Tony Tanner, in City of Words: American fiction, 1950-1970 (1971), claimed that The Recognitions inaugurated a new period of American fiction. I’d rather interpret such grandiose statement figuratively. If we start from the premise that there is such a thing as postmodern episteme/ethos in contrast to a modernist episteme/ethos, we can probably squeeze it in as a symbol, confer it honorary paternity for having ushered in a new age of fiction. But the main impediment to it claiming literal influence is that almost no one read it.
Even established writers have only recently come forward in their admiration and waxed lyrically about it. For instance, we learned in 2011 that Robert Coover had been reading The Recognitions in 1960 when he was still an unpublished and, I assume, struggling (starving?) artist:
He tells me a story that can serve as a sort of myth of origin. In the summer of 1960 he found himself on his own in Chicago, temporarily separated from his family. A nocturnal creature (he frequently works through the night), he was simultaneously reading Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March and William Gaddis’s monumental The Recognitions. “I really loved Augie March. The opening section, at least. But somewhere in the middle of the book the experience totally transformed, I was really ticked off. It was bad and getting worse. And I was really catching on to The Recognitions. I took Augie Marchand threw it across the room, and that was the last I saw of it. “Why did realist fiction make him so angry? “I didn’t think of it as realistic. It used modes of response to the world that had become stultified and so were easily communicated. I learned my realism from guys like Kafka.”
Americans know and love these barricades: realism, anti-realism. When St. Orberose started way back in 2012 the bookweb was aflame with James Wood’s How Fiction Works, the personification of evil, a grimoire of conservative fiction. It feels like a whole era ago, but before the Wokening we didn’t yet know that “dead white males” were demons who needed exorcising; bemoan the lack of women in publishing jobs; or care about “giving voice to the unrepresented”. Instead if we were on the anti-realist camp we shared .pdf copies of a then hard to find copy of a Ben Marcus smackdown of Jonathan Franzen; discussed Zadie Smith’s “Two Paths for the Novel”; read a dude’s blog called “Contra James Wood” whose reason of being is self-explanatory; were on the lookout for what Steven Moore thought. Those were days of awesome friction and fractures, when the future of innovative fiction seemed to hang in the balance. The days of inflationary hype when Tom McCarthy’s C was called, without the slightest irony, “an avant-garde epic”, according to one Jonathan Dee, “the first I can think of since Ulysses.”, instead of just, you know, a passable historical novel indistinguishable from so much “literary fiction” that uses a few sci-fi tropes to coloratura it up a bit and that science-fiction masters like Neal Stephenson do much better without a tenth of the critical acclaim McCarthy has so effortlessly and undeservedly earned. Something real seemed to be at stake and responses to the enemy were histrionic. The barricades keeping pro-realists separated from anti-realists started being erected in the 1960s when people started putting Augie March to one side, provided that was the street side the garbage bin was on, and on the other side whatever imploded the “conventional novel”. Me, I’d like to have a conversation with the Coover neuron that thinks that a social realist novel about a bunch of Greenwich Village losers meeting at parties to share their vapid tribulations is anywhere near the anti-realist spectrum of a guy who wakes up transformed in a bug.
Then in 2003 it was Don DeLillo’s turn to share his tale of how the Gaddis recognition woke him up: “I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.” Like I stated in Part 1, I don’t think Gaddis is a spectacular sentence stylist, so no one will be offended if I don’t add to the accolades to what to me is decent but ordinary prose:
Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades, of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality. But the procession up the foreign hill, bounded by cypress trees, impelled by the monotone chanting of the priest and retarded by hesitations at the fourteen stations of the Cross (not to speak of the funeral carriage in which she was riding, a white horse-drawn vehicle which resembled a baroque confectionery stand), might-have ruffled the shy countenance of her soul, if it had been discernible.
Did he confuse it with Lolita’s opening paragraph or something? With a sample of The Tunnel in some underground magazine? Gass did joke that they were always confusing him with Gaddis! The similarity between the plain prose Gaddis and DeLillo favor will be relevant later on to our distinction between postmodernisms.
My favorite late I-was-really-into-Gaddis-before-it-was-cool anecdote comes from Malcolm Bradbury, who once interviewed Gaddis. Bradbury was studying in New York right when The Recognitions came out, “and everybody in my lot was reading that book and we all knew it was very important.” The more the testimonies pile up the more you wonder who the hell were those 53 “amateurish and incompetent” book reviewers (Jack Green scriptit) who demolished the novel, because it appears that the slightest contact with it was enough for its genius to infiltrate your soul and convert you to its religion.
But when I started looking for contemporary evidence, Gaddis barely registered in dozens of interviews between 1960 and 1975 that I’ve read. Coover, so awestruck by it, didn’t even mention him when Frank Gado interviewed him (First Person: Conversations on Writers & Writing, 1973), or when Larry McCaffery interviewed him (Anything Can Happen: Interviews With Contemporary American Novelists, 1983). Anything Can Happen, going by the Index, is quite thrifty on Gaddis name-dropping and yet it aggregates the opinions of so many of the early postmodernists supposedly indebted to him.
One of the earliest public references by a peer comes from John Barth, and if you know anything about Barth’s project you’ll be hardly astonished at his less than appreciative tone, making his testimony more honest and valuable than late accolades to a bronze statue. By 1965 he hadn’t even read The Recognitions, as he Franzenly told J. J. Enck: “I know that book only by sight. 950 pages: longer than The Sot-Weed Factor. Somebody asked me to review the new reprint of it, but I said I couldn't think of anything worth saying in literature that can’t be said in 806 pages.” So much for paternity.
After this prologue we can get into the matter of the final part of my excursion through The Recognitions. Since I spent most of September rereading it slowly I had a lot of time to look up various perspectives on it; what crept to my consciousness was the anxiety readers have to certify whether or not Gaddis is a genuine postmodernist, whatever that even is, with the disturbingly unspelled out conclusion that he’s blown his chance at glory if we can’t stack him under the other garish plates in the pomo cupboard.
For years now I’ve tried to cut back on terms like “postmodernist”, “modernist”, even “realist” and “romantic”, because labels strike me more and more me as arbitrary if not deleterious segmentations of a continuum that can’t be neatly divided. Literature, unlike science, is not progressing, it knows nothing about discarding obsolete or wrong theories; literature doesn’t even have the wherewithal to define what an obsolete or wrong theory is in relation to itself. The writer’s relationship with his field’s accumulated body of knowledge is not linear, unlike the scientist’s, who does well to keep up with current discoveries. Science has an inbuilt unidirectional sense, whereas literature operates in terms of ebbing and flowing fads. A scientist will hardly make breakthroughs by going back to studying phlogiston, although negationists never give up thinking that repackaging and renaming the same disproven arguments against evolution will eventually work; but a writer in 2021 can make a brilliant new work by rereading past works in new ways. Barth developed metafiction partially because he reintroduced latent potentialities in The Arabian Nights that luminaries thought belonged to fiction’s outdated past: there has of course been those who believe that fiction is evolving toward an ever more perfect form, but that happened when writers and critics forgot the differences between science and art and tried to draw isomorphic analogies. For instance Ian Watt’s The Rise of the Novel is chockful of examples of Defoe and Richardson hating on every narrative genre prior to the novel. And in the 1880s Zola had no doubt that the “naturalist novel” was the culmination of a process toward the correct form and henceforth the novelist’s purpose was to apply it. We don’t believe that anymore, and before 1720 no one believed it either.
Three centuries ago we would have called Barth’s practice aemulatio, the imitation of a model of perfection with the intention of surpassing it by leaving a personal mark on it. What in the 20th century was considered a major feature of “postmodernism”, the rewriting of previous texts, in the 18th would have been “neoclassicism”, and in the 15th simply “an education”.
I still use these labels out of coercion because it’s difficult to establish communication with others without those handy shortcuts; but as a humble disciple of Korzybski I try to remain aware that they’re flasks that each speaker fills with whatever fancy he favors. Those who let labels delimit and constrain them end up more concerned with whether a work fiction fits a preconceived label rather than what the work is in itself. It’s pretty indifferent to me whether William Gaddis is a postmodernist, a bridge between modernism and postmodernism, a late modernist, or even just a social realist. But others find such questions very troubling. Here’s a quick census of my findings:
A booktuber called boyinthebadlands finishes his video agreeing with the claim that The Recognitions bridges modernism and postmodernism (min. 12:50)
In 1977, Joseph S. Salemi stated in an essay, “To Soar in Atonement: Art as Expiation in Gaddis's ‘The Recognitions’”, that “In its form and structure The Recognitions is thoroughly modern, but in its cumulative judgment of these representatives of modernity, it is profoundly antimodern.” Although his essay has been anthologized a few times, it’s telling that it came to my attention while reading another booktuber called Leaf by Leaf (15.59).
Yet another booktuber called Orpheus says that The Recognitions can only be called postmodernist in the sense of coming chronologically after modernism, since for him Gaddis still evinces a modernist worldview, an opinion I very much sympathize with (16.50).
When NYRB reissued The Recognitions and J R, Dustin Illingworth practically framed his fine review around the tension between modernism and postmodernism:
--“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.”
--“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.”
--“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.”
