Carpenter's Gothic

. New York: Viking (Elisabeth Sifton Books),  July 1985; second printing in August
b. New York: Viking/Quality Paperback Book Club edition, February 1986
c. London: André Deutsch, February 1986
d. New York: Penguin, 1986.
e. London: Picador, 1987
f. New York: Penguin, 1999 (Penguin 20th-Century Classics).
Carpenter's Gothic
annotations for chapter

1 . 2 . 3 . 4 . 5 . 6 . 7

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

While Carpenter’s Gothic picks up and develops themes from Gaddis’s earlier fiction, this much shorter and relatively accessible novel proved the most commercially and critically successful work of the three he had thus far published. That said, it offers us a world without love, a world of religious chicanery and political cynicism. The novel describes the last few months in the life of Elizabeth Booth. Elizabeth and her husband Paul have rented a house from a mysterious ex-CIA man and writer, McCandless. Paul is working as a media consultant to a religious demagogue, the Reverend Ude and cynically attempts to turn the accidental drowning of a child into a miracle that can be trumpeted around the globe for profit. Carpenter’s Gothic, like J R before it, is largely composed of dialogue, by now Gaddis’s chosen form of narration. Elizabeth lives in a house built in the architectural style that gives its name to the novel. “Carpenter’s gothic” mimics the grand Victorian style, but is built from wood rather than from the expensive wrought iron and stone called for in the original. It is impressive from a distance, but when viewed close up, it is what the novel calls “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions.” This is also an apt summary of both the method of the novel and the practice of the majority of the characters; even those not out to deceive for gain are often self-deceiving. This is a dark novel that offers us “a vision of disorder which [is] beyond to put right”. Once again Gaddis is concerned with human corruption and creativity gone to waste but what compels the reader, if anything does in this immensely enervating novel, is the intricate plotting and its excoriating satire on religious dogmatism in general and absolutist thinking in particular.

Carpenter’s Gothic is not without its difficulties; many important elements of the plot are kept from the reader until quite close to the end of the story and McCandless, the novel’s main artist-figure, can be seen as quite a complex figure that draws once again on a wide range of literary sources. At one level he represents the artist as outcast, speaking unbearable truths to those who do not wish to hear. Such a figure has an ancient lineage, one that both The Recognitions and J R use to tremendous effect. In Carpenter’s Gothic, Gaddis’s world view may be more pessimistic, but it is clear that his vision is all of a piece.

from William Gaddis: Life & Work by Peter Dempsey
(to complete essay)

A Census of Carpenter's Gothic
compiled by Anja Zeidler
Review by Cynthia Ozick
with interview
William Gaddis's sole Great Books entry: Carpenter's Gothic study guide