Friday, October 22, 2021

William Gaddis 1: At the movies

The Recognitions lives inside so thick a brume of rumors, complaints and expectations, that I’d like to start by clarifying that it’s not like the monstrous sketch that comes out of the imagination of its detractors and fans alike, the former to condemn it as the ultimate example of fiction that has burrowed itself in dehumanized intellectualism; the latter to use it in online booktalk as a status signal picked up by an elected infatuated with showing off how proficient they are at finishing “big books”. The secret, however, is that, like any good novel, whether it be 200 or 1000 pages, The Recognitions requires patience and attention.

The patient reader who commits to it until the end and overcomes segments that are at times oblique, if not downright cryptic, will eventually hold in his mind a reasonably clear picture of a story.

Wyatt Gwyon grows up in Mount Lamentation, New England, where his father is a Calvinist congregation’s preacher. Wyatt’s upbringings, however, is left mainly to his bigoted Aunt May. Reverend Gwyon lost his wife, Camilla, aboard a ship heading to Europe. Feeling ill aboard, the ship’s doctor is called to treat her; but this doctor is in fact one Frank Sinisterra, a money counterfeiter on the lam who’s travelling under a false alias. Lacking medical training, his misdiagnosis leads to Camilla’s death. Gwyon buries her in Spain, a Catholic country, and upon his return to New England he starts losing his sanity and embracing Mithraism, a religion that once vied with Christianity for popularity. Having a degree in Anthropology he’s knowledgeable about ancient myths and religions, awing and terrifying his congregation with doubts about the veracity of Christianity. As he secludes himself in his studies, he and Wyatt grow estranged, leaving the boy prey to the influence of Aunt May, who wants him to continue the male Gwyons’ tradition of churning out priests. But Wyatt shows incredible artistic skill from an early age and instead decides to take up Painting.

He travels to Paris, marries Esther and tries to establish himself as a painter, but his chances are dashed after an encounter with a corrupt critic who promises him good reviews in return for a share of the profits; since Wyatt rejects his proposal or blackmail he demolishes his art exhibition. Wyatt, who was already emotionally unbalanced since childhood, receives the blow to his self-esteem badly, abandons artistic ambitions and settles into a pointless life of art restoration and heavy drinking. In all he made only 7 paintings, mostly in the tradition of old Dutch masters. In his adherence to tradition we see Aunt May’s lingering influence, who once scolded him when he showed her a drawing of a robin: “Don't you love our Lord Jesus, after all? He said he did. Then why do you try to take His place? Our Lord is the only true creator, and only sinful people try to emulate Him”. Lucifer’s sin is that “he tried to become original”. After this Wyatt continued to draw in secret, burying his drawings in terror. “Eventually Aunt May permitted him to copy, illustrations from some of the leather-bound marathons of suffering and disaster on her shelf; but even she had no notion of the extent of his work. It was hardly original”, and so he becomes skilled at copying. Later his German art teacher complements Aunt May’s injunction by telling him that “originality” is a “romantic disease, originality, all around we see originality of incompetent idiots, they could draw nothing, paint nothing, just so the mess they make is original… Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates…”

Doubly adept at copying old masters and psychologically blocked from seeking originality, when Wyatt moves back to New York he’s successfully ensnared by Recktall Brown, a smooth-talking businessman with his hands in many shady businesses, including a publishing house that makes best-sellers by committee. He and Wyatt form a partnership to pass off forgeries as originals. Later he introduces him to Basil Valentine, who wants to go into business with Wyatt on his own. Wyatt spends a lot of time trying to disentangle himself from these two. Eventually he stabs Basil Valentine in the arm and flees to Spain.

Meanwhile, through Esther several characters enter his life, the three more important in my opinion being: Otto, a pathologically lying playwright; Esme, a beautiful model apparently craved by half New York; and Stanley, a no-nonsense Christian composer. The characters start knotting into each other; Sinisterra has a drug-addicted son, Chaby, who hangs out with Esme; Esme happens to be modelling for Wyatt; Otto gets in contact with Brown’s publishing house, etc. The subplots are varied, but in my view the two most impactful are: Otto trying to reconnect with his estranged father, Mr. Pivner, only to meet by misunderstanding with Frank Sinisterra, who hands him a bag full of counterfeit bills, setting in motion tragicomic events; and Stanley planning to play his music in honor of his mother in an Italian church’s organ.

