“Another Damned, Thick Book”

William Gaddis at the beach, Saltaire, Long Island, ca. 1965.
William Gaddis at the beach, Saltaire, Long Island, ca. 1965.

On January 4, 1955, William Gaddis sent physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer a letter and a copy of The Recognitions, his 956-page first novel, which would officially be published in March of that year. “You must receive mail of all sorts,” Gaddis wrote, “crank notes and fan letters of every description, but few I should think of half a million words.” Oppenheimer, who oversaw the creation of the atomic bomb as director of the laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had delivered a speech for Columbia University’s bicentennial. The address, called “Prospects in the Arts and Sciences,” describes how progress in both science and art has led to increased specialization and, in turn, isolation. Oppenheimer likens this isolation to a number of villages, small settlements created by scientist or artist, but “between the villages,” he says, “there appear to be almost no paths.” He adds:

Here and there, passing near a village, sometimes through its heart, there will be a sort of superhighway, along which windy traffic moves at enormous speed.

The superhighways seem to have little connection with the villages—starting anywhere, ending anywhere and sometimes appearing almost by design to disrupt the quiet of the village.

In its central metaphors and overall argument, Oppenheimer’s speech—like British scientist C. P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” lecture, which would be delivered four years later—is concerned with the cultural and intellectual separation of those pursuing science from those pursuing art, as well as the larger alienation of both pursuits from society at large. Gaddis, who read the speech, found many correspondences with his novel. “I was so stricken,” Gaddis wrote in his letter, which never received a reply, “by the succinctness, and the use of the language, with which you stated the problems which it has taken me seven years to assemble and almost a thousand pages to present.” His novel, he said, is about—and here he quoted the scientist’s words—“the dissolution and corruption of authority, in belief, in ritual and in temporal order,” as well as “the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue,” a moment in which art “brings us together and sets us apart.” Gaddis added that only “the true art, the integrity of craftsmanship and preservation of the familiar, of the humorous and the beautiful,” will stand in “massive contrast to the vastness of life, the greatness of the globe, the otherness of people, the otherness of ways, and the all-encompassing dark.”

The Recognitions is like a well-built mansion inhabited by deceptive characters, including a painter who forges old masters and the collectors and critics who use his work to bolster their careers. The novel also features the greatest party scenes in all literature, complete with burbling talk and missed connections—the noise and chaos of everyday life. I loved the book by the second page. All the unease and wariness that comes with beginning something new, particularly a book that long, vanished when I read this:

The ship’s surgeon was a spotty unshaven little man whose clothes, arrayed with smudges, drippings, and cigarette burns, were held about him by an extensive network of knotted string.The buttons down the front of those duck trousers had originally been made, with all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception, of coated cardboard.

Those cardboard buttons did the trick. Like the details Flannery O’Connor praises in a sentence of Flaubert’s—buzzing strings on Emma Bovary’s piano, list slippers worn by a clerk—the buttons don’t shape the course of Gaddis’s novel, but they do contribute to its convincing reality. “It’s always necessary to remember,” O’Connor writes in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” “that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” What’s remarkable about Gaddis is that he’s concerned with ideas as well—about fakery, throwaway values, and false gods—and with that compact phrase “all of false economy’s ingenious drear deception,” he is already playing the first notes of his symphony.

Gaddis’s letter to Oppenheimer, which is included in the newly published collection of his correspondence, scrupulously edited and generously footnoted by Steven Moore, preserves a golden moment when the author could look forward to his first major publication, optimism and buoyant feelings still intact. Within three months, that would change. On March 13, Granville Hicks reviewed the novel in the New York Times, calling it “a puzzle and perhaps a challenge,” and saying that Gaddis “is playing a game with such readers as he may be fortunate enough to have.” Then things got worse. Hicks, employing the age-old critical trick of beating up one book with another, more established volume, said that The Recognitions suffered in comparison with Ulysses; while the latter had its puzzling parts, “long stretches . . . were felt to be the work of genius.” He added, “The Recognitions—or that part of it that is understandable—is no more than very talented or highly ingenious or, on another level, rather amusing.” Gaddis’s ambition, Hicks thought, was the problem. If only Gaddis hadn’t “so ostentatiously aimed at writing a masterpiece.”

There were other, stranger attacks—a syndicated newspaper item speculated that Gaddis “must have at least partially subsidized the publishing of his mammoth first novel”—but the bad reviews, particularly Hicks’s, stuck in Gaddis’s memory and crop up regularly in his correspondence. In May 1960, five years after the Times piece ran, Gaddis wrote to Charles Monaghan, a journalist and fan of his novel, “I’ve never quite been able to accept the meanness (in the several senses of that word) of the Hicks.” Two years later, Gaddis referred to Hicks’s “3rd page single column of spite.” And in 1982, Gaddis replied to a letter from Moore about the publishing history of The Recognitions, explaining how “its initial reception here by such boobs as Granville Hicks” panicked the British publisher who had agreed to release the book, which didn’t appear in the UK until 1962.

