Review: Make William Gaddis your quarantine buddy

Author William Gaddis in New York's Central Park in 1974.
(Jerry Bauer)

On the Shelf

'JR' and 'The Recognitions'

William Gaddis
New York Review Books

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Before you commit to reading William Gaddis’ two greatest novels, “JR” and “The Recognitions” — recently reissued by New York Review Books with new introductions — you need to get a few things straight. First of all, this isn’t going to be a fly-by-night quickie, some passing summer fling you’re going to leave behind, dog-eared and water-stained, in a cabin or resort. This has to be a long-term relationship or it won’t mean anything to either of you.

Their surfaces will seem daunting but look beyond these novels’ haughty, hefty façades. Once you get to know them inside, they’re much more fun than they look. They will make you laugh out loud. They will absorb you. They will keep you coming back for more.

Get past the idea that these are Serious Texts that should only be studied in graduate school. Would you approach a partner that way? Instead, pretend you are the first person who has ever really gotten to know them. Forget the experts, critics, academics and concordances. Read “The Recognitions” and “JR” as great, funny, tightly constructed, vastly populated, deliriously inventive and happy books. Because that’s what they are.


One of the things NYRB did very well was to make these editions much easier to hold; they have tightly bound pages, so you can knock them around a bit, spend decades in their company. (I still have my paperback editions from the ’70s, and they’re starting to look even more worn out than I do.) Whatever their physical state, however, the novels were built to last.

“The Recognitions” was published in 1955, “JR” in 1975 — yet they are forever contemporary. These are stories about people trying to find their way through a world that is as ugly, big, noisy, stupid and rubbish-filled as our own. And they are not deeply complicated so much as spatially complicated. In the main plot line of “The Recognitions,” a young man named Wyatt Gwyon loses his mother as a child and spends the next 1,000 pages trying to recapture her through art.

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Struggling to become a great painter, he feels incapable of ever becoming as good and original as the artists he emulates, such as Raphael or Bosch; eventually, his talents and devotion to detail are discovered by a crooked art dealer named Recktall Brown, who hires Wyatt to forge paintings for profit. As one of Brown’s friends, the critic Basil Valentine, explains to Wyatt, he isn’t “forging” paintings so much as creating new realities: “if the public believes that a picture is by Raphael, and will pay the price of a Raphael … then it is a Raphael.” In other words, branding is all.

"The Recognitions," by William Gaddis, newly reissued.
(New York Review Books)

Once Wyatt commits himself to becoming a part of Brown’s production line, his name doesn’t appear again. From this point forward, parsing most of the characters takes some close and patient reading. Which gets us to another note of caution: You will need lots of time to read these books — pandemic amounts of time. Take too much time away between sittings and you will quickly lose all sense of what on earth is going on. These are entire worlds in themselves, filled with multitudinous voices, urban noise, weather, detailed routines, dirty streets and chatty parties. There are so many characters that if you aren’t reading briskly, you will lose track. And more crucially, you will lose that core Gaddis sensation of many different lives happening at once.

Among the multitudes in “The Recognitions,” there’s Otto, a young playwright who spends his days filling a notebook with overheard conversations; when he submits his patchwork quilt to an agent named Agnes Deigh (and yeah, get ready for some crazy puns), she tells him the play sounds really familiar, and rejects him. In several long (to my mind, too-long) New York arty-party scenes, we first hear the voices of numerous characters who will come and go throughout the novel. Time itself is merely alluded to, albeit powerfully, in poetic descriptions of the sky and city in day and night. Everything in Gaddis is experiential. He is cerebral, yet he is one of the most sensual writers in fiction.


There are countless references to books and artists and theologians; don’t waste time Googling them. They are only there to remind you how hard Wyatt has been trying to see or recognize a world beyond the awful one he lives in — forgeries, liars, crooked businessmen and the endless gunk pouring out of our worst cultural orifices, embodied pungently by, yes, Recktall Brown. As author Tom McCarthy writes in his NYRB introduction, Gaddis renders an American landscape where “fraudulence” and phony “authenticity” are a form of currency that has only hyperinflated since “The Recognitions” was first published (and largely misunderstood). Today it extends “from that of Trumpists in America to Brexiters in Britain to the Law and Justicers in Poland.”

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Gaddis is often mistakenly compared to James Joyce (though he claims never to have read “Ulysses”), but the writers he most resembles are his fellow Americans (and fellow opponents of American phoniness) Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

"JR," by William Gaddis, newly reissued.
(New York Review Books)

“JR” is the same story, only different. The protagonist is another aspiring artist, Edward Bast, who wants to make beautiful music but gets dragged down by a world of money and dull jobs. (“Money” is, appropriately, the first word in the novel.) In a series of escalatingly chaotic scenes, Edward gets tied up in the financial schemes of a sixth-grade boy named JR Vansant, who manipulates everyone to help him build an empire-on-paper that isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Meanwhile, everyone loses everything that matters, while the world fills up with junk bonds, junk mail, junk education, junk food and junk art.

It is the biggest, funniest Marx Bros. film ever committed to text, and don’t worry too much about what it “means.” Like any great novel, it’s simply about the emotional lives of complex characters. If there’s a message, it’s simple: America has sold out everybody for crap. And the most successful wheeler-dealer is just a little kid looking for someone to talk to. JR knows making money isn’t hard; it just requires enough dedication to get up every morning and do stupid, dishonest things. In the ’60s and ’70s, when it was written, “JR” was about how bad America was getting. Today it’s about how awful America is.

Finally, don’t try to understand everything that’s happening the first time you read either of these books. That way lies madness. As Joy Williams explains in her loving intro to “JR,” readers must allow themselves to be “swept along” in the “flow of unremitting talk.” Because while Gaddis’ characters spend a lot of time saying nothing, they are always intriguingly human characters worth knowing over and over again. Which is what makes these perfect lockdown preoccupations.

So buy them. Pick them up curbside from your local bookstore, bring them home and shut the doors. Everything you need to know about life is bubbling away under the covers of these two world-size books.


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