I trust it’ll be clear to anyone well-read in traditional fiction that I just described a straightforward 19th-century realist novel, which means no one needs to despair over insurmountable challenges. I don’t want to go in the full opposite direction and claim that The Recognitions is a walk in the park, but it’s not like walking in Central Park at night either. It progresses linearly, and despite its wide cast of characters it’s probably no more populated than your usual Eça, Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy. These many characters branch into several storylines like in any 19th-century novel, but like in a 19th-century novel there’s a main character’s storyline they’re subordinated to: Wyatt’s. New characters enter the novel because of him, because they know him, or because they know someone who knows him, and their individual issues mostly revolve around him, illuminating him; and the more these phantoms become interconnected the more they start gaining cohesion and force like geodesic domes. Coincidence continues to be the glue that keeps a fragile frame intact. The same way we make allowances for all the times Dostoyevsky’s characters miraculously happen to meet in the crowded streets of Moscow with the exact snippet of information necessary to make the story advance one more chapter, it’s wiser to stop thinking about how weird it is that in a New York with millions of people a selected few just keep bumping into each other in cafés, parties, offices. You know, like in 19th-century novels.

Gaddis was working on a larger scale than his 19th-century predecessors, perhaps, but not by much; whereas his ancestors strove to capture the whole city in its multiple facets, he bridged the USA, South America and Europe. Mind you, he has an ordinary reason for this that was well known to 19th-century realists: tourism abroad. His uncultured tourists are straight out of Henry James’ Americans who don’t know how to behave themselves in the Old World. Now some critics want to see such continental sprawl as the locus primus of a post-war novel that operates under world systems, premonitory of “mega novels” and “maximalist” novels that show the interconnectedness of everything. I’m not so sure that’s all that groundbreaking, Joseph Conrad’s Nostromo (1904) had already pointed out the interconnectedness of European/South-American politics and economics, national debts, international financial aids and economical colonialism. Reading it when Portugal was undergoing another IMF adjustment program, for me it resonated more with the post-2008 financial crisis globally interconnected world than The Recognitions ever did.

Furthermore, although Gaddis could compose a remarkable sentence, a singular description, a paragraph of captivating clarity, like his immediate forebears he wasn’t a sentence stylist and wasn’t trying to be one, never letting sparsely-sprinkled unusual words upset his consistent demotic register. So anyone who’s read Hemingway, Steinbeck, Caldwell, and especially John Dos Passos should have no problem getting used to his employment of the one seemingly more modernist and disorientating technique: lots and lots of broken, shallow unattributed dialogue.

I realize that readers exposed to the legend would find the comparison with Hemingway preposterous, especially because The Recognitions mocks him and his ilk, but it’s not that far away from being the kind of film script American modernists tried to turn fiction into. What unites them is a reliance on cinematic techniques that aim to give fiction objective precision as if it had dispensed with the narrator, as if we the readers were in fact spectators who had plunged into a scene without information of time and space, an attempt to reproduce our disorientation the moment a cinema screen lights up into an unidentified scene of a movie we’ve never seen before and which we need to make sense of on our own. In such fiction we’re thrown into a story instead of gently guided into it; since there’s no narrator there’s no one to narrate inner life, so what we know about the characters comes from visual description of their physical actions and behavior (let’s keep in mind it was the heyday of Watson and Skinner’s Behaviorist psychology), and from dialogue. So we open a Hemingway short-story and what is its salient feature? Dialogue, oodles of dialogue,

   The door of Henry's lunchroom opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.

   "What's yours?" George asked them.

   "I don't know," one of the men said. "What do you want to eat, Al?"

   "I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."

   Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in.

   "I'll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes," the first man said.

   "It isn't ready yet."

   "What the hell do you put it on the card for?"

   "That's the dinner," George explained. "You can get that at six o'clock."

   George looked at the clock on the wall behind the counter.

