A few small gifts from New York Review Books

“‘Merry Christmas!’ the man threatened.” — William Gaddis, The Recognitions

A few months ago, the publicity department at New York Review Books (NYRB Classics) was kind enough to send me review copies of their new editions of William Gaddis’ The Recognitions (1955) and J R (1975), the first with an introduction by Tom McCarthy and the second with an introduction by Joy Williams. Handsome and necessarily sturdy the new editions of these lengthy novels are, too; what’s more, this is the first time either book has been corrected and re-set in decades, following careful readings by Gaddis experts. I had been hoping to have the time to re-read both of these, but time presses more now, even when time has seemed to become more abstract than usual. I do have a few moments, though, to welcome these new editions, perhaps the seminal satiric novels of post-war America.

Their accomplishments as satire have been overshadowed by their reputations as proto-postmodern novels, leading to a general conclusion that the books are just very hard to read because of their formal and stylistic innovations. Gaddis himself demurred about this characterization, considering himself the heir to Gogol, Dostoyevsky, and T.S. Eliot, if anyone. And the style itself, exemplified by just the first few pages of The Recognitions, is redolent more of a dry, distanced wit and humor, more down Evelyn Waugh’s alley than William Burroughs’. An example from page 10 of the new NYRB edition:

Nevertheless, they boarded the Purdue Victory and sailed out of Boston harbor, provided for against all inclemencies but these they were leaving behind, and those disasters of such scope and fortuitous originality which Christian courts of law and insurance companies, humbly arguing ad hominem, define as acts of God.

On All Saints’ Day, seven days out and half the journey accomplished, God boarded the Purdue Victory and acted: Camilla was stricken with acute appendicitis.

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string. The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard. After many launderings they persisted as a row of gray stumps posted along the gaping portals of his fly. Though a boutonnière sometimes appeared through some vacancy in his shirt-front, its petals, too, proved to be of paper, and he looked like the kind of man who scrapes foam from the top of a glass of beer with the spine of a dirty pocket comb, and cleans his nails at table with the tines of his salad fork, which things, indeed, he did. He diagnosed Camilla’s difficulty as indigestion, and locked himself in his cabin. …

A self-portrait by William Gaddis

There, now that didn’t hurt much, did it? What’s more, the three paragraphs alone introduce almost all of the major themes of the book, which is a catalogue of spiritual, social, and aesthetic fakery, falsity, and fraudulence in post-war American culture (not to mention fate: “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase that appears in all five of Gaddis’ novels) — an admirable economy. And there’s a body count: the “ship’s surgeon” is in reality a counterfeiter who botches the surgery and ends Camilla’s life, setting the entire action of the 933-page book in motion.

One day I hope to get to writing some more about Gaddis; in the meantime I celebrate these timely holiday offerings from NYRB Classics. To read more about these reissues, I point you toward Scott Bradfield in the Los Angeles Times (“Read The Recognitions and J R as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are”), Craig Hubert in the Observer (“It may be that after 65 years, the world has finally, for better or worse, caught up to Gaddis’s vision in The Recognitions“), and perhaps best of all, Dustin Illingham in the Point:

The immense pessimism of his fictions grows out of [a] 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.

Those who wish to dig deeper are directed towards Joseph Tabbi’s biography of the novelist, this collection of Gaddis’ letters (a bit pricey at the moment), Steven Moore’s seminal monograph on the writer, and this anthology of recent essays about Gaddis’ work. And below you can watch a rare interview with the novelist, conducted in 1986 by Malcolm Bradbury.

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