American Fiction: A law unto himself
William Gaddis has written some of America’s longest and least read novels. He tells Jonathan Coe how he’s wising up see "the entire crumbling of civilisation before our very eyes," says character in William Gaddis’s new novel. And what’s more, he means it. The stakes are always high in Gaddis’s fiction, where big themes require big books. At nearly 600 pages, his latest, A Frolic of his Own, may be twice the size of Carpenter’s Gohic (1985), but it still seems a mere trifle when set beside The Recognitions, the labyrinthine 1,000-page satire on art and forgery which has the reputation of being one of postwar America’s most highly regarded and least read novels, and which kicked off Gaddis’s extraordinary literary career almost 40 years ago. “They said it was incomprehensible,” the author recalls. “They said it was negative, negative, negative, my view of the world.” He chuckles ruefully. “Well, look at the world today! Those were halcyon days, compared with what we’ve got now.”
Now in his early seventies, and looking remarkably like a more dapper, ascetic version of Kirk Douglas, Gaddis is in London to talk about his new novel -- his fourth in four decades -- which takes on the American legal system, exploring the nation’s pathologically litigious nature and using it as the metaphor for a whole culture’s slide into terminal chaos. “I’d originally thought that the purpose of the law was to civilise us,” says this most civilised of men. “But it’s led to the total disorder of our society.” As one member of the novel’s ample cast of lawyers flatly remarks, “Money’s become the barometer of disorder.” Money has always been one of Gaddis’s two biggest themes: money and art. His novels explore their mutually destructive relationship with an intelligence and a crazed thoroughness unmatched in contemporary American fiction. Wyatt Gwyon, the hero of The Recognitions, was a deeply spiritual artist whose copies of Flemish masters - painted out of love and reverence - were eagerly seized upon by crooks and forgers.
In JR (1975), a failed composer colludes in the activities of the ll-year-old hero, a financial prodigy who operates out of phone booths to build up a huge paper empire which anticipated the junk bond market of the 1980s. Gaddis still smoulders over reviews which described these books as simplistic parables of the ways in which commerce destroys art. “If you read them with any care at all, it is the artist himself who is digging his grave all the time. of course, commerce co-operates, if it can.”
The latest in Gaddis’s line of impotent artists is Oscar Crease, a middle-aged history lecturer and erstwhile playwright whose various lawsuits form the backbone of the narrative. Gaddis describes him as lone of those people who always gets it wrong.” He is the author of a wordy Civil War play, Once at Antietam, which he claims has been plagiarised and travestied by a multi-million dollar Hollywood film. In particular, Oscar believes the filmmakers have stolen his central plot device: the notion of a soldier who sends out “substitutes” to fight on his behalf for both sides during the war, and who becomes convinced that these substitutes have met and killed each other in battle -- so that he has, in effect, committed a ghostly sort of suicide.
In a typical flight of structural virtuosity, this idea is paralleled in Oscar’s other lawsuit, in which he gets run over by his own car and has no alternative but to sue himself (“You might almost say that this is a suit between who you are and who you think you are,’). It’s clear that Gaddis identifies closely with Oscar, even to the extent that Once at Antietam is a play which he himself wrote in the late 1950s, as “a complete departure” in the wake of The Recognitions’ commercial failure. In what has been described as one of American criticism’s weakest moments, Gaddis’s huge novel, seven years in the writing, had taken a critical pounding and been remaindered. "I think crushing is too strong a word, but it was a severe disappointment," says Gaddis, when asked to recall his feelings on the matter. “Because obviously when 1 wrote it, I thought it was going to turn the world upside down. And also I’d been expecting some money: I’d got married right after it came out, and then the next couple of years had two children. So those were bad times, hard times. I went to work for a pharmaceutical company, and was working on this play at night. Then eventually 1 gave up on it and began to make notes towards JR.”
His brief flirtation with drama had, however, brought on a profound stylistic change: he now decided that the burden of meaning in his novels should be borne almost entirely by dialogue, not descriptive prose. All three of Gaddis’s books since then have been characterised by their frantic, chattering dialogue, a babble of conflicting discourses which has caused some critics -- such as George Steiner -- to describe his work as “unreadable”. Another reviewer said that reading JR was like being trapped in a phone booth for 700 pages with a maniac screaming down the line. More sympathetic critics have praised the realism of Gaddis’s fractured syntax, his interplay of constantly overlapping speakers, although in fact the idiosyncratic dialogue of his novels has little to do with the way people really talk but is the product of a highly personal fictive voice, worked over at great length during a laborious process of drafting and rewriting.
It’s true that A Frolic of His Own demands
a good deal of concentration, but the pay-offs are generous: not
least in terms of the gleeful, down to earth humour which dictates that
Oscar’s troublesome Japanese car should be called a Sosumi and that
passing reference should be made to an actor called Clint Westwood and
his early Western A Hatful of Shit.
Gaddis firmly believes that, for the novelist, the law is ‘the
most entertaining framework one could imagine . . . and was drawn to
the subject by his passion for reading good legal opinions, with their
dry wit and “agony of precision,’ which find such an exact corollary
in his own language. He remains fascinated by the law’s surreal
contortions, and never more so than when studying the small print on
a recent movie contract. “Some years ago there was an option on JR
-- though it was never done -- which said that the company was to have
the rights “throughout the world and elsewhere”. That was bad
enough, but I’ve just signed an option on this new book, and the contract
there says that they have the rights in perpetuity, ‘throughout the
universe’.” But Gaddis is wising up. these days, and has rapidly
learned how to play the lawyers at their own game. "So I
asked them, 'Does perpetuity include the afterlife?'."