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Much God damned Entropy


by William Gaddis
Published in 1975; reissued by Dalkey Archive Press, 2012

William Gaddis’s second novel, J R, has just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press with an introduction by Rick Moody. J R is a hodgepodge of Americana set in Long Island and NYC in which eleven-year-old JR Vansant builds “a family of companies” by preying on distant bankruptcies and using a milquetoast struggling composer and soon-to-be-former teacher from his school, Edward Bast, to act as an adult front to lend him legitimacy. A kaleidoscope of characters from JR’s school and the business world, including teachers, coaches, brokers, lawyers, Congressmen, and washed up Generals fight to stave off the effects of being caught up in his schemes while themselves scheming to make all the money they can.

Greg Gerke: When I found out Dalkey Archive Press would be reissuing J R, I felt the time ripe to read the latter: a National Book Award winner, a book of mostly dialogue but without dialogue tags, a work of great difficulty.

A publisher told me he once called Gaddis on the phone and they spoke for a little while. Gaddis told him J R was the book he should start with if he wanted to read his work.

Gabriel Blackwell: Well, that’s what I’m doing…

GG: I have a feeling I’m going to go through it quicker than I thought—maybe reading The Recognitions has helped me in preparing for Gaddis’ mise-en-scene. How do you find the first fifty or so pages? Many things are cranking.

GB: The opening scene between the Misses Bast and the lawyer, Mister Coen, is really funny—I laughed, a rare enough occurrence when reading. And you’re right, it is a surprisingly quick read (that is, once you’ve given yourself over to Gaddis and allowed him to dictate the pace).  I had a little trouble with the transitions, mostly because they’re associative—almost lyrical—rather than narrative. I’m never sure where I am until I’m well into a scene. The scenes themselves aren’t terribly difficult, but how they fit together can be.

GG: I especially admire the transitions, which often occur within a single paragraph. In this paragraph we start in the dysfunctional diCephalis house (the couple, Dan and Ann, both work at the school), where the father is fed up with his children and his sari-loving wife, who is cleaning a spill on it, and looks outside to see Edward Bast in street, a man in motion through the makeup of a suburban neighborhood that Gaddis describes via signs and the greenery that cuts the plots of land:

The side door banged. Somewhere a clock with a broken chime had a try at striking the hour, and Mister diCephalis hurried to the telephone resetting his watch, to dial and stand looking out the window at something his wife had said was a snowball bush hidden openly against others as shapeless as they were nameless she’d said only needed trimming, ignoring the tug at his trouser leg, –See, Donny? Daddy’s not mad, he just wanted his penny back . . . for the recorded remonstrance he listened to through to the end before lowering his eyes from that hostile spectacle of growth to dial again, and raise them again to his wife out there scrubbing her sari with water from the garden hose squatted like some Gangetic laundress, numbed stare fixed on the remotely male privilege of the hunt as it prospered, here, past frilled ironwork made of aluminum to appear new and new lengths of post and rail treated to appear old, in the form of Bast near a gallop behind prey in a heedless trot more secure with each step, in the protective drab of black patterned on gray, frayed, knotted, and unshorn in other details, as the intervals between bayberry keeping mown distance from mimosa alerted by Insurance, Chiropodist, This desireable property For Sale, God Answer’s Prayer, gave way to depths of locust long stunted in internecine struggle now grappling with woodbine, and the sidewalk itself finally disappeared under grass at the designated site by God’s grace of an edifice for worship by the people of Primitive Baptist Church on a sign about to be reclaimed by the undergrowth.

No break, but a seamless stream—a little extraliterary, with the sentence one sweeping unedited camera move in one take. And in Gaddis, though the dialogue can’t be overlapping, he makes it as close as can be à la Robert Altman.

Mr. Difficult

GG: I have to throw this in: Jonathan Franzen’s “Mr Difficult” I remember reading this when it first came out. His half-dismissal, half-praise of Gaddis is still irksome. How in the hell can someone who calls himself an author—an ambassador of literature—dare to write something begrudging a dead novelist because they are too difficult? And a dead novelist who didn’t even sell well. We are, in effect, reading a book that Franzen couldn’t finish. How does that make you feel?