   "It's five o'clock."

   "The clock says twenty minutes past five," the second man said.

   "It's twenty minutes fast."

   "Oh, to hell with the clock," the first man said. "What have you got to eat?"

   "I can give you any kind of sandwiches," George said. "You can have ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, or a steak."

   "Give me chicken croquettes with green peas and cream sauce and mashed potatoes."

   "That's the dinner."

   "Everything we want's the dinner, eh? That's the way you work it."

   "I can give you ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver..." (“The Killers”)

banal, everyday, unassuming, repetitive, tedious dialogue, exactly like in The Recognitions’ gigantic party set pieces. The difference, and this for me is one reason why Gaddis is genius, is that he manages to transmute everything I despise in Hemingway into verbal virtuosity.

Technically, Gaddis settled in the new narrative possibilities cinema afford fiction, but pre-Wellesian cinema, a stationary camera whose lazy lens simply registers whatever enters its focus. This has tremendous impact on the characterization since much of the characters’ backstory remains a cipher. Wyatt seems to be the exception, we feel he’s more developed, in possession of a backstory, but that is not due to flashbacks or Proustian probing into his inexistent inner monologue, but because he steps in front of the lens from an early age and has the advantage of spending sixty pages having his growth to adulthood recorded in film. It does look a lot like Gaddis has given him a more developed psychology to explain why he behaves the way he does, but Wyatt’s psychology accretes visually like the other characters’ from being captured on film, he just got into the picture sooner.

There was nothing novel about this in 1955, so two few weeks ago I was startled by an essay by David Foster Wallace entitled “Fictional Futures and the Conspicuously Young” in which he described the style of Conspicuously Young (C. Y.) writers in the following way:

“As one can see popular icons seriously used in much C.Y. fiction as touchstones for the world we live in and try to make into art, so one might trace some of the techniques favored by many young writers to roots in our experience as consummate watchers. E.g., events often refracted through the sensibilities of more than one character; short, dense paragraphs in which coherence is often sacrificed for straight evocation; abrupt transitions in scene, setting, point of view, temporal and causal orders; a surfacy, objective, “cinematic” third-person narrative eye. Above all, though, a comparative indifference to the imperative of mimesis, combined with an absolute passion for narrative choices that conduce to what might be called “mood.” For no writer can help assuming that the reader is on some level like him: already having seen, ad nauseum, what life looks like, he’s far more interested in how it feels as a signpost toward what it means.”

What’s awkward is not that this isn’t an accurate description of 1980s American realists, but that Wallace was convinced that this style had originated with the first generation to grow up with television, when in fact it’s a standard encapsulation of what manuals considered “good writing” up until the 1960s and beyond. And the main culprit was cinema.

In eschewing psychology and inner life, Gaddis was keeping up with the times, for it was nearly consensual that the future of fiction was to persist in the cinematization of narrative. One year later Nathalie Sarraute claimed in The Age of Suspicion that psychologisme was dead: “But for most people, the works of Joyce and Proust already rise up in the distance like witnesses of a past epoch, and the day will soon come when no one will visit these historical monuments otherwise than with a guide, along with groups of school children, in respectful silence and somewhat dreary admiration. For several years now interest in ‘the dark places of psychology’ has waned.” It wasn’t a flamboyant statement for 1956, although it was strange to come from a novelist who in fact continued to work in the Joycean stream of consciousness tradition. For a kindred spirit we should instead turn to Alain Robbe-Grillet, who simultaneously was writing the articles that would eventually compose For a New Novel (1963), in which we learn that the world

is, quite simply. That, in any case, is the most remarkable thing about it. And suddenly the obviousness of this strikes us with irresistible force. All at once the whole splendid construction collapses; opening our eyes unexpectedly, we have experienced, once too often, the shock of this stubborn reality we were pretending to have mastered. Around us, defying the noisy pack of our animistic or protective adjectives, things are there. Their surfaces are distinct and smooth, intact, neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent. All our literature has not yet succeeded in eroding their smallest corner, in flattening their slightest curve.”

