No Justice, Only the Law
January 9, 1994, Sunday, Late Edition
A FROLIC OF HIS OWN
By William Gaddis. 586 pp. New York: Poseidon Press. $25.
WILLIAM GADDIS is the formidably talented writer whose work—until “A Frolic of His Own”—has been, I suspect, more likely to intimidate or repel his readers than to lure them into his fictional world. His first novel, “The Recognitions” (1955), is one of late modernism’s sacred monsters, a 900-page display of polymathic erudition, which, though crowded with incident and allusion, shows minimal concern for narrative movement or the in-depth portrayal of any of its myriad characters. With “JR” (1975) Mr. Gaddis developed and ruthlessly exploited a technique of almost nonstop, scarcely punctuated dialogue, which he continued to employ in his next two novels. It is a technique that demands unflagging vigilance on the reader’s part. I found the tone of both “JR” and “Carpenter’s Gothic” (1985) so high-pitched, so unremittingly aggressive, as to blunt what might otherwise have been my pleasure in their satiric exuberance and mimetic brilliance. While there is still a good deal to be endured in his fourth novel, “A Frolic of His Own,” there is far more to be enjoyed than in any of his previous work.
Its opening sentence announces both the subject and the theme of the novel: “Justice? -- You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” In “A Frolic of His Own” we do indeed have the law—and the language of litigation—in fantastic combinations and obsessive detail, materials from which Mr. Gaddis creates his harsh, misanthropic but often hilarious comedy. At the beginning, Oscar Crease, a major voice in this work composed of voices, is lying in a hospital, suffering from injuries (not very serious) inflicted by his own car, which ran over him while he was trying to hot-wire it. Oscar is thus both the owner of the car and its victim. There was no driver. What will his insurance company cover? Who can be sued? Can the maker of the car be sued for product liability since the car was in Park but slipped into Drive? Such are the issues that Oscar discusses—or rather rants about—with his stepsister, Christina, her lawyer husband, Harry Lutz, and the insurance adjuster who visits him in the hospital. Soon he is involved in a million-dollar suit for pain and disfigurement.
But this is only one of the legal matters with which the irascible Oscar is obsessed. A middle-aged community-college teacher with some inherited money and a conception of himself as “the last civilized man,” Oscar has also written an unpublished play, “Once at Antietam,” derived from his grandfather’s experiences in the Civil War. This high-minded play, he insists, has been plagiarized by a Hollywood producer-director (Constantine Kiester, a k a Jonathan Livingston Siegal) who has turned it into a vulgar blockbuster movie (“The Blood in the Red White and Blue”) full of sex scenes and gory special effects. Obviously Oscar must sue for enormous damages, though he is warned that as a “little guy” he will face exorbitant expenses and little chance for victory.
Another—even funnier—legal carnival running through the novel involves Oscar and Christina’s nonagenarian father, a distinguished Federal judge in whose awesome shadow Oscar has always lived. The case over which Judge Crease presides is worth a brief summary: A contentious sculptor called R. Szyrk has erected a towering, “site-specific” metal sculpture (“Cyclone Seven”) in a small Virginia village. A dog, Spot, belonging to a little boy, wanders into the intricate (and menacing) sculpture and is entrapped in its complex entrails. The village wants to rescue the dog, but the sculptor gets an injunction forbidding any tampering with his work of art. Judge Crease rules in favor of the sculptor, provoking a nationwide, televised campaign to “Save Spot.” Here is Oscar talking (that is, ranting) to Christina on the subject:
“America has taken Spot to its heart, did you see it last night? Every idiot in sight down there with something to sell, dog candy, hot dogs, Free Spot! buttons, Free Spot! T-shirts, Spot dolls with huge wet eyes and that whole hideous Cyclone Seven? peddling this take apart puzzle model and a game where you try to get the dog out with magnets shaped like a dog bone? Marching around for animal rights, artists’ rights, black rights, right to life, abortion, gun control, Jesus loves and the flags, Stars and Stripes, Stars and Bars and then somebody. . . .”
“Oscar, just. . . .”
“Yes and then somebody throws a beer bottle and they. . . .”
