Saturday, April 30, 2011

Frankly, There's More: James Kaplan's "Frank: The Voice"



Whenever I read a book, I can never resist reading the author's afterword or acknowledgement page, even though, most of the time, it's merely a list thanking various people, family members, and editors, people whose names I'll forget forty-five seconds after putting the book away. However, James Kaplan's acknowledgement in his latest book Frank: The Voice offers a simple, yet necessary understanding. In it, he says: "To encourage a first-time biographer to take on [Frank] Sinatra--not only a gigantic subject but, perhaps, the most chronicled human in modern history--might have looked like sheer folly (720)." My own fascination and admiration of Frank Sinatra goes back to my childhood, and has been a constant even though my tastes and studies have grown to include a much wider film and music base. However, to be blunt, there are too damn many books about Sinatra, most of which, while offering the occasional new information, have to restate the obvious biographical facts and tidbits that even the most casual Sinatra fan knows inside and out. The Sinatra biography "industry" began most famously in 1986, with Kitty Kelley's His Way, a book that more or less made Sinatra out to be pure evil at worst, and a common criminal at best. The other end of the spectrum contains biographies written by Sinatra's daughters, Nancy and Tina, which are written with a glow and only a hint of the negativity that will inevitably surround such a famous public figure. However, a few other books provide a much better lens: Anthony Summers published Sinatra: The Life in 2005, an excellent biography that balanced the good with the bad. Tom Santopietro's Sinatra In Hollywood had a tendency to be overly deferential, but proved to be more detailed than most, since it focused exclusively on Sinatra's up and down film career. Last year's publication of Kaplan's book went even further, in a way that is deceptively simple, yet hasn't really been undertaken: it's the first volume of a two-part biography, and instead of cramming Sinatra's entire life into one tome, he explores Sinatra's early life, from his birth up to his Best Supporting Actor Academy Award win in 1954 for the film From Here To Eternity.

Biographers usually tend to go down one of two paths: one is that of straight reporting and detailing, offering facts and scenes with a purely journalistic eye. The other path seems to be gaining much more relevance in recent years, with the writer doing his or her best to "insert" themselves into the history, with alternations between the details and the opinions of the chronicler. In Frank: The Voice, Kaplan does both, and in doing so, manages to create more than a few solid arguments about Sinatra's development, both as a person and as a singer/actor. From the beginning, Kaplan explores Sinatra's relationship with his mother, Dolly, and shows that their love/hate relationship effected Sinatra more than most fans realize.

"Yet that doesn't quite tell the whole story. Yes, Frank Sinatra was born with a character (inevitably) similar to Dolly's, but nature is only half the equation. Frank Sinatra did what he needed to do for himself because he had learned from earliest childhood to trust no one--even the one in whom he should have been able to place the ultimate trust (Kaplan 10)."

In Kaplan's opinion, this early relationship would provide the foundation for more than a few of Sinatra's future relationships, both romantic and personal. Not only did his mother's dominating personality rub off on him, but his relationships with people--from bandleader Tommy Dorsey to his second wife Ava Gardner--tended to run hot and cold, especially when said people proved to have make-ups that included equal dominance. This is all open to interpretation, but Kaplan does make a convincing argument. Tommy Dorsey ran one of the tightest bands in the height of the swing era, and it was inevitable that the unquestioned leader would clash with the rising singer who, even from the beginning, was determined to eventually succeed on his own terms. Refreshingly, Kaplan manages to take a lot of famous Sinatra stories and anecdotes, even the ones that tend to border on apocryphal, and write about them with new vigor. For example, take Dorsey's final words to Sinatra after the singer finally breaks away from the band.

"As for the Sentimental Gentleman of Swing, Tommy Dorsey drank a good bit backstage at the Circle Theater the night of that final broadcast, and liquor always put a fine edge on his cold Irish anger. When Sinatra cried on his shoulder, Dorsey had seven words for him.
'I hope you fall on your ass,' the bandleader said (Kaplan 146)."




