These days, most people who know William Gaddis seem to know him for his epic novel The Recognitions. A few know him for The Tunnel, but those people are mistaken because that was written by William Gass. Some know more of his work, including JR (the book I’m actually talking about here), but The Recognitions seems to be the first thing people think of any more when they think of Gaddis. It’s funny, considering that The Recognitions was originally poorly received and it was only when the more popular JR came out that Gaddis started getting attention as a master of literature. Not a whole lot of people make it through any Gaddis, as he does tend to write long books of convoluted prose. When they do, it seems to usually be The Recognitions. This is a shame, considering how fun JR is.
People should read both.
(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Lydia Millet.)
Though an immense book full of some dense but amazingly written prose, JR is a hilarious novel. The title is the name of an eleven-year-old boy obsessed with capitalism who takes some worthless penny stocks and, through various means of hiding his age such as payphones, parlays them into a vast empire worth a fortune. Or, well, a fortune on paper. It’s a house of cards, ready to tumble down at any time. None of it is worth any more than the valueless penny stocks he starts out with, but things get so complicated and turned around that it’s hard to say. If you haven’t ever worried about how much faith is involved in modern financial empires, you might after reading JR.
Combine all that with the confusing cacophony Gaddis is known for being able to create, and you have a heck of a book. It can definitely getting taxing to read all that, Gaddis is no slouch, but it’s a wondrous thing to behold if you do:
—Hullo? Let me talk to Mister Piscator please, this…yeah this is J…Yeah this is him, I sound like I’m where…? Tell him that yes tell him that’s why I’m in a hurry because I…hello? Nonny? look, I just talked to this broker Mister Wiles about this whole Ace and Alberta…what? No didn’t she just tell you…? No well some of these overseas connections are real good but…no I can hear you fine, look I called you to…No well that’s what I called about, I just heard the whole thing went…Okay but where does that leave me? I mean if I was the biggest holder they had in both…what? I already told you because it was real cheap, now so where does this…possible what…? But what good are leases on mineral exploration rights if I…okay but what good are tax write-offs for mineral exploration if like what am I supposed to do, go out there with a hat and shovel looking…not a hatful of no I said a shovel and go looking for these here virgin…what? No I mean these minerals what’s the difference of that and you said probably all Alberta and Western has left is this bunch of rights of way and leases to …No I know I can’t so look, when you find it all out you can…no now can you hear me? I said tell Mister Bast. Did he call you yet about…No I know it but see he’s been doing a lot of reading up on all this and he…No, sure I know it’s inconvenient but see we’re changing that office up there over to these picturephones which the telephone company says they take longer to…No I know he doesn’t but see we’re still shorthanded down there too so Virginia’s been…Not down in Virginia, no I said Virginia the secre…no I know she’s not the brightest secre…No from Mister Bast, he was supposed to call you once him and Mister Wonder got together and got this whole deal all…No I know this other brother did but see I just got this call from this Mister Mooneyham at…he did? What did you tell him…? No but look see instead of just trying to get back that Wonder stock this brother loaned him as collateral for X-L suppose we just take over the whole…No but I just told this broker to get me the book value on it and all so see if we…Okay can you hear me? look, once the pension fund buys out Wonder it could just sell the stock right back and it would be overrefunded so…what? Overfunded I said yes so we’d never have to put anything in it again, see then the pension fund would be all set and these here Wonder employees would like own this stock of their own company and we get to keep this almost three million dollars of these unpaid dividends against Eagle’s tax loss credit carryforward understand what I mean? Which then instead of just trying to clear up that X-L thing we could move in and…what do you mean lose the brewery, we…Oh. Okay I didn’t’ think of that but look, if you think they might buy this stock and vote it to put up these new officers that would declare this big dividend and the whole thing would collapse, is that what you said? Okay then look, if we set them up this employees’ stock option plan where they buy this here stock but see we keep the voting rights so we can…What do you mean go to jail? why should…no now…no now look…No now look Nonny, see I’m not asking you what I can do, I’m telling you what I want to do and paying you to find out how I can do it, understand what I…what? No didn’t’ you get it yet… No it’s coming to you from Eagle, I just talked to Miter Hopper up there and he said the check’s in the mail and look, he’s got this here old lawsuit up there about this cemetery which it’s right in the middle of this right of way, you can get the whole story on it later from Mister Bast see but the thing is settle it, see but…for anything just settle it, see but not till we have this okay on this here loan to management, I mean don’t make it sound like we’re holding out see but lit it’s just this regular thing you happened to…Sure I think you know your business or why would I…No there’s just a couple of things like this new issue on this string of these nursing homes that this broker sent me all the…No because it’s real cheap and then there’s some Italian drug company this other broker says is…no I didn’t’ look into them yet but look…A figure loomed into the glass panel over his shoulder, —look…he hunched lower, —I have this meeting I have to…what? Back in what country…Oh, oh sure tomorrow this was just this short…for this meeting yes, I…to incorporate what? Just a second…he cracked the door open, and over a shoulder —You need this here phone Mister Gibbs…? and at a nod, —okay just a second…and the crack closed, —sure go ahead then if you think that’s…In Jamaica? how come you…no I said go ahead, you can tell all this to Mister Bast when you and him…no well I just think he’s been too busy lately to get a new suit he…okay…and the door shuddered open. —Just a second Mister Gibbs, let me get this stuff…
Frankly, I never thought that Gaddis could be funny, but JR is a riot. It may still be a bit confusing, what with all the unattributed dialogue and unannounced switches in character, place, and/or time, but JR is still the easiest to understand Gaddis I’ve seen yet. JR may not be quite as sublime as The Recognitions, but I liked it a great deal.