of The Times
In “The Recognitions,” his monumental
first novel published nearly 40 years ago, William Gaddis used the story
of a would-be priest turned master forger to explore the loss of authenticity
in the modern world, and the shifting relationships between life and
art, art and faith. Those same themes—so pertinent in this post-modern
era of recyclings and regurgitations—lie at the core of his long-winded,
sometimes uproarious and often exhausting new novel “A Frolic of His
Own.” This time, however, plagiarism, not counterfeiting, serves as
the presiding metaphor; and the action takes place not in the world
of art, but in the world of law.
The instigator of Mr. Gaddis’s fictional lawsuit is one Oscar Crease, a middle-aged college teacher, who has written an unproduced play called “Once at Antietam.” The play is ostensibly based on his grandfather’s experiences in the Civil War, and also appears to draw heavily on the works of other writers, including Plato and Eugene O’Neill.
Oscar claims that he once submitted the play to a producer named Jonathan Livingston Siegal, who subsequently changed his name to Constantine Kiester and went on to become a world-famous movie director. It is Oscar’s contention that Kiester’s latest blockbuster, a Civil War epic titled “The Blood in the Red White and Blue,” is based on “Once at Antietam.” He is suing for compensatory and punitive damages.
Of course, things never proceed smoothly in Mr. Gaddis’s novels, and Oscar’s lawsuit is no exception. Even as Oscar’s legal bills mount, his lawyer is imprisoned, and Oscar finds himself being sued by the O’Neill estate for plagiarizing “Mourning Becomes Electra.” At the same time, Oscar is also trying to recover damages in another lawsuit involving his own car, which ran over him while he was trying to jump-start it. Meanwhile, Oscar’s father, a famous Federal Court judge, is trying to cope with the public outcry over his ruling in a case involving the accidental death of a dog named Spot, who became trapped in a piece of outdoor sculpture, a case that has spawned further lawsuits involving the creator of the sculpture, the town where the sculpture was erected and assorted entrepreneurs who want to cash in on Spot’s untimely death. Oscar’s brother-in-law, Harry; his girlfriend, Lily, and friends of his step-sister Christina are fielding lawsuits of their own.
Mr. Gaddis depicts all this litigation with the manic, slapstick energy of a Marx Brothers movie, a strategy that creates a counterpoint to his characters’ spiritual lethargy while providing him with ample opportunities for satire. As in his second novel, “JR,” the American preoccupation with money and money-making is parodied, this time through the characters’ relentless pursuit of so-called “damages” and “fairness.” As in “The Recognitions,” the fragmented, fragmentary nature of contemporary society is repeatedly exposed: things fall apart in Mr. Gaddis’s world; the center does not, cannot, hold.
Like storytelling, the law is supposed to serve as a tool, in Mr. Gaddis’s words, for imposing or rescuing “order from the demeaning chaos of everyday life”, but as his characters quickly discover, the law tends to be a poor substitute for justice. In “A Frolic of His Own,” the law links people together in purely adversarial relationships of mistrust, promoting a Kafkaesque sense of disintegration and crisis, rather than a sense of order.
Mr. Gaddis’s own narrative method—refined through his last three novels and culminating in this volume—mirrors this philosophical outlook. There is almost no conventional narrative in “A Frolic of His Own”; most of the book consists of nothing but voices: characters creating themselves out of words, out of conversations, asides and ruminations. Heated conversations about death and money and sex are interrupted with murmurings about lunch and tea. Petty arguments about legal proceedings are sprinkled with allusions to Shakespeare and Plato. Long, tiresome extracts from Oscar’s play are carefully laid out, as are jargon-filled legal briefs and opinions.
Despite Mr. Gaddis’s antic humor, this can make for laborious reading. One has the sense that nothing has been edited out of Oscar’s story; unlike conventional fictions, it does not feel sculptured or shaped. Instead, Mr. Gaddis seems to suggest, the reader is supposed to make order out of disorder, discern the patterns among the repetitions, ellipses and digressions. Even his characters tend to feel amorphous and poorly defined; they exist, after all, not as the completed creations of an omniscient novelist, but as modernist symbols of people in a continuous state of becoming.
As a result of this highly oblique approach,
Mr. Gaddis’s provocative vision of modern society is purchased at a
price, the price of hard work and frequent weariness on the part of