The formal constraints of William Gaddis’ ‘JR’

The opening sentence of the Dalkey Archive blurb for William Gaddis novel JR reads as follows:

First published nearly forty years ago, JR is about the many ways in which American capitalism runs wild and becomes dangerous.

I detect in this sentence, which stands in an ignoble tradition of jacket quotes on Gaddis novels, a certain amount of equivocation, particularly as it suggests that Gaddis’ critique in JR is limited to the dangerous aspects of American capitalism under specific conditions. I found JR’s social critique to be in no way measured or subtle but instead a relentless skewering of every facet of American life. It made for an interesting text to read in conjunction with Matthew Kenner’s recently published Geohell: Imagining History in the Contemporary World, for the reason that JR frequently describes the destructive impact of centralised state-capitalist formations on the global south, a process facilitated by the ignorant in the west’s urban centres (in this case, Manhattan), who lack even the most basic language to conceptualise these processes within long-term historical perspectives.

Much like his earlier novel The Recognitions, JR is a novel far more invested in its ideas than its characters. Each is a one or two-dimensional archetype, be it artist, businessman, cuckold, nagging wife, etc, but none are fully-fledged subjects in any real sense. The novel is told primarily in a sequence of roughly three to twelve page ‘scenes’ in which a restricted number of characters speak to one another. The narrator has withdrawn almost completely, to the point that each of these scenes are exclusively composed of dialogue. They are linked, or segue into one another, by panoramic accounts of the changing environment, because the narrator is not there, and as a result debarred from moving us through time or space, which unfurl in paragraph-long sentences written in disjointed syntax:

He wiped a hand down his face and sank lower, knee thrust more sharply into the seat ahead and eyes on the serge elbow draped over ti close enough to bite, it shook, ruffling a newspaper, and the buildings on both sides began to swarm with fire escapes, rising from sight as they dropped in a culvert, dropping back as they rose, until the tunnel enclosed them like a blow. Lights came on, and ahead the door clattered open on the young conductor and closed behind him, down the aisle claming the mustache wisp with a finer tip, brushing the protruding shoe, eliciting a muttered — heil!

Gaddis’ chosen methodology, therefore requires the reader to abandon their normative reading practices and perhaps even introduce their own punctuation in order to make sense of the material. As a letter, which appears as an aside in The Recognitions reads:

The hand had defeated its own purpose: for those lines written in frantic haste took time to interpret; while it was quick work to go through those written with careful painful pauses, written slowly, to compel the reader to read slowly and attentively, a habit she might have made in conversation.

However, this repudiation of convention brings with a different kind of constraint. In order to give the reader some means of differentiating the characters, Gaddis provides each of them with distinctive verbal tics. One of the novel’s characters, JR, says ‘holy’ and ‘damn’ a lot. The composer Edward Bast and the physics teacher Jack Gibbs, both speak haltingly and get interrupted a lot. Another, Rhoda, says things like ‘cat’ and ‘goddamn’. Unfortunately, Gaddis is not sparing in his use of these tics, and they will often appear three to four times in a single sentence, which lends the dialogue a particular cadence that is totally singular in terms of any prose writing I’ve ever encountered, but also grates after prolonged exposure. It may seem ridiculous to criticise a writer such as Gaddis, one with a reputation for difficulty, for signposting his writing gratuitously but this is precisely the issue. Gaddis spends a huge amount of the novel generating his own system of scaffolding with a view to compensate for an abscence of novelistic device. Rather than devising his way back out of the system he’s created, I’d prefer if he left us to it.

This effect was unfortunately compounded, for me at least, by the missing narrator. Because the text is rendered through dialogue, the narrator can’t say, ‘Bast barged into JR and spilled both of their coffees’. Instead characters have to verbally observe what’s happening, often in laughably unrealistic ways:

— What you spilled both of ours?

To take another example, we’ll be told during one of the prolongedly undulating descriptive passages that Emily Joubert is eating a sandwich. For the remainder of the scene, every line of dialogue tagged with ‘said through sandwich’ or ‘said through bread’ is Amy Joubert. This all seems to me like a very long way around Gaddis’ initial problem, which is his attempt to transcend the formulaic habits engendered by ‘x said, y said’. JR re-trains us in reading, but does so by bringing us through huge amounts of textual redundancy.

If we were to try to redeem Gaddis on this account we could do worse than relate it to his critique of the American education system; these are the points in the novel that I think he is at his strongest. Gaddis was extremely prescient in identifying the increasing proximity of the education system to private capital as an utterly toxic development and correct in regarding it as a ponzi scheme for the funneling of public money into private enterprise in the form of subsidies. Principal Whiteback spouts nonsensical managerial techno-speak about upskilling, betraying his misplaced faith in ambitious investments:

— Right Dan, the norm in each case supporting, or we might say being supported, substantiated that is to say, by an overall norm, so that in other words in terms of testing the norm comes out as the norm or we have no norm to test against, right? So that presented in thse terms the equipment can be shown to justify itself, in budgetary terms that is to say.

Gaddis does not overlook the complicity of the artist in all this. Bast is a talented composer living in poverty, but is recruited by the school’s investment programme with a view to imbuing it with his artistic nous. Gaddis clearly regards the television, screen-dependent technologies and the growth of visual based media as utterly detrimental to education, and even if his grasp on these issues is not particularly nuanced, his identification of automated teaching as playing into the interests of private capital was bang on. For instance, Principal Whiteback observes that in an education sector under austerity budgeting, books are the first thing to go. Perhaps these characters’ comments on straightforward textual actions could be the symptom of a cultural movement from codex to image, one where there is no ambiguity, no room for thought, just the endless proliferation of image.

But the notion of a woke Gaddis can only take us so far based on how his vision of a society obssessed with appearance relates to his representation of women, who are described only in physical terms. Be it breasts, nipples, asses, décolletage, throats or thighs, the amount of body parts circulating when a woman is involved is deeply wearying, particularly when none of the women are afforded the space to be the sensitive soul artist types like Bast and Gibbs, but are all instead shallow, appearance-obsessessed or lascivious. His treatment of one particular gay character is also jaw-droppingly insensitive and clichéd. If we were to take Jonathan Franzen at his word (never wise) and regard Gaddis as the primary architect behind a particular kind of bleakly comic, imperial postwar Amerian novel-writing, we can see in Gaddis the roots of much of the misogyny which characterises the writings of David Foster Wallace, Robert Coover etc. No matter how radical the epistemological critiques of these authors, or the sophistication of their understanding of systems, their writing indulges time and time again the male gaze.

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