Many feel Carpenter's Gothic is a relatively minor novel in William Gaddis's oeuvre. Jonathan Franzen rather summarily dismisses CG in his thorough disavowal of all things difficult and angry, that is all things Gaddis, in his Sept. 30, 2002 The New Yorker article: "Mr. Difficult:"
"If 'JR' is dedicated to the proposition that America sucks, the message of his third novel, 'Carpenter's Gothic' (1985), is that it really, really, really sucks. Gaddis himself conceded that the book was an exercise in style, and its content is strictly paint-by-numbers. A telegenic Southern preacher turns out to be—a dangerous, venal hypocrite! A United States senator turns out to be—corrupt! The book is a husk. Unlike 'The Recognitions,' it was handsomely reviewed. ... 'Carpenter's Gothic,' the book without children, is a book without hope."That's all he has to say about CG in his lengthy critical piece which came out several years after Gaddis's death and just around the time his last novel, Agapē Agape, was published. That's okay. I'm not here either to rate or compare Gaddis's books, or, for that matter, to declare it 'good'. Summary matters of taste are nothing but. (btw: You can find the same essay reprinted in Franzen's book How to Be Alone. And here. Franzen's denunciation caused a bit of a stir, with Ben Marcus and B.R. Myers and Cynthia Ozick, among others weighing in. (You can read all about that here and here, and you can chase down the Marcus and Ozick pieces in Harper's if you have a subscription.)
So, did America really, really, really suck in the Reagan era? That's a worthy question, but not one that I shall attempt to resolve in a literary blog post. If you lived through it, you probably have your own view anyway that nothing I can say will alter.
But, is it the right question to ask of CG? Maybe I can chip away at a response to that. In my post on 'Realisms', I posited a dichotomy (not necessarily original with me) between novels that purport to bring 'news of the world' and novels that bring 'news of the soul.' Franzen automatically lumps CG into the former class, without pausing to question whether it might be of the other sort.
Certainly, sleazy religionists and politicians are not new subjects for literature—look at Chaucer or Petronius, e.g. Reverend Ude and Senator Teakell are specific American tokens of this literary type, for sure. And their potential alliance is a Damoclean sword hanging over the entire proceedings. Yet: neither man walks on stage. Neither utters a line of dialogue. They are background noise. They are part of the landscape, the atmosphere, or the furniture of the narrative. They are not, contra Franzen, what the novel is about.
Is it fair to ask whether right-wing politicians and evangelical preachers were part of the fabric of American life in the 1980s? I'm pretty sure they were. And was there a movement afoot at that time to ally them in the public space. That, indeed, was a Reagan strategy that paid big dividends for the Republican party through the early part of this century.
There is simply nothing wrong with depicting social conditions in the novel. It diminishes the novel not one whit. Look at Thackeray, Dickens, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, et al. For some, presumably like Franzen (particularly after his The Twenty-Seventh City) this shouldn't be the subject of the novel. And that's okay; it's not in CG.
We might even more profitably try to discover the extent to which these political and cultural social conditions infected the lives of real human beings (i.e., the American soul), and, in our case, fictional characters.
The central action of CG concerns one character: Elizabeth (a/k/a Liz, Lizzy, Bibb), who has to choose whether to continue to suffer the assaults of these 'slings and arrows' (darts!) via her husband Paul or to escape to 'someplace warm' with her landlord/lover McCandless. And it all takes place in and on the premises of a ninety year old house in upstate New York within site of the Hudson River.
This latter point raises an interesting issue for me as a writer. Many of the so-called 'experimental' writers of Gaddis's generation played around with all the technical aspects of the novel: plot(-lessness), characterization, POV, subject matter, story, etc. For point of view, e.g., John Hawkes gave us a novel told entirely from the POV of a horse in Sweet William: A Memoir of an Old Horse. There are tons of these POV experiments (Robbe-Grillet, prominently, in Jealousy), of varying degrees of success. It's my opinion that CG is written from the perspective of the house. Let me elaborate.
There is nothing that takes place in CG that couldn't have been perceived by the house if its 'walls had ears' or its windows eyes. It's the classic 'if only these walls could talk' scenario. We never get inside the thoughts or emotions or perceptions of any of the characters. It's not a close third person, or even limited omniscient perspective. We see what we might see if we were the house observing the actions and listening to the dialogue of the people within it (or watching the people in the yard and street outside). We never hear, e.g., the other end of a phone conversation.
Now, this is clearly an old Gaddis trick, used sparingly in Recognitions (perhaps because [one surmises] the telephone was less ubiquitous in the 50s) but exploited widely throughout JR, though, in his second novel, the POV travels from place to place with its characters, being handed off often in truly wonderful ways—sometimes, even, down telephone wires. But here, he has perfected a deliberate style, locating the site of all narrative perception in this house—with all its quirks and memories. In a sense, Gaddis makes the narrating house a character. And, obviously, this is reflected in the title which is a style of American architecture. (Frolic extends and expands the POV back to a truer free indirect style.)
That being the case, so who is this Nick Carraway of a house. Fortunately, for us, this unself-conscious narrator overhears a bit of telling dialogue between Liz and McCandless, the house's owner:
"She hadn't moved. —I've never really looked at it.
—At what...looking where she ws looking.
—At the house. From outside I mean.
—Oh the house yes, the house. It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style, he came on, abruptly rescued from uncertainty, raised to the surface —yes, they had style books, these country architects and the carpenters it was all derivative wasn't it, those grand Victorian mansions with their rooms and rooms and towering heights and cupolas and the marvelous intricate ironwork. That whole inspiration of medieval Gothic but these poor fellows didn't have it, the stonework and the wrought iron. All they had were the simple dependable old materials, the wood and their hammers and saws and their own clumsy ingenuity bringing those grandiose visions the masters had left behind down to a human scale with their own little inventions, those vertical darts coming down from the eaves? and that row of bull's eyes underneath? He was up kicking leaves aside, gesturing, both arms raised embracing —a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside's a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small a scale, because it's stood here, hasn't it, foolish inventions and all it's stood here for ninety years...breaking off, staring up where her gaze had fled back with those towering heights and cupolas, as though for some echo: It's like the inside of your head McCandless, if that was what brought him to add —why when somebody breaks in, it's like being assaulted, it's the ...
—Listen! The phone had rung inside and she started up at the second ring, sank back with the third. —All I meant was, it's a hard house to hide in...Raising her eyes up to the twinned windows again, —seeing it from outside, looking up there and seeing myself looking out when everything was green." (227-28)
[to be continued]