The office of William Gaddis

W Gaddis's office

The office of William Gaddis. Image from Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System, eds. Joseph Tabbi & Rone Shaver. U of Alabama P, 2007. P. 146 or 90.

we don’t know how much time there is left and I have to work on the, to finish this work of mine while I, why I’ve brought in this whole pile of books notes pages clippings and God knows what, get it all sorted and organized — William Gaddis, Agape Agapē, (1)

Alone among books and papers in precarious piles, Reverend Gwyon sat down. There were books open and closed, some with twenty bits of paper between their pages; passages underlined, written in, crossed out. There were periodicals, and ribbons of newspaper littered everywhere. Near one knee a headline said, Science Shows There’s a God, Pope Declares.Gaddis, The Recognitions, (414)

People who’ve read a novel by William Gaddis, excluding his post-humous last (Agape Agapē) which is a slight exception to the tendency, know that his books are extremely complex, both at the level of plot and more particularly at the amount of pure information they represent and assimilate. A rare, over-exposed photograph of Gaddis’s work-station reveals a wall and table of information, two planes accommodating his process of composing his novels by typewriter. The caption? In a modest room, Gaddis approximates hypertext.

I’ve begun Gaddis’s first and longest novel, The Recognitions (1955). It clocks in at 956 pages. I’ve brought some expectations to it since I’ve read Gaddis’s other books (JR, Agape Agape, A Frolic of His Own, and Carpenter’s Gothic) and several appreciations of The Recognitions. Some elements of The Recognitions have surprised me though, particularly the register of comparative mythology and comparative anthropology that springs up every so often. For example:

So they danced, as though ridden with the conscience of the Tarahumara Indian, whose only sin can be not having danced enough. (315)

There’s numerous other examples, many that are much more elaborate and weirder. I’ve also been awed at the rendering of the urban density and the urban setting, which defy traditional descriptions of setting and landscape. I am halfway through the tome as I write this. I’ve caught whiffs of Djuna Barnes, Henry James, Dawn Powell, Flannery O’Connor and Nathanael West, as well as foreshadowings of D.F. Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Incidentally, I noted that the epigraph from Gaddis’s later novel, A Frolic of His Own, a quotation from Henry David Thoreau, pops up in The Recognitions. It’s comically suggestive and evocative, but without the original context I can’t make it out:

When the cab started again, he returned his eyes to the words underlined on the page before him: What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it, you become its prey. (265)

I’ve seen numerous critics describe this as an unfinishable novel, but I think I’ll finish. Only time will tell. (Abandoned mega-novels for me include The Golden Notebook, Europe Central, and The Man without Qualities, but not too many others.)

I leave you with a long quotation describing the small library of Esther and Wyatt:

The room Wyatt had entered was as large as the bedroom, but had only one window which would have opened on an airshaft if anyone had bothered opening it. During the first year or so, the room served various vague purposes. Though between them they hadn’t a great number of books, not great enough, that is, to warrant a library (for a library, to Esther, was a roomful of books), it served as that for awhile. However, this was not practical, for reasons of which each privately accused the other in refusing to admit his own. Esther liked books out where everyone could see them, a sort of graphic index to the intricate labyrinth of her mind arrayed to impress the most casual guest, a system of immediate introduction which she had found to obtain in a number of grimy intellectual households in Greenwich Village. Her husband, on the other hand, did not seem to care where his books were, so long as they were where he put them. That is to say, separate. No doubt Boyle’s Skeptical Chemist, Jalland’s The Church and the Papacy, Cennino Cennini’s Libro dell’ Arte, or La Chimie au Moyen Age, would have dressed up Esther’s shelves; no doubt the Grimorium Verum and the Turba Philosophorum would have been dusted down their spines regularly. No doubt these were among the reasons he kept them on his own, or strewn among the litter which had gradually filled the undetermined room until it belonged to him. Things were tacked on the walls there haphazard, an arm in dissection from a woodcut in the Fabrica of Vesalius, and another sixteenth-century illustration from the Surgery of Paré, a first-aid chart called ‘the wound man’; a photograph of an Italian cemetery flooded by the Po; a calendar good for every day from 1753 to 2059; a print of a drawing of the head of Christ by Melozzo da Forli; a ground plan of the Roman city of Leptis Magna; a mirror; and rolls of paper and canvases on stretchers leaning in the corners. (83)

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  • I tried The Recognitions and it defeated me. I wish I’d persevered but in the end I just couldn’t bring myself to go on. I hope you do better with it than me.


    • I have a secret to help me through The Recognitions that went unacknowledged in my post–not the excellent Annotated Reader’s Guide available online, but the audiobook version of The Recognitions, available at Audiobooks and podcasts are perfect accompaniment to exercise (jogging) and to chores, like washing dishes. Try out Bookworm, Librivox, and Miette’s Bedtime Podcast for a vast collection of literary audio resources.

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