Wednesday, November 10, 2004

feeling smarter already

So, I must confess that my main knowledge of William Gaddis (prior to this week) and The Recognitions was simply an entry under the "Gigantor Books I Will Probably Never Read" column in my brain. (I know and love Dawn Powell though, which has to count for something.) The prejudice I seem to have developed against large books troubles me, and so I'm hoping that being part of a company of readers (and challenging, tipsy readers at that) will help me hang in and get past it. Because, based on what I've been reading, it's worth it.

Tim Conley has a moving obituary for Gaddis over at The Modern Word, which provokes guilt at not knowing more about this writer to begin with and especially at not having had any idea that he died (and so recently). If I didn't believe more in Houdini than the afterlife, we could try to call for his spirit using bourbon. Anyway, Conley has it:

Like the best satirists, Gaddis wrote (by his own admission) from a sense of indignation. His novels’ world, for all its sound and fury (as a character in JR accuses: “Noise, you’ll hide in noise any chance you get”), cannot conceal or altogether stifle the short cries of hope. The corruptions of art, thought, and language are part of the dreadful pomp and carnival heralding stupidity and greed as not only respectable values but cause for injustice. “We’re comic,” the character Benny admits in The Recognitions. “We’re all comics. We live in a comic time. And the worse it gets the more comic we are.” To recognize how very funny Gaddis is thus entails a further, less palatable acknowledgement about ourselves. What is most distressing about the death of William Gaddis is the general lack of notice of it and, more importantly, of his work: America has, for the most part, again managed to neglect one of its major artists. Herman Melville, in the winding path of whose encyclopaedic efforts and investigations of iniquity Gaddis’s writings walk, endured critical ignorance, scorn, and indifference when and after he produced Moby Dick. If people will read thoughtfully in the next century, William Gaddis and only perhaps we ourselves will be redeemed with wiser laughter.

I am all about wiser laughter.

Russell Banks' appreciation from Conjunctions is also fantastic and anyone who could merit the conclusion is worthy of a toast:

Gaddis looms larger, casting a longer shadow of his own, than all the others of his ilk and kin, Barthelme, Hawkes, etc., in that term mainly, ambition, but it was an important one, and he helped keep it alive. His ilk and kin, more wise than he, or shrewd, may have backed away from it--too transparently oedipal, perhaps, or simply too risky to put so many eggs in one enormous basket. But when Gaddis went to market, he brought home the whole pig, and I love him for that.

Did you guys know this year's George T. Stagg (i.e. The World's Best Whisky -- if you don't believe me, ask Jim Murray) has been released? Picked up the honorary Gaddis bottle last night.


Blogger CAAF said...

The Russell Banks appreciation is marvelous and the best description I've seen yet of why writers of ambition matter (I burst into mist at the end of it; surprising as I've only had 3 beers this morning, and I usually only start the drunken weeping after a dozen or so). Not to be always trotting out my favorite horse, but Banks' description gets at why I appreciate David Foster Wallace so, and why I think other writers (such as Zadie Smith) do too. I think as writers the world is so often telling us to scrap ambition, to ease back on the ideas, that someone who goes full tilt ahead without compromising is inspiring and expanding. Even if it squeals and fouls you, sometimes it's necessary to go after the whole pig.

Also provocative is the relationship Conley draws between Gaddis and Melville.

November 10, 2004 at 10:03 AM  
Blogger DerikB said...

That's why we need those "experimental" novels that are so maligned. Someone's gotta reach for the new.

Gaddis was a big Melville fan (particularly liked "The Confidence Man", which I dutifully bought and never finished). Dostoyevsky too, it seems.

For what it's worth, he had not read Ulysses when The Recognitions was written, so any connections are coincidental (some scholars have found quite a few).

November 10, 2004 at 11:23 AM  
Blogger CAAF said...

Agreed, Derik.

My copy just arrived in the mail. Wowsa, that's a big m.f. I was paging through and was happy to see a description of a character raising himself "on one ham" and breaking wind, which nicely conveys both the coincidental resemblance to Ulysses you mention as well as Banks' "the whole pig" thing.

November 10, 2004 at 11:50 AM  

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