GB: Franzen hasn’t read Don Quixote? And thinks it’s “difficult”? Gaddis was “the original intense, thrift-store-clad, monster-data-set young man.” Hmm. Still, maybe we ought to address the “difficulties” of this book. First and foremost for me, there is the length. I have to believe I’m not alone, that it will be a stumbling block for many readers. It’s a brick. Over 700 pages. Plus (worse), J R’s dense—there is not a lot of white on these pages. There are 0 chapter breaks, 0 section breaks, 0 breaks of any kind, unless you consider those interpolated documents that occur very late in the book “breaks.” Moody’s introduction has him talking about reading J R in 50 page swathes, and, like reading Thomas Bernhard, you kind of don’t have a choice, right? I mean, if you don’t get to the end of the scene before putting the book down, you’ll be starting that scene over again to figure out where you are when you pick J R up again. But unlike Bernhard, you’re not gritting your teeth to get through. Gaddis speeds things up toward the end of his scenes, and, given that that’s often where the information about what the hell you’ve been reading comes, it’s immensely gratifying to get to their ends. So there’s a sense of reward, too. All of which tends to make the book sound difficult, I guess, but I haven’t found it to be particularly so.

GG: There are many one-liners in the book that are priceless. “–Well look Marian what, as Freud said what the hell is it you want” is one of my favorites. But even in such a simple sentence, it’s interesting where Gaddis puts the commas. Many times his commas are just the breath, the character coming up for air.

GB: Usually, only one side of each dialogue is given the privilege of having a period. The other speaker is all ellipses, either always interrupted or entropically trailing off thusly . . . And even with the periodically-privileged side of the conversation, commas stand in for many periods, parsing speech that not only wants to give the impression of being headlong, but then actually functions that way. For example: “-Reminds me Stamper’s heart tissue damage doctors tell him some damn government study shows maybe caused by cobalt brewers been using to get a head on beer, great damn beer drinker Stamper want you to get onto that little Jew down in the FDA find out what damn it let go of me . . .” Now, despite the fact that there’s very little there (grammatically) worthy of the title “sentence,” in transcribing it, I wanted very badly to insert punctuation. The period is a way of organizing information. Without it, well, the utterance is a spill.

GG: This doesn’t seem like a novel written in the early 70’s. The whole TVs being used in classrooms was a surprise, though one doesn’t have to dig too deep to find Gaddis was commissioned to write a book about the use of television in schools for the Ford Foundation. Also, a student speaking, “Like so I bla bla, and I like…” I thought people didn’t speak like that then, but of course I wasn’t living then.

GB: Prescient, you mean? Maybe. Or maybe we were always this ugly. That set of TV in the classrooms scenes is great—Rabelaisian, even, with Edward Bast quoting from Mozart’s “Muck, chucuck! That’s what I like! Muck, chuck and suck! Chuck muck and suck muck!” letter, and Ann DiCephalis’s description of the excretion of silk by silkworms (“smell of this waste silk…so offensive”). It’s slapstick, a mutual incomprehension, the method by which Gaddis makes his scenes…

GG: That’s a Mozart letter? I guess the representation of him in Amadeus as a scatological humorist was true.

GB: Yeah, it is. But back to the scenes—they all, at least for the first 400 pages, devolve into utter chaos, with everyone walking away unhappy. If there’s any justification to the “difficult” label, it’s there—I read J R much, much slower when I was trying to make sense as I went than when I got Gaddis’s rhythm and just allowed him to throw information at me when he was ready. I suspect that I would just never get through the book if I were set on understanding everything that’s being said in it—I don’t think that we’re meant to. Much of it is intended to be jargon, to be more or less meaningless.

GG: Yes, chaos, but seemingly Gaddis is laying a foundation, burying leitmotif after leitmotif. There’s nothing calm about this world of Gaddis—it feels that most everyone is completely neurotic (certainly Edward Bast, Gibbs, Amy Joubert, all the businessmen, the diCephalis household, and most of the people at school. They are strung out on life. They speak in three different directions at once. The voice of characters “rustl[es]” like money in the first line of the novel and this is without cell phones and i-everythings—prescient like a fox. Gaddis just went gaga over phones—every broken up overheard cell phone conversation I hear today reminds me of Gaddis.