Not that Gaddis was without his defenders. David Markson read The Recognitions twice and wrote him in June 1955 to say how much he admired it. Still, slow sales of the book proved disappointing, and the publisher was reluctant to advertise. A friend of Gaddis’s observed “that rather than being published the book had been privished.” In 1961, Gaddis finally replied to Markson: “After lo these many (six) years—or these many low (sick) years—if I can presume to answer yours.” He had been, he said, “in low enough state for a good while after the book came out that I could not find it in me to answer letters that said anything.”

Since the publication of The Recognitions, Gaddis had married, had two children, Sarah and Matthew, and started working as a writer for Pfizer. “As you may see by the letterhead on the backside here,” he wrote to Markson, “I am hung up with an operation of international piracy that deals in drugs, writing speeches on the balance of payments deficit but mostly staring out the window.” The “terrors of fatigue” he once sought to dramatize threatened to overwhelm him. Still, however beleaguered the tone of his letters during this period, Gaddis continued to write. In fact, frustration fed his work, the Pfizer job offering daily outrages, raw material for his second novel, J R. In a letter to himself, which he sent via registered mail, the better to protect his idea, Gaddis laid out his vision:

A young boy, ten or eleven or so years of age, ‘goes into business’ and makes a business fortune, by developing and following through the basically very simple proceedures needed to assemble extensive financial interests. . . . By taking straightforward advantage of the possibilities which I believe might well be obvious to the eye and judgment of a child this age, brought up on the sets of values and the criteria of success which prevail here in our country today, he becomes a business tycoon.

The Keds-to-riches story, “a satire,” Gaddis explained, “on business and money matters . . . and on the people who handle them,” was the first book of his I read, and, as is often true of the books we think most highly of, it came along at just the right time. In the late 1990s, after a three-year stint in graduate school, I wrote for a business newspaper and then moved on to an editing job, turning out economic and political reports about foreign countries, briefing books for the busy executive. J R was, for me, both salve and encouragement: Its existence proved something could be made from years working witless jobs. One of my duties then was writing brief biographies of world leaders, which required I have handy a copy of The International Who’s Who. Bored one day, I started looking up authors, seeing who made the cut. Entries for the well-known recluses—Pynchon, Salinger—had only the basics. I paged over to Gaddis and found an address under his name: One Boatyard Road, East Hampton. I thought of writing a letter. I’d recently published an essay in The Baffler about making up some fake news stories and feeding them to my old newspaper. They were, like J R, satires on business and businesspeople, on their language and beliefs. I thought Gaddis might appreciate what I’d done, or at least find it amusing. I wondered, too, if there wasn’t something shared between us, a common interest in, to use his words, “false economy’s ingenious drear deception.” But I waited too long. On December 17, 1998, I received an e-mail saying he had died the day before. It was early in the morning, and I should’ve been getting ready for work, but instead I read and reread the obituary, crying.

Gaddis’s work on J R—“another damned, thick, square book,” he remarked to his agent—stretched over two decades. Sarah Gaddis, author of the novel Swallow Hard (1990), remembers the period more precisely, writing in her afterword to the letters, “J R took my father twenty years to write—my childhood and adolescence.” Her restraint, here and throughout, makes her memories and anecdotes all the more affecting. She continues, “I particularly remember the summers, when he loaded cartons of the manuscript into the car, and we drove to Bay Shore and boarded the ferry to Saltaire, Fire Island.”

In the summer of 1964, Gaddis traveled to Germany for a job working on a documentary for the US Army about the Battle of St. Vith, a Belgian town lost to the Germans during the Battle of the Bulge. The production went badly, mired in unforeseen delays, the equipment old and supply lines tenuous. Gaddis wrote to his wife, Pat:

I cannot say things here have been going awfully well, due largely to poor preparation from New York end. . . .

We had lunch on Saturday, for instance, at 5 pm—having had old Gen. Blumentritt taped to a bench (microphone cable) but in hotel “garden” where it was cold, light failed, police came in to say people were calling to complain about our generator noise in the street & 1 woman having a nervous breakdown, the general’s hands getting progressively more trembling—ended grandly when our truck knocked some glass out of the hotel marquee.