“And Father right in the midst of it, that’s. . . .”
“And why shouldn’t he be! Why shouldn’t he Christina he started it all didn’t he? with that, that decision he wrote for this awful little dog? Schoolchildren sending in donations so this cheap sentimental vision of our great republic shall not perish from the earth.”
These are only the major legal issues in “A Frolic of His Own.” Dozens of others—some very briefly touched upon, nearly all of them rich in absurdity—emerge from the matrix of the novel’s nearly nonstop dialogue. For example, Trish, a rich friend of Christina’s, who finds herself pregnant by a young man she picked up, engages one set of lawyers to sue a hospital for “foetal endangerment” and another set to defend her abortion against a suit brought by the father, demanding his paternal rights. In another case, one that has “soared beyond the $33 million mark” in legal costs, the Episcopal Church has sued Pepsico Inc. for trademark infringement and “libelous intent to disparage and make a mockery of plaintiff’s good name.” (Reader: note the anagram in Pepsi-Cola.)
However, though his comic-satiric imagination seems endlessly fertile, Mr. Gaddis has other, more serious intentions in mind. Take the matter of language. When Christina complains that something is only a question of language, Harry cries out, “But, but damn it Christina that’s what we’re talking about! What do you think the law is, that’s all it is, language.” And when she complains that it’s all a conspiracy, he replies, “Of course it is. . . . Every profession is a conspiracy against the public, every profession protects itself with a language of its own. . . . Language confronted by language turning language itself into theory till it’s not about what it’s about it’s only about itself turned into a mere plaything.” One suspects that the author’s exasperation with the recent state of literary criticism is, among other things, reflected in this outburst. The novel’s mockery of the legal profession, its minions and its dupes, is extended to include a wide spectrum of contemporary American culture—presented here, with corrosive Swiftian glee, as an unholy mess compounded of greed, ignorance, illiteracy, corruption and childish folly.
THE major figures—Oscar, Christina and even Oscar’s dopey girlfriend, Lily—reveal themselves (and are characterized by one another) with a vividness and immediacy that embrace pathos as well as comic futility. Oscar in particular is an arresting, even moving figure in the midst of farce. The big old house he lives in is in ruinous condition, the corridors full of boxes containing his “archives” (every piece of paper that’s ever come his way, including illiterate student themes), and the chaos around him steadily mounts as the legal documents and outrageous bills pour in. As his fantasies of retribution and vindication soar, his condition deteriorates into a state of alcoholic childishness. Christina—herself a complex figure, at once imperious, worldly and needy—rails incessantly at her stepbrother but recognizes the quasi-tragic irony of his situation:
“Oscar’s done it again,” she says to Harry, “setting himself up with these fantasies of producing his play when he wins this appeal and if he loses, this whole desperate pose as the gentleman poet, the last civilized man I mean he’s just really so different from who he thinks he is and God only knows, when he loses. . . .”
“Not when he loses, Christina. It’s when this who he thinks he is loses, what the whole thing’s all about isn’t it? He goes off on a frolic of his own writes a play and expects the world to roll out the carpet for. . . .”
“A frolic! Where in God’s name did you get that, I mean have you ever seen anyone more deadly serious than. . . .”
And she concludes with a startling insight: that going off on a frolic of one’s own is “really what the artist is finally all about.”
One must not underestimate the obstacles that lie in the way of the appreciation, to say nothing of the enjoyment, of this remarkable novel. Some of these are inherent in the technique of nearly continuous, minimally punctuated speech (the author uses dashes to indicate dialogue). While the reader may marvel at Mr. Gaddis’s powers of mimicry and his ability to evoke the distinct personalities of his characters through their spate of words, he is likely to feel bombarded, even assaulted, by the various voices clamoring for attention. The medium is exceptionally dense. The mere effort of sorting out the voices, of tracking them, can be exhausting.
Other obstacles seem gratuitous, even perverse.
