While working on J R, Gaddis supported himself by writing copy for Ford, Kodak and Pfizer, a task that immersed him in the cant of product launches and advertising campaigns. It is a language that expects to be heard, but one to which we cannot properly respond. His characters have internalized this language to their detriment. They may engage in ostensible conversation, but they are forever talking only to themselves. They interrupt one another constantly or linger in pockets of reticence and hesitation, licking their wounds and planning their next fusillade. Here all dialogue is disguised monologue. For all its polyphonic content, J R is finally a study of Americans’ unwitting isolation amid technologies of mass communication.
The buzzing nightmare of this empty linguistic system stands in for the vapidity and spiritual inertness of postwar America itself. In their endless dithering, their misdirected energies, their grotesque, Pavlovian responses to stimuli, Gaddis’s characters fail to make significant commitments, whether to work or to art. They lack the conceptual resources with which to properly see, let alone reject, the system they are entangled—or entombed—within. In The Recognitions, art and religious tradition could yet redeem. J R offers a bleaker vision: a world bereft of exaltation. In the welter of noise and image the novel presents, America is not so much cut off from recognition as drowned in its impossibility.
It is crime that bridges the two novels. For Gaddis, the deepest crime, whether in the forgeries of The Recognitions or the financial schemes of J R, is the loss of meaning, of actuality, of our perception of the real. It may finally be impossible to achieve lasting recognition—recognition certainly seems to be the case in the jangle and glare of the latter novel—but to forgo the possibility entirely is to risk a kind of damnation. This is the hopeless, hopeful refrain of Gaddis’s works: that even in the terminal incoherence of America, purposive attention may yet furnish dignity, if not redemption. “Nothing’s worth doing till you’ve done it,” the composer Edward Bast says, “and then it was worth doing even if it wasn’t because that’s all you…” As befits the novel, he trails off, the thought interrupted.
American pessimism is much changed since Gaddis’s heyday. Today it is less lofty, less coolly resigned, more shot through with terror and angst. In the shadow of climate catastrophe, economic inequality and an ongoing pandemic, the very concept of recognition can come to feel impractical, even quixotic. Yet when I return to these two landmarks of postwar American literature, it is their alchemy of earnestness and defeatism that strikes me as so contemporary. It is the posture of abused, but not abandoned, hope. Gaddis, continuously surprised and offended by American life, managed to retain a semblance of faith, no matter how beleaguered. The proof is in the works. To write a one-thousand-page novel about American emptiness might be a sign of youth’s outsize ambition. To write two of them over twenty years is an act of devotion—or, one might say, of recognition.
Writer - Critic - Poet - Editor