Preface to the Chinese translation of J R
"Money" is the first word of William Gaddis's J R , and on the last page of the novel, the boy after whom the book is named speaks of "success and like free enterprise." These three terms are what this large, complicated, comic novel is about: what money means to different people, how success is defined, and the nature of the free enterprise system practiced in the United States. J R is not so much a critique of American capitalism as a critique of the abuses of capitalism; it is an exposé of how the free enterprise system can ruin people, and how people can ruin their lives in pursuit of money and success. Satires on business are common in American literature, but the extreme lengths to which Gaddis explores these themes is radical, as are his fictional techniques, and quite rightly they earned J R the most prestigious literary prize in America, the National Book Award, after it was first published in 1975.
William Gaddis's ambitious first novel, The Recognitions (1955), earned him neither money nor success. He reluctantly began working for big businesses and corporations, which gave him the idea for a novel that would satirize the role money plays at every level of American society. He also set himself a technical challenge: to tell the story almost entirely in dialog, and in "real time": no chapter breaks, no transitional phrases like "A week later," but instead a continuous flow of narrative like the music in Richard Wagner's operas. (Wagner's 4-part opera The Ring of the Nibelung is mentioned often in J R ; it too deals with the nature of capitalism.) Gaddis even avoids standard punctuation, preferring the European dash (—) to indicate dialog rather than the more common quotation marks, and he rarely identifies the speakers. Gaddis worked hard to write this novel, and he expected the reader to work just as hard to appreciate what he created. A first reading of the novel can be dizzying and exasperating, but that is exactly what his characters experience as they deal with life in modern America, where a rushing flow of information, voices, commercials, and noise drives everyone crazy.
J R consists of five interwoven story-lines: 1. An inter-family dispute worsens with the death of Thomas Bast, owner of the General Roll Company, and the surviving members of the family grapple with the future ownership of the company. Half of Thomas's 45 shares in the company will be inherited by his daughter Stella, and with her husband Norman Angel's 23 shares they hope to gain controlling interest in the company. But they face a challenge by the impending return of Thomas's brother James, a composer and conductor of music, who can control the company if he combines his stock with the 27 shares belonging to his unmarried sisters Anne and Julia (who appear on the first page of the novel, talking with a lawyer about all of this). Two other characters can tip the balance: Edward Bast, the illegitimate son of James and Nellie (Thomas's second wife), who may be able to claim half of the shares Stella expects to inherit, thus tilting the balance toward James's ownership. The second is Jack Gibbs, who once was Stella's lover and earned some shares while working for the company. Crafty Stella sets out to gather all the shares owned by Norman, Edward, and Jack, and is successful enough to emerge at the end of the novel with controlling interest in the company.
2. The middle-class Bast family dispute out on Long Island has its upper-class counterpart in the Moncrieff family dispute in Manhattan. The former Amy Moncrieff has a bad marriage with Lucien Joubert, a Swiss fortune-hunter who is attracted less by Amy's spectacular beauty than by her father's company Typhon International, which is ruthlessly run by Amy's great-uncle Governor John ("Black Jack") Cates. Typhon owns many of the other companies mentioned in the novel--Diamond Cable, Nobili Pharmaceuticals, Endo Appliances--and has many of its assets invested (for tax avoidance reasons) in two foundations, one in Amy's name, the other in her retarded son Francis's. A substantial number of shares in Diamond Cable belong to Boody Selk, the rich teenage daughter of obnoxious Zona Selk (an old friend of the family), and just as controlling interest in the General Rolls Company falls to Stella, controlling interest in Typhon comes into the hands of Amy and Boody by the novel's end.
3. Amy Joubert, Edward Bast, and Jack Gibbs all teach at a junior high school on Long Island, whose principal Mr. Whiteback spends most of his time dealing with his eccentric teachers, with irate members of the Board of Education such as major Hyde (an employee of Typhon's Endo Appliances), local politicians, and visitors from a foundation investigating the disastrous results of the school's adoption of the latest education technologies.
4. Attending this chaotic school is J R Vansant, who doesn't have a father and rarely sees his mother (a nurse). J R's best friend, the nameless son of Major Hyde, shares his interest in writing away for junk-mail advertisements and career solicitations. Using the money he accidentally makes from one business venture to finance a slightly larger one, borrowing against that for yet a larger one, J R quickly learns how capitalism works and soon becomes the unexpected father of the J R Family of Companies with his grubby fingers in nearly every aspect of the American economy, including the companies owned by the Bast and Moncrieff families. His paper empire collapses like a house of cards by the end of the novel, but he emerges unscathed and bursting with new ideas.