I love the fact that “distinct” and the yearning for clarity inherent in “neither suspiciously brilliant nor transparent” directs us to Descartes’ “clear and distinct ideas”. For Robbe-Grillet was nothing if not the literary endpoint of a rationalist way of looking at the world, a philosophy of realism embodied in narrative fiction; where he went further than the Americans was in not just wanting fiction’s indiscretion to stop at the exterior shell of things, but in not even bothering to surmise meaningful relationships between things and human consciousness, satisfying himself with a pseudo-scientific rigorous notation in tiresome, plain engineer’s prose.

However, this shows that Robbe-Grillet is not quite the right comparison either because Gaddis was constantly fascinated by grabbing disparate things at the furthermost extremities of everything and bending and braiding and coiling and colliding them together into meaningful patterns; for him there were occult relationships between mythology, religion, art, psychoanalysis, technology, advertising, economics, because he actively sought to find them and their role in defining, augmenting or annulling humanness. Robbe-Grillet was soundly rejected by novelists because we as a species are resistant to fiction not about us, things only register in our ego insofar as they can be inserted into a meaningful whole that doesn’t exclude us. Even non-man-made useless sunflowers and gliding swans are ultimately useful to us because they allow for contemplation and aesthetic appreciation. A pretty sunset that hasn’t entered someone’s consciousness is just a screensaver smothered by shortcuts. So for Gaddis the world isn’t, but means, and fiction is its mandala.

In spite of the “New Novel” vainglorious bit, we can attest how backward French fiction was by the fact that Robbe-Grillet was calling “new” techniques in use for more than 30 years by then. This is embarrassingly clear in Claude-Edmonde Magny’s L'âge d'or du roman américain, an unsurpassable peaen to the American fiction that according to her saved its French cousin from atrophy. In this concise study published in 1949, Magny seems almost to glory in its dull state before discovering the Americans: “By the end of the 19th century, the French novel seemed to have stabilized in a noble tradition: that of the linear story, very bare, almost autobiographical.” Besides teaching them non-linearity, the Americans showed them how to get by without inner monologue. What did cinema bring to literature?, asked Magny. One innovation “concerns the mode of narration, which becomes absolutely objective, of an objectivity that almost reaches behaviorism, in name of conventions in themselves that were adopted for the presentation of events, conventions imposed to the filmmaker by the very nature of his art, which however the modern novelist has freely elected: events will be solely revealed from the exterior, without commentary or psychological interpretation.”  When Gaddis was two years into his masterpiece Magny was succinctly explaining its techniques.

But from cinema’s rich burse, besides external descriptivism, came out “more specifically technical innovations, made possible by the application in the novel of the principle of film shot transitions, whose discovery transformed cinema, turning it into an art.” Gaddis is strongly cinematic in his eschewal of notations of scene and time transitions:  no “Two days later”, no “Meanwhile at Recktall Brown’s evil lair”, and definitely not the limp “Time passed”. Where the reader may find some of the fabled difficulty is in parsing the abrupt location shifts and in calculating how much time has passed from scene to scene. Gaddis evidently loved this objective technique because he used it three more times. It wasn’t until he was awestruck by the novels of Thomas Bernhard that he adopted a first-person narrator for Agapē Agape (2002).

What I want to show is that Gaddis, despite his well-earned status as an innovator, was working within popular novelistic tendencies for his time and was the outcome of a search for the objective novel that goes all the way back to the 19th century. We move a few years back and bump into Sartre’s “François Mauriac and Freedom” essay: “If I suspect that the hero's future actions are determined in advance by heredity, social influence or some other mechanism, my own time ebbs back into me; there remains only myself, reading and persisting, confronted by a static book. Do you want your characters to live? See to it that they are free.” By “other mechanism” he had in the mind the narrator. He chastised Mauriac for exerting too much control over his puppets because for an existentialist a character’s life cannot be narrated by an external entity, the character is a free individual after all. Real characters, like real people, have no strings to be pulled, they’re pushed into the world no one knows quite by what, ciphers without commentators, enigmas without a hardwired purpose, free to make their own meaning.

