Because God Did Not Relax, by Christopher Beha

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November 2020 Issue [Reviews]

Because God Did Not Relax

The difficult pleasures of William Gaddis

Illustration by Romy Blümel


Because God Did Not Relax

The difficult pleasures of William Gaddis

Discussed in this essay:

The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. NYRB Classics. 976 pages. $27.95.

J R, by William Gaddis. NYRB Classics. 784 pages. $24.95.

Over the past twenty years, New York Review Books has gained a well-deserved reputation for saving great novels from oblivion, having returned to print John Williams’s Stoner, Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, and many other works overlooked at publication or forgotten after early success. More recently, it has brought such international classics as Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries and Antonio di Benedetto’s Zama into English for the first time. Through the imprint’s curatorial interventions, dozens of books once unknown to American readers have found a devoted following.

William Gaddis’s first two novels, which NYRB Classics is reissuing this fall, present a slightly different case. The critical neglect that The Recognitions suffered upon its appearance in 1955 has become the stuff of legend. But by the time the book made its way into paperback seven years later, it had been acknowledged as a landmark of postwar American literature. Published in 1975, J R solidified Gaddis’s reputation and earned him the National Book Award. He would go on to publish two more novels in his lifetime, one (Carpenter’s Gothic) merely very good, the other (A Frolic of His Own, which won him his second National Book Award) a masterpiece nearly on the level of the first two. At his death in 1998, he was universally hailed as a giant of the age, and his books have not fallen out of print since.

Readers with more than passing interest in the twentieth-century novel will know his name. Yet they may know it mostly as part of the litany of unfashionable postmodernist titans that is still invoked—“Gaddis and Gass, Barthelme and Barth, Coover and Hawkes”—each time a young white man publishes a long novel with a hint of narrative playfulness. If they know more about Gaddis, it is perhaps that his books are long and difficult and unwelcoming, and that they are not much read. They may also have some sense that Gaddis wanted it this way, that he held common readers in contempt and meant to scare them off. Except for the part about not being much read, none of this is quite right. So Gaddis may be ripe, after all, for the kind of rediscovery in which his new publishers specialize.

Gaddis was born in New York City in 1922 and moved to Long Island with his mother after his parents divorced. He didn’t meet his father until adulthood. Edith Gaddis was a successful businesswoman, a sufficient rarity in that era to earn notice in the New York Times (steam plant purchasing agent finds fascination in her work), and she shipped her only child off to boarding school at the age of five. In J R, the frustrated writer Jack Gibbs suffers a similar fate and complains of having felt “in the way,” but Gaddis later had a close relationship with his mother.

As a teenager, he suffered an unexplained, two-year illness that nearly took his life. Sent home from New York Hospital “without prospects,” as he wrote, he recovered and made it to Harvard, where he was president of the Lampoon until he was expelled over a drunken encounter with Cambridge police. After a year of fact-checking at The New Yorker, he embarked on a half-decade of itinerancy, traveling to Panama, where he worked in the Canal Zone; to Costa Rica, where he picked bananas and wandered into a revolution; to Majorca, where he sought out Robert Graves; to Madrid, where he attended Christmas Mass (“Oh! such ritual, what a myth they have”). He wrote home frequently with book requests (e.g., Graves’s The White Goddess and Frazer’s The Golden Bough) and maternal research assignments (e.g., “On the Barbary ape (formerly native of Gibraltar)—its approximate size (male); colouring; how it survives captivity; usual longevity; diet in captivity; is it tail-less?; fierce? extinct (if so when); & any distinctive peculiarities”), all of it material for a comic novel that he gave the tentative title Blague (French for “joke”) and expected to stretch to fifty thousand words. Over seven years, the project grew to nearly ten times that length and took on a new title, borrowed from a work of fourth-century Christian apocrypha historically attributed to Pope Clement I.

“Even Camilla had enjoyed masquerades,” The Recognitions begins, “of the safe sort where the mask may be dropped at that critical moment it presumes itself as reality.” Camilla is the young wife of the Calvinist minister Reverend Gwyon, riding in a horse-drawn carriage on its way up a hill in the Spanish countryside, part of a Catholic funeral procession “impelled by the monotone chanting of the priest and retarded by hesitations at the fourteen stations of the Cross.” Another paragraph will pass before even attentive readers understand that she is the procession’s corpse. The story of how she arrives at this fate, instead of being buried in “the clean Protestant soil of New England” where she belonged, takes up just the first twenty of the novel’s one thousand pages but establishes many of its themes.