GB: There’s definitely a telephonic thing going on here. Not iPads, though, not smart phones—this isn’t a visual novel. It’s an aural one. The visual is controllable—we can always shut our eyes. But the aural is inherently chaotic. We can never close our ears, and so all of this stuff just pours in. It kind of forces us to make meaning out of it. Is that why texting and email and so on all seem less personal, less fraught, than speaking on the phone? Maybe. First telegraph? “What hath God wrought?” First telephone call? “Watson, come here, I want to see you.”

A 9-5 Novel

GG: Also, maybe Mametspeak should be rethought. Gaddis is just as much a master of dialogue and he never turned into a neocon. There is so much dialogue that one might consider they are reading an epic drama , something on the order of King Lear or Milton’s Samson Agonistes, but Gaddis is a little faster than those ye olde Englishmen. One is reading the American voice. There are many lines like this:

“–No I just meant those sneakers, I mean like I never saw you wear . . .”

So some of Gaddis one can just barrel through, while sometimes he ratchets it up so that a person is speaking to two people in the same line of dialogue–so many people in the offices at the school and in the Manhattan offices answering phones and having visitors at the same time.

GB: Perhaps oddly, J R has sharpened my sense of just what is wrong with so much reality tv: there is no silence in it. It’s as though the editors or producers were afraid of soundlessness—not just hedging their bets against all of the competing devices in their audience’s homes, but downright scared at the thought that someone, somewhere, might actually be thinking instead of jibbering like an idiot sportscaster, broadcasting unfelt emotions and cliche after cliche to anyone unwise enough to remain within earshot. There is zero reflection in these shows, and curiously little true interaction; instead, there is a constant barrage of monologue, given the life-like appearance of dialogue through the dead hands of the sound mixer and the editor. No people, just digital puppets. The thing that’s missing, of course, is the real. Mark Leyner, during that deadhorse Charlie Rose roundtable that’s linked everywhere, says “Now we’re dealing with people who almost never experience any sort of downtime in their life from electronic media.” A contemporary malady—iPhone rue—that was contemporary, too, in 1996 (when the interview was done, just look at those hairstyles), and, it seems, in 1975.

GG: The thing I’ve noticed reading it is that the experience is like being subducted by a seismic wave. One cannot escape it. And one can’t really escape this book, because there is no natural pause. The book that doesn’t sleep is of course half set in the city that doesn’t sleep. The trains are always running, the phones–they aren’t any scenes of people resting. The night hardly makes any appearances in J R (Gaddis zips through many in the transitions)–it seems that people are always running around when the market is open or school is in session. A 9-5 novel in other words. Could this be a play? Definitely. It would need to be severely cut. I guess because of all that happens, only a book can contain it and maybe the Gaddis estate has wisely not let the rights fly west of Mullholland Drive to be butchered and botched. Silencio, oh yes. Books portray silence best because there are so many words, yes? And reading to oneself is a silent activity. What can I say about TV that hasn’t already been said? I don’t think Wallace Stevens owned one.

GB: There are a few late-night sessions in the novel, inevitably the most pastoral of the book’s scenes (Rhoda and Bast, Amy and Gibbs). Otherwise though, it’s one verbal war of attrition after another, words wearing down everyone in sight, which, as a rhetorical strategy, seems to work. Terrifying to think that simply by refusing to hear what the other party is saying, one might “win” an argument, but it’s proved again and again. Especially in the scenes between Dan diCephalis and his wife, J R and Bast, it occurs to me that there are no real “no”s in this novel. One of the principles of improv comedy is sometimes called the “yes, and.” You don’t shut down another person’s idea, you don’t say “no,” “won’t,” “can’t”; it ends the scene in an unsatisfying way. This is part of the reason why “breaking” is so reviled among sketch comedians, why Jimmy Fallon pissed everyone at SNL off. If you’re a team player, you go along with whatever comes up, try to lead it around to something interesting if it doesn’t look promising, say “yes, and ____” when it’s your turn to contribute. In effect, that’s what Bast does in the face of Jack Gibbs, J R, even Ann DiCephalis and Amy. They seem to be cutting him off but I think it’s equally correct to read him as trailing off, as being unable to close anything down with a definitive statement of his own. Even at the end, when he’s recovered somewhat from his timidity, he still doesn’t seem able to say “No,” “stop”; it sometimes sounds like a no, but to me his incipient madness is just a different yes. Dan too, Eigen with Rhoda, anyone with Vogel, anyone with Davidoff—there’s always a foil, a straight man. I get the impression that in no sane world does Jack Gibbs win an argument– he seems to be perpetually drunk, generally messy and ungroomed, not particularly coherent or accommodating, and yet, any time he meets another character, he blunders through until he’s gotten his way. Which—and I’m conscious of being a little too conscious of the rhetoric of the book—is the way this book, too, works, as you point out. It just doesn’t let up. It doesn’t ever let you rest, and yet, like Dan, like Bast, we can always just put it down. We can always close its covers. We don’t have to engage with it. We don’t have to listen to it. We can always say “No.” As in comedy, though, the “no” isn’t interesting. It’s the “yes, and” that leads to a satisfying ending, a good punchline, a hearty laugh.