Moving further back in time we stop at Daisy Miller’s preface, wherein James chiseled the dictum of objective realism: “Dramatize, dramatize!” Effectively he meant that a novel should behave like the stage, which like the camera lens shows but does not interfere or explain. We sit in the audience, the lights turn off and we stare at a curtain: we have no idea what’s behind it, and when it lifts we don’t know where the scene is, when, who the people are who inhabit it. We can glean bits of information from the set and the wardrobe, but we have to wait for dialogue and acting to fill us in, no voice from above will tell. James’ dictum was, of course, a founding stone of the most repeated writing advice in history: “Show, don’t tell”. It’s hard to pinpoint its origin, Flaubert, James, Chekhov, Hemingway have been suggested. In fact it originated from no one in particular, it was part of the spirit of a specific time. Here’s Chekhov’s version from a May 10, 1886, letter to his brother Alexander: “In descriptions of Nature one must seize on small details, grouping them so that when the reader closes his eyes he gets a picture. For instance, you’ll have a moonlit night if you write that on the mill dam a piece of glass from a broken bottle glittered like a bright little star, and that the black shadow of a dog or a wolf rolled past like a ball.” It was probably Percy Lubbock, a follower of James, who in The Craft of Fiction (1921) came closer to phrasing the “Show, don’t tell” rule:

“I speak of his ‘telling’ the story, but of course he has no idea of doing that and no more; the art of fiction does not begin until the novelist thinks of his story as a matter to be shown, to be so exhibited that it will tell itself. To hand over to the reader the facts of the story merely as so much information—this is no more than to state the ‘argument’ of the book, the groundwork upon which the novelist proceeds to create. The book is not a row of facts, it is a single image; the facts have no validity in themselves, they are nothing until they have been used. It is not the simple art of narrative, but the comprehensive art of fiction that I am considering; and in fiction there can be no appeal to any authority outside the book itself.”

Before cinema theater provided a handy analogy of how the novel could evict that woeful entity, the narrator. A good example, and of interest to fans of J R, is a 1913 novel, Jean Barois, by Roger Martin du Gard. It can be seen online here: it’s in French, but I literally mean it’s to be seen, only its graphic look needs to concern us here. Although it was marketed as a play, anyone’s excused for mistaking it for a longwinded play, with stage directions in the present tense, named dialogue. It’s a clumsy step from the early phase of the novel’s process of becoming something other than a thing that told stories: a vehicle for shown drama free of a narrator’s rhetorical intervention. The product was much perfected in the 1920s and 1930s when the Americans tried to turn it into cinema. And that’s where Gaddis once more enters our story, a novelist who partook of the techniques that at the time seemed more avant-garde. One technique he often employed was the ellipsis, not just in the sense of abrupt scene transitions, but the actual saturation of the “…” in dialogue, rendering in visuals a world beset by broken-down communication. Well, ellipsis was foreseen by Magny too: “Bear in mind that both in the novel as in cinema the reason that leads to ellipsis is the same: it resides in assuming that position of honesty which obliges the novelist not to present but the events that his camera could register, without deception; in synthesis, to respect the conditions that define his art. The elliptical character of the art comes thus from a sort of impressionism, which no longer has anything subjective about it; it results from a convention similar to the one that impels the novelist to forbid himself all the reliance on inner analysis.”

For her, ellipsis was not just a means to improve the novel but to improve the reader as well. Using Marxist terms, she argued that the increased difficulty this technique brings to the novel does not prove the novelist’s “contempt for the reader”, on the contrary, “its ‘enigmas’ constitute many of the means to assure our complicity. In a word, due to them we’re constrained to replace the author and to convert ourselves into something similar to the author of what we read.” In this manner it was possible to achieve “a really ‘Marxist’ and cooperative literature, in which no one can be consumer without having converted himself at the same time into producer.” Essentially, she was outlining a fruitful post-war invention, the Active Reader. I find this distinction interesting because it gets to the heart of Jonathan Franzen’s famous excoriation of Gaddis, “Mr. Difficult”. For Franzen, the author/reader relationship can assume two models: Status or Contract. In the Contract model, “the best novels are great works of art, the people who manage to write them deserve extraordinary credit, and if the average reader rejects the work it's because the average reader is a philistine; the value of any novel, even a mediocre one, exists independent of how many people are able to appreciate it.” For its rival, “a novel represents a compact between the writer and the reader, with the writer providing words out of which the reader creates a pleasurable experience. In this sense writing entails a balancing of self-expression and communication within a group, whether the group consists of Finnegans Wake enthusiasts or fans of Barbara Cartland.” Franzen is right in pointing out that adherents of each model mistrust the others; he also wisely reminds that the line separating each camp is blurry: “With certain novels, of course, the distinction doesn't matter so much. Pride and Prejudice, The House of Mirth: you call them art, I call them entertainment, we both turn the pages.” Where they lock horns is when “readers find a book difficult.”

