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Much to Listen To: Reading William Gaddis’ “JR” in 2021

Reading J R by William Gaddis has always felt like tapping directly into the American subconscious. But, as Gaddis’ endless stream of carnivalesque chatter shows us, the national psyche runs rather surface-level. Reading the New York Review of Books’ 45th anniversary edition of J R is reminiscent of trawling through Twitter in 2021. An early scene tracks middle school administrators whose dialogue is interrupted, Tweet-like, by a television program broadcast into classrooms:

      –Go back to whatever that was about the Civil War, I think that’s history…

      —that we wouldn’t like the taste of gasoline but luckily our car engine…

      –Or Social Studies.

      —the American Indian, who is no longer segregated on the reservation, but encouraged to take his rightful place at the side of his countrymen, in the cities, in the factories, on the farm…

      –Just hang on, I’m coming over there anyway. Yeah, driving, I’ll get a ride over if…

Eleven-year-old J R Vansant, the novel’s primary character, belongs to the tradition of humbuggery. He buys penny stocks from the backs of magazines and turns them into a fraudulent fortune. He manipulates the levers of capital through payphone calls (on which he manipulates his voice to sound more “adult”) and money orders. The anonymity and, hence, the potential for abuse that these communications media afford him resonates with our apps babbling (dis)information about respiratory viruses and Maricopa County election results. Gaddis’ novel defies standard plotting. Perhaps its greatest pleasure for new readers is being joyfully swept up by the waves of linguistic excess sounding from the hundreds of voices within this atlas of human feeling as we follow the young stockbroker and those caught up in the whirlpool that surrounds his financial escapades. This is first and foremost a novel of voices, of information—most of them untrustworthy.

Yet, J R is about far more than a preteen’s wild ride through the intestinal tract of finance. Encountering this novel is akin to seeing the flurries of color and dissonant lines across the canvases of Joan Mitchell or Lee Krasner in person for the first time. The visual dazzlement and cacophony of those painters is an experience unto itself, a way of reorienting ourselves that is similar to approaching the verbal experiences of Gaddis’ text. J R, indeed, is a novel about artists, specifically the ambitious composer Edward Bast. Teaching music at J R’s middle school, Bast is recruited by him to manage his dubious finances, gradually forsaking numerous operatic and symphonic projects. If there is an opposite to the Künstlerroman, surely Gaddis’ portrait of Bast as a failing artist sucked under by the rising tide of financial capitalism is it.

J R is about the failure of art as much as the art of failure. An exemplary dialogue features two men (both aspiring writers), Thomas Eigen, a speech writer, and Jack Gibbs, the physics teacher at J R’s school, who use “God damned” as verbal scaffolding in a rant about cybernetics and divorce settlements: “Whole God damned problem tastes like apricots, whole God damned problem listen whole God damned problem read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can’t get a God damned thing across, God damned much entropy going on…” A failed marriage, and the failure of communication, is metamorphosed by Gaddis into a distinctly hypnotic and incantatory duet.

To guide readers through this linguistic monsoon, the NYRB has enlisted Joy Williams to introduce Gaddis to a new generation. She places J R in a more capacious lineage than the “postmodern mega-novel” it has been associated with. We can see how Gaddis has influenced Williams’ own hybrid, bizarre short fictions, as well as the boundary-pushing works by writers such as Kelly Link, Lydia Millet, Ottessa Moshfegh, and Karen Russell. Like Gaddis, these writers employ a register of comedic strangeness to burrow into America’s moral quagmires. For Williams, “J R is a rude demanding complex riotous uncomfortably edifying novel, a howling maelstrom of voices, a grabby talky disorderly inferno of the spirit.”

If our pandemic year has inspired, or forced, a reckoning with the underbellies of the American Experiment, we might do well to plunge into the whirlpool of voices that Gaddis copied, pasted and splayed before us in these pages. The novel’s final lines, “Hey? You listening…?”, confront us with words from 1975 that snake into the consciousness of 2020.

The landscape of 2020 is one which J R in many ways prophesied. In a 2014 feature with The New York Times Book Review, novelist Rachel Kushner spoke of Gaddis’ 1955 debut The Recognitions as a work that, to me, fulfills the ambition to apprehend the writer’s own moment as history—that is the goal, to my mind. I don’t care to read about present-day America unless the writer truly has something to say about these times—uses the contemporary, rather than gets used by it.

Gaddis uses his 1970s like linguistic Play-Doh, twisting it into clumps and towers of dialogue that address us with the urgency of a profane sermon. Williams describe a novel where “there is no communion. No closure. There are rants. Mad soliloquies. Offended ripostes, offended parries…770 pages of unattributed, intercepted, interrupted dialogue, in ‘speech scraps, confetti like wiggles of brightly colored cliché’ (William H. Gass, admiringly).” Polyphonic and cacophonic, J R is a swirl of voices signifying both nothingness and profundity.

William Gaddis demolished the novel form, offering a verbal cartography for navigating the instability of 1970s America. J R’s greatest innovation is that, as Williams writes, it “employs none of the fictive habits, the prompts and crutches and connective tissue of narrative. Time slips around like an eel. Place is bulldozed.” J R’s rare interludes of narration, in the form of breathless sentences, present a rhythmic AUM which can help us trace over chaos and meaninglessness. Gaddis offers a method for shedding novelistic expectations, wherein the seemingly awkward postures of reading that J R asks us to stretch and hop into yield new ways for being attentive to our own voices and breathing patterns.

By slowing down, and ceasing to read for the plot, Gaddis teaches us to breathe within the music of its words: “…and they entered the car out of sight behind its filthy windows as its lights too receded and became mere punctuations in this aimless spread of evening past the firehouse and the crumbling Marine Memorial, the blooded barberry and woodbine’s silent siege and the desirable property For Sale, up weeded ruts and Queen Anne’s laces to finally mount the sky itself where another blue day brought even more the shock of fall in its brilliance, spread loss like shipwreck on high winds tossing those oaks back in waves blown over with whitecaps where their leaves showed light undersides and dead branches cast brown sprays to the surface, straining at the height of the pepperidge tree and blowing down the open highway to find voice in the screams of the electric saws prospering through Burgoyne Street.” J R is a yogic meditation for a quarantined year, and there is much to listen to between breath and speech in Gaddis’ novel of his time, and our time.

by William Gaddis
NYRB Classics, 2020
784 pages, $24.95

Teddy Hamstra is a 3rd year English PhD student at the University of Southern California where he is studying representations of spirituality and the sacred in 20th Century and contemporary American culture. He is currently working on preliminary dissertation research through USC's Visual Studies Research Institute on the diffusion of Joseph Campbell's idea of creative mythology across multimedia forms. 

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