Cast and Type

GG: One of the most interesting things that I’m pondering is how Gaddis came to structure the novel. My sense is (because I never believe in plans [as Gass says, the text leads]), he came to it through the writing. There are almost 500 pages of relatively short scenes (for J R) 15-20 pages at the most, but in the last third he stays with the characters the book is really rooting for—mostly Gibbs, Bast, and Amy. Rhoda, the young girlfriend of the suicide Schramm, comes into her own also—I see her, along with JR as more the child commenting on the mess the adults have created (add your myth of choice here). The last third is set in a few locations: Amy’s other apartment, the tenement of E. 96th, which is also the headquarters of the JR Family of Companies, and where Rhoda and Bast live part-time, as well as where Gibbs and Eigen try to write (the apartment of their friend Schramm), and finally the hospital. It seems at some point Gaddis knew he had to start wrapping it up. The ending is a greater anchor than anything else in the work. It has to draw to a close and it does, briskly.

GB: The book seems to have exhausted itself in what you’re calling the last third, and that exhaustion directly affects scene length, you’re right. We’re finally allowed to care for these characters rather than simply feel pity for or frustration with them. The slightly schizophrenic conclusion in the hospital seems less about coming back to the original scene length/information overload than about showing that this world goes on, that any intimacy we might find in it is respite rather than reality. No one’s changed. Not really. The Amy/Gibbs scenes that lead off the last third are an oasis in the book, a watering hole for the wandering reader. Not because such readers will be crying out for more of those particular characters (or not necessarily), but rather because in those scenes the reader always knows who is speaking. Anyone who doubts the “less is more” power of a simple dialogue, a duel rather than a melee, should refer to Moore’s Cast of Characters. Its length shouldn’t be surprising—this is a 726-page book—but I have to say, the list’s more extensive than would be one for, say, The Brothers Karamazov, don’t you think? I mean, Gaddis doesn’t make it easy to keep up. It can’t have been easy for him either and so, like a printer, Gaddis broke out the stereotypes. What I mean is, rather than rely entirely on character in many scenes, he leans heavily on roles for motivation. I’ve already talked about how one party in each dialogue gets the periods and the other gets the ellipses, but even at a more nuanced level, there are really only a handful of roles to occupy. Stella, Amy, Rhoda, and Ann (at least in certain scenes) all fulfill the same role. As do Bast, Whiteback, Eigen, and Gibbs (again, it depends on the scene). As do Davidoff, Cates, and J R.

GG: A huge novel has many roots, all the thoughts and flesh of the writer who assembled it. Characters spawn others, speech doubles and quadruples and compounds like credit card interest. J R is Gaddis’ head and I’m amazed he shaped his philosophy, his emotions, and his sense of humor into this tome. In Gaddis the men are angry and women feel cheated and unloved. As in The Recognitions, there is a befuddled character being used by another, Bast by JR.

GB: Not only the men are angry, but also the women—for instance, Mrs. DiCephalis, the definition of harridan, and everyone seems to feel unloved, with the possible exception of the businessmen.

GG: I’m not taken aback but I’d like to point out the poignancy of Gaddis. He traffics in sentiment and emotion, without the sentimentality or soap operaish gushings. The everyday struggle in human relationships comes out most strongly in the couples and then in the case of the two men, Gibbs and Eigen and their feelings for the never seen Schramm. The bitterness of relationships ending and children separated from their parents really comes out in the case of Gibbs, Eigen, and Joubert. When Gibbs is talking to Marian Eigen and she tells him she will leave her husband (his friend), Gibbs says:

    –Oh come on Marian…you don’t really know what you’re, listen. I just had another round with that stale bitch who’s got my daughter penned up out there in Astoria, destroying her inch by inch, making sure nothing grows, biggest event in that kid’s life is a trip to the dentist, Marian you don’t know what a Christ awful mess everything turns into when these things happen, and it never. . .


