Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Just Read

My more recent posts have been film-based, which is fine and good, but I'm hoping, at least in the next couple of weeks, to return to more thoughts and essays on literature and writing. As for my personal readings, I've decided to swing for the metaphorical fences, embarking on a study that will have great highs and frustrating lows, perhaps in equal measure, or maybe with the lows taking the edge. I'm reading William Gaddis' 1975 novel JR. I'm fully prepared (but hoping against) for the possibility of tossing it aside in frustration. On a more modest, optimistic note, I will succeed if I can finish it and at least have a basic understanding of the plot. I've caught some of the references and metaphors in the 102 pages I've read so far (out of 726...not a daunting task for another book, but keep in mind that JR has no chapter breaks, no quotations, and lightning-quick scene transitions). I'm sure I've missed twice as many of the references as I've picked up on, but so far, I'm surprised at how enjoyable and witty it's been.

This is my second attempt at the book, since I'm finding notes and underlinings that I have no memories of making. I bought it three years ago after taking many classes where William Gaddis was discussed in awed, hushed tones, as well as after my many readings of Jonathan Franzen's "Mr. Difficult" essay (I'm proud of myself, since I don't think I've referenced Franzen in at least two months on this blog). In part, Franzen writes in the essay about the satisfaction of reading The Recognitions (Gaddis' 1955 debut), and the frustrations of giving up on reading JR. After many hours of reading ABOUT JR, I felt it was time to jump right in. A couple of days ago, I read a few pages, was following along quite nicely, and immediately put it down. It was almost as if I was scared to keep going, since I didn't want to be disappointed when the hilarious, twisting dialogue kept turning into a headache-inducing labyrinth. Last night, I picked it up again, now determined to see it to the end.

I hope to write about it again once I'm finished, but so far, so good (read: understandable). Most reviews/summaries of the novel describe it as a satire of American capitalism and greed (JR, the main character, is an eleven year-old, semi-accidental business magnate). While that description is true and warranted, what I love so far is that Gaddis had a natural knack for business language, namely, as George Carlin put it best, the language of bullshit. When JR's class takes a field trip to a stock exchange to buy a single stock in Diamond Cable (and therefore, as is said many times, to buy a piece of America), one of the brokers gives them a tour:

"--This is the board room, where your board of directors meets. They sit right in the very chairs you're sitting in and, oh Carol just bring those in and pass them around. This is your company's Annual Report boys and girls, we put it out because we believe that you, and all the other company owners, have a right to know all about your company and the activities it's engaged in Carol tell him to get that projector going, the many varied ways your company serves our great country with cable of every kind you can imagine from the defense industry to communications of every sort, the... (Gaddis 91)."

Gaddis hilariously mixes pompous speeches like the one above with dialogue among the brokers by themselves, a great splice of B.S. and honesty.

I'm hoping to have the book finished in the near future, with more thoughts and descriptions to come. In his introduction to the Penguin paperback edition of the book, Frederick R. Karl mentions the double meaning of "JR," stating how it also stands for "Junior," a play on the protagonist's age. For me, "JR" means "Just Read." I've been tip-toeing around it for so long, so it's about time that I just rolled up my sleeves.

Work Cited:

Gaddis, William. JR. Copyright 1975 by William Gaddis.


jpb said...

I am pretty sure I am going to teach Franzen's "Mr. Difficult" essay this semester, as well as Ben Marcus' polemic response (in Harper's).

James Yates said...

Good call. It's one of my favorites, obviously, since I seem to reference in writing and conversation all the time.

I haven't read Ben Marcus' essay. I'll give it a read tomorrow (assuming that "Harper's" is free online).

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