Illingworth also moderated a roundtable with the novelists Tom McCarthy, Lydia Millet and Joshua Cohen in which the question came up even several times even when it wasn’t plainly stated. The anxiety to categorize Gaddis is present when: Cohen argues that Gaddis felt like all modernists that he had arrived too late to make meaningful art in a world that no longer found it necessary (10:50); McCarthy claims that Gaddis, very pomoly, wasn’t defending a return to such absolutes as Truth (15:00); Illingworth remarks that Gaddis was Spenglerian like many fellow modernists, seeing decadence everywhere (18:10); McCarthy argues that Ludy, The Recognition’s middlebrow American novelist, is being mocked by for seeking a spiritual experience, a goal no genuine pomo bro would entertain except ironically (21:17).
For me the most useful contribution to the roundtable came from an audience member who asked the following: why is Gaddis placed alongside postmodernists when his reading tastes veered toward satirists like Evelyn Waugh and black humorists? Had Gaddis, he needed to know, been miscategorized? (45:50)
This is medieval in its scholastic circularity. If the question is whether or not Gaddis is a postmodernist, how could he have grown up reading postmodernists if he’s also supposed to have invented it? This is what happens when people are reared to think that “the postmodernists” was an actual gathering of people and not a retrospective moniker to make sense of a scattered phenomenon. It presupposes that “the postmodernists” formed a united front to consciously undertake a project called “postmodernism”, and that they had an obligation to know and like each other. In reality, when Gado asked Coover if he and Barth “are part of a school”, given their similarities, Coover replied, “Barth and I have never talked out our views (in fact, we’ve never met), and yet we’ve said the same things everywhere without knowing we were echoing one another.” Baring dictatorships like French surrealism whose Pope Breton excommunicated and baptized whoever he wanted in his fiefdom, this is how “movements” like “Romanticism”, “Naturalism”, “Symbolism”, “Modernism” really worked: a lot of anarchic zeitgeist and coincidences holding hands.
Lately our shape of reality has come to conform to the shape of our social networks. Social networks, where people with likeminded tastes congregate around a tribal identity, has contributed in recent years to create this creepy idea that there’s a correct list of “genuine” pomo writers. These tribes coalesce around a specific author around whose orbit they magnanimously allow a few satellite authors to gyrate, worship them as much as they malign foreigners, and mistrust and neglect authors outside their selected list. Because they’re constantly on the lookout to reinforce their identity, they project onto their favorites their own incuriosity and cling to whatever tenuous evidence connecting their idols. Likewise they hate discrepancies. I mean, a guy like Gaddis, he should be reading Pynchon, right (he did, of course), not, whaddya call him, Evelyn Waugh, isn’t he like a realist? Writing about aristos in the countryside or something? Brideshead Revisited isn’t even a “big book”! It’s what, 440 measly pages?! I thought Gaddis was a big book guy! Aren’t all pomos, like, maximalists?!
Back in the real world, Gaddis doesn’t show up in Coover’s interviews because he was reading, of all things, correspondence between Christian theologian Rudolf Bultmann and philosopher Karl Jaspers. Bultmann argued that the Church needed to “de-mythologize itself” since no one could believe in stuff like Noah’s Ark, Adam and Eve, the Virgin Birth – but not the Resurrection, that “had to be saved because it was that moment in which God’s finger touched history.” But Jaspers sensibly replied that there was no excuse getting rid of some hokum but keeping the Resurrection in. Coover liked Jaspers’ solution: “But, why throw any of it out? Why not accept it all as story; not as literal truth but simply as a story that tells us something, metaphorically, about ourselves and the world? Jaspers concluded that the only way to struggle against myth is on myth’s own ground.” If this were a classroom the teacher would tell you to underline “myth”, pay attention class, that’s a key concept, we’re coming back to it later. Coover didn’t care about Gaddis because he was writing against realism, which anyone in 1955 or 1973 or now would have noticed is Gaddis’ preferred mode. Coover’s nausea at realism, he told Gado, took extreme precautions: “In fact, I went through a period when I didn’t want to read anybody in the novel tradition; I felt there had been no good English novelist since, roughly, before Defoe.” Undoubtedly Coover was aware of Ian Watt’s theory that the novel had arisen thanks to Defoe, a realist through-and-through. But since he wanted to impugn realism he had to look for models elsewhere: “To me, the pre-Cervantean stuff seemed the most important.”
Hobnobbing with discarded fictional modes was not unusual in the 1960s. When Barth, who also went looking for an alternative to hegemonic realism, and likewise turned to myth and fable, talked about his formative readings, he showed a very classics- but non-Western-oriented preference for The Arabian Nights, The Ocean of Stories, The Panchatantra, etc. It stood to reason that if they didn’t want to write in the realist mode, they were better off reading fiction from before it came into being. Pre-Cerventean stuff indeed! Writers don’t become a certain way because they’ve read different books, but because they’ve read the same books available with a different sensibility. For more than a century now Brazilians have been reading The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas and all they did was make realist novels because in the 1880s Brás Cubas was categorized as a realist novel since the highest compliment payable to a novel then was to call it realist. Don’t ask me why a novel narrated by a dead man from the Afterlife qualifies as “realistic”, I’m stating an uncontroversial fact. But because Barth read it in the 1950s unburdened by contextual baggage he was free to discover a “proto-postmodernist” (his words) novel that gave him the tools to invent metafiction. Of course what he discovered through Machado was what Lawrence Sterne had already done in the 1750s. There’s no progress in literature, only fads that ebb and flow.
When readers believe too much in the substantiality of labels they have disappointing experiences with books. The most negative review of The Recognitions that I’ve recently found belongs to a novelist called George Salis. I don’t care if he tears it apart, I don’t think Gaddis or any writer demands universal idolatry; I’m using it as an example of someone engaging with a work of fiction poisoned by expectations; in Salis’ case he was sold the belief that Gaddis belongs not only to postmodernism but to a very narrow albeit popular conception of postmodernism, namely the maximalist novel, that insufferable gremlin:
This was advertised by readers and critics as a maximalist novel but it didn't have everything I love in such a genre, only two modes: poetic prose, which is a lost love that never returns except for emotionless and condom-constrained flings afterward, and the party banter, which I was interested in then tolerated then was fully dulled by, and but there was a brief couple of fun moments of radio advertisements that I wish had been, well, maximized (I’m told by a friend that I’ll get my wish in Gaddis’ second novel). And what it did have in the way of maximalist tics it didn't have enough of for such a long book: vast vocabulary, epiphanic allusions, topsy turns of phrase, etc. One more thing: Gaddis, through one of his characters, does excoriate the expectations of m(ass) readers, yet his praise of “long sentences” is nearly the service of lips considering the absence of sentences approaching, say, the breathless likes of Joseph McElroy. Fine, another thing: the comparisons to Joyce’s Ulysses aren’t nearly as Polyphemus-blind as comparisons of other books to that Irish masterpiece, but The Recognitions is still lightyears behind it even though there’s the age of Christ between their release dates (1922 – 1955), “a whole Odyssey without Ulysses” indeed.
He’s aware that “this novel influenced and anticipated great fiction written by Pynchon, DeLillo, and even DFW,” you know, the “genuine” pomo curriculum, “but in comparison, this novel is dated and failed to amaze and stimulate this 21st-century reader beyond the promise of its opening chapters, resulting in diminishing and diminishing returns, unfortunately....”
Notice the unstated assumption that “postmodernism” and “maximalism” are one and the same thing; that by rule maximalist novels have “poetic prose” (oh I wish!); followed by a list of things he blames Gaddis for not having in conformity to a stereotypical definition floating around. Maybe it wouldn’t have made a difference if it had been “advertised” to him in another manner, but I do think such reactions accrue from already expecting a famous novel to be a certain way instead of dealing with it in its own terms.
This happens to Gaddis quite often, no one knows how to peg him. Going back to DeLillo’s remembrance:
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel--so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Setting aside the fact that he thinks Gaddis was trying to get inside “minds” in J R, when he was using the cinematic techniques of objective realism discussed in Part 1, I’m baffled at his need to overcome his early impression that it wasn’t a realistic novel – but what else could it be? Why was he ever in doubt? What else did he think a literal collection of ordinary people talking about ordinary things could be? A metafictional game like Lost in the Funhouse?
When last year I reviewed Steven Moore’s Alexander Theroux: A Fan’s Notes, I noticed that Moore also fretted about whether or not Theroux is a “genuine” postmodernist. Moore seems to think not and scarcely hides that Theroux has devalued in his eyes because of this. Funnily, like the audience member who thought Gaddis’ disapproved readings exposed him as a fraudulent pomo, Moore worries a lot about Theroux not sucking up to Pynchon. It’s that unstated belief that “the postmodernists” were a tightknit crowd that stood together against old men in the sea and Georgia boys aboard wayward buses.
Thanks to Moore I have also noticed a curious pattern, maybe it only exists in my paranoid mind, but let me share it with you. In the pomo real estate market J R is worth more than The Recognitions. In a 2014 interview Moore stated: “Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions, was my favorite for a long time, and I’ve reread and written about it more often than his others, but his second novel, J R, is now my favorite, and arguably the best thing he wrote. (It’s also my nomination for THE Great American Novel.)” When we turn to recent literary studies focused on postmodernism, Gaddis is either ignored or J R is chosen instead. In The Art of Excess, Thomas LeClair made that choice; as did recently Rob Turner in Counterfeit Culture: Truth and Authenticity in the American Prose Epic. Meanwhile, he’s either wholly absent from or given cameo roles in recent books: in Nick Levey’s Maximalism in Contemporary American Literature there’s no chapter on him; as there is none in Stefano Ercolino’s The Maximalist Novel, although he does devote a few lines to justify his dismissal of Gaddis in a breakthrough study of a type of novel that others say was invented by Gaddis.
