by William Gaddis
Atlantic Books, 2002
reviewed by Claire L'Enfant
in The Pianola Journal Volume 15, 2003
Agapē Agape is the final work of William Gaddis, the American novelist best known for his novel, The Recognitions (recently reissued by Atlantic Books). He was born in 1922, appropriately, the year in which those two masterpieces of modernist fiction, Ulysses and The Waste Land were first published.
While working at the New Yorker magazine as a fact checker, he first became interested in the player piano, which was the subject of an article he was assigned to work on. This was the start of an interest -- obsession even, which would remain with him over the next 50 years of his writing life. Gaddis was not, however, interested in the player piano as a musical instrument, but as the manifestation of what he considered to be a disturbing trend in modern life: the growing use of mechanical reproduction in the arts, the resulting loss of autonomy and respect for individual artists, and a growing market for instant gratification entertainment. He began to research the history of the Player Piano, with the aim of writing something of his own on the topic. An article published in Atlantic Monthly in 1950, 'Stop Player. Joke no.4' is a light-hearted and anecdotal overview of the player piano's history, and marked the first appearance of the research on the topic which he would return to many times over the next half century.
He set the project aside while he worked on his first novel, The Recognitions , which was published in 1950. This hugely ambitious novel, nearly 1000 pages long, is now recognised as a masterpiece of twentieth century American fiction, but when it first appeared, it met mainly uncomprehending reviews. His interest in the history of the player piano surfaces briefly in The Recognitions , and after the book was published, he returned to his research on the subject, as he was to do at many different points in his life. He planned to write a detailed and comprehensive history of the instrument and its influence on contemporary life, but the project was never fulfilled. It seems this was in part due to his growing realization that the player piano was just one small part of the history of mechanisation and automation. He became overwhelmed by the sheer volume of material he accumulated on the subject, and the difficulty of marshalling it into an effective narrative. But it was also the case that Gaddis used much of the material directly or indirectly in his novels, and by 1989, had decided that the history, for which he had by then accumulated material over a period of nearly 50 years, was 'over-researched' and would never be published. So it was perhaps surprising that for his last work, he decided to return to the project. He spent two years working on the history, but then decided to re-cast it as a work of fiction. Agapē Agape was completed shortly before his death in 1998, and finally published in 2002.
The novel is a stream of consciousness narrative by a sick, possibly dying man. Confined to his bed by ill-health, he frantically tries to sort and make sense of his chaotic papers and affairs, while raging at his physical deterioration and incapacity. The reader is immersed in the mind of a writer and thinker desperately trying to set down his thoughts about the nature of art in the modern world in a coherent way, before illness and muddled thinking overwhelm him. It hardly matters whether Gaddis and the narrator are one and the same: they share a preoccupation with the influence of mechanisation on art and artists, and a conviction that the player piano represents all that is worst in the modern desire for gratification without thought or effort. The book is a series of sustained reflections on art and the creative impulse, and the narrator's bitter disappointment and disgust at the commodification of art - whether it be painting, music or writing - brought about by mass reproduction: 'Authenticity is wiped out when the uniqueness of every reality is overcome by the acceptance of its reproduction, so art is designed for its reproducibility. Give them the choice...and the mass will always choose the fake'. The Pianola represents for him the desire for 'mindless' entertainment at the expense of art: 'Waiting to be entertained, because that's where it started and that's where it ends up, avoiding pain and seeking pleasure play the piano with your feet, play cards, play pool, play pushpin....don't have to read music know a clef from a G string just keep pumping'. For a man to whom music is at the centre of the universe, 'Music, that's where it all starts and ends' this careless, mindless approach to music making is almost intolerable. But at the same time, the narrator makes a sharp distinction between the Pianola and the reproducing piano, and has nothing but respect -- reverence even -- for the Welte-Mignon:
'... the Welte-Mignon that didn't just record the notes but more perforations that actually reproduced all the shadings and subtleties of the artist, the unique performances of their own work by Debussy and Grieg, Rachmaninoff George Gershwin and the greatest pianists, Paderewski and God knows who, don't you see? These Welte, Duo-Art Pianolas, Ampico all over the place what they'd done was to make the transient permanent, given the fleeting nature of music of great performances of great music a permanence that's the heart of authenticity....when Welte's reproducing apparatus put Debussy into the piano you wouldn't need Debussy. You wouldn't need Grieg you wouldn't need Gershwin or Paderewski or any of them because you'd have authenticity and the whole concept of authenticity preserved, the music itself and the fleeting performances brought together forever, given permanence that's the heart of authenticity'
Throughout the book, he sets mass culture -- the desire for entertainment and instant gratification without thought or effort -- against the values of true art, which he tries with ever-increasing desperation to pinpoint and describe to his own satisfaction. The book is structured as a series of digressions and reflections that circle endlessly around the same themes: we are in the narrator's head, following an argument, experiencing his panic as he loses his train of thought, conscious suddenly of his physical ills, of the mound of paper shifting precipitously about on his bed. His struggle to make sense of the ideas which have preoccupied his thinking life, the sudden flights of brilliance and insight, the lapse back into uncertainty and the insecurity of his physical life make the book both moving and exhilarating. We urge him on as he takes a run at a line of thought, share his irritation when it peters into a dead end, and rejoice when his passion and intellect finally come together in the insights he has been searching for: '... the rage is there at the heart of it, the sheer energy, the sheer tension the tinge of madness where the work gets done, the only reality, the only refuge from the vast hallucination that's everything out there.. ..'
The book is an extraordinary work of fiction by any standards: it is particularly fascinating to anyone with a serious interest in player and reproducing pianos for the way in which it puts them at the heart of debates about modern culture. Gaddis was clearly extremely well-informed about many aspects of these instruments, particularly the technical, so it is a great pity that he entirely failed to understand the potential of the Pianola as a musical instrument of considerable subtlety. Of course he was right that it is quite possible to 'just keep pumping' but anyone who knows what the instrument is capable of will feel that his arguments, scintillating as they are, are undermined by the real potential of the instrument he so maligned.