The Sunday Times
12 June 1994

Letting loose mere anarchy

Peter Kemp

A Frolic Of His Own
by William Gaddis
Viking Pounds 16 pp. 586

 William Gaddis is America’s great novelist of rackets in both senses of the word. Fraud is his subject: hubbub is his technique. As far back as 1955, his first novel, The Recognitions, concerned itself with art forgery, currency counterfeiting, plagiarism, ghost-writing, charlatanism and imposture. Two decades later, his next book, JR, trained its gaze on financial chicanery or, rather, trained its ear on it. For like Gaddis’s fictional excoriation of fundamentalist religious fakery, Carpenter’s Gothic, the novel consisted almost entirely of dialogue and discord caught with sizzling precision. 

That approach as if shoving a tape~recorder into the pandemonium raging around wheeler-dealing, scams and shams is again put to lethal use in A Frolic Of His Own. Central to the plot is a film about the civil war, but the novel itself is almost all soundtrack, and soundtrack in which speech isn’t only recorded in all its garble and slippage, but frequently spliced together so that it is not immediately apparent who is speaking to whom or where. What characters look like is largely to be deduced from what they say to and about each other. Only one aspect of their surroundings a tranquil pond in unspoiled countryside outside the crumbling Long Island house where most of the book takes place receives regular visual description. 

Admiring this view from time to time, Christina Lutz, well-to-do wife of a partner in the prestigious New York law firm, Gwyne and Dour, is struck by its calm remoteness from the tumult in which she is plunged.  Much of this swirls like a maelstrom round her hyper-tense stepbrother Oscar, unsuccessful lecturer in history, failed playwright and disappointing son to an eminent federal court judge. 

After scorching his way in earlier books through the salons and studios of the art world, Wall Street’s money markets, PR agencies and Bible-belt evangelism, Gaddis now brings his blistering satiric attentions to the law. The first word of his book is “Justice,,; the last ones are “help me,,. With zestful disgust, the 586 pages in between show how recourse to lawyers for the former will inevitably reduce people to the latter plight. 

The America this novel tears open is one of litigation run amok. Three huge law suits ramify through the book: Oscar’s claim for multiple damages incurred when trying to start his car by hot-wiring it, his suing of a Hollywood producer for pirating material from an unperformed civil war play of his (its title, Once At Antietam, echoes that of a play Gaddis wrote in the late 1950s), and a case involving a dog accidentally imprisoned inside the warren-like cavities of a piece of contemporary metal sculpture, Cyclone Seven. Minor court actions, over everything from faulty breast implants to assault by ketchup on a chinchilla coat, proliferate, too. In this book’s law~mad milieu, people flail their way through an endless ticker-tape of depositions and injunctions, petitions, statutes and expensively processed documents thick with terminology such as “clouded title”, “malfeasance”,   11 unjust enrichment”, “negative entrustment”, “foetal endangerment”, “distraint”, “laches”, “escrow”, “bailment” and “bailor”. 

Charles Dickens is mentioned several times. And with its shoals of lawyers, judges, clerks, plaintiffs, defendants and professional litigants Gaddis’s novel can read like a frenetic, transatlantic up-dating of Bleak House, a work it also resembles in presenting callous, acquisitive and often surreally ruinous legal procedures as outlandish symptoms of a society sick with rapacity.  But it is with modernist, not Victorian, writing that Gaddis’s book has closest affinities. Its sophisticated arrangements of demotic din recall Joyce. Yeats is often quoted by Oscar, who unabashedly shares the modernists’ enthusiasm for inveighing against contemporary coarseness, stupidity and mass-culture debasement. 

As drivel jabbers from television and tabloid and the shriek of developers’ chain-saws rips into the rural peace of the neighbourhood, Oscar’s end-of-tether diatribes take on more and more manic, vituperative energy and the novel becomes more and more furiously funny.  Gaddis’s own scalding exasperation occasionally finds vent in explosions of mere jeering (a lecherous hypocrite of a politician called orney Bilk, a festering backwater named Stinking Creek). But, mainly, his book provides a marvellous cabaret of caustic comedy, especially when its satiric star-turn Trish Hemsley, a rich socialite of monstrously undeflectable selfishness, is holding forth. 

Uproariously, the novel transmits all the bedlam of a terminally awry society while, at regular intervals, glimpses of natural history programmes on television predators ingesting prey, carnivorous plants with barbed lips add a biological dimension to the human veracity.  Historical perspectives stretch back, too: the furore over the pilfered civil-war scenario doesn’t only unleash legal farce and media ballyhoo; it also touches on the bases of American civilisation and different modes of slavery continuing in it. As always, Gaddis excels at the comedy of consternation: fraughtness, panic, indignation and exacerbation vibrate through his pages. Deadly ventriloquism of vanity, vacuity and greed is exercised with his usual scathing skill. But a wider emotional span is now detectable as well. Inadequacies and insecurities behind Oscar’s patrician posturings are made sympathetically audible. Christinals het-up decency keeps introducing a more humane note into things. Warmth as well as heat distinguishes this demanding, rewarding novel which, every now and then, lets quieter tones of affection and concern make themselves heard through the clamour of self-interest it captures with such harsh hilarity. 

                            Peter Kemp is the chief fiction reviewer of The Sunday Times

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