Briefly: The Gwyons sail for Spain on the Purdue Victory out of Boston Harbor sometime around 1920. On the journey, Camilla suffers from appendicitis and dies under the knife of the ship’s surgeon, a fugitive counterfeiter named Sinisterra, traveling incognito. Rather than bring his wife’s body back to Connecticut, Reverend Gwyon—who has a taste for “the sincere theatricals of religions more histrionic than his own”—allows the local priest to bury her and becomes a guest at a Franciscan monastery.

Gwyon eventually returns home to his four-year-old son, Wyatt, who has been left in the care of an aunt. He arrives with various Old World objets in tow, including a Hieronymus Bosch tabletop painting of the seven deadly sins, and the Barbary ape (tail-less? yes) whose specs Edith had taken at the Bronx Zoo. The reverend’s subsequent descent into heresy and madness will be recounted at some length, but from here Wyatt becomes the novel’s central character. Like Gaddis, he falls feverishly ill in adolescence. When doctors prove useless, Reverend Gwyon invokes occult powers to save his son. During his convalescence, the boy develops a talent for painting, which he learns from copying the religious art his father has brought from Europe. His efforts at original work go nowhere, but his reproductions exhibit “that perfection to which only counterfeit can attain, reproducing every aspect of inadequacy, every blemish on Perfection in the original.” Restored to health, he forges the Bosch tabletop and sells the original to pay his way across the Atlantic. (In a gesture typical of the novel, he will eventually learn that he has forged a forgery.)

Some years later, Wyatt is preparing for his first show in Paris when a corrupt journalist offers a career-making write-up in exchange for a cut of his sales, explaining that “criticism pays very badly, you know.” The reviews that follow Wyatt’s principled refusal essentially end his career, and he winds up a commercial draftsman in New York. He also does occasional restoration work, and one of his clients, the Mephistophelean Recktall Brown, recognizes his talent and enlists him in a forgery scheme.

The effects of Wyatt’s Faustian deal provide the novel’s main through line, but there are a dozen or so other major characters, most of them artists of one sort or another, introduced by way of Wyatt’s wife, Esther, and his model, Esme, who both make the rounds of postwar Greenwich Village. (As did Gaddis himself, who has a brief part in one of Kerouac’s novels.) Most significant among them is Otto Pivner, a feckless Harvard grad and would-be playwright who arrives in New York from picking bananas in Costa Rica with trumped-up stories of revolution and an uninjured arm in a sling. Midway through the novel, Otto makes a lunch date with the father he never knew, mostly with the aim of hitting him up for cash, but meets instead our old friend Sinisterra, who believes he is passing fake bills to a criminal contact. Otto accepts the notes as paternal largesse and unwittingly puts them into circulation, which leads to another character’s arrest.

Readers have often understood The Recognitions’ obsession with counterfeiting as a familiar Fifties critique of American phoniness. “Peel away the erudition,” Jonathan Franzen wrote about the novel, “and you have ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ ” But Gaddis makes clear throughout that he is after bigger, more interesting game; his real target is not fakery but something like its opposite, what a teacher of Wyatt’s calls “that romantic disease, originality”:

Even two hundred years ago who wanted to be original, to be original was to admit that you could not do a thing the right way, so you could only do it your own way. When you paint you do not try to be original, only you think about your work, how to make it better, so you copy masters, only masters, for with each copy of a copy the form degenerates.

This notion of degeneration owes something to Plato, for whom the visible world is a copy of the eternal forms and mimetic art a copy of that copy. In this view, the artist’s true job is not to depict our transient reality but to pierce through it and give us some access to the absolute. This is what contemporary viewers miss, Wyatt insists, when they focus on the meticulous craftsmanship of the Old Masters.

This . . . these . . . the art historians and the critics talking about every object and . . . everything having its own form and density and . . . its own character in Flemish paintings, but is that all there is to it? Do you know why everything does? Because they found God everywhere. There was nothing God did not watch over, nothing, and so this . . . and so in the painting every detail reflects . . . God’s concern with the most insignificant objects in life, with everything, because God did not relax for an instant then, and neither could the painter then.

By these lights, the problem with forgery is not a lack of originality but the fact that it divorces technique from its proper aim, leading to empty virtuosity. Which, the novel suggests, is also the more general problem with the modern world—meaning not the air-conditioned nightmare of midcentury America, but the West from give or take the Reformation on: “Reason supplied means, and eliminated ends. What followed was entirely reasonable: the means, so abruptly brought within reach, became ends in themselves.”

Closely related to the disease of originality is the cult of self-expression, which views art primarily as a reflection of its maker and often takes as much interest in the eccentric life of the artist as in the work. A running joke concerns Otto’s play, which is really a “series of monologues in which Gordon, a figure who resembled Otto at his better moments, and whom Otto greatly admired, said things which Otto had overheard, or thought of too late to say.” The novel’s most famous lines, known to many who have never cracked its pages, are spoken by Wyatt in response to Esther’s speculation about a famous poet’s sexuality:

What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work? What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology.