The Recognition’s subtle occultation and J R’s championing constitute in my view a single phenomenon that takes us back to McCarthy’s constantly contemptuous snark every time issues of spirituality, absolute values and transcendence were brought up in the roundtable, and to Gaddis’ own reading of the pomo room in his correspondence to Comnes and others (see Part 3). If we want to establish differences between epistemes, matters of spirituality and authenticity are a good start.
When I previously wrote that modernism turned art into religion I didn’t share a personal view or even a late interpretation timidly seeking approval in the Academy. I mean that Zola in 1875 said that Flaubert “entered literature the way in the past one entered a [religious] order”, that he “gave his entire existence to art”, that he made “the work of a Benedictine”. I mean that in 1880 Eça de Queiroz called Flaubert “um monge das letras”, a monk of letters. That Henry James spoke of the novelist’s “sacred office” whose “betrayal” was “a terrible crime”. You just need to turn to Arthur Symons’ valuable survey of the French Symbolists:
Here, then, in this revolt against exteriority, against rhetoric, against a materialistic tradition; in this endeavour to disengage the ultimate essence, the soul, of whatever, exists and can be realized by the consciousness; in this dutiful waiting upon every symbol by which the soul of things can be made visible, literature, bowed down by so many burdens, may at last attain liberty, and its authentic speech. In attaining this liberty, it accepts a heavier burden; for in speaking to us so intimately, so solemnly, as only religion had hitherto spoken to us, it becomes itself a kind of religion, with all the duties and responsibilities of the sacred ritual.
Hugh Kenner once remarked that “the symbolist movement was staffed almost exclusively by lapsed Catholics, convinced from childhood that there existed verbal formulae of power, of efficacy.” In one of his usually brilliant readings of poetry, he shows how a sonnet by Mallarmé is filled with “Christian iconography”: “rare words ending in the cruciform x”, and the final verse “De scintillations sitôt le septuor” being a “countdown, cinq, six, sept, toward the mystic seven, the tally of the days of creation.”
Or we can turn to the Catholic Huysman’s preface to Against the Grain with its longing for a spiritual dimension lacking in modern life:
The strange thing was that, without having had an inkling of this at the beginning, I was led by the very nature of my task to study the Church under many aspects. It was in fact impossible to go back to the only really characteristic eras humanity has ever known, the Middle Ages that is, without realizing that She embraced everything, that art existed only in Her and by Her. Being outside the Faith, I looked upon Her with some suspicion, surprised at Her greatness and glory, asking myself how a Religion which seemed to me only made for children had been able to suggest such marvellous works.
Rilke was talking with Angels. Yeats was editing the anti-Newton Blake and pouring his occult dabbling into A Vision. The nutsy Fernando Pessoa was writing messianic poetry about the rise of a spiritual empire, the biblical Fifth Empire that would rescue mankind, a prophecy he nabbed from a 17th-century Jesuit preacher called António Vieira based on an interpretation of the Book of Daniel.
You can find this longing for a previously accessible spiritual dimension that has been shut off in the wake of science in Hofmannsthal’s Lord Chandos’s complaint of losing the ability to feel the meaning of language; his woe’s confident is Francis Bacon, early empiricist whose boosting of science in the 17th century did much to help disenchant the world. Chandos is prematurely experiencing the effects of science’s intrusion, cutting off the channel to a belief that once animated every speck of Creation, rendering nature mute, inert: thanks to science we can know what things are made of and how and why, but like Chandos we can no longer understand what for, how they’re connected in a pattern that transcends the ego. The source of meaning, which used to be God, has disappeared, and the new instruments haven’t done a better job.
Gaddis, I suggested in Part 3, at first did take seriously the alchemical symbolism of the novel; in a 30 December 1960 he explained its allegorical level: Brown was matter, Valentine mind, Wyatt creative spirit without love, Esme love; but as the decades wore on either he had a change of heart or was seduced by the fashionable talk of the pomo academics courting him and eager to having him pay lip service to the tenets of their “There are no values, nothing matters” creed. Anyone wanting to understand the different epistemes between modernism and postmodernism, assuming they even exist, need only compare the candor of his early letters with his later views.
I’m not saying that we need to join Blake in thinking that Newton was Satan’s agent; but we should believe that this spiritual dimension mattered to modernists and that the attempt to recover a lost absolute informed their art, otherwise modernism is just a mundane affair concerning freedom to print “fuck” and an inventory of techniques 19th-century realists didn’t come up with, as if stream of consciousness is in itself particularly amazing (most post-Joyce writers have made it clear they wouldn’t use it even with a gun pointed at their heads) or produced any masterpiece aside from Ulysses.
I find it very strange that McCarthy, who since his anointment a decade ago has been touted as an expert on modernists, beams with blasé glee every time he ridicules the quest for the absolute that pumped so much blood through modernism’s vein. If we’re looking for epistemic changes we’ll learn a lot from his inability to empathize with its own perspective, from this aggressive, gloating scotosis that borders on a position of absolute certainty that the truth is that Truths don't exist. He doesn’t just reject this premise personally, which is what I do; he also has an instinctive aversion to it being taken seriously, a fear halfway between superciliousness and cynicism that others may show the corny affrontery of believing that spirituality is a necessary adjunct to a mentally healthy personality. That’s why he misreads the Ludy episode in The Recognitions: but Ludy is not ridiculous because he’s seeking a spiritual experience in Spain, he’s ridiculous because he’s seeking a trite, easy-digestible, effortless spiritual experience that he can package for commercial consumption for philistine readers back home, unlike Wyatt, Stanley and Reverend Gwyon who endure ordeals in their quests for transcendence.
If I’m correct in assuming that scorn for spirituality, metaphysics, transcendence and the absolute is a major component of postmodernist, no wonder The Recognitions doesn’t sit well with its high priests. It asks us to put ourselves in the mental mood to honestly entertain whether or not art redeems the world, a question that wouldn’t have drawn from Rilke the chuckles it draws from McCarthy. Gaddis certainly arrived too late, but too late to find sympathy in a world that finds such question risible. Instead the rule of materialism, power relations, world systems like capitalism, financial organizations, make J R a lot more palatable. It triumphs because it “speaks to its time”. A few years ago, when activists were occupying Wall Street, there was a collective reading of J R called “Occupy Gaddis”. With that J R demonstrated its “relevant” credentials to the urgent problems of the right-now-right-here-call-a-spade-a-spade world. In the sense that it suffers from none of The Recognition’s wooliness, I suppose we can consider it postmodernist.
But now we have to discuss the rather secret fact that there were at least two parallel tendencies within postmodernist. (There were more but let’s keep it simple.) Since as a practitioner of fiction I’m not obliged to kowtow to the Academy, in my very personal reading of American postmodernism these two tendencies are best exemplified by Gaddis and Nabokov. The features of each tendency are latent in the novels each one published in 1955. But although they developed more or less simultaneously, the Nabokovian tendency received got an advantage from Lolita’s global success.
Nabokov unlike Gaddis was read and so could have admirers, followers, imitators, whereas Gaddis disappeared for nearly 20 years, excepting occasional reissues that as we’ve seen the likes of Barth didn’t even bother to read. In my view The Recognitions mattered very little to the development of ‘60s and ‘70s American fiction: John Hawkes began his career in 1949; Barth candidly confessed his debt to Machado de Assis in his first novel, which came out one year after The Recognitions; and his pomo manifesto “The Literature of Exhaustion” doesn’t mention Gaddis but fawns over Nabokov, Borges, and Beckett. Even Gass, who steered J R to a National Book Award, was a Nabokov adept and joined the celebratory issue that The Saturday Review of the Arts dedicated to him (January 6, 1973, pp. 38-45). Although it’s hard to find contemporary connections between Gaddis and early postmodernists, many of them publicly declared their admiration for Nabokov. Gaddis’ name doesn’t come up in a 1965 Hawkes interview, who however did have this to say: “A writer who truly and greatly sustains us is Nabokov.” Thomas Pynchon was Nabokov’s student at Cornell. Even when it comes to Joseph McElroy, in the antipodes of Nabokov, it’s easier to find an extended piece of praise for him than for Gaddis: “Lolita and Pale Fire, still his finest books, at first made me feel freer to go ahead and slip the regular vein of sensitive, even-tempered American realism and try to write elaborately clued existential mysteries in tones of varying voice that might include the arch or absurdly overbearing.”
Gaddis’ early paladin was the unlikely David Markson, who pestered an editor into giving The Recognitions its first paperback; an unexpected figure in this imbroglio because his early novels were cheap detective novels and parodies of popular genres like westerns, situating him in a pomo territory that Gaddis never claimed for himself: formalist pastiche and metafiction. When Markson in his late years started writing serious novels, he let his metafictional bent run wild, which again took him away from Gaddis’ down-to-earth aesthetics to Nabokovian territory.
In the roundtable Illingworth said that the use of entropy in J R is evidence of his postmodernism since entropy is endemic to it (33:50). Well, it certainly was a word Pynchon bandied about and had used two years before. Entropy is a metaphor for a widely felt sense of impasse, impotence, loss of vigor, and entrapment. Entropy states that the Universe is a sealed system running out of energy until it reaches a depleted state. Human scale is blown up to cosmic proportions: life is screwed because it happens be dependent on a universe whose laws of physics are rigged against it. It conveys fatalism and the meaningless of all things since in the reeeeeally long term we’ll all be dead, a fear Thomas Nagel explained back in 1971 is irrational. The entropic metaphor is a way of sciencing up an older idea popular at the time, “the absurd”. Shoving science into everything is a defining trait of the other postmodernist tendency.
A similar feeling of stasis was called by Joseph Heller “Catch-22”, which the Merriam-Webster defines as “a problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem or by a rule”. The word “inherent” is felicitous because Gaddis had already given his version of entropy in The Recognitions, except he called it “inherent vice”, an insurance term designating the fact that some products can’t be insured because their physical properties lead to self-destruction. Painting is a delicate skill because pigments are essentially chemical products that react badly against each other; in the past a major part of learning the trade meant learning how not to destroy paintings in the long term by putting certain pigments next to each other. When I was writing my novel I vaguely remember coming across this, perhaps in Max Doerner’s The Materials of the Artist and their Use in Painting. As a metaphor for the human condition it’s gorgeous.
But is Illingworth correct, did postmodernists generally care about entropy or scientific metaphors widely? Did Nabokov, Barth, Hawkes, Coover, Barthelme, Sorrentino, make use of entropy? And what about non-American postmodernists? Of what use was entropy to Anthony Burgess or Angela Carter or Italo Calvino or Gabriel García Márquez? Ever since Brian McHale’s Postmodernist Fiction has given us carte blanche to parrot that modernist fiction was involved with epistemology and its representative genre is the detective novel and that postmodernist fiction is involved with ontology and its representative genre is science fiction, that’s what we’ve been doing, parroting it. Funnily enough, Barth, who happens to still be considered a founder of postmodernist fiction, had this to say in 1968: “I've never been interested in science-fiction.” McHale’s certainly on to something, it is now widely agreed that postmodernist fiction has interweaved into its body scientific themes, symbols and/or metaphors; but in the first decade it ignored science, even fled from it. Paul West made circa 1972 a statement that will now seem weird to us: “There is scientific fiction, but not much, little of it American.” Who was there to disprove him? Pynchon, McElroy, Vonnegut? Even assuming he knew their work, it’s such a short list it was a reasonable thing to say. Nabokov was sympathetic to science so long as it were lepidoptery, but besides a very specialized branch, it wasn’t an overt ingredient of his novels. By science we mean the real hardware deal, science when it becomes applied technology that can reshape society if not destroy it (something lepidoptery is, alas, unlikely to achieve any time soon), the type of science that can end in nuclear extermination and that led Lord Russell to worry about its misuse by governments and elites in The Impact of Science on Society (1952). Although evidence kept pouring nonstop, the early postmodernists took a very nonchalant approach to these warnings and seldom incorporated them in their fiction.
To understand why early postmodernists didn’t share the fascination of Vonnegut, Pynchon, McElroy, DeLillo, we must begin by seeing them as forming a continuum with modernism instead of a much-touted rupture. Modernism was not anti-science, but anti-scientism, which we previously saw is science as a religion with exclusive means to explain everything. And what it couldn’t explain wasn’t worth explaining. That means questions regarding ultimate causes and purposes: why are we here? Why is there something instead of nothing? What’s the purpose of life?, abandoned science’s purview and were mocked by it whenever they found shelter anywhere else. Auguste Comte, an empiricist, said, don’t worry, don’t get bogged down by metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, just study what can be seen and measured and quantified, what it all means is not for us to worry about. Indeed, because according meaning to things and itself is the business of consciousness. However, the logic of scientism is that if science can’t explain what can’t be seen and measured and quantified, nothing else can. A concept science was having trouble doing that to was precisely “consciousness”, so in the early 1910s John Watson and later his disciple B. F. Skinner developed Behaviorism, a school of psychology that seeks to explain behavior through external stimuli and by ignoring motives, will, basically that people may actually be autonomous agents who want to achieve things and expect certain outcomes. It’s the “black box” theory of the mind: you add inputs and study the outputs, as if we were automata without free will, and register the results.
It was against this crude materialism that a vast but dispersed movement counting with Freud, Dilthey, Husserl, Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin, Heidegger and many more rebelled to bring back metaphysics, spirituality, or simply defend the obvious fact that we can’t go around pretending we don’t have, call it what you will, “soul”, “mind”, “consciousness”, “inner voice”. When modernism got close to being an anti-science sect filled with nutjobs, usually it was because consciousness was at stake. W. B. Yeats rejoiced to T. Sturge Moore in May 1926 that “‘the three provincial centuries’ of reductive, mechanical thought engineered by Locke and others have come to an end and that our task now is to ‘deduce all from the premises known to Plato’.” Platonism, being a form of idealist philosophy, was squarely against realism, the default philosophy of the Enlightenment. It wasn’t accidental that when science started to deny the existence of the mind, literature became obsessed with its recesses, nooks, layers and lairs. That’s why so many early modernists explored stream of consciousness, inner monologue, the memory’s non-linear recall, anything that emphasized the role of creative consciousness in everyday life. Although consciousness yields poor results when science studies it, it’s less coy when psychoanalysis, religion, philosophy, magic and especially art take a crack at it.
In this bonkers bouillon of philosophers, magicians, anthropologists, artists, what Guy Davenport called the “renaissance of the archaic” was going on. For if you pushed past the mind’s outer rational layers you got into archetype and folklore symbolism, and what a synchronicity that Jung showed up right on time to supply us with a theory about it. Myth, with its readymade structure and universal application, could shore up the modern world’s randomness and shape it up into meaning. Once again Yeats to Sturge Moore: “I feel that an imaginative writer whose works draws him to philosophy must attach himself to some great historic school.” However, the modernists were at heart realists, they had grown up on a diet of Henry James, Tolstoy, Balzac, Zola, and social pressure from all sides told them that fiction and realism were one and the same thing, so there were swerves and slips along the way. Thomas Mann wrote Joseph and His Brothers, an actual biblical novel, but this was too literal and smacked of Romanticism’s historical novels. Joyce did it better when he used The Odyssey to foreground Ulysses’ paean to ordinariness. Eliot wrote that Joyce found “a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history.” “Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.” He did the same in The Wasteland, a brocade of myths. Ezra Pound was working on The Cantos. Later on Hermann Broch wrote The Death of Virgil. Mann did better with Doctor Faustus, which reimagines the Faust legend in modern times. This was the mode Gaddis operated too. The Recognitions, amazingly, started as a comic short-story about the Faust legend.
But the Age of Publicity was upon us, as Gaddis announced to those who still doubted it. And this is one of the defeats of modernism. It wanted to keep checks on the Age of Reason, but it wasn’t artists and thinkers who did it in, it was the kitsch modernism was also trying to keep at bay. Such insights into the systems that control us, advertising being a major one, is why many are so keen to see Gaddis as a postmodernist, provided he’s of the Pynchon, DeLillo, McElroy, up to David Foster Wallace and Joshua Cohen’s The Book of Numbers strain that charts the encroachment of technology on daily life, the rise of faceless forces created by us that turn on us and enslaves us. It’s also why, in my opinion, J R has gained more traction in recent years, it speaks more relevantly to contemporary America, it’s ribald fun about Wall Street, we can relate to that, whereas we’ve grown inured to his rants about a world drained of authenticity and the torments of secluded artists atop an ivory tower. As Wallace said in a different context, “We simply cannot ‘relate to’ the older aesthete’s distanced distaste for mass entertainment and popular appeal: the distaste may well remain, but the distance has not.” The “revolt of the masses” that terrified Gasset happened and popular culture and popular fiction have become mainstream, where once they used to be an embarrassing pastime.
One thing the early postmodernists inherited from modernists was the strict isolation between art and society, which included science. But their first works of fiction show that who they had on their minds were the realists. I often see postmodernist compared to modernist as if it were a direct reaction to it. It’s even believed that one followed the other immediately, as if modernist had precisely run its course on let’s say 1959 and in 1960 a new era spontaneously started. McHale’s definitions thrive on a binary bullet-point-by-bullet-point rebuttal of features. The problem with this slick antinomy is that modernism had ended long before the early postmodernists started writing, and they had closer targets to rebel against.
By 1929 pretty much every key modernist work of literature was done. Proust died in 1922, Kafka in 1924, Rilke in 1926, Hofmannsthal in 1929. Unamuno published Mist in 1914, Joyce Ulysses in 1922, the year of The Wasteland. Pound’s Hugh Selwyn Mauberley came out in 1920. By 1927 Woolf had brought out Mrs. Dalloway and To The Lighthouse. The Sound and the Fury is from 1929. Nothing Pessoa wrote after 1929 changes his stature. Pirandello had already written his important theater-within-theater plays. Although a lot of these works were hermetic, unpopular, challenging, hostile to readers, catering to a select few, 1929 brought on an event that accelerated the return to mass-oriented, social realist fiction. The world economy’s collapse coincided with Erskine Caldwell’s fiction about the downtrodden caught up in the Great Depression. Soon Steinbeck was adding to the growing stock of fiction about ordinary people told in simple prose, without modernist shibboleths. By 1933 The Anvil, a literary and political activist magazine that contained “Stories for Workers”, was spreading leftist fiction. The next year the Soviet Writer’s Congress imposed “socialist realism” as the de facto aesthetic of revolutionary writers, soon to be adopted by many Communist Parties in Europe. In France, André Thérive’s Manifeste (1929) and Léon Lemonnier’s Populisme (1931) fostered a movement called populisme (populism) which sought to fight French modernism’s emphasis on psychological analysis at the expense of focus on the proletariat. In Italy, a poetic movement called ermetismo (hermeticism) developed a type of inaccessible poetry filled with metaphors and inherently formalistic; it didn’t outlive its detractors, the neorealisti, who believed antifascist writers during Mussolini’s dictatorship should return to social themes. The Portuguese equivalent of ermetismo is presencismo, named after the magazine presença (1927-1940; it was written in lowercase), which in turn adhered closely to the tenets of the Nouvelle Revue Française and felt emboldened by Julien Benda when it defended that the intellectual should busy himself with seeking eternal truths instead of paying attention to the circumstantial. The presencistas were opposed by the neo-realistas, who like their Italian counterparts used literature to fight a dictatorship, and like the Italians had been empowered by recent American realist fiction; but that’s not all: in 1930 a Portuguese populista called Ferreira de Castro, part of a group of anarchist writers, published Jungle: a tale of the Amazon Rubber-Tappers, his second novel, a vivid description of the struggles, hopes, sorrows of the workers who gather Amazon rubber. It ended up becoming a major influence in Brazilian novelists who were also turning to the working class for inspiration: Jorge Amado, the most famous of the bunch, Graciliano Ramos, Rachel de Queiroz, José Lings do Rego. These writers in turn were read in Portugal and influenced the neo-realistas. Similar stories for similar reasons can be found in Spain, i.e., the imperative writers felt to stand up against Franco’s dictatorship. In Argentina the archetypical battle between ermetismo and neorealismo was roughly left to two rival groups, the Grupo Boedo and the Grupo Florido. The Argentine Hector P. Agostí Defensa del realismo came out in 1945. In his 1938 essay “Realism in the Balance”, the Marxist Gerog Lukácks declared the “failure of the various modern literary schools” and pled for writers allying themselves with the Revolution to give up decadents like Joyce and follow the lead of “the major realists of our age”, namely Thomas Mann, Maxim Gorki, Romain Rolland. You'd be amazed at how many heeded his plea!
Clear so far? The point I’m making is that by 1929 modernism was done in, finished, kaput, it was no longer, it had bought a one-way ticket to Dodoville, it was last seen dancing behind Death, it didn’t shut its eyes when the Ark was opened, it chose the wrong chalice, it didn’t have its bullet vest on when the Libyans came for it. Political, military, economic factors fostered the recrudescence of social realism, and this time with a Marxist engagement that not even Zola would have dreamt of. (Zola was despised by neo-realists). The reason why textbooks ignore this interregnum and pretend there was an immediate transition is because in the literary stock market realism doesn’t fetch high prices; sure, the original realists still command respect, we all idolize Balzac, Flaubert, Eça, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Zola, Conrad, James; but the Academy has a deep-seated prejudice against their disciples, as if they were outdated, unfashionable for not having kneeled before the mighty modernists. So we pretend that we went to bed with Woolf alive and woke up with, I don’t know, Anthony Burgess penning A Clockwork Orange, without Anthony Powell, C. P. Snow and Angus Wilson in between. Or we pretend that between, say, Gertrude Stein and Pynchon the novels of Nelson Algren, James Jones, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, Richard Yates, John Williams were a dull dream.
But they existed and were widely read. And unless we recognize that there was about 30 years of relentless social realism before postmodernism we’ll never understand two of its early features: 1) it shied away from dabbling in science because it was too closely entwined with “real world issues” trumpeted by social realism; and 2) it pursued like ermetismo formalism and language, ultimately developing metafiction, because only thus could it continue like modernist to keep art unsullied by mundane affairs, the masses, the “message” peddled by the engagé. It’s no wonder then that early American postmodernism is basically Nabokovianism, because no one barked louder than him against literature being enlisted to ideas, parties, revolutions, social change. Science belonged to the empirical world, it inevitably sicced the imagination on the Cold War, nuclear bombs and geopolitics, it was too real, too sociological, too much the purview of reportage. Instead, fiction should seek to reignite the ability to make itself at home in the fantastic, return to myth and fable; its sole concern should be itself, its history, its conventions, the production of an autonomous fictional world. Again, much of this temperament was essentially culled from Nabokov, as Barth pointed out: “The novel seems to have its origins in documental imitation, really. So when we get people like Nabokov, writing a novel which is a poem-plus-commentary - in other words imitating another genre - one feels simply that the novel is coming to a full circle.”
So it took a while until the scientific postmodernist tendency soared to its myth-&-metafiction sister’s visibility. Barth started by mocking the ideas of existentialists like Camus and Sartre, moved on to historical pastiche which gave him full freedom to explore outdated novelesque conventions, turned to myth (Giles Goat-Boy) and finally to full-blown metafiction (Lost in the Funhouse). Coover was a realist when he wrote The Origin of the Brunists and then embraced m&m too. Hawkes and Elkin were more on the realist camp, their novels are grounded in urban milieus populated with outrageous but middle-class individuals, although the attention they give to language and structure produces that dizzying sensation that they’re made of more flamboyant fabric than Steinbeck’s Joads. Science and technology mattered little to Sorrentino, who was also a tireless experimenter of form. Federman was yet another deep into formalist experimentation. Gass, of all people, set a novel in the 19th century and wrote lyrical short-stories about the Midwest: he too was a language writer, not a sociologist prophesizing where technology would lead us to. Theroux’s Three Wogs is a collection of realistic novellas in which the symptoms of the Cold War and nuclear extinction play no role in the duels of wits and wills between minorities and xenophobes and racists; and Darconville’s Cat follows a protagonist whose comically retrograde personality seems like a cluster of every unfashionable and old-fashioned trait Theroux could think of: in the Middle Ages there wasn’t science, so. Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo leans heavily on m&m’s myth part.
Because the early postmodernists weren’t thinking about modernism but the recrudescence of realism since its demise when most of them were either toddlers or teenagers, many were impelled to devise strategies to defeat this threatening hegemony. Whereas Gaddis used the Faust legend to outline a realistic story, had Barth worked it he would have actually written about Faust and Mephistopheles, except the story probably would have been told from an unusual perspective, perhaps a demonette in his retinue, which would have allowed him to make allusions to The Master and Margarita. For that was early postmodernism, writing about myths in the literal sense with total recall of the whole of literary history at the disposal of the author for playing with it. When West reviewed Barth’s Chimera (it’s undated but I assume it’s from the book’s same year), he began by commenting on the popularity of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces: in 1972 the first paperback edition of the second edition had just come out; the time was ripe since everyone was thinking and talking about myth. Giles Goat Boy partially came to life after critics started insisting that Barth had written The Sot-Weed Factor with Lord Raglan’s The Hero in mind. Actually he was so steeped in mythical structures thanks to his readings of Persian and Indian myths that he unconsciously projected them onto his stories. But when Chimera came out it was irresistible to draw comparisons with Campbell, who popularized readings of mythical patterns in everyday life, even if they remained only a half-forgotten residue. West writes: “So hooray for myth – except that Barth, instead of composing realistic fictions that insinuate mythic archetypes, chooses to address archetypes head-on.”
At the time this was more interesting than the sociology of the military–industrial complex, which smacked too much of 19th-century realism anyway, all that reporting the world back to the reader, treating the novel as if it were a news medium. In England, novelists like Angus Wilson who had rejected modernism were now feeling the constraints of sociological reporting on the imagination: “My generation tried to bring the nineteenth century back again. And now we suffer from much too great a neo-realism”, he complained in 1966. Why report sociological stuff when reportage could do it better and without distorting facts? That was the point Gass defended during the famous debate with John Gardner; instead leave fiction to make things up, in the figurative and literal sense: invent stuff that’s imaginative and make objects that stand on their own and can be added to the world, preferably beautiful objects.
Restoring the role of the imagination in the creation of artistically verbal objects was far more urgent; we saw in Part 1 that critics up until the 1960s assumed that the novel was fated to remain on a path toward more realism, until it would become nothing but mere unobtrusive, dispassionate description, as Robbe-Grillet prophesied. The Barth/Robbe-Grillet feud is yet more evidence that the postmodernists instead of reacting to modernism were responding to ideas by their contemporaries. If you open a pomo textbook you’ll learn that both are “postmodernists”, and yet Barth couldn’t be more contemptuous of what he had in store for fiction: “From what I know of Robbe-Grillet and his pals, their aesthetic is finally a more up-to-date kind of psychological realism: a higher fi to human consciousness and unconsciousness”, he joked in 1965. This outcome was a serious risk. In 1959 West gave a series of lectures entitled The Growth of the Novel. His first lecture starts with him quoting the Concise Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “novel”: “Fictitious prose narrative of sufficient length to fill one or more volumes, portraying characters and actions representative of real life in continuous plot.” And West added: “Notice the vital phrase: ‘real life.’” He didn’t challenge this demand, for him the novelist “deals with day-to-day behaviour; usually he takes a whole spate of humdrum facts and puts them into order by means of plot and narrative.” Had West put this into practice in his novels he wouldn’t be one of my favorite novelists. But this was the creed neophytes were expected to swear by. Who in his right mind wants humdrum facts? Barth certainly didn’t, that’s why he dismissed the supposedly avant-garde Robbe-Grillet as a cheap realist: “A different way to come to terms with the discrepancy between art and the Real Thing is to affirm the artificial element in art (you can't get rid of it anyhow), and make the artifice part of your point instead of working for higher and higher fi with a lot of literary woofers and tweeters. That would be my way. Scheherazade's my avant-gardiste.” Translation: metafiction.