While old Judge Crease’s legal opinions, quoted in their entirety, are
perhaps witty enough to justify the stupefying legal jargon in which
they are couched, there seems little excuse for subjecting the reader
to 50 pages of verbatim, tiresomely repetitious testimony in one of
Oscar’s legal depositions. Or for quoting 40 or more pages of Oscar’s
high-minded, thematically significant but (in Christina’s words) “long-winded”
play. One could perhaps argue (perversely?) that the enduring of long
stretches of tedium is a necessary part of the full esthetic experience
that the book offers. In any case, I hope the reader will persevere.
“A Frolic of His Own” is an exceptionally rich, even important novel.
The payoff is more than worth the effort.
-- I told you, look Christina. I told you to speak to [ Oscar ] , he gets me at the office and I can’t get him off the phone. I don’t want to hurt his feelings but you know the pressure we’re under down there. A client calls and knows it’s costing him seventy five dollars just to pick up the phone but Oscar, it never occurs to him that. . . .
-- Well it doesn’t Harry, that’s just the point, it just doesn’t occur to him. Flat on his back, I mean what’s more natural than to reach for the telephone and he’s been simply frantic since this movie opened, he’s just getting used to the idea that he has a brother in law he thinks he can turn to and when he can’t reach you, when they tell him you’re in court. . . .
-- Because I’ve finally told Doris that whenever he calls I’m in court, that I’m in conference, that I’m out of the office, I’m not trying to make a Federal case out of this Christina but you’ve got to do something. I thought he resented me intruding on the family by marrying you, try to show him some family concern, fine. That’s what I’m doing today, now, Sunday, but even that woman we met at the hospital? the one with the blood bath, you actually gave her my number too?
-- Well who else. Maybe you should just tell your friends I’m a public relations man, that I’m in ladies’ underwear, an ad account executive, something completely useless that. . . .
-- Trish would love you in ladies’ underwear Harry.
-- Look I’m serious! She
got on the phone with her whole life history, the time they took her
to Payne Whitney when she cut her wrists? Patched her up, gave her some
pills, when they sent her a bill for eleven thousand dollars she tried
it again, now she wants to sue this hospital for something she calls
William Gaddis describes himself, with some understatement, as a writer who has “never been in a rush to get into print.” Having just published “A Frolic of His Own,” his fourth novel in an almost 40-year career, he is more content to let fictional subjects pursue him than the reverse.
“Samuel Butler said something like, ‘Books come to me wanting to be written,’ “ he recalled in a telephone interview. “I work much more in that vein than trying to think up an idea for a novel. I’ve done one book about forgery [ “The Recognitions” ] , one about the business world [ “JR” ] and this one on the complexities and self-defeating aspects of the law—to me, these were aspects of life wanting to be explored.”
Although Mr. Gaddis spends almost 600 pages satirizing the law in “A Frolic of His Own,” he has always viewed it with admiration—so much so that he might have gone into the field himself if he had not become a writer. “When you look at it clearly, the law is language,” he explained, “and that is one of my—and any other respectable novelist’s—preoccupations.” Years ago, Mr. Gaddis’s own attention to language led him to ask a lawyer to reword his divorce papers. “I was concerned about visitation rights, and the agreement said something to the effect, ‘If for any reason he should not exercise these rights . . . it does not jeopardize his position,’ “ the author remembered. “Well, I wanted it changed to ‘If for any reason or for no reason. . . .’ “ It’s what Mr. Gaddis calls “that agony of precision” that obsesses him.
His purpose in “A Frolic of His Own,” however, was to show just how much that concern can go awry. “The law is an immense attempt to establish order or to rescue it—I’m not sure which,” he said. “And yet it’s led to a carnival of disorderly conduct on all sides. This kind of paradox fascinates me.”
Mr. Gaddis, who is 71 years old, wrote the novel almost exclusively in unpunctuated dialogue, which has become his trademark. This not only makes the action move swiftly, he said, but it also allows him to maintain a certain distance. “In my last three books, there was the whole concept of authorial absence,” he said. “That concept I am quite wed to.”
It is also one of the reasons he treats his subjects with humor rather than pathos: “I’d rather that the reader be entertained than manipulated into crocodile tears.” Whenever he’s writing, he added, “It seems to be my nature to stand back a step or two and see the eventual tragicomedy—the ridiculous nature of how we spend our time getting and spending.”
-- Laurel Graeber