Once Ava Gardner entered Sinatra's life, she became a constant, even through their most strained times, and even until her death years after their divorce. Like most biographies, the picture of those two is one of intense lust and love, mixed with bitter fights, jealousy, suicide attempts (on Frank's part), and terminated pregnancies. Scouring Gardner's autobiography, as well as other well-researched and cited accounts, Kaplan gives a compelling new side to the Sinatra-Gardner relationship, even going to far as to highlight stories that might be exaggerated, all for the sake of giving the best account possible:

"Artie Shaw's story about Ava's sexual confession ('it's like being in bed with a woman) may be half-true; it certainly shows Shaw to best advantage, and Sinatra to worst. But it chimes oddly with the [faked suicide attempt by Sinatra] at the Hampshire House. Sinatra certainly had a hysterical side, and was nothing if not hypersensitive. And Ava was all things to him, siren and drinking buddy and mother surrogate, and great artists have polymorphous souls (Kaplan 418)."

The above passage leads to my only real complaints about Frank: The Voice. While the Sinatra-Gardner relationship is an essential part of any Sinatra account, Kaplan seems to bring it up often, even without the sake of transition. The reader is treated to excellent details, but the story is too often steered to yet another tale of the Sinatra-Gardner drama, which very well could be blamed on their relationship, and not the fault of the author. Their fights were so over-the-top and melodramatic that it makes the accounts tiring after awhile. And the last sentence of the above Kaplan citation includes a telling phrase--"great artists"--which is often difficult to ascribe to Sinatra. However, for a man who was never able to read music, his interpretation of classic songs, as well as the occasional great film performances, steer him towards the term "artist," but in all reality, Sinatra's artistic integrity was limited to his vocalizing. Kaplan seems nobly intent on creating a picture of Sinatra as an artist through and through, but in reality, the only times that Kaplan effectively captures this is in details of Sinatra's intuitive singing, his way of making his voice an instrument instead of just the carrier of a given song.

"The next night he recorded four more songs, and one of them, the first--a pretty Burke-Van Heusen tune called 'Like Someone In Love'--had been arranged by [Nelson] Riddle. [George] Siravo's charts were lovely, but this orchestration, with its Debussy/Ravel-esque flute passages (the flute would soon become a Riddle signature), was something special: a gift from one lover of impressionism to another, and a promise of more complex beauty to come (Kaplan 660)."

Overall, Kaplan's account is impressive, given his research into even the most documented aspects of one of the most documented lives in entertainment history. Frank: The Voice doesn't try to be a juicy tell-all, especially since all of the more gossipy parts of Sinatra's life have been detailed to almost no end. Kaplan's tone didn't fit at times; he occasionally attempts to add "tough guy" lingo to an otherwise journalistic approach, and some of the flourishes in the events are a bit too novelistic in what is a predominantly excellent work. However, the attention to detail, and the attempts to flush out smaller accounts instead of attempting to cram a varied life into one volume is one of the rare examples of a writer doing this for integrity, rather than dividing a work into multiple volumes for the sake of royalties (Kaplan will be writing an account of the second half of Sinatra's life). This book would make an excellent introduction to anybody unfamiliar with Sinatra's life; for even the most ardent Sinatra fans, it's an excellent work, and even the smallest new details are enough to satisfy the people who likely know everything about Sinatra's life and music.

Work Cited:
Kaplan, James. Frank: The Voice. Copyright 2010 by James Kaplan.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Everything and More: Dialogue and Voices in "The Recognitions"



Given the volume of history, citations, sources, and secondary texts in The Recognitions by William Gaddis, the novel has often (rightfully) been referred to as encyclopedic. Even though it works as both a historical and (then) contemporary piece, rife with facts both fictional and non-fictional, I sometimes get the feeling that any novel over 500 pages is sometimes labeled encyclopedic, which if it's not, and merely just a long book, renders said label inexplicable at best, and mildly self-insulting to the reviewer at worst, since it hints at a lack of adjectives on his/her part. Some writers and critics have tried to tear away that label from The Recognitions, and the best argument that I've found comes from writer Joseph McElroy in his excellent essay "Gaddis Dialogue Questioned" (re-printed in Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System):

"[The Recognitions]was a work adequate to our underground history and pretension, carried through no matter how long it takes: this was the Gaddis example, an idea of the book itself, what it could hold. (Forget "experimental"; forget "encyclopedic") Worth writing, worth reading, it will be a book to be in, not just to pass through as so much nowadays passes through us and is gone.....
....The hole so overflows with voices (McElroy 67)."