Moore, attentive to connections between Gaddis’s life and work, notes that Thomas Eigen, a writer in J R who, as another character puts it, “wrote a very important novel a few years ago just won a modest award,” also travels to Germany on business. The letters reflect Gaddis’s work in other ways, too. His note from Germany has the headlong, rushing quality of his best prose, as if it can’t be bothered with many commas, because who has time to pause? Conversations and events overlap like dialogue in a movie by Robert Altman, of whom Gaddis said in a 1979 letter, “I’d had high hopes for his interest in & carrying off J R as I envisioned it.” One can also hear the cadences of Gaddis’s characters, as if the letters are the demo recordings that became Eigen as well as Jack Gibbs and Edward Bast, a trio of working artists who share a cramped and cluttered apartment forever on the edge of collapsing into chaos.

Once Gaddis completed his draft of J R—1,004 legal pages, typed—he began “cutting ruthlessly,” and told a friend, “Whole God damned proposition like living with an invalid real God damned terminal case you keep hoping will pick up his God damned bed and walk like the good book says.” Writing to his son, Gaddis said, “I’m pretty sick of JR but spend every day with him and his friends and otherwise, the main comfort being that after this I’ll NEVER (except for galleys) HAVE TO READ THE INFERNAL BOOK AGAIN!” With the book done, Gaddis hardly felt relieved. He wrote his agent, “I’m spending the days going through masses of papers, notes, trash, clippings, correspondence, trying to figure out what to do with myself now: America has odd ways of making one feel one’s self a failure.” A few months later, in April 1976, J R won the National Book Award. Of the honor, he told friends, “[It] was pleasing of course but doesn’t seem to have had much tangible (i.e. $) effect (i.e. ‘sales’).” To his agent, he unloaded his frustrations with his publisher:

For a good many months there I thought the people at Knopf held me and my work in high regard, and it has taken a few real snubs to finally let me know that I’m considered simply somewhat of a nuisance. . . . Bob [Gottlieb] too busy to take us to lunch, too important to take us to dinner and too chintzy to pay for it. . . . Of course (as JR knew clearly) that’s what business is; but even though I’ve been as disappointed as anyone on the money side, I’d thought there was more to it than that.

With the publication of his next novel, Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Gaddis found more widespread critical success. On the front page of the New York Times Book Review, Cynthia Ozick called Gaddis “a possessed receiver of voices, a maniacal eavesdropper, a secret prophet and moralizer.” He wrote to his daughter: “I couldn’t have been more fortunate, especially in light of the really dimwitted review by Lehmanhaupt a couple of days ago.” He added, “So we are off to a terrific start I think.” Note the slight reservation—“I think”—that worry over the other shoe yet to fall. His fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own (1994), won him a second National Book Award.

But as Moore writes in his introduction, the revelation here is “how chaotic the composition” of Gaddis’s novels was. Gaddis let as much anxiousness and as many intrusions into the books as he could. In doing so, he captured the real chaos of our lives, boisterous and unhinged, stirred up by “the unswerving punctuality of chance,” a phrase he cadged from Look Homeward, Angel and worked into all five of his novels.

These books were not as still as dioramas; they pulsed and breathed. Here is Eigen’s wife confronting his friend Gibbs:

All of you, you and his friends and these editors asking about his next great book shaking their heads admiring how hard he works to support us, me and David but what a tragedy for American literature how do you think that makes me feel! The great Thomas Eigen’s talent being thrown away in a stupid job because he has to make a decent living for his wife and son he resents every bill he pays, the rent, nursery school he even resents that, paying David’s nursery school and food, three lamb chops Jack, three lamb chops!

Damned, thick, and square, the books surely took their toll, and not just on Gaddis. The collateral damage incurred during their completion was great, chiefly, one suspects, for his children. In a 1993 letter to his daughter, he writes of her being discouraged—what about, it’s not certain. The letters, like phone calls in his novels, are one-sided. Gaddis responded with a harsh yet honest summary of his life:

As you know I’ve been there myself—right from our start really from just the time you were born, living till then with and for this Great Book I was writing, had written, saw it drop like a shot & started a new life ‘raising a family’; 2 years writing a long play & saw it as hopeless; 7 years writing another Great Book & saw it drop like a shot . . . & another marriage with it . . . easy enough to say, the 2 books as ‘classics’, that it was all worth it but I certainly didn’t know that at the time.

But then Gaddis tried to say something of what he’d figured out, what he knew to be true. “It’s more about stopping & regrouping rather than ‘giving up’ as you say,” he told Sarah, “giving up hopes & illusions perhaps but not the thing itself.” The letter reminded me of an earlier one, written in 1977, just after the not tangible but still considerable achievement of J R. Gaddis wrote, “My own sense of all this I think comes down to this terrible search for something worth writing about, worth one’s talents.” For Gaddis, that search was often terrible, and his letters provide ample evidence. But the novels record his answer: These things were worth doing.

Paul Maliszewski is the author of Fakers (New Press, 2009) and Prayer and Parable (Fence Books, 2011).