I have particular reverence for metafiction, not because I like to use it in my own fiction, but because I realize what it liberated us fiction writers from. The moment you instill in the public that novels are artificial objects that cannot portray the real world, novels stop having a reason to be a collection of humdrum facts, they can become about anything you want, your imagination is the limit. And it was the imagination that early postmodernists tested, pushed, strained, expanded; thanks to them we can now write novels about anything and in any shape we want and no one whose opinion is worth giving a cow’s tit about commands the power to shame it or annihilate it. To draw this point home the early postmodernists pedagogically exposed the public to the most outlandish plots: an English poet who amidst massacres, shipwrecks, legal entanglements, bloodthirsty colonials, Indians, and lots of women wanting to deflower him retains his virginity and writes an epic poem about Maryland; a goat-boy generated by a computer; a thousand-year conspiracy involving Masons and Knights Templar to save Western Civilization from being destroyed by an intellectual contagion called Jes Grew that looks a lot like black culture; a man seeking an enigmatic entity called V; a soldier who gets erections before v2 rockets hit; the Cat in the Hat running for president; Uncle Sam fighting the Phantom in a comic book version of Cold War; a substance called ice-nine that turns all water into more ice-nine and accidentally dooms mankind; a Christian billionaire who makes elaborate pranks and uses his fortune to buy his way out of jail (okay, this one may be social realism).
If you consult early attempts at making sense of what we now call “postmodernist fiction”, say The Fabulators (1967), Fabulation and Metafiction (1979), Partial Magic: The Novel as a Self-conscious Genre (1975), Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (1980), The Metafictional Muse: The Work of Robert Coover, Donald Barthelme and William H. Gass (1982), Metafiction: the Theory and Practice of Self-Conscious Fiction (1984), you’re constantly drilled about fabulation (a much better name for magical realism), metafiction, pastiche, and the novel as a deceptive genre that plays games with the reader about its artificiality. Nabokov in many of these books enjoyed an important place because no one doubted that he had been fundamental in bringing these possibilities into American fiction.
Postmodernist’s first enemy was social realism, its objective narrator and the shrinking of inner life down to behaviorist description. As Magny said, one day the “impersonal novel” would be possible, the same way science is impersonal. Similar predictions can be found in José María Castellet and Wayne C. Booth, right when the m&m shift occurred. Besides the moratorium on imagination, stopping the deadening of language was a priority. Anyone knows who’s had a go at serious writing that the more elaborate language is the more it resists reporting ordinary things. Since most writers are by default realists they don’t have to consciously alter anything, they can rely on the natural style we’re socially taught to consider the only admissible one. You’ll notice that Zola’s characters, unlike Shakespeare’s, don’t break into torrents of puns. As such, early postmodernist was deeply motivated to foreground extravagant language to demarcate itself from realism. It’s also why Nabokov was such an icon for generation of novices looking for a way out of the realist rut.
“Well if writing is on the walls, it’s up to novelists to make it do things which the movies and music can’t,” said West in his Chimera review. “Barth has. Style, often thought the key to the treasure, is the treasure itself. For style, offering no explanations, can’t be right or wrong, only good or bad.” It’s no coincidence that he specifically mentions that prose must do what movies didn’t; we saw in Part 1 that cinema was a powerful aid in the invention of the impersonal novel Magny prophesized. The fear of the novel becoming a mere script, a trite list of plain descriptions, ran across the decade. When Robert Scholes wrote The Fabulators he made it clear that the novel had to stop behaving like cinema, the path chosen by Robbe-Grillet, and return to its origins as a storytelling genre for fantastic, playful, pleasurable tales in luxurious prose. Remember Barth, “Scheherazade's my avant-gardiste.” Scholes was thus arguing for novels to go in the direction of romance (“pre-Cervantean stuff”) and pastiche. It’s no surprise then that early postmodernist not only rehabilitated first-person narrators, a modernist stapple for those inclined to keep score of the similarities, to stave off the impersonal feel of the objective narrator, but also popularized unreliable and solipsistic narrators. For the lens can’t lie, what it points at is what it captures and gives back, unedited. But Charles Kinbote is maybe a liar and a madman. And Humbert Humbert’s contrition is but flowery syntax deep. That is why Coover has a guy dream up a complex game of baseball to the point of disappearing from the novel, taken over by his fantasies. Why Barth’s narrators address the reader directly and in a Ronald Sukenick novel we find out at the end that it was all made up by the narrator. Unless they hadn’t gone to such extremes to destroy the objective narrator we’d still be slaves to realism, and maybe the warnings about the death of the novel would have come true.
Once you realize there are two postmodernisms going on, you’ll start understanding the dynamics of the disagreements going back and forth between them. West didn’t think there were American novelists writing about science probably because he wasn’t seeking them; he was a stylist with an existentialist streak who oscillated between avant-garde experiments and historical novels. He was a science fan, as we see in his autobiographical Life With Swan, and even wrote in 1972 a novel about an astronaut sighting an angel in space, but science was first and foremost a pretext for existentialist issues and not about how science is disrupting classic societal bonds and dehumanizing us, the stuff you find in DeLillo. Gass, another stylist in the realist tradition, never hid that his adherence to fine writing put him off Pynchon. McElroy’s serious take on science justified his distance from the way Barth portrayed it: “Anyway, I'd come to feel that technology was far more interesting than liberal satires upon it like John Barth's in Giles Goat‐Boy. Therefore, what actually went on inside the computer HAL in the film 2001 attracted me more than some paranoid or Bergsonian comedy one might imagine Stanley Kubrick intended. More important, if NASA's systems seemed to erase or revise the great single and possible Self at the core of our Western tradition, one wouldn't necessarily see those systems through refractions of that Self's rhetoric.” Systems is the language of this tendency that seeks paternity in Gaddis. It’s the word at the root of Tom LeClair’s “systems-novels” genre which he devised from DeLillo, and it figures heavily in The Art of Excess, probably ground zero for the reinvention of postmodernism as a mode indissociable from concerns about science and “responses to the master systems of the contemporary world” instead of “literary games of the Nabokovian kind”, as he wrote in the Introduction.
Indeed it strikes me that for some years now Nabokov’s role in postmodernism has dwindled. His star hasn’t fallen, in fact he has a constellation all to himself, and that’s the problem: studies continue to come out regularly, but American scholars nowadays study him individually, in isolation, as if he were one of his self-contained, autonomous, novels, undefiled by the world. He’s been removed from the history of American postmodernism as if he had never been part of it, as if Hawkes, Gass, Barth hadn’t doted upon him like a master, as if he hadn’t been the “Montreux Magician”. The explanation I find for this is that Americans need a distinctively American postmodernism. You see, Portuguese postmodernist fiction was created by a Portuguese called Tomaz de Figueiredo, Brazilian postmodernist fiction by a Brazilian called João Guimarães Rosa, Spanish postmodernist fiction by a Spaniard called Gonzalo Torrente Ballester, French postmodernist fiction by a Frenchman called Raymond Queneau, Italian postmodernist fiction by an Italian called Carlo Emilion Gadda, German postmodernist fiction by a German called Günter Grass, Argentine postmodernist fiction by an Argentinian called Jorge Luis Borges, but American postmodernist fiction is in the vexing position of having come out of a Russian émigré who settled in the country in 1940 and who was contemptuous of most of its fiction up to that point and beyond.
If, as I’ve argued, postmodernism is defined by fabulation, metafiction, pastiche, there’s nothing Americanly unique about it. Barth wrote a long novel in archaic English pastiching 18th-century picaro novels? That’s nice, Tomaz wrote a long novel in archaic Portuguese that pastiches the 17th-century panegyric. Barth wrote about myths in the literal sense but ironically? That’s nice, in GTB’s Don Juan a man living in modern-day Paris is accosted by two guys claiming to be the original Don Juan and Leporello, but maybe they’re conmen. What, Coover picked up a children’s book and turned it into a political fable? That’s groovy, but have you heard about Julio Cortázar’s Fantomas Versus the Multinational Vampires? And did you know, pomo expert, that Coover made a Pinocchio pastiche in 1991? Sure, but you didn’t know that Giorgio Manganelli got there earlier in 1977. What, Sukenick liked to fill novels with puns? Big deal, so did Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Queneau. Because the recrudescence of social realism was a global phenomenon, its reaction was also global, and in every longitude and latitude you find the same narrative strategies deployed to bring it down. That’s why it’s so hilarious to open classroom textbooks and learn that “postmodernism is a literary movement that started in the USA in the 1960s and was exported to Europe decades later”. Sure it was.
But if you shift the core definition to the exploration of the impact of cybernetics, technology, world systems on society, then American postmodernism gains an edge. The Europeans and the Latin Americans were looking back at history, as even Barth was in The Sot-Weed Factory. Carlos Fuentes’ big maximalist Terra Nostra reimagines the snafu that was the Europeans discovering the New World. But Pynchon’s big maximalist novel is about the legacy of World War II on our psyche, how technology can destroy the world, the consequences of European colonialism, the shadowy movements of secret groups with links to governments that understandably should leave us all paranoid. Calvino used science for laughs in Cosmicomics, effectively a fairytale book. But McElroy’s Plus is no fairytale, it’s a dour portrait of A. I. gaining consciousness replete with techno-jargon that points to a future when we’ll have to adjust to these new cyber-consciousnesses.