In my introductory essay on The Recognitions, I mentioned that I would be writing a follow-up piece on "some nuances of the novel." This was a terribly vague statement on my part, but while I tossed around various potential specific essays, I could not escape the winding turns, power and sheer abundance of voices and dialogues in the novel. Granted, albeit with rare exceptions, dialogue is a constant in fiction, postmodern or otherwise, and done in ways that are brilliant, subversive, contradictory, or realistic. However, in The Recognitions, Gaddis manages to combine all of those potentials, presented in standard fashions, but also in labyrinth, multi-character discussions that are compelling, intentionally evasive as to who is speaking, and mysterious. Mix these with radio voices, reprinted news articles, and reprinted personal letters, and the novel manages to combine both Realism, an intelligent caricature of bustling city cacophonies, as well as purely seductive, misleading bullshit. However, every piece is intentional; it's up to the reader to decide what's true, what's blatantly false, and what could possibly be a combination of the two. Nothing is set in stone, yet everything is available for an endless equation of possible meanings.

Critics from McElroy to Franzen have made many notes on Gaddis' use of ellipses, dashes, and unnamed or non-cited speakers. A careful reading makes the majority of the conversations understandable, and in the best cases, meanings are both explicit as well as merely implied. Early in The Recognitions, Wyatt has a transforming conversation with a corrupt art critic, and their back-and-forth conversation is deceptively simple, yet weighed with (mostly negative) implications.

"--What do you mean? Wyatt looked up, startled, dropping his arms.
--I am in a position to help you greatly.
--Yes, yes, but...
--Art criticism pays very badly, you know.
--But...well? Well? His face creased.
--If you should guarantee me, say, one-tenth of the sale price of whatever we sell...
--We? You? You (Gaddis 71)?"

The reader knows exactly what is going on, the two speakers are on the same page, but at the same time, there's an air of deception and corruption, which is an appropriate microcosm of the novel as a whole. Other microcosms abound; it would be far too easy to say that the dialogue is representative of the novel's actions (depending on the form, that could be said of any novel or story), but the pieces work as excellent stand-alone movements. Gaddis has an excellent ear for mixed-up party scenes, perfectly evoking the interjecting, sometimes-confusing, alcohol-fueled conversations that inevitably happen at large gatherings. The example below might not make perfect sense out of context, but imagine it being spoken at a random party: in a slightly twisted way, it makes sense even in its confusion.

"--You write a novel! Who'll read a novel with no women in it?
--But baby, there will be, I'll do it just like Proust did, write it about simply everyone I know and then just go through and change boys' names to girls, I know the perfect Odette...
--You ought to go back to analysis. Or have a vagotomy and get it over with. Just because your analyst killed himself...
--He didn't kill himself, it was an accident.
--An accident! He ties a rope around his neck and climbs out a window, but the rope breaks and he falls forty-six stories, so it's an accident?
--Hannah, I'm going, going to get a drink. Herschel said turning on the room, no idea where he was going, but away.
--I didn't know he was a writer, Otto said.
--Writer! He ghosts. He just ghosted some army general's autobiography. A writer!
--Otto looked after Herschel. --I'd say he was a latent heterosexual, he said, immediately regretted wasting such an inspired line on Hannah, and resolved to repeat it later to someone who would repeat it as his own. He even tried to think quickly of a spot for it in his play (Gaddis 180-181)."

Quiet moments of reflection are scarce in The Recognitions, with background noises, conversations, and mild chaos being constant presences. McElroy's essay is mainly focused on Gaddis' second novel, JR, but I couldn't help but notice how a lot of the dialogue themes could also apply to The Recognitions, especially McElroy's assertion that:

"Apt thus for the strandedness of his principles, dialogue serves Gaddis in other ways. And the tumbling out of broken hopes and tentative, even underground will, and bursts of incipient action and frenetic speeches ma bring from Edward, Amy, Jack [characters in JR] in their voicings of frustration a lost and distracted tragic-comicness like that of some Dostoevsky people in their own messy but awful and true crisis-dramas (McElroy 66)."

Tumbling out of broken hopes...frenetic speeches...messy but awful and true crisis-dramas. These are honored standbys of classic and contemporary novels, but in an amazing, saddening way, Gaddis is able to apply these not only in character discussions, but also in advertising. Radio voices pop up every now and then, and Gaddis' satire of advertising culture is blistering, especially given the time period. While 1950s ads have their own websites and DVDs devoted to their nostalgia, and while advertising today is viewed through a skeptical lens, Gaddis shows that nostalgia was the last thing on his mind. Even then, advertising was ludicrous at times, and laughable in its intense pursuit of listeners and dollars. This "ad" from a child's radio show is an excellent example, both comically astute and stunning in its subject, asking children to talk to their parents about birth control.