The question that follows is where exactly that leaves the artist forced to live in the kingdom of means. For many of the writers Gaddis most admired—Dostoevsky, T. S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh—the solution was a retreat into religious traditionalism. At various points in the novel, Gaddis presents such a retreat as a live option. “Thank God there was the gold to forge,” says Wyatt, meaning that there is after all something real and enduring at the core of things. When Wyatt finally abandons his counterfeiting scheme, he returns to the same Spanish monastery that his father visited in the book’s first pages; there is some suggestion that his stay will deliver him a sort of creative authenticity. Even Otto muses in his shallow way about the possibility of conversion: “It kind of gives a reason for things that otherwise don’t seem to have any.” Meanwhile, the one artist in the book who produces something genuine is the devoutly Catholic composer Stanley, for whom faith provides a meaningful context. Admittedly this context is an equivocal gift. Toward the end of the novel, Stanley plays an original composition on an organ in a Medieval church, which topples from the strain: “He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.”

“I almost think that if I’d gotten the Nobel Prize when The Recognitions was published I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised,” Gaddis said thirty years after the book’s appearance. Instead, he received mostly bewildered notices. Several reviewers admitted to being “defeated” by his novel, and even those who politely praised it did not seem to know what to make of the thing. By this time, Gaddis’s Wanderjahre were long over; he married soon after and quickly had two children. For the next two decades, he devoted the bulk of his time to supporting his family, mostly through corporate writing jobs for the likes of Eastman Kodak, General Motors, and IBM.

There is an obvious irony to this—like Wyatt, Gaddis is forced to put his talents to mercenary ends after lazy critics tank his prospects. (“Criticism pays very badly, you know.”) No doubt the experience of laboring for the better part of a decade on a work that was largely ignored embittered him somewhat. But he kept working, and though the idea behind his second book came to Gaddis soon after he completed the first, J R was immeasurably enriched by his intimate experience with the business world.

J R Vansant is an eleven-year-old Long Island boy whose misadventures start when his fifth-grade class takes a field trip into Manhattan to buy a single share of the Diamond Cable corporation. For the company, the purchase is meant to be a minor bit of public relations; for the class, an introduction to “people’s capitalism.” J R uses it to pursue a shareholder suit and, with the resulting settlement money, builds up a sprawling, multinational conglomerate, leaving a trail of financial and personal destruction. While the business press praises him as an enigmatic genius, J R rips off Indian tribes and shuts down textile mills with a gleeful adolescent amorality that is perfectly matched to the world he occupies: “You can’t just play to play because the rules are only for if you’re playing to win which that’s the only rules there are.”

As in The Recognitions, a large cast of secondary characters, most of them frustrated artists, supports an intricate network of subplots. J R enlists as his adult representative the school’s artist in residence, Edward Bast, a composer staging an improbable production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold, with J R as the dwarf Alberich. The physics teacher, Jack Gibbs, is working on a history of the player piano—a project Gaddis himself labored over throughout his life—that has grown out of control. His notes fill stacks of cardboard boxes in the Upper East Side apartment he shares as a workspace with another writer, Thomas Eigen, who was forced into a corporate job after the commercial failure of his “very important” first novel. (Though there are hints of a paperback reprint and even a “modest award.”)

Just as it’s possible to read The Recognitions narrowly as a satire of midcentury bohemia, J R operates on one level as a send-up of American capitalism. J R’s school is brought to ruin by various foundation-funded efforts to introduce business principles into the management of public education, one of several cases in which reality has since caught up with Gaddis’s imagination. Gibbs finds in the mechanization of the arts a similarly misguided effort to bring the dogma of efficiency to matters of the spirit, resulting in a cannibalization of ends by means.

But the book is more profoundly a portrait of a world that has given up on transcendent values. Gaddis himself described it as “a secular version of its predecessor.” (The Clementine Recognitions are sometimes called the “first Christian novel,” and Gaddis remarked that his own might be the last.) The great consolation of the earlier book—“Thank God there was the gold to forge”—is gone; we have left the gold standard for the world of fiat currency. That there is no “reality” in back of the mask—that the mask cannot be dropped, or that behind it will be found simply another one—is the key contention of the postmodern tradition of which Gaddis is commonly treated as a precursor. But the postmodernists generally take this fact as liberating, opening up a field of endless play. What makes even the Gaddis of J R more like his modernist forebears is his evident dismay at this state of affairs, as demonstrated in an oddly moving scene when Bast tries to get J R to cease his endless business patter and listen to a piece of liturgical music:

—And stop saying holy shit! it’s all you, you want to hear holy you’re going to hear it wind the tape back, just once you’re going to keep quiet and listen to a piece of music by one of . . .