My point was to dispel the myth of a cyclopic difficulty that has latched onto The Recognitions like a parasitic lichen. It is a challenging book, but I repeat that a reader conversant with the 20th-century novel has the tools to tackle it, since Gaddis was building on what his predecessors were doing.

In my humble opinion Gaddis did not set out to make an innovative novel; he himself often claimed to dislike “experimentation”. I think he wanted to redeem the social realist novel which had become so formulaic and feeble that many thought it was exhausted. In that sense, Grillet was correct: “The art of the novel, however, has fallen into such a state of stagnation-a lassitude acknowledged and discussed by the whole of critical opinion-that it is hard to imagine such an art can survive for long without some radical change. To many, the solution seems simple enough: such a change being impossible, the art of the novel is dying.” But neither did Grillet’s solution solve anything, even if he delusionally thought otherwise. Instead of seeking radical changes, Gaddis treated the realist novel as if it could only be redeemed if given a scale, ambition and vision that it had lost. But the result was so daunting that the social realists he was trying to rescue from banality prefer to pretend it never existed, for otherwise they’d have to feel it constantly sitting in judgment on them.

Difficulty is a very subjective category, and I don’t have a fetish for it. I don’t consider it a valid aesthetic criterion because it’s very easy to write novels that produce “difficulty”. Destroying syntax, omitting logical connectors, hiding information, giving characters an incoherent personality, removing punctuation until text is a jumble of words without beginning or end, are remarkably easy techniques to produce “difficulty”. There are short-stories like that in my first published book. That I could do such “difficult” stuff in my first try was a sober lesson that there was nothing difficult about such rubbish. Speaking as a humble writer, I think books should be difficult to write and, since I don’t read my own books, whether they’re difficult or easy to read is aesthetically irrelevant; speaking as a reader, if I happen to be enjoying a book that is rumored to be difficult, it feels like custard pie to me. Like Franzen says, for fans of Finnegans Wake it looks like a Contract novel written for them. Maybe it’s a flaw in me, but I don’t think I ever liked a book that felt difficult during the reading. I can’t even imagine a reason to stick to it until the end. Since the one thing I’m looking for when I read is a specific kind of verbally intricate beauty that comes from how laboredly precise the prose is, I in fact resent whatever distracts me from the language’s sonority and physicality to make sense of what is going on.

I file Gaddis as an anomaly in my personal taste because I love his writing although he mostly does what I loathe, that verisimilar dialogue saturated with repetition, hesitations, clichés, hums and haws, interjections, trying to pretend there’s no rhetoric involved in the act of writing, that he’s just a recorder of natural speech. How I despise that! My problem when I encounter this verisimilitude is not that it’s difficult, but that it’s ugly, ordinary, too familiar to my ears bombarded by such pointless conversations every day (what a blessing the pandemic’s confinement has been, I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that fourth wave to hit the world big), and when I read I seek only constant rhetorical invention. But for reasons I cannot explain Gaddis has the gift of making it aesthetically satisfying unlike anyone else I know giving his helpless characters the diction of public toilet scribblings.

However, I’m not saying that The Recognitions lacks surgically-precise word deployment. But its remarkable precision leads us into structure and the one factor that readers may find taxing: its somewhat slow pace and lack of plot.



  1. What a fascinating post. I'm looking forward to the continuation(s). I haven't got the chops to say anything smart, so I won't.

    I will note though that auto-correct has changed paean into peahen, which is...pretty funny.