"--you friend Laughing Lazarus will be here in a minute, but listen kids. Here's one real confidential question I want to ask you first, just between us. Do you have enough brothers and sisters? I know, you love big brother or little Janey, don't you. But too many can spoil your chances. Look at it this way. When you have pie for dessert, how many ways does it have to be divided up? Do you get your share? If you have enough brothers and sisters, or even if you don't have any and don't want any, tell Mummy about Cuff. Cuff, the new wonder preventative. Cuff is guaranteed not to damage internal tissues or have lasting effects. But you don't have to remember all those long words, just tell Mummy to ask about Cuff next time she visits her friendly neighborhood druggist. Remember, Cuff. It's on the Cuff (Gaddis 366)."

Even in the most basic Gaddis dialogue, there are underlying messages, plays for power, distinctions between class, and accents/untranslated passages that lend The Recognitions a multiculturalism that play easily in a backdrop like Manhattan, or in the various overseas locales to which the characters travel or appear in at random. In one particularly comic exchange, the playwright Otto is in Central America, trying to write while interrupted by a housemate named Jesse. Gaddis slightly exaggerates Jesse's diction, but it's not done in a stereotypical way; instead, it highlights the different temperaments between the two men, the pseudo-intellectual Otto and the more "manly" Jesse:

"--Hello, Jesse.
--Hello Jesse. How do you like that. Hello Jesse. What are you doin anyhow? said the tattooed man, and sat down on the other wooden chair.
--I'm writing.
--Jesse put the bottle and glass on the table and looked around him. The corners of his mouth twitched, momentarily confused about something, but something which was going to be pleasurable. He looked over the table, littered with papers illegibly scribbled upon, and at the pictures on the wall.
--Do you want a cigarette? Otto asked him.
--Yeah, give me a cigarette. Jesse put out his hand, and then waved away the green package of MacDonald's Gold Standard.
--What do you smoke those things for? That ain't even American-made stuff.
--I don't know, I...anyhow it is Virgina tobacco, I...
--Yeah what do you smoke those lousy things for? Why don't you smoke American cigarettes? He knocked one of Otto's clean socks from the corner of the table into the cuspidor with his elbow, and watched suspiciously while Otto got up and went behind him to retrieve it.
--What are you doin anyhow? Jesse asked. Then he said,--You're a religious bastid ain't you (Gaddis 154-155)."

For a novel that relies heavily on communications or lack thereof, it's curious to note that the work famously ends on a fatal miscommunication. Stanley, a deeply religious composer, heads to an Italian monastery to play his composition on the monastery's organ. An elderly monk tells him (in Italian) to not play anything too heavy, given the fact that the ancient system is unequipped to handle deeply resonant music. Not understanding, Stanley plays anyway, collapsing the area around him, and dying in the process. The closing lines of the novel are: "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 (Gaddis 956)." To me, the telling phrase is "most of his work," and the closing would take on different potential meanings if Gaddis had phrased it as "all of his work." Jonathan Franzen felt that this final statement was an unintentional precursor to Gaddis' life-long reception. To expand my reading of it, the mostly completed work is "noted with high regard." Like the dialogue in the novel, we have most of it, but not all of it. The communications are flushed out, but at the same time, it's impossible to know if, as readers, we're getting the complete picture. Reading between the lines in such a mammoth and (yes) encyclopedic work is daunting enough, but even with the brutal honesty of the characters and voices, they are deeply flawed individuals, and aren't as seemingly open as Gaddis makes them. Once more, a seemingly unrelated phrase from McElroy, in reference to JR, makes for an excellent potential reading of The Recognitions, both regarding its voices and emphasis on communication at the end.

"The voice sort of at the end of the line with dramatic persona nonetheless abstracts itself (McElroy 66)."

Works Cited:
Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. Copyright 1983 by William Gaddis.

McElroy, Joseph. "Gaddis Dialogue Questioned." Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. Rone Shavers and Joseph Tabbi, eds. Copyright 2007 by The University of Alabama Press.

Friday, April 15, 2011

And Now, Your W---- C----- Chicago Bulls



Last June proved to be an rarity in Chicago sports: the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup after being the sexy (and logical) favorite for the championship. At the same time, I proved to be a rarity myself, being a Chicagoan who refused to hop on the Blackhawks bandwagon. I've never been a hockey fan, and I didn't feel the need to become a temporary one when the entire city was caught up in the excitement. That's not to say that I wasn't appreciative; the only hockey game I saw all year was the Stanley Cup championