In Gaddis We Trust
Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief,” which he characterized as “poetic faith” and has since come to mean the way we give our selves over to a play, book or film despite merely sitting in front of a stage or screen or reading mere words on a page.
But “poetic faith” seems to capture for me the way I felt when following William Gaddis through 956 pages of “The Recognitions” as nearly the entire slew of characters shows up in Rome or others in Paris, other characters who are linked by incidents thirty years in the past meet coincidentally as do several others who are intimately linked through one-degree of separation of another character, like Esme and Basil Valentine or Fuller and Otto, and so on, and so on.
I say poetic because I loved Gaddis's writing, both the realistic and figurative. I can't think of another writer that does dialogue better than Mr. Gaddis, flitting from one character to another without ever losing us (okay maybe sometimes losing us) by capturing dialect and character traits that serve as signals to always let us know who is doing the talking. He also managed to create images of scenes that would capture them perfectly, such as this at Brown's party:
“Like undersea flora, figures stood weaving, rooted to the floor, here and there one drifting as though caught in a cold current...”
This is not only a good simile for a party, but the words “cold current” and “drifting” are perfect metaphors for the entire scene and really for the book as a whole. Indeed, the party scenes drew out, like the final scene in the film “La Dolce Vita,” the emptiness of the book's population. The mutual complicity that the characters shared in their debased lives served as a fitting backdrop for the Wyatt story line and grounded his quest with purpose.
[spoiler alert!] When we see Wyatt eating bread that, soon after, we find was made in part with the ashes of his father, we know that this is the inevitable conclusion of the Oedipal story that Gass talks about in the introduction. The absurdity of the coincidence would never have worked if it weren't for some of the shallow characters doing the same thing out of sheer simplicity and the dumb luck of how they, the ashes, got there in the first place, simultaneously fulfilling Wyatt's destiny and shining a light on why he had to be the one.
If I had any real complaint about “T. Recs.” it would be that at times I felt like I was reading “The Onion” (a satirical newspaper). That is not entirely a bad thing, but Gaddis's satire works better at a higher plane than:
“...the quiz program, where a Mr. Crotcher had just answered a question concerning a fable with an ant for its hero, and won a completely furnished house in a popular suburban community called Arsole Acres.”
But when Maud bathes her newly adopted(?) baby while washing dishes...
“ - The most popular hostess of the week...! she said in a faint tone as she washed, first a dish, then a tiny foot, then a cup.... The eyes did not move from her. The baby's head was not conical nor, looking at it, did one have that impression; but immediately upon looking away such an image formed in the mind, and no amount of looking back, of studying it from strategic angles, served to temper the placid image which remained. When most of the dishes were done she had reached the neck, and suddenly she applied both thumbs at the base of the baby's head. - It should go in more here, she whispered, then applied the heel of a hand there, and finally stepped back and turned away from the fixed gaze as breaking fetters. She left the baby there in the sink with what dishes remained and went into the living room...”
With that, Gaddis's satire is at its stinging best, particularly since I have known of stories in real life (like a middle-class woman locking herself and her five year old in the bathroom while she overdoses on heroin) that tell me that what he is saying is not so foolish and that every bit of cynicism he must have felt while writing this book is just as valid, if not more so, today than it was then.
The world Gaddis created is ours, a look in the mirror, certainly, the way a good comedian can be so funny because they make fun of some little quirk that we identify with because we thought that idiosyncrasy was ours alone. I even said in an earlier post that I had the feeling while reading “The Recognitions” that if I could write as well as Gaddis, this would be the book I would write; a recognition if you will, and that, it seems, is the point in the title. The multi-layered theme of forgery appears to be primer-coating or structure for the book rather than its purpose.
So we forgive Mr. Gaddis for stretching our “willing suspension of disbeleif” as we near the end of the damn(!) book and the last third folds itself, if not neatly, then wholly over its early chapters and we are surprised and shocked and left wanting to understand, looking for meaning the way Stanley and others haplessly do.
We can also forgive Mr. Gaddis because he includes himself in his cynicism, poking fun at his long book. One character, alluding to the very novel we hold in our hands, says:
“- Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike, -I'm up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven't even made fifty pages yet.”
Even Mr. Gaddis recognized his book for what it was, a densely packed wild tale that only the faithful will give themselves over too. And, like a basketball game that is so close it seems you only need to watch its final seconds, “The Recognitions” is perfectly encapsulated in its final three paragraphs; yet it would not be nearly as fun without the journey of getting there.