The Unknown: The Purple Line.
  Remember to Read Gaddis

He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.

--William Gaddis, concluding paragraph to The Recognitions

William Gaddis died Wednesday, December 16, 1998 at the age of 75. While Gaddis won two National Book Awards, for his novels J.R. and A Frolic of His Own, Gaddis' work never gained a wide popular readership.

The world that Gaddis describes is one in which a cacophony of disparate voices create and destroy meaning in the world. Power in Gaddis novels is diffuse. No one person is ever in control, and meaning is constantly shifting. While there are clearly rules at work, the rules themselves are not fixed. If you read a Gaddis novel and you aren't quite sure what is going on, who are the controllers and who is the controlled, you aren't alone. The characters in Gaddis' novels are most often in the same boat. People live within systems difficult to understand , and impossible to describe completely. Voices do battle in a hyper-real space where orality, voices, statements and documents of various kinds, represent the sum and total possible understanding of experience. What is said by the characters is all that is known, and what is said is open to misinterpretation, or misdirection.

William Gaddis never wrote a book that wasn't a masterpiece. His four novels, which I can rarely find on the shelves of any bookstore, each present considerable difficulties to the reader--difficulties which, when overcome, are proven to obfuscate good plots and interesting, sometimes quite likeable, characters.

The first difficulty Gaddis presents is his almost exclusive use of unattributed dialog: he tells stories with almost no narration. The reader sees the transcript of a dialog she cannot hear, and from the text of what was said has to work backward to discover how many characters are in the room, what their names are, what they are like, and, finally, what they might look like. This technique is very different from introducing a character with a description of what they look like, and very different from referring to characters by name. It is very different from describing the events, or explaining the plot. It means that the characters' true motives are not directly accessible to us. It rules out foreshadowing unforeseeable events. It rules out conventional sex scenes in any form other than dialog.

Combine the technique of unattributed dialog with that of, in the case of J.R. in particular, the use of (what I call) a smooth point-of-view transfer. In J.R., the narrative presence can be thought of as a microphone, or, more accurately (since the microphone detects only dialog and not other sound), as voice-recognition software providing a continuous transcript. This microphone does not always follow a single character, it is passed from character to character when they are in scenes together, as if it were a tape recorder being handed off. Sometimes it even will pass through the phone lines from the room where one end of a telephone call is taking place to the room at the other end. Combined with the unattributed dialog, the smooth point-of-view transfer means that the reader must continually reconstruct who is in a scene and where it is taking place.

These techniques have many effects that mark Gaddis' novels as truly formally distinctive. J.R. takes place in something very close to continuous time. There are a few elided (skipped) moments--those when the character with the narrative tape recorder is alone or asleep, but there are no flashbacks or true foreshadowing, the only flashforwards being elisions or the characters' own speculation as to the future.

Finally, combine these two techniques with the large size of J.R., and realize that in all its 726 pages there are no words wasted on "he said," "she said," or the characters names (except when a name is said by a character) which, in an ordinary novel, would add up to a lot of words.

These novels are a lot of work to read, and must certainly have been far worse to write. I was able to read A Frolic of His Own (which may be the least confusing due to its small number of characters and scenes) only by reading through it first to identify each speaker, and write their initials down next to their lines, thereby attributing the dialog. I then read the novel a second time, and gave the characters different voices (in my mind as I read their words). The story that emerged was interesting and complicated without having obvious loopholes. A Frolic of His Own is a funny and very well-composed novel.

It is worth the trouble to read the fiction of William Gaddis, but that doesn't mean that you have enough time. Gaddis took a long time to write his novels, with reason. He wrote only four novels, but three of them were essentially encyclopedias. In each, he seems to absorb an entire world--the high culture/art world in The Recognitions, the world of contemporary American corporatized capitalism in J.R., and the American legal culture in A Frolic of His Own. Though he only wrote four books, he wrote the four books that he intended to write, exactly as he intended them. And even though Gaddis doesn't leave behind a very large audience, the body of work he leaves behind speaks for itself, and will for a very long time. Throughout his work, Gaddis told jokes that were by turns hilarious and deadly serious. One can only hope that his work will continue to be read though he himself is gone.

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The Unknown at Spineless Books.