GB: I think it has to do with the nature of the narrative itself; a novel composed of conversation must have couples, coupling:

Point is whole God damned point is she wants to be taken seriously needs a supporting cast . . . everybody so God damned sick of all of them all they do is run around shouting for an audience somewhere to take them seriously same God damned thing, fill this up? Whole God damned problem tastes like apricots, whole God damned problem listen whole God damned problem read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy.

Joining Gaddis to Shakespeare—the sot making sense, or at least making sense of the world, or at least making more sense than anyone else in this world, his world. Jack Gibbs is an incredibly important character; I found it difficult to find any kind of fellow-feeling in him through 400 pages—in addition to being the main antagonist, he’s also the court jester (occasionally making me waver when Coach Vogel comes around; “Who is this?” the first thought that comes to mind when I read some bit of innuendo). I don’t think that we see him but that he is inebriated beyond comprehensibility (viz “apricots” above), and yet his points fly swiftly to their marks. With Bast especially he seems a Falstaff, but perhaps it is only that he is entropy in this narrative.

GG: Yes. It could just as well have been called Gibbs. To me it’s his book in a way. Bast is there and Bast has insight, but Bast doesn’t bear his soul in that Shakespearean way. People may talk of Tennessee Williams and Mamet but we need to isolate some of Gibb’s guff to give it it’s proper due. (Especially his most funny and venemous “Goddamned” speech you mention above mixing sex, divorce, double boilers, Arabs, Israelis, and apricots into a poetic diatribe as memorable as “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.”) I imagine Gaddis saying, How the hell do I talk about the world in an interesting way? Well, JR only shares a diminutive fifth of my thoughts agewise, but Gibbs-ah. I relate by language and so Gibbs will be my Falstaff/Fool/Enobarbus/Malvolio rolled into one. Gibbs is my favorite character, although he gets no lines in the last 100 pages.

GB: Gibbs indeed. Gibbs through the interlude in Amy’s apartment (so, 457 pages of Gibbs) is as malign as they come, never once producing a positive effect, essentially unpleasant, drunk, bullying, inciting. He is not bloodthirsty, and he rarely acts on his own—he’d much rather make a fool of someone else than risk making one of himself, though, of course, he is willing to play the fool to do so. However, Greg, after the above-mentioned interlude, this reader’s understanding of Gibbs changed drastically; Gibbs was allowed understanding, became less inscrutable and much more human. In the end, I do not feel so pitiless toward him, so sure where I stand in regards to him. I like that man that he is in Amy’s apartment, I think we are meant to like that man, and I even like him in the 96th St. apartment thereafter, but that section’s a pivot.

The Industrial Military Complex

GG: There is a bunch of criticism about the novel teetering on rant in the last 200 pages and I think that criticism is justified. The novel is relentless. The scene with Governor Cates and his handlers should be sufficient to remind everyone how much money and greed run the world. Surely I find greater meaning in the death of Duncan (Macbeth echoes anyone?) and his regrets about life. He’s a character who is introduced later on, but his story is simple. Career businessman feeling fucked by the world in the end, but this little soliloquy he delivers (his last words) almost functions as the sine qua non of the novel and of life in a way, as many people near their death say in so many words, “While I was out working or busy with my life, look at what I missed and it’s never coming back.” Duncan/Gaddis puts it this way:

…I lost a daughter, did I tell you that Bast?… she was taking piano lessons when they took out her appendix son of a bitches never let you down do they it wasn’t her appendix at all…she kept missing the right notes keep trying it again she was learning a song called for Alise’s something like that I never did hear it like it was supposed to be, she’d miss notes leave little parts out and start again I always thought maybe someday I’d hear it right hear what I was supposed to there was a delicatessen near us named Alise’s then, that’s why I can even remember the name of it still hear it like she played it though that’s all, all I want, I can still, hear it? hear it . . . ?

