The Observer
12 June 1994 


Elephantastic
Valentine Cunningham

 The Big American Novel keeps alluring the American author. A mania elephantiastica has been the ruin of many a poor boy, this so divine discontent to outweigh Moby Dick . Gaddis is one such enthusiast for the all-encompassing American fiction. He's already landed several big ones and A Frolic Of One's Own shows he's still in the size trade. It's his wordiest achievement yet. It's also his funniest, though that doesn't stop its exorbitance also making it his most annoying yet. 

The vast wordiness has some justification. Gaddis's theme is American inordinateness, especially as exemplified in the American way of going to the Law. This involves great greed, huge profits and losses, as well as mountains of paper. On every page it's the word-count of Americans on the law-suit trail that astonishes, provokes and enrages Gaddis. It has these effects on the reader too. The plot " buried in thickening drifts of documents, stories, legal opinions and a babble of swirling, spilling, know-it-all voices " involves Oscar Crease, college teacher, poetic type, and scion of a long line of lawyers, who's suing a Hollywood producer for stealing his script to make a Civil War blockbuster. This script is one of the many documents on lavish display. Crease is also seeking damages from a car company for an accident when he was hot-wiring his auto.

Meanwhile the film-maker " once known as Jonathan Livingston Siegal (but then Crease's lawyer is a black guy called Basie; Gaddis likes his little nomenclature jokes) hires Crease's brother-in-law's posh firm to bite back with counter-charges of text-theft from Plato's Republic and Eugene O'Neill. This is all Bleak House, US-style. The paperwork accumulates, costs spiral legal persons crowd into the honeypot , and the victims of Gaddis's forensic hell -- Oscar himself, his sister Christina, his raunchy friend Lily, her friend the shopping hound Trish  --  are left simply to rant and rage and imagine quite vain things like justice. Gaddis's grim conclusion is that there's no justice in America, only Law which means, of course, legalistic words. 'Words, words, words, that's what it's all about.'  Everyone in Gaddis's book is some sort of literalist, not least the fundamentalists " and there are, Oscar says, 50 million of  those, 'Bible-thumping, illiterate'.

And in this farcical country of the literalist, word-management power makes the lawyer the king.  As the novel's logorrhoea balloons, and the shambolical sentences of Christina, Lily, and Trish, and all the others, spew unstoppably out, that seems a rather apt national fate. And as the owner of this juggernaut of a novel, William Gaddis looks in no position to grouse much about it, either.  

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