As the fourth week of #OccupyGaddis begins, the conversation about J R continues around the Web. Most of the action is happening on Twitter, under the hashtag #OccupyGaddis, and on blogs. Infinite Zombies remains the indispensable resource apart from Twitter. Our Goodreads group and Facebook group are relatively quiet – pay us a visit!
One of the themes of our conversation so far has been the relationship between Gaddis’s life and his art. We don’t have a full biography of Gaddis at the moment, but Sonia Johnson reports that Joseph Tabbi is working on one that’s supposed to see daylight in 2014. Steve Moore, meanwhile, is working on a huge edited collection of Gaddis letters, which is coming out from Dalkey Archive in 2013. In the absence of these resources, much of the conversation has taken on a speculative quality.
Writing at IZ – where she moonlights when not writing for LARBlog – Sonia discusses the alleged relationship between Joyce and Gaddis and Gaddis’s “crotchetiness” about reviewers and academics who considered his first novel, The Recognitions, to be a watered-down version of Ulysses. She describes her initial skepticism about Gaddis’s position and her subsequent appreciation for his dilemma. She asks:
What obligation, if any, do we have to continue Gaddis’s fight against the Joycean shadow though? For a lot of those reviewers, throwing “Joycean” in was cutting corners. However, for many it was also a way to help their readers identify what kind of book they were dealing with. Then, too, the #OccupyGaddis folks who mentioned Joyce obviously weren’t trying to get out of really reading J R. “Influence” is one of the ways that we make sense of what we read. It places authors and texts into bigger histories and helps us to know how to read them. It’s almost certainly factually incorrect to say that Joyce “influenced” Gaddis if we think that means Gaddis copied Joyce. On the other hand, it’s undeniably valid to use your own history of reading Joyce to negotiate the difficulties of Gaddis’s prose.
Using our own history has been – to me, anyway – a surprising theme of a lot of the #OccupyGaddis blogging I’ve read. I tend to prefer impersonality in my own lit blogging, reviewing, and academic writing, but many of the contributors to #OccupyGaddis seamlessly weave stories from their lives into their reactions to J R.
Armin Rosen, for example, has continued blogging on his personal site, linking considerations of Gaddis’s depictions of frustrated work and his depiction of New York City to more personal rumination (including his dislike of the new HBO series The Newsroom).
On Gaddis’s world of work, Armin writes:
Both the reader and the office hacks are acutely aware of how time is passing, but they’re unaware of just how much time is passing. And it’s passing quite quickly, by the novel’s standards: the book’s first day takes what, 80 pages? Here, we go through a week in the space of a few thousand words. And it’s a week in which very little happens. Much of this novel is dedicated to scenes in which nothing really seems to happen: it’s dedicated to obscure, bureaucratic discussions, to technical jargon or legalese, to deep conversations on complex matters that have been foregrounded with little and in many cases no previous exposition. The office scene is a poignantly low-stakes version of that. Time is hastened by virtue of the banality of the conversation filling it. There’s frustration and sadness as the bottom of this–Time passes, nothing happens. It’s a common and all too human frustration, and Gaddis evokes it brilliantly.
On J R’s New York, he writes:
An unglamorous and socio-economically striated New York is the setting of J R, and my God do I recognize the place. It’s an unglamorous New York, but it isn’t cinematically unglamorous in the tradition “Taxi Driver” or Don DiLillo’s Underworld. The obsession with status is coded into the city’s DNA, threaded through the novel with almost overpowering subtlety. The city’s darkness operates on a microbial level–the novel has very few impressionistic touches when it comes to evoking the city-as-postmodern-hellscape, and it’s possible to blink past Gaddis’s almost-cubistic illustrations of the city’s soullessness. New York is a city of tweed-jacketed men plotting scams and takeovers and foreign invasions from penthouse offices lined with stuffed zebra heads. But more than that, it’s a city whose tiniest, most throwaway details are consistent with a tweed-jacketed, top-down world of normalized unfairness and criminality.
At IZ, DC Nahm has related J R both to personal history and current events. Recalling his own attempts to become a young capitalist, DC observes the social isolation of J R, describing him as
[a] true social outcast: poor and unkempt and unpopular. His hair sticks out at rough angles, uncombed. He wears the same sweater on consecutive days. His classmates barely seem to know his name.
In Edward Bast’s Ring, J R is Alberich, the dwarf who steals the Rheingold from the Rheinmaidens. In the opera, Alberich is an outcast as well, mocked by the Rheinmaidens that he has professed his love to. Like Alberich, J R is spurned by his classmates. The girl playing Wotan refers to him dismissively as “that boy J R” and says that “[h]e’s already littler than us.” Wotan chides him for not having a costume like the rest of the class, but we can see that he probably doesn’t have a costume because he can’t afford one. In just a few lines, J R’s social position is clearly marked: poor, small, unpopular. Spurned like Alberich, J R swoops in, rejects the love of others, and steals away with the class’s bag of Rheingold.
In another IZ post, DC discusses J R’s approach to “corporate democracy,” and corporate personhood, questions central to Gaddis’s satirical critique of American capitalism. DC quotes from the oral arguments in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), and these quotations sound remarkably like J R, a testament to Gaddis’s finely-tuned ear for speech. Writing about how “the United States is a creature created on paper,” DC suggests that Amy Joubert “exists at the nexus of these worlds, private and public. We are introduced to her and the principal of her school not on the school grounds, but outside of the bank. Her father is the head of Typhon International, but is leaving the post for a position as an undersecretary in Washington.”
In his inaugural post at IZ, Paul Debraski brings up fundamental formal questions about the relationship of signal to noise in J R–a relationship that is of course both a major theme of the novel, and the problem the reader faces as she tries to figure out what’s important and what’s not in the book:
When you first start to read this book, you slowly get used to the idea that there is a ton of noise and you have to pick out the important parts. Of course, how are you supposed to know what is important? I mean, I knew (from reading this before) that the book was about money and stocks, so I focused on the details of that. And yet, as I get twenty page after a conversation I realize that some little blow off detail was actually really important too.
Surely not everything is important here. (Can we assume that the porn jokes are just jokes and aren’t going to “mean” something in 100 pages?) But what about that water leak? Is that going to be significant, or was it just a way to get the kids out of the board room. (Of course, something bad is bound to happen with Monty’s speech, right? And yet, as far as chronological time, the section ends with the night ending, so did Monty even give the speech?
Paul has also been posting responses to his reading on his personal site, I Just Read About That…
Biblioklept has put together a very useful resource page for #OccupyGaddis; you can read it here. Not directly related to J R, but still fascinating, Edwin Turner offers annotations on the first sentence of Gaddis’s last novel, Agapē Agape, which as will become obvious has affinities with J R. (Edwin has also written a couple posts based on a prior reading of J R here and here, though be warned: there are spoilers.)
Finally, a fantastic story about Gaddis’s fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, relayed by Marco Kaye, who heard it from Rick Moody.
When Rick was working at Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the 90s, Gaddis sent out the manuscript for A Frolic of His Own via FedEx. Well, at least he tried to. Days passed, then weeks, and still the pages hadn’t shown. FedEx lost it. It was the only extant copy.
I won’t give away the ending. Read the whole thing.
Image by Flickr user 401(K) 2012 used under a Creative Commons license.