William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

William Gaddis’ The Recognitions is a stylistically and generically conflicted novel. On one hand it is, as it is billed by Jonathan Franzen in its blurb, the “ur-text of postwar fiction,” initiating the noble tradition of ‘the penis novel’ (here being a synonym for maximalist, encyclopaedic, post-thing) in contemporary American letters, a tradition extended by William Gass, the aforementioned Franzen, Thomas Pynchon, David Foster Wallace, Don De Lillo &c. As the site of a phallogocentric topos, its critique has a wide scope: organised religion, the commodification of great art, the hyper-mediation of our reality via advertising, are all targets of Gaddis’ ‘pen.’

On the other side of this anticipation of the Pynchon and the general countercultural literary zeitgeist, there is a comedy of manners strain, which relates to the novel to which Gaddis probably owes the most, Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Gaddis apes Proust’s capacity to have the many, many characters in the novel condemn themselves out of their own mouths, by reproducing their shallow dilettantish badinage for pages and pages and pages. You may have sensed that I thought this got a bit tedious, and you may be right. The Recognitions is just under a thousand pages and if I had to guess, I would say about sixty-five percent of it is spent convincing the reader how shallow the ‘creative class’ of 1950’s New York is.

That said, there is plenty of space in the maybe 35% of the novel outside of the dialogue, for descriptive prose of undeniable force and virtuosity, though maybe that’s the wrong word. Here also, Gaddis is schizophrenic. On the one hand he follows Proust’s lead, with deeply extravagant similes tortured to within an inch of their lives, drawing on the obscurities of Roman Catholic arcana, as Proust does with Renaissance painting:

“And the shadow he cast behind him as he turned away fell back seven centuries, to embrace the dissolute youth of Raymond Lully, and infatuation with the beautiful Ambrosia de Castello, which she discouraged; and if she seemed to succumb at last, offering to bear her breasts in return for a poem he had written to their glory, it was to show him, as he approached in that rapture of which only flesh is capable, a bosom eaten away by cancer: he turned away to his conversion, to his death years later stoned in North Africa, and to his celebration as a scholar, a poet, a missionary, a mystic, and one of the foremost figures in the history of alchemy.”


The following, I think, is more typical of an autonomous Gaddis ‘style:’

“In the afternoon, he worked at restoring old pictures, or in sketching, a half-attended occupation which broke off with twilight, and Christiane went on her way uncurious, uninterested in the litter of papers bearing suggestion of the order of her bones and those arrangements of her features which she left behind, unmenaced by magic, unafraid, she walked toward the Gare Saint-Lazare, unhurried, seldom reached it (for it was no destination) before she was interrupted, and down again, spread again, indifferent to the resurrection which filled her and died; and the Gare Saint-Lazare, a railway station, and so a beginning and an end, came forth on the evening vision, erect in testimony, and then (for what became of the man who was raised?) stood witness to a future which, like the past, was liable to no destination, and collected dirt in its fenestrated sores.”

One sentence. We might quibble with the repetitive insistence of aimlessness, non-linearity, the relationship established between the death, the Resurrection and Christiane seems forced, but I think there is something in the writing here about the contemporary urban space depending on inversions of perspective and fragmented symbolism which I sense as being deeply vital and original.


“Undisciplined lights shone through the night instructed by the tireless precision of the squads of traffic lights, turning red to green, green to red, commanding voids with indifferent authority: for the night outside had not changed, with the whole history of night bound up inside it had not become better or worse, fewer lights and it was darker, less motion and it was more empty, more silent, less perturbed, and like the porous figures which continued to move against it, more itself.”

We have an urban cityscape, a panaromic view, some reach into the infinitude, the recursion the earth always makes into night, with all that that evokes. W have an automated authority, indifferently exerted with no agent, moral or otherwise, and I always appreciate a void in a descriptive passage, plural is a bonus.

It is in these deliberately uneven, weirdly punctuated and weirder worded sections that The Recognitions has its best moments I think, far from the endlessly re-hashed cocktail parties where the bohemian residents of Greenwich Village get really drunk, say pretentious things and get off with one another. It’s difficult to enjoy these parts past a certain point, particularly when Gaddis is models the New York patois onomatopoeically, making it clunky, often indecipherable. For some these may be necessary tags; dialogue is rarely signposted and I had to keep notes to figure out who was talking. But it was worth the effort. There are some staggeringly inventive and uncanny moments in the novel that I’m unlikely to forget. Reverend Gwyon’s re-modelling of his church from a Catholic one to one befitting the pagan deity Mithras and delivering a sun-worship ceremony to the horrified residents of his parish in rural Massachusetts is brilliant and macabre set-piece which testifies to Gaddis’ potency as a literary artist, at least when he wasn’t complaining about his peers and critics.


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