Tag Archives: The Recognitions

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 The narrator has withdrawn almost completely, to the point that each of these scenes are exclusively composed of dialogue.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.

Ten Year Anniversary of Garrett Phelan’s Black Brain Radio @IMMA

Content warning: Post contains excessive, undue use of the first person pronoun.

I really like Arts Tonight on RTÉ. Its quiet pace, insider baseball language and uncompromising commitment to taking a deliberate, intellectual approach to the arts would be easy to parody, but because of its informativeness and tendency to source academics for its panels, it is among the best arts programmes in radio, and I mean the best from both RTÉ and the BBC. I find that the BBC, In Our Time aside, too often goes in for either Today Programme ebullience, in demanding straightforward-one-word, no-nonsense answers to weighty abstract questions or a whimsically boisterous tone, in pursuit of an imagined layman. It is sadly the case that it may be the among the only remaining serious arts programme left on the radio.

On a recent episode, on the subject of a book taking a retrospective view on five hundred years of Irish sculpture, Vincent Woods spoke on a particular work he once saw. What seems to have made this piece distinctive for Woods was its temporary nature and this allowed him to strike a personal note, which is welcome, and definitely rare in a programme that wears its occasional staidness with pride. Woods described ‘a sculpture trail in Achill, I think it was in 1996…I was lucky enough to see it and I’ll never forget, even some of the sounds, the sound of a cement mixer in an abandoned concrete house on the Edgewood Cliff…and a series of mirrors on Corrie Lake which just sat like petals, floating on the water…those sorts of images stay.’

Woods’ comments made me think of my own relationship with art that engages with its spatial component to such an extent that it often can’t be replicated elsewhere, or at least without inducing a logistical nightmare, such as site-specific or public art. I can always pick up a Yeats poem that made me feel something, or recall a sentence in The Green Road that makes something cold break over my spine and disseminate itself in my nerves, but I can’t summon up the way that Owen Roe reads an Oscar Wilde story, or Barry McGovern performs Beckett. Installation has that effect too, perhaps accentuated because of my relative ignorance when it comes to contemporary art in general, which may be an asset, because I haven’t yet lost that sense of challenge that confronts one when standing in a space with a thing that has a mass, that one has to mobilise oneself around, perhaps through, in order to grapple with it adequately.

With this in mind, around this time ten years ago I went to IMMA, and saw an installation that I’ve probably been thinking about ever since. The installation occupied one of the many white, airy rooms in the museum and it was on this occasion, that it was sparsely adorned and contained only a vintage-seeming radio, perched on a makeshift metal platform. One of the corners of the room was spray-painted black.

The installation was Black brain radio, and in a wider sense, beyond the confines of the room, it was a sequence of audio pieces recorded, collated and arranged by the artist Garrett Phelan. The pieces were broadcast for about thirty days in early 2006 on the 89.9 FM frequency and touched on topics as varied as the presidency of George W. Bush, the evolution/creationism debate and self-actualisation, albeit in each case, very obliquely. Phelan recorded himself reading reams of material from newspapers, books, or transcribed conversations from commercial radio. However, Phelan didn’t inflect his speech to suit what it was that he was reading, nor did he ‘produce’ his recording in the usual sense. His recordings were no-frills, highlighted by time he took to cough, yawn into the microphone or stop in the middle of a sentence.

I listened to it constantly for as long as it was broadcast, struck primarily by its strangeness and motivated by some desire to understand what the broadcast was adding up to. I think I knew it was mostly nonsense, or too fragmentary to be a whole, but I didn’t realise the extent of its aleatory qualities at the time. Phelan had cut his recordings into two-minute chunks, and randomised the broadcast on an MP3 player, so whatever sequentiality Black brain radio developed was always accidental, always provisional.

Since becoming conscious of how possible it is to purchase just about anything on the internet, I’ve been searching for some hard copy of Black brain radio, and I was thrilled to eventually find it on Discogs; a guy in Holland owned one of the 200 pressings of the broadcast issued by Nine Point records. I was disappointed to realise that the CD doesn’t contain the entire broadcast, but of course, that would’ve been too easy and insufficiently conceptual. My copy has two, apparently random, 30 minute chunks.

The product itself contains a fairly lengthy essay in its sleeve which makes some gesture towards enclosing the meaning or significance of Black brain radio. Of course, it makes no such claims for itself, but it’s hard not to regard it as a manifesto for the work, outfitted with Dadaistic murals and slogans, positing radio as a more immanent mode of dissemination than television; its history more implicated with the opposed forces of revolution and fascism. It’s a slightly essentialist history, it claims radio has a power to foster community while running counter to globalisation, but it’s a well-written and a competent anatomising of the project, and how it aims to transcend fascistic taste-makers of art and democratise its appreciation. Now I will criticise it. I don’t think that Black brain radio quite rose to the heights of anti-globalisation, de-naturation of self and disarticulation of the simulated nature of community that the essay posits, nor do I see the kind of engagement with manufactured consent, the point at which opinions are generated by our encounters with mass-media outlets. Rather, I see it as definitively located within a critique of the artifice of commercial radio.

Ben Anderson praises the vitality and capacity of radio to create communities through voice, but Black brain radio seems far too drained, or doubled back on itself to be indicative of a community spirit being generated in this way. Rather, I see or behold in Black brain radio an antiquarian anxiously parsing transcripts of an irretrievably lost past with no sense of its context, or even how it should be read. Phelan speaks in a cold, blank drawl and what springs to mind of course is Beckett’s radio plays, but without Beckett’s rhythm or bursts of lyricism. This is highlighted all the more by the sardonic intrusions of the overplayed radio hits of the day used occasionally as an audio bed (albeit without the high standard of production one would expect from a ‘normal’ broadcast). Snoop Dogg’s tune Signs (feat. Justin Timberlake & Charlie Wilson) features, followed by the usual senseless over-production, overheard from FM 104 that Phelan leaves on while he’s recording, that leavens mass-media artefacts. ‘Fun fact’ type segments wherein tedious information is rehearsed also, interspersed with milquetoast banter from co-hosts in the same lifeless, blank tone of an over-long exhalation.

Five years and counting of higher education, have prepared me to approach all manifestations of a creative impulse with a scalpel, murdering to dissect and to have a thing to say, for fear of coming away feeling like a dope. In his introduction to William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, William Gass offers the critic an alternative:

“No great book is explicable, and I shall not attempt to explain this one. An explanation…would defile it, for reduction is precisely what a work of art opposes…Interpretation replaces the original with the lamest sort of substitute. It tames, disarms.”

This is increasingly coming to my mind when I listen to academic papers, Arts Tonight or when I read the essay that accompanies the CD, written by Sarah Pierce. It doesn’t matter what’s under discussion, the history of the Irish Sea, Leda and the Swan, or the errant jotters of Leonardo da Vinci, almost everything discussed features some variation on limits, peripheries, narratives, stereotypes, re-conceptualisations, differential networks of meaning, straw man paradoxes, etc, this programmatic patter that smothers what is unique about everything, and makes it the same tortured play of nothing. I’m not opposed to criticism, I never will be, but I’m sure we all recognise the patterns of reductionism, and recognise too, real, dynamic, elevating critiques every bit as vital as their subject.

This sense of wonder, this physical reaction that certain works of art can engender in us is not a mysterious quintessence antithetical to its explanation; criticism as its best can intensify, even prompt it. These received routes of understanding should be eschewed and replaced by something amazing.