GB: Money is clearly at issue here: money, and not as currency or reward for labor but as some abstract, as maybe the abstract. The characters most cynical about it, in fact, are the moneymen themselves, the bankers, the politicians, and the corporate heads, who none of them even view it as real, and that is where the novel finds its friction. Because of course their manipulations, to them quite sterile and utterly mechanic, have real consequences for other people. I don’t know why I feel bashful addressing this, but isn’t this the crux of the novel?

…if we can get in these here bellies he said and I asked him what on earth he was talking about, that bleak little Vansant boy and it’s not funny, really. He’s so earnest so, he thinks there’s a millionaire behind everything he sees and that’s all he does see, it’s just all so sad really.

-Know what you mean, I owe him a dollar.

-Do you I owe him eighty cents, if he were, if only he weren’t so eager about all the wrong things, they’re not bad things really just, things . . .

-What do you mean not bad things, ever seen him in the Post Office with that kid with the head like a toothbrush? that Hyde kid? See them in there together getting their mail you suddenly know what the industrial military complex is all about.

Isn’t J R a moral novel after all? I kind of hate to feel like I’m reading 726 pages of a moral lesson, something that Moses managed in a sentence, but, well, aren’t we? Isn’t Gaddis? Is J R just a grudge, a revenge fantasy of a sort? Please prove me wrong, Greg. I mean, it’s not that I don’t think that art is polemical, but isn’t it an argument about its own worth, its own worthlessness? Art doesn’t often speak to how we ought to live our lives, and, in some way, it sinks lower in our estimation when it does. But J R’s caricatures seem to be stooping to that, a gargantuan Goofus and Gallant, maybe without a Gallant?

GG: Though Steven Moore pointed out the “industrial military complex” line before I read it in the novel, it still strikes like the appearance of the monolith. Without being too explicit I think anyone who reads that sentence will pat Gaddis on the back for his handy dandy taxonomy of the zeitgeist. I think of the Rabbi in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors saying the life is not worth living without some moral structure. There has to be a moral as much as there has to be a heartbeat, otherwise we are quite dead.

Also I think this question depends on how one defines a “moralistic novel.” But that creek is a dry one for me, so I’ll only say stuff like American Beauty and Ian McEwan is more about telling people how to act than the works of Gaddis, Gass, and Kubrick, who present life and let the art speak and consequently give the reader/viewer the right to their own experience. I think you are spot-on about art being polemical. If it didn’t question itself, who would? Corporations only care about art so long as money can be made—see 99% of Hollywood films. Gaddis obviously couldn’t count on the critics to do much of anything after his first book. To me, J R, among many other things, is also about Gaddis’ feelings being dashed after The Recognitions, including the little anagram game complete with real reviews from that experience on page 515-6. From The Paris Review interview: “Well, I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised. I mean that’s the grand intoxication of youth, or what’s a heaven for. And so the book’s reception was a sobering experience, quite a humbling one.”

GB: Gaddis is subtler than I give him credit for, for sure: money is, in all of its instances here, an excuse to bring people together. And I think he’s anticipated my disappointment, too–here, in a handwritten note on a page of Jack Gibbs’s manuscript: “art for art’s sake obsolete.” Ha. Not to mention the practice of the thing, the rhetoric of interruption and incompleteness, which is occasionally given voice, as here, by Bast, “Listen, that’s what I’m talking about! I, this chance, I had the chance and I didn’t do what I…,” by Gibbs and Eigen (finish books), Stella (control of company), Amy (custody of Francis), even JR. I’d be willing to take that, that old chestnut, “make hay while the sun shines,” as the novel’s moral, if only because it gives its shape to the novel, to the way it works—if I’m going to get a lesson, let it not be in the form of a lesson. A spoonful of sugar and all.

GG: To your later point, “do” is the operative verb of the novel. What is worth doing? But can people get things done? In the hospital, Duncan says, “…that’s what I’m telling you Bast you can’t call yourself a failure if you’ve never done anything.” But let me push the needle more–how is “the rhetoric of interruption and incompleteness” the novel’s moral or able to be taken as?