—No but look hey I’m cold I mean how can we sit out here in the dark and lis . . .

—I’m cold too! I’m cold dizzy sick at my stomach if I can sit here and listen to you talk about how much this goodwill is worth and this here friend at what makes you think we’ve got any friends anywhere! How much goodwill do you think we . . .

—No wait hey I mean holy shit I don’t mean where everybody’s crazy about us and all, see goodwill that means the excess of the purchase price over the value of these net tangible assets where they really screwed us on that Endo deal see so ouch!

—That’s not what it means! That’s what I’m trying to, listen all I want you to do take your mind off these nickel deductions these net tangible assets for a minute and listen to a piece of great music, it’s a cantata by Bach cantata number twenty-one by Johann Sebastian Bach damn it J R can’t you understand what I’m trying to, to show you there’s such a thing as as, as intangible assets?

Ultimately it is J R’s values, not Bast’s, that fit the world as it exists. None of the book’s secular artists can find a proper context in which to do their work. Gibbs briefly returns to his player piano project with renewed energy after he’s given a terminal cancer diagnosis, but he abandons it again when that proves to be a false alarm, as though the fact of mortality were the only thing that could give his work enough meaning to make it worth doing. Bast begins the novel intending to write a grand opera; as his work for J R takes over his life, the project is gradually scaled back until it’s a piece for unaccompanied cello. Gibbs and Eigen invite Bast to use their apartment to compose, and it soon becomes the headquarters of the J R Corp, a chaotic riot of paperwork in which nothing can get done. The theme of Platonic degeneration, which assumes that behind every reproduction is some enduring idea which might somehow be recovered, has given way to the theme of entropy, the inevitable slide from order to chaos.

The book itself, however, does not give in to entropy. It depicts chaos and, on the level of the sentence, often enacts it, yet taken as a whole it is a remarkably controlled performance. Bits of Gaddis’s own player piano essay and various pieces of corporate writing get repurposed in a way that suggests the disorganization of that apartment (which is based on a real one that Gaddis rented to write the novel), but they are assimilated into a carefully calibrated plot. The coherence of the vision, the order that Gaddis imposes on the chaos of his material through sheer force of artistic will, offers the closest thing to redemption this world allows, and gives the book, finally, a poignant hopefulness. And unlike Bast, Gaddis did not temper his ambition: J R is nearly as long as The Recognitions, and in many ways more complex.

Where the much remarked-upon “difficulty” that plagues The Recognitions has to do with its content—the untranslated chunks of foreign languages, the range of esoteric references—J R’s is formal: 770 pages of mostly unattributed dialogue, with no chapter breaks and little in the way of exposition or scene setting. But in both cases, the challenge is exaggerated. A good deal of The Recognitions’ learnedness is there for effect. One need not know Hungarian or the works of Athanasius to understand or enjoy the book. As for J R, Gaddis borrowed its polyphonic form—which perfectly fits a book about the absence of objective values that might otherwise provide a proper context for our lives—from Waugh and Ronald Firbank, neither a writer considered unwelcoming to readers, and like them he uses it to great comic ends, piling on misunderstandings and miscommunications. Gaddis has an incredible knack for the cadence of spoken English, and once a reader catches the rhythm of the book the difficulties largely disappear.

I don’t want to overstate this point. These novels demand more effort on the reader’s part than the average page-turner. Above all, they demand attention—a commodity in little supply these days. I read them both for the first time twenty years ago, in college, when I had all day to read long novels, and I have counted them among my favorites ever since. But I returned to them for this essay with some trepidation. I was in quarantine, working remotely with a newborn and a three-year-old at home. If I stopped reading mid-paragraph because a notification popped up on my phone, I would find myself lost and have to start the paragraph or the entire page over. But this problem was easily solved: I set my phone aside. I had hardly noticed how conditioned I’d become to give at best half of myself to whatever I was reading. There was something exciting about returning to books that asked something of me. And they rewarded my investment copiously. I count my second time through these novels—like my first—among the great literary experiences of my life.

Of all the not-quite-right things that people think they know about Gaddis—that he is an obsolete postmodernist, that his books willfully withhold enjoyment from the reader, that he didn’t really want to be read—the last of them is probably the most misguided. For someone like Gaddis, who despised the cult of the artist, who cared immensely about his work and not at all about his reputation, being known without being read might be a worse fate than not being known at all. “I suppose if there has been one immense frustration with the book’s often grudging acceptance,” he wrote to a student planning a thesis on The Recognitions, “it has been how few people seemed able to permit themselves, despite its so-called ‘erudition,’ to simply enjoy it.”