08 May 2009

Ur-story: Desperate Housewife (Pt. 1)

Elizabeth, a dreamy and beautiful yet insecure heiress, who is isolated in a tatty rental house up on the Hudson, is faced with a major choice: whether to run off to "someplace warm" with the mysterious stranger who has just turned up in her life or to stay and try to mend things with her scheming, unfaithful, abusive husband who uses their house as a mere way-station between business trips.

Sounds like the premise of a classic romance novel, doesn't it? Well, it isn't. It's the ending of William Gaddis's novel Carpenter's Gothic ['CG']. Elizabeth falls, hits her head on the edge of a table, and dies as the phone rings bearing a call from one of the two men in her life. McCandless, the stranger and Liz's landlord, sells the house and disappears—probably to Papua, New Guinea. Paul, her husband, rides off into the sunset in a limo with LIz's best friend.

Is this an aborted story? Or some bold, new approach to the novel?

You noobs need to know something first: the Twentieth Century was a pretty exciting time for literary fiction. If it were only known as the century of the full flowering of the short story, it would have to rank with some of the great eras in literary history. But there was more, so much more. The traditional novel matured nicely then spun off into amazing, unpredictable directions. There were the acknowledged giants: e.g., James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Vladimir Nabokov, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. And there were the innovators: e.g., Samuel Beckett, Italo Calvino, Alain Robbe-Grillet. We, in America, had a pretty strong starting line-up, too: e.g., William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, to name but a few of the more prominent. But, the class of American novelists who found their way to publication in the 50's and 60's was unparalleled: (in no particular order) Mailer, Vidal, Bellow, Burroughs, Updike, Elkin, Salinger, Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, Gardner, Gass, Pynchon, McCarthy, McElroy, Salter, Connell, Barth, Coover, Hawkes, Delillo. I could go on and on. We may never see such a confluence of literary talent again (certainly configured as white males!).

One novelist who must be counted at the towering forefront of this last group, like Joyce at once a giant and an innovator, is Gaddis. His novels, The Recognitions, JR, CG, A Frolic of His Own, and Agapē Agape, challenged and infuriated and alienated entire generations of readers. Indeed, at first face, they are dense, formidable tomes.

There is simply no way to convey the excitement of first discovering a book by Gaddis. I can only imagine what it was like to be one of the 'first users' to happen upon The Recognitions when it first came out in 1955. One man has done just that: Jack Green in Fire the Bastards. Green is unsparing in taking the initial round of book reviewers/critics to task for missing out on the originality and importance of Gaddis's first monumental novel. He documents the ignorance, misunderstanding, and outright hostility that greeted it. Green, of course, is a forerunner of such luminary bloggers as Daniel Green, Edmond Caldwell, Edward Champion, Levi Asher, Blckdgrd, Derek Catermole a/k/a Toast, and, primarily in Comments on others' blogs, Steven Augustine (among others; sorry if I left anyone out. Let me know—I'm sure you will) who take it upon themselves to challenge the book reviewing/critic community for narrow-mindedness, short-sightedness, self-interest, group-think, conventionality, middle-brow/middle-class mindsets, mulishness (, etc. It's a lively group operating in a lively tradition. But I digress.

You start reading a book by Gaddis (pick any one of them, it doesn't matter) and you scratch your head. You can't figure out what's going on. You can't quite get used to the diction, the syntax, the flow of the words on the paper. No predicate, or premises (I'll come back to this in a subsequent post), for the characters and action are readily apparent. People aren't named up front. They aren't physically described, their character tics aren't prominently stated. People don't complete their sentences. Interruptions and disruptions prevent the reader from gaining any purchase on what's happening. You feel almost like you're reading a play or a screen-play, not a novel. In a word, albeit hyphenated, Gaddis's books are off-putting, even maddening. At first.

But then, when you read on, something clicks. You spot an unexpected connection or association. A relationship develops. A theme recurs. Something happens. A fact is revealed—though almost always from one side. Then you get the other side's POV on the same fact. And you realize there is a mind at work, here: a complex mind. A competence you couldn't quite see at first. Things fall into place, but are never quite resolved. So, you keep reading on.

Reading Gaddis is a challenge. It is an adventure and, quite frankly, it requires a certain amount of faith in his mastery. To my mind, this faith is never misplaced or betrayed.

CG, like all Gaddis's books, is Boschian or even Brueghel-esque in tone. From the random cruelty that sets the stage in the first paragraph to the uncomprehending chaos of the last scene, it is relentlessly dark, casting a relentlessly "cold eye—on life, on death," and we read and pass by. Here's that first paragraph:
"The bird, a pigeon was it? or a dove (she'd found there were doves here) flew through the air, its colour lost in what light remained. It might have been the wad of rag she'd taken it for at first glance, flung at the smallest of boys out there wiping mud from his cheek where it hit him, catching it up by a wing to fling it back where one of them now with a broken branch for a bat hit it high over a bough caught and flung back and hit again into a swirl of leaves, into a puddle from rain the night before, a kind of battered shuttlecock moulting in a flurry at each blow, hit into the yellow dead end sign on the corner opposite the house where they'd end up that time of day."
So much has been written about Gaddis. There are several websites and even a listserve devoted to him. As for CG, the definitive reading is Steven Moore's. Read it.

What, then, if anything, original can I contribute to this dialogue? I'm not a critic per se or a scholar. I'm a writer. My interest is from the writer's point of view: what have I learned about the craft of writing from reading CG? In the course of my Ur-story series of posts, I've enumerated the sorts of things I look for in a work of fiction. I will try to bring those interests and concerns to my reading of this remarkable novel. [to be continued]


Steven Augustine said...


Thanks for the mention! I don't restrict my effort to "challenge the book reviewing/critic community for narrow-mindedness, short-sightedness, self-interest, group-think, conventionality, middle-brow/middle-class mindsets, mulishness, etc.," to other people's comment threads, though. I run three platforms, where I use satire (http://sirstevenaugustine.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/james-whoode-review/), essayistic forms (http://sirstevenaugustine.wordpress.com/2009/03/09/pooetree/) and fiction itself (http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/2009/01/19/the-real-jimmy-davis/) to prod, poke, tickle and wheedle the critters. Not that I don't take thread commenting just as seriously... several tools for one DIY project!

Aluta continua!


Steven Augustine said...

Oops, I'd better activate those links:


Jim H. said...

Sir/St. Steven,

My bad. Thanks for that. I'll edit the OP.

Jim H.

Steven Augustine said...

Thanks Jim!

Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

"But then, when you read on, something clicks. ... And you realize there is a mind at work, here: a complex mind. A competence you couldn't quite see at first. Things fall into place, but are never quite resolved. So, you keep reading on." <--I haven't read any Gaddis, but this sounds like my recent experience with Grégoire Bouillier's The Mystery Guest. Such initially maddening books often become favorites once the reader and writer find their complementary strides - but it's simplest to miss the wonder of the wood for the seemingly gnarled trees in the case of fiction that begins *roughly* (...that said, I have an inkling Gaddis' narrative may ultimately be more satisfying than Bouillier's).