GB: Bast:

I was thinking there’s so much that’s not worth doing suddenly I thought maybe I’ll never do anything. That’s what scared me I always thought I’d be, this music I always thought I had to write music all of a sudden I thought what if I don’t, maybe I don’t have to I’d never thought of that maybe I don’t! I mean maybe that’s what’s been wrong with everything…just doing what’s there to be done as though it’s worth doing or you never would have done anything you wouldn’t be anybody…

This is a tough compass, particularly for an artist. It’s not that art shouldn’t address the political moment (or the political future, as this book seems destined to have done), but that, when it does so well, it is rarely so direct. What works of fiction have actually informed the political will of a people? A convincing argument could be made for The Communist Manifesto, for instance, but as a work of art it isn’t much. And what was the political fall-out of something middling-successful as art, say, The Stranger? Marshal Pétain? The Battle of Algiers? Did the Nazis, or for that matter those at the table of the Oslo Accords, draw inspiration from Kafka? Should they have?

You Listening?

GG: What a performance by Gaddis. On a readerly level, I always test the feeling I get from the whole after finishing any book. And the feeling after this one is sinking. I’m not so accustomed to the big book but in the last two years I’ve read The Recognitions, The Portrait of a Lady, The Tunnel, and The Ambassadors and after the last three I felt enlivened, not only by the prose but by the fact that I am in a world where such beauty also exists. Though the first Gaddis book left a slightly different pill in my mouth than the other two, its many characters a stretch for me to hold close to myself. It’s more a monument of movement, structure and comedy. An architectural wonder (think Gaudi and Le Corbusier) to behold but not live in, as is J R for me. The worlds of James and Gass are more beautiful. Gass is a much better celebrator than Gaddis and while Gaddis awes by the scope and structure of his novels, in J R there is very little celebrating humanity—by this time Gaddis has just about had it with humanity, hence the unqualified chatter.

GB: I think this goes for me too. I felt curiously deflated by the ending. There is no vista from which to survey that which has come before. I guess I wasn’t expecting one, but it still leaves one feeling oddly alienated from the experience, empty. As you say, something to “behold but not live in.”

GG: All we want is more and though most are sharks the rest are going to get swallowed because the place of art in people’s lives matters so little. And that might just be the genius of the novel–he portrays what we’ve become before we’ve come to it though we do it more by the blab of blogs, twitter, and facebook. We’re much more voyeuristic than he ever could have known. People like to talk to other people less and less. We don’t have to because we have the shield of the cell phone, the game of it, and the piss-poor catch me if you can of texting. We smile more at digital tidings and less at other human faces. If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. A few weeks ago my father told me something was “awesome.” I wanted to kill somebody.

GB: And here we are, Greg, not talking at all, but writing at each other. I have been conscious in this conversation of not falling prey to what for me was J R’s aesthetic lesson: to “engage” is not an intimate term, or not an intimate one only; it’s also militaristic. We hope, by engaging, to draw our listeners in but at the same time we initiate a skirmish of some sort, the auditor’s brain’s revolt at an attempted colonization by the speaker’s counterpart. We think of diplomacy as an alternative to what we call war, but maybe it’s just war by another name. Certainly there is no peace in J R.

GG: In Henry James the matrix of consciousness carried by the sentences is buoying (insight after insight: “Deep and beautiful on this her smile came back, and with the effect of making him hear what he had said just as she had heard it”—from The Ambassadors), but in Gaddis we have a world where people don’t want to hear each other, but everyone continues to talk (save Bast, busy composing)—it’s a portrait of consciousness lost. The world is not beautiful in J R but the haywire sounds that humans make in their moaning to make money and sense are, as Governor Cates imposes his own awful and awfully familiar sense of things in the hospital at the end:

Most of the damn trouble in the world’s made by damn fools with nothing to do have to give them something to do to keep them off the damn streets and I’m by God sick and tired of hearing them bite the damn hand that feeds them hear me? Only damn reason they think something’s worth doing’s they get paid to do it, make a nickel and they march around show off their damn cars ranch splits backyard pools outboard boats kids eating peanut butter take credit like they was the ones invented their success by their own damn selves don’t see me in a damn backyard pool do you? don’t see me taking vacations do you? Somebody don’t spend every damn minute working to hold the whole damn thing together for them they’ll be squatting in tents on the White House lawn…

In this high art of squawk we hear the many fear-mongering and resentful voices that continue to dominate the airwaves today. Hey Gabe? You listening . . . ?

Greg Gerke‘s fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, The Kenyon Review OnlineDenver QuarterlyQuarterly West, and others.

Gabriel Blackwell is the author of Shadow Man: A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer (CCM) and Critique of Pure Reason (Noemi), both out this November. He is the reviews editor of The Collagist.