novel, J R (1975), published after a twenty-year interim. There is a crackling, mechanical newness to the novel, shrill and unsettling, like waking to a too-loud alarm clock. It vibrates and hums, a concatenation of voices, radios, telephones, televisions, cheap music, bursts of static and the interminable buzzing of thinking machines. J R does not merely contain dialogue; it is dialogue, nearly eight hundred pages’ worth, almost all of it unattributed. It is a monumental conception of an aural America, garish and self-contained, a cloistered universe made entirely of words, questions, complaints, come-ons and howls of pleasure and pain. As in the bacchanalian parties of The Recognitions, silence holds the threat of self-reflection and must therefore be endlessly postponed.
That postponement accounts for the book’s strange and compelling sense of drama. Gaddis withholds information expertly. Each page is subjected to the diffuse pressures of opacity. The reader struggles to parse speech and speaker, searching for attributes in a fictive environment largely divested of them. The plot follows the exploits of eleven-year-old JR Vansant, a snot-nosed latchkey child destined for cheap, American verticality. Armed only with native rapaciousness and a bit of penny stock procured on a field trip to Wall Street, he manages to build a thriving financial empire out of mail and junk goods. He convinces the composer Edward Bast, formerly employed at the boy’s school, to act as his “business representative.” The Ninety-Sixth Street apartment Bast shares with another artist manqué, Jack Gibbs, becomes the hub of JR’s corporate activities, an entropic zone of accumulation piled with paper, books, cookie tins, catalogs, mops and crates of “24-One Pint Mazola New Improved.” An array of politicians, teachers, artists, lawyers, bankers, secretaries and salesmen are caught up in the immense vitality of JR’s naïve project. They tremble in the strands of a web whose construction they cannot fathom.
A sense of mystery unfolds with few discernible clues. It is all disbursement and confusion, energy running pell-mell out of institutions and social arrangements, a grand Long Island Babel. As in the greatest works of modernism (the extraordinary ventriloquism of Faulkner, the ravishing vernacular of Joyce), disorientation is here offered back to the reader as refreshed idiom. The sheer range of techniques Gaddis employs to capture the eccentric phraseology of American speech is astounding. There are, for instance, the many phone conversations in which dialogue is inferred by way of the comic pauses of a single speaker:
—Oh hi Mrs. Joubert…as quickly gone behind the glass panels clattering closed on the first ring. —Hello…? pencil stub, paper scraps surfacing—this is him speaking yes, I’ll accept it…portfolio jammed up against a knee—hello? yes hi, boy it’s a good thing you called hey I…where just now at the hotel? Did you…no but wait a second…No but see Bast that’s what I was just…no what kind of full uniform, you mean with a gun and all…? No but…no but sure I know we got this here hotel suite so you could partly use it to play the…
Or the hypnotic flow of recrimination, typified in the exchanges of Dan and Ann diCephalis, an unhappily married couple:
—Nora can sit there and Donny can sit over there.
—What do you mean what for, so they can see.
—See what. What do you mean see what. See us.
—See us, what…
—See us what! My God what do you think what! Unless you’re going to keep on those pants with the rip all the way down the crotch, what do you think what!
—No that, happened in the accident but…
—All right just forget it.
—But did you really mean…
—I said forget it! where pearl nails suddenly bit deep, —if that was Miss Moneybags you’d have your face in it! You’d have your, get away from me!
—I said forget it!
Or the eloquence of profane ranting, most notably that of Jack Gibbs, whose never-ending curses suggest the city’s spiritual lassitude:
—point is Schramm wasn’t just trying to write another God damned war book, whole God damned point in Faust the Lord has everything laid out for Faust to win but he won’t tell Faust, what the hell do you expect Faust to do? Lord staying above the God damned battle letting him break his God damned neck fighting for what was planned for him all the time what the hell do you…
While working on J R, Gaddis supported himself by writing copy for Ford, Kodak and Pfizer, a task that immersed him in the cant of product launches and advertising campaigns. It is a language that expects to be heard, but one to which we cannot properly respond. His characters have internalized this language to their detriment. They may engage in ostensible conversation, but they are forever talking only to themselves. They interrupt one another constantly or linger in pockets of reticence and hesitation, licking their wounds and planning their next fusillade. Here all dialogue is disguised monologue. For all its polyphonic content, J R is finally a study of Americans’ unwitting isolation amid technologies of mass communication.
The buzzing nightmare of this empty linguistic system stands in for the vapidity and spiritual inertness of postwar America itself. In their endless dithering, their misdirected energies, their grotesque, Pavlovian responses to stimuli, Gaddis’s characters fail to make significant commitments, whether to work or to art. They lack the conceptual resources with which to properly see, let alone reject, the system they are entangled—or entombed—within. In The Recognitions, art and religious tradition could yet redeem. J R offers a bleaker vision: a world bereft of exaltation. In the welter of noise and image the novel presents, America is not so much cut off from recognition as drowned in its impossibility.
It is crime that bridges the two novels. For Gaddis, the deepest crime, whether in the forgeries of The Recognitions or the financial schemes of J R, is the loss of meaning, of actuality, of our perception of the real. It may finally be impossible to achieve lasting recognition—recognition certainly seems to be the case in the jangle and glare of the latter novel—but to forgo the possibility entirely is to risk a kind of damnation. This is the hopeless, hopeful refrain of Gaddis’s works: that even in the terminal incoherence of America, purposive attention may yet furnish dignity, if not redemption. “Nothing’s worth doing till you’ve done it,” the composer Edward Bast says, “and then it was worth doing even if it wasn’t because that’s all you…” As befits the novel, he trails off, the thought interrupted.
American pessimism is much changed since Gaddis’s heyday. Today it is less lofty, less coolly resigned, more shot through with terror and angst. In the shadow of climate catastrophe, economic inequality and an ongoing pandemic, the very concept of recognition can come to feel impractical, even quixotic. Yet when I return to these two landmarks of postwar American literature, it is their alchemy of earnestness and defeatism that strikes me as so contemporary. It is the posture of abused, but not abandoned, hope. Gaddis, continuously surprised and offended by American life, managed to retain a semblance of faith, no matter how beleaguered. The proof is in the works. To write a one-thousand-page novel about American emptiness might be a sign of youth’s outsize ambition. To write two of them over twenty years is an act of devotion—or, one might say, of recognition.