The Observer
27 February 1994

All in order, thanks 

Christopher Walker

Christopher Walker finds William Gaddis unexpectedly forthcoming, if not quite frolicsome, about his new novel inspired by the language of law

WILLIAM GADDIS is one of the great outsiders of American literature. He is admired by his peers as one of the most inventive writers of his generation and yet, at 71, he is still relatively unknown. He rarely gives interviews and never does readings: he shares with Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger an aversion for what he calls the celebrity horror, of American public life. ‘The whole idea of giving readings is, to me, turning the crative artist into a performing artist’, he explains. ‘This country is obsessed by performance, whether it’s the Menendez boys killing their father or whatever. It’s all celebrity.’ At his Upper East Side apartment, Gaddis is candid about his career and expresses the hope that with his new novel, A Froic of His Own, American readers may finally get the point of what he has been doing for the past 40 years. ‘I’m often amazed that people don’t get it less so as I get older. I think there will always be that 97 per cent who don’t get it. 1 just hope they bought the book first!’

 Gaddis’s novels have a reputation for difficulty. Dense, erudite, allusive, they are always written in a fragmented style which makes serious demands on the reader. Gaddis says: ‘I don’t like the word “difficult”, although that, apparently, is the consensus. I like the idea of the reader becoming involved enough to help create the scene.  What is the printed page for? I still think of writing as between the reader and the page, and the reader participating in what comes off the page rather than the writer taking his hand and leading him down the path.’ So how does he react to the label ‘experimental’? 11 don’t like the phrase “experimental writing” applied to me. 1 know what I’m doing. I generally think of experiments as, “I’ll try this and see if it works” and it may not. I don’t experiment.’

Gaddis grew up in New York, left Harvard in 1945 without completing his degree and travelled with a typewriter to Spain. ‘Everyone doing stylish things had gone to Paris, but I didn’t want to get into that crowd,’ he says.

In Majorca, he tracked down Robert Graves and talked to him about myth and religion while researching his first novel, The Recognitions huge, angry, encylopedic novel about forgery and corruption in art and in American society. The Recognitions was hailed as an American Ulysses when it appeared in 1955. ‘I thought it was going to turn the world upside down,’ says Gaddis. ‘And I’ve been quoted as saying I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d won the Nobel Prize.’ In fact, the book bombed. It was judged inaccessible and has taken several decades to find a sizeable readership. Looking back, Gaddis admits ‘It is a young man’s novel. There’s a little bit of showiness in it showing the reader what a clever fellow I am and how much I know.’ Nevertheless, he remains bitter about its neglect. After the commercial failure of The Recognitions, Saddis gave up fiction and took a job as a speech~writer in a pharmaceutical company.

In the Sixties he made contract films for the army until the scandal of Vietnam made him move to Eastman-Kodak. His experiences in the corporate world resulted in JR (1975), a brilliant, anarchic comedy about the infantile nature of American business. Again, Gaddis was ahead of his time. His ll~year-old speculator was a short-pants version of the infamous 1980s junk-bond dealer, Michael Milken. JR is, perhaps, the supreme literary masterpiece of the so-called ,information age’. It perfectly captures that sense of existential panic and linguistic drift which characterises the world of instantaneous global ‘communication’.  Ten years early, Gaddis was describing the non-stop babble of the world according to CNN.

JR deservedly won the National Book Award, but it did not sell. What alienated some readers was that the novel was made up entirely of unpunctuated dialogue with no authorial voice to help you through the cacophony. In fact, JR is an exhilarating read, but the New York Times sealed the book’s fate by lazily pronouncing it unreadable,. Gaddis defends his dislocated style: ‘The Fifties was a fragmented time an I think this is a shattered time. And so, as I’ve gone on, the kind of shattered element that we live with is what has become more a part of the style.’ He cites T. G. Eliot: ‘East Coker condenses everything I am trying to say in-about 20 lines:    a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating . . .

After writing Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Gaddis turned his obsession with the deterioration of language to the subject of the law. For the past  seven years he has immersed himself in civil law, including the 84-volume American Jurisprudence. He says: ‘I got very intrigued by legal writing, not as an obfuscating language, but for its attempt to anticipate contingencies, for its precision, for its clarity.’ With A Frolic of His Own, Gaddis seems to have finally coincided with the Zeitgeist. American courtrooms are now televised theatres, and novels about the law are suddenly in vogue. However, unlike the legal thrillers of John Grisham and Scott Turow, which simply use the law as decoration, Gaddis’s novel properly immerses itself in the intricacies of the law and explores the insanity of American legal practice. Gaddis says: ‘The law is a marvellous, stunning idea. It should be a framework for civilised living, but what it has become in this country is a carnival of disorder, with chicanery and disorderly conduct all over, and people sueing over anything they think they can get money for.’ Gaddis’s send-up of this ,carnival of disorder, is being well~received in the America of Lorena Bobbitt and Tonya Harding and, as Gaddis enjoys pointing out, ironically ,lawyers seem to have got a kick out of this book’.

The novel’s title comes from an 1834 case in English law which determined that if a servant was ‘on a frolic of his own, his master was not liable for his actions. Gaddis uses the phrase to describe his own artistic endeavour: no one is telling him to do it. So does the word ‘frolic’ imply a lack of seriousness? Absolutely not, says Gaddis. ‘This is not a frivolous matter. It’s a rather deadly frolic., He still believes that satire can have a corrective role in American life: ‘I think that America is a great country, but it has gone off the rails in a number of ways and those ways should be brought to public attention.  There is this naive thing in many writers about changing things. Against all odds, I still harbour that silly notion that things might get better.’

So who are the writers he allies himself with? He mentions Mark Twain, Samuel Butler, Evelyn Waugh and the Russians. ‘My great heroes are Dostoevsky and Gogol and Turgenev and Goncharov people who dealt with the irrational.’ What about American writers like Robert Coover, William Burroughs and John Hawkes with whom he is often grouped? 

1 see myself as the rear-guard, as the last of the something . . . I don’t know what.  My attempt is always to find order, to try to grasp for order, to try to restore order. I have a firm belief in cause and effect which, of course, the law is mainly concerned with. Coover and Burroughs would like to explode the myth of cause and effect . . . but they’re off on a frolic of their own and so am I

 'A Frolic of His Own' will be published by Viking on 2 June.  'The Recognitions' (pounds 12.99) and 'JR' (pounds 10.99) have been re-issued by Penguin.

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