5. Trying their best to avoid entanglement in all these business deals and family disputes are five artists engaged in desperate attempts to keep sane enough to create art for an indifferent society. Jack Gibbs tries to find the motivation to finish writing the book he abandoned 16 years earlier entitled Agape Agape , which he describes as a social history of mechanization and the arts. (Gaddis himself tried to write a book on that topic in the 1960s, and at the end of his life converted it into a novella with the same title, published three years after his death.) His friend Thomas Eigen tries to finish writing a play on the American Civil War (1861-65) while his marriage falls apart and while working at a boring corporate job. (This too comes from Gaddis's own life; the Civil War play he wrote in the 1950s was never staged, so he included most of it in his fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own . Eigen once wrote an important novel that was ignored by the critics, a reference to Gaddis's own failure to win success with The Recognitions. ) From Gibbs and Eigen the reader learns of the struggles of another writer named Schramm, blocked in his attempts to write about his traumatic experiences during World War II, and of a painter named Schepperman, whose work is hidden in Zona Selk's country mansion to "appreciate" in value. A generation younger than these four men is Edward Bast, recently graduated from a music academy, who reluctantly goes to work for J R in order to find time and money to finish writing an opera that expresses his love for his cousin Stella. He suffers a nervous breakdown near the end and abandons his grandiose opera to write a simple piece for the cello, written in a child's crayon.
Despite the absence of formal division markers, the novel falls roughly into three parts, with each third increasing the pace and complications of Gaddis's complex story. J R begins with a society on edge: the stock market is troubled; Thomas's death has renewed the Bast family conflict; Edward Bast, Jack Gibbs, and Thomas Eigen are feeling the pressures of their respective jobs; every marriage is in trouble; Amy fears her estranged husband will abduct their son, while her father Monty is worried that the newspapers will learn of the conflict in interests that jeopardizes his new government job; and tempers are flaring at J R's school over an impending teacher's strike and the possible loss of foundation funding.
These and many other conflicts come to a boil a third of the way through the novel on the long Friday that occupies pages 234-86: Schramm commits suicide, Marion Eigen tells Gibbs she's divorcing Thomas, J R and his company are growing after he wins a lawsuit against Diamond cable, and Bast finds himself stuck with acting as an executive officer for J R's company while trying to write two hours of soundtrack music for a wildlife film. He is also stuck with a foul-mouthed teenager named Rhoda for a roommate in a small apartment Eigen and Gibbs rent as an office. Around page 500, the novel reaches a second plateau: Gibbs has the good fortune to win lots of money at a horse race and to enjoy a brief affair with Amy, and J R is doing well enough to move his operations to the prestigious Waldorf Hotel in Manhattan, with Typhon's former public relations officer Dave Davidoff helping him. But Eigen has lost both his job and his family, Amy's worst fears come to pass when she learns her husband Lucien has taken her son to Switzerland, and Norman Angel, faced with the loss of both his wife and business, shoots himself with a rifle.
The final third of the novel races at breakneck speed as the J R Corporation spins wildly out of control (ruining a dozen other companies, thousands of careers, and even a town or two), Bast becomes sick, some native American Indians revolt, a civil war breaks out in Africa, and the stock market collapses. J R has learned nothing from the experience, but at least Edward Bast and Jack Gibbs are ready to begin their lives over.
I have spelled out the plot in some detail because even for an American reader, J R is an extremely difficult novel to follow. Unlike a traditional author, Gaddis never explains what is happening; he wants the reader to figure it out based on the dialog, which echoes the way people actually talk: it is filled with fragments, incomplete sentences, slang, specialized jargon, and hundreds of references to culture, both high and low. Like James Joyce, Gaddis uses a stream-of-conscious technique for occasional descriptive passages: long, winding sentences that almost defy syntax. (The translators who took on this project are as brave as tigers.) Gaddis's object is not to frustrate the reader, but to let the reader experience what the characters are going through: the chaos that surrounds them, the endless noise and talking, the galloping pace of life (especially in a big, noisy city like Manhattan), the strain of maintaining focus and attention when surrounded by countless distractions. At the end of the novel almost every character is worn out and exhausted, and the reader should feel likewise.
The result is a harsh critique of the United States, where running after fame and success has blinded many people to the more important things in life. It is a critique of those who will do anything to increase their company's profit margins, even if it means ruining the environment and the lives of their employees, breaking or subverting the law, betraying their friends, ignoring their family, and sacrificing all self-respect and honor. For the boy J R, it's all a game; he's too young to know any better. But his elders and teachers should know better; by making J R the protagonist of his novel, Gaddis condemns his fellow Americans for acting like greedy, poorly educated children.
Despite its serious theme, J R is a comic novel, a wild satire rather than a boring sermon. Beginning with the lawyer Coen's exasperating conversation with the two elderly Bast sisters--they misunderstand almost everything he says, and keep wandering off the subject--Gaddis fills his novel with countess sarcastic remarks and funny episodes. Chinese readers might be reminded of the great Qing novel Rulin waishi ; like Gaddis, Wu Jingzi announces his theme on the first page ("kung ming fu kuei") and then shows a huge number of characters pursuing those ephemeral things in a comical manner. And now that China has begun adapting some aspects of Western-style capitalism and the free enterprise system, now is the perfect time to publish a Chinese translation of Gaddis's demonstration of what can go wrong with those systems.