Any page of The Recognitions can resonate with our times: “Historians, anxious to rescue some semblance of a system from the chaos of the past, point out that since the dawn of civilization, the center of civilization has moved westward”. This economic model first come to my attention in my early twenties thanks to that repository of weird ideas Robert Anton Wilson. Where Gaddis got it from I have no idea, but it’s currently playing out in our lifetime: economic wars between the USA and China; we’re once again talking about the “silk trade routes” that once connected the Old World; at the start of 2021 China overtook US as EU's biggest trading partner. In 2020 10 Southeast Asian countries agreed to create the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which is slated to become the world's largest trading bloc. When I was a kid the money was in California, in Silicon Valley. Since then it’s moved westward. However, Gaddis very pomoly also reminds us that this model may be just a delusion we impose upon chaos to hallucinate controllable patterns. Gaddis’ crusts of sociological scrutiny have been pecked at by other writers: the rise of psychoanalysis and pharmaceuticals; the publishing industry’s catering to low taste; the connivence between TV, entertainment and advertising; the normalcy of sellout culture; our ongoing self-promotion to be noticed, our living in a constant performance like Otto.
You can see the shift occur around 1987 when LeClair published In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Five years later Susan Strehle gave us Fiction in the Quantum Universe. Two years later Franco Moretti's Modern Epic: The World-system from Goethe to García Márquez. Next came Joseph Tabbi’s Postmodern Sublime: Technology and American Writing from Mailer to Cyberpunk, John Johnston’s Information Multiplicity, Tabbi’s Cognitive Fictions. Soon titles had forgotten the quaintly old-fashioned vocabulary of early pomo textbooks with their shoutouts to muses, magic, and paradoxes.
To get rid of Nabokov they had to fill his vacancy, preferably with an ancient autochthonous candidate. The best they found was Herman Melville’s brilliant The Confidence-Man. In an “Afterword” to a 1964 edition, R. W. B. Lewis stated that it was “the recognizable and awe-inspiring ancestor of several subsequent works of fiction in America: Mark Twain's The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg and The Mysterious Stranger, for example; and more recently, Nathanael West's The Day of the Locust, Faulkner's The Hamlet, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, William Gaddis' The Recognitions, John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, Thomas Pyncheon's (sic) V. Melville bequeathed to those works - in very differing proportions - the vision of an apocalypse that is no less terrible for being enormously comic, the self-extinction of a world characterized by deceit and thronging with imposters and masqueraders”.
The contretemps to this being true is that again you can’t ascertain direct influence. I have serious reservations that Gaddis could have been aware of The Confidence-Man. It was originally published in 1857 in the USA and Great Britain. In 1923 it was reissued in GR. Bradley A. Johnson, in The Characteristic Theology of Herman Melville: Aesthetics, Politics, Duplicity, writes in a footnote: “After all, as late as 1953 the novel had yet to be reprinted in American, and only once in London, in 1923, as Volume XII of in the Constable Edition of Melville's Works.” He’s an expert so he must know better than me, but it’s widely known that Grove Press reprinted it in 1949. What indeed there was in 1954 was Elizabeth S. Foster’s first critical edition which did much to bring attention to it. Either 1949 or 1954, unless our precocious postmodernists were carrying century-old editions under their arms, it was too late for it to be part of their formation. People tend to forget that the first postmodernists were born in the 1920s and 1930s and so had a very lax approach to “high culture”, they’re the first generation that doesn’t mind saying in public that they liked to read detective novels, horror, science fiction, comic books, pop culture is their baseline culture. Reed dedicated Mumbo Jumbo to George Herriman, the cartoonist who invented Krazy Kat. Barth never hid that he didn’t like to read American classics, that he had read little of it before he enrolled in college; he could be quite catty about Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway. Coover told Gado that he didn’t read Moby Dick until he was “reworking Brunists”, which would put it in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. Here was a guy who bragged: “I’m not obliged to read for any extrinsic reasons. I’ve never had this kind of connection to literature – I never even took lit courses. So if I pick up a book called The Iliad and I’m bored by it, I just put it down.” I don’t think he’d be in a hurry to read a recently reissued obscure novel by Melville to be up to date on “tradition”, but who knows.
The Confidence-Man concerns fakes and a lot of American postmodernist fiction can’t get enough of fakes and forgeries. Stanley Elkin created con men with gusto, fast talkers, smooth talkers. Coover turned Richard Nixon into a character, even Roth did a good Nixon parody in Our Gang. In The Floating Opera Todd is portrayed as a lawyer who delights in sophistry, and The Sot-Weed Factor has a pastiche of John Smith’s “secret journal” which tells America’s alternative history. It’s tempting to trace all of this back to a novel that hadn’t been reissued until 1954, but it’s a lot more credible that the early postmodernists read Lolita and the English-language Nabokovs that were quickly reissued in wake of its planetary success, exposing a generation to dozens of fakes, cheats, liars, unreliable narrators, paranoid narrators, self-deluded crackpots. Lolita is essentially the story of a fake who first tries to deceive a woman into giving him access to her child, and then tries to draw our sympathy by feigning penitence. Lolita was far from being the first of Nabokov’s novels to narrate the exploits of fakes; he loved this type of character because it allowed him to illustrate his aesthetic vision. He objected to students who parroted the platitude that art is “sincere and simple” because, “of course, art at its greatest is fantastically deceitful and complex.”
Let’s call Nabokov’s approach to fakery “European” to distinguish it from Gaddis’ fakes. The European fake is full of braggadocio, feels no remorse. In the picaresque tradition the swindler joyously narrates his criminal enterprises. Humbert Humbert’s ancestors are Lazarillo de Tormes and Don Pablos, rogues whose first-person narrations wish to entertain us. It was a tradition still much alive during the war. In 1954 Mann published Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man: The Early Years, which in picaro fashion has an aging conman retelling with bonhomie and refinement his unapologetic sallies into dishonest industry. And recently it has come to my attention that Jean Giono’s The Open Road (1951) is yet another postwar story about a con man, although I haven’t read it yet. If we go back a bit we witness the rebirth of the original picaro in Camilo José Cela’s Nuevas andanzas y desventuras de Lazarillo de Tormes (1944). Bellow’s Augie March was immediately recognized as a modern-day picaro. There was a wide revival of the picaro, the conman wasn’t an idiosyncrasy attributable to Melville or Gaddis. Depending how we judge fakery, we could even expand the list. Should The Invention of Morel qualify as a novel about forgery? I think it should.
Gaddis didn’t think fakes were funny; I mean, sure, his novels are funny, and Frank Sinisterra is hilarious and even gloats a bit in picaro fashion; but for Gaddis fakery served to underline a condition endemic to modern man: we all of us are fakes and complicit in a global networked system of fakery. I don’t see Melville’s confidence-man as supporting this view; for me he’s steeped in the European comic tradition of the performative rogue, a creature out of folklore with its wily beat-the-devil-at-his-own-wit peasants and of mythology with its trickster gods. Closer to Gaddis’ angry, indignant everything-is-phony-nowadays mindset is J. D. Salinger’s unbearable Holden Caufield who goes around holier-than-thouly calling everyone else a “phony”. Both have an existentialist undertone, they indict all of us, we’re leading fake lives, we’re all of us that café waiter playing a role to conform (see Part 3).
In my view, the fake as humorous rogue instead of indictment of mankind is much more prevalent in early postmodernist. Whereas Gaddis moralizes, Elkin sees his fakes as engines of energeia and auxesis, he doesn’t feel anger at his fabri of flim-flam, he affectionately gives them the best lines and the stage, he’s amused at their performance; amoral, like Don Pablos and Humbert Humbert they take relish in their powers to deceive victims, mustering rhetorical armament to convince, cheat, swindle.
For this is an epistemic difference between Gaddis and the Americans who came afterwards. As a modernist, he took upon himself the incumbency of keeping the rabble away from art, of quarantining popular culture and all that is low, and of saving art from pollution by dalliances with kitsch, genre fiction and inauthenticity. But the Age of Publicity spares no one and kids who didn’t bother to read Moby Dick didn’t give a hoot about leaving art the last uncontaminated realm in a desecrated world. Of what exactly? Why not a novella about the Cat in the Hat?
Like Gaddis, Nabokov is a transitional figure, caught between two worlds. Like the modernists he despised philistinism: “Philistinism is international. It is found in all nations and in all classes. An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen.” His essay “Philistines and Philistinism” looks a lot like him reading back Mr. Pivner’s character outline to Gaddis: “A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature—his essential nature is anti-artistic—but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines.” How does Gaddis introduce Mr. Pivner, the embodiment of philistinism? “Mr. Pivner stared at an advertisement which, like 90 per cent of the advertisements he read, had no possible application in his life.”
Nabokov: “He is a faithful reader of the Saturday Evening Post, and when he reads he identifies himself with the characters.”
Gaddis: “Nothing escaped Mr. Pivner's eye, nor penetrated to his mind; nothing evaded his attention, as nothing reached his heart. The headless corpse. Love kills penguin. Pig got rheumatism. Nagged Bible reader slays wife. Man makes own death chair, 25,000 volts. ‘Ashamed of world,’ kills self. Fearful of missing anything, he read on, filled with this anticipation which was half terror, of coming upon something which would touch him, not simply touch him but lift him and carry him away.”
Nabokov: “The philistine, in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting next to him.”
Gaddis: “Mr. Pivner found safety in numbers; any publication with a circulation of a million reassured him, and in a land where mental diseases tolled more people than all other human ills combined, a circulation of four million was more reassuring than anything else could be: for every twenty-five literate citizens over the age of fourteen, one had bought this book, not to guess at how many single dog-eared, underscored copies had circulated among the remaining twenty-four. Assuredly then, it was more than safe; it was an integral part of life around him”.
So much energy spent to Ur-text Gaddis, but no one’s asked if maybe he read Nabokov. But Nabokov, who, unlike most modernists, was an actual aristocrat, didn’t keep philistinism and pop culture outside art; he embraced them, inside art they were at least under artistic control and could be redeemed. Will Norman once wrote that Lolita is about “the seduction of a young American girl with a saccharine taste for movie stars, pop songs and sodas.” I’m sure “seduction” is not what happens, but the rest is a spot-on description of Dolores Haze, an ordinary girl of ordinary tastes. Suellen Stringer-Hye added: “Nabokov’s own attitudes toward popular culture are problematic. He seems on the one hand to detest its vulgarity while on the other to celebrate its vigor.” Gaddis certainly attests the vigor of The Age of Publicity, but does he celebrate it? No, he rages at it like an unbeatable enemy. The early postmodernists learned from Nabokov to just laugh at it. Gass captured the point in his introduction to Elkin’s The Franchiser:
Elkin is not concerned with High Culture, either. He knows it not. The city, itself, is his Smithsonian, and there is real lust in his love for it, not merely the usual honor and respect. He has been happily captured by this vast dump of dreck the city has become, and the country has become as it has become a city. He adores this spill of drink and splat of spittle, this rind of flesh, dry ash, and peel of paint, this loud honk the city is, and all its elements; even if it is a steel shaving, this mother of muggers and vulva of vulgarity, this hospice for rape and every kind of wretchedness – the city; although it is only a loud shout, a long hurt, and place of enlarging hate – he loves it, its objects, its stone scapes, lit ways, and glowing windows, this shag of hair and shard of glass the city is; the bag, can, weed, and bitter litter it makes; the cold smoke, the poisoned air it holds; this dog leaving that the city is: Elkin has an embracing passion for it. He celebrates it as no one has done or has been able to do”.
Furthermore, Nabokov explored forgery formally, art must be fantastically deceitful and complex. Gaddis’ novels certainly are complex, but not deceitful. The characters emit their thoughts with Dostoyevskyan transparency, bare their souls. Gaddis’ reliance on the third-person objective narrator who mostly sets up scene and describes with little interference, letting the characters reveal themselves through speech, can only produce straightforward novels devoid of the literary games that annoyed LeClair. But consider Lolita itself: allegedly a confession of a penitent criminal, it is a pastiche of sensationalist sex books, complete with a foreword by one John Ray Jr., editor of psychology books, which heightens the literary game being played. Then in Pale Fire he camouflaged a novel into a 999-line poem, its line-by-line commentary and an index. Nabokov was deeply interested not just in fakes and forgeries as theme, as Gaddis was, but also as shape and form, i.e. in pastiche, the natural way text can pretend to be some other text. If early postmodernists relied so much on pastiche once again the source is Nabokov, not Gaddis. When Barth famously said that the novelist was stuck writing novels that pretend they’re novels, he was espousing a conception utterly alien to Gaddi’s plea for authenticity. The Recognitions could not have inspired Barth to pastiche Tom Jones into The Sot-Weed Factor any more than J R could have inspired Coover to write The Cat in the Hat for President. I’m not saying Nabokov did, I’m just trying to establish a formalist continuity between Nabokov and early American postmodernism that in my view is fruitless to trace back to Gaddis.
But m&m postmodernism started dying off in the 1980s. Once novels become self-conscious and metafictional, they can only speak about literature, and all they can say about it is that it’s self-conscious and metafictional. Soon it’s like all those useless visual artists who think they’re as daring as Duchamp for imitating his urinal pose, only let’s vary it a bit, instead of a urinal it’s a white canvas, or an empty plate, or a can of shit, or a crucifix in a jar of piss, or Tracy Emin’s disheveled bed, or a banana taped on a wall. M&m made its point early on: the novel should be free to be as imaginative as it wished. With the planetary popularity of One Hundred Years of Solitude, no one ever doubted that anymore, so it became tiresome to keep pointing out that novels are artificial objects unbound by the limits of reality, yeah, we got it, now what we want to know is what to do once the bounds are off. One Hundred Years of Solitude is an example of boundless imagination filled with old-fashioned heart and unencumbered by self-consciousness, as are Nights at the Circus and Midnight’s Children, balancing mimesis with whimsy. In a 1981 interview Barth said that in writing LETTERS “I wanted to write a special type of novel, one as far removed from contemporary norms as I could make it.” But by doing that he often also removed himself from contemporary life. It turns out people wanted novels to reach a compromise: they could have as much imagination as they wanted, but they had to be played straight and portray a world we recognize as our own; when you’re trying to find meaningful fiction that speaks profoundly to the human condition it’s a downer to be regularly reminded that it’s all just a jumble of words that the author could change at a whim; and although that’s true, when we’re investing ourselves emotionally into characters we want the illusion the fiction is as irreversible as existence. “I claim that the fact that we are strongly encouraged to identify with characters for whom death is not a significant creative possibility has real costs”, wrote Wallace in 1988, and although he was talking about the fact that in TV heroes don’t die, his complaint makes a valid point about the shortcomings of metafiction.
How does that leave The Recognitions’ legacy? In my view it stands a chance of being more influential to novelists now than it was to past ones. I don’t think it’ll have a formalist or technical influence; it may be thematic, fakes, conmen, the inauthenticity of modern life continue to be favorite themes; it’ll probably impress by its ambition and scale; but maybe novelists will look up to its moral stance, its gravitas, its earnest belief that art matters and that it matters because it believes experience can be communicated, because language is not a sealed-off system but the one tool we have to elucidate ourselves about our condition on this planet. Basically it has good chances of lasting because it’s so unpostmodernist, which I think is what fiction writers are nowadays looking for, a way back to fiction speaking meaningfully to readers. It’ll probably impress novelists who realize they’re stuck in a culture of selling out. I see its anti-selling out ethos everywhere. It gives off a romantic aura that current writers pine for because they are conscious of how much their predecessors compromised. Back in the 1980s Gass complained in Gaddisspeak about the business savviness of younger writers: “To whom and to what do they look? Not many years in front of them was Ann X or Barry Y (about whom there is still plenty of shop gossip), and just see where they are now - with stories appearing in The New Yorker, with a collection out from a prestigious press, with interviews, readings, nibbles from the films, an interesting divorce -fictionwise. Because few of the young people I met had the romantic aspirations my generation had, I decided that they lacked ambition. I was wrong. They have plenty of ambition, but it is of a thoroughly worldly and common-sense kind: they want to make it.” Selling out worried Wallace a lot and I couldn’t help noticing that during the roundtable it was Joshua Cohen, born in 1980, who brought up Gaddis speaking out against sellout culture. I think current novelists crave the dignity he effortlessly exudes and which they sense society has left them too emotionally damaged to ever be capable of attaining. When we read in The Recognitions that “Money gives significance to anything.” and that “Simply ev-rything is for sale.”, this isn’t exactly a perspicacious discovery, but it’s as much as motto of our times as W.S. Merwin’s “nothing is real /until it can be sold”, and he said it sooner.
Likewise, I sense nostalgia for fiction that is not afraid to take itself seriously. When Sergio De La Pava’s A Naked Singularity came out it was often compared to J R, it does have an old-fashioned patina of the real deal, from its first pages you feel that it urgently wants to say something important about current society, and says it.
Gaddis also arrived early to show that advertising’s twin is endless distraction. Being a Thoreau reader, he knew that technology instead of improving us was going to expose us to vapidity. The prophecy in Walden:
As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate. Either is in such a predicament as the man who was earnest to be introduced to a distinguished deaf woman, but when he was presented, and one end of her ear trumpet was put into his hand, had nothing to say. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring the old world some weeks nearer to the new; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. After all, the man whose horse trots a mile in a minute does not carry the most important messages; he is not an evangelist, nor does he come round eating locusts and wild honey. I doubt if Flying Childers ever carried a peck of corn to mill.
is comically portrayed in Mr. Pivner’s compulsion to read a newspaper from start to finish, worshipping every informative word, unable to disconnect, even though so much bandwidth instead of healing his loneliness deepens it. Gaddis was the first to show that the Age of Publicity poses an attack on attention; the interconnected world destroyed attention and replaced the local community with global anxiety.
As one of the first warnings against the Age of Publicity, The Recognitions will also draw sympathy from any novelist who’s stopped to think about its consequences. In the novel’s many living rooms and bedrooms radio traps listeners in a ceaseless noisescape of advertising, thinking it’s a companion when it’s a conman we’ve invited into our lives. In the streets too it keeps on churning out its sales pitches, desacralizing all space, rendering everything into a market. Advertising was often a villain in Wallace’s essays, and in our lifetime we’ve seen it corrode political speech, any kind of speech actually, for we’re being reared from babies to become influencers, full-time, 24/7 hustlers, yes-men second-guessing what an imaginary audience wants to hear to leave a like.
Gaddis grounded his novels in life reported by the newspaper. Precisely because he had the instincts of a social realist he was better attuned than m&m postmodernists to massive transformation in society; and he was imbued with the old-fashioned social realist duty of reporting those news back to the tribe. It’s indifferent to me whether he goes down in history as a postmodernist or not. What matters is whether his work has vitality to perpetuate itself as a paradigm of artistic ambition that can inspire more meaningful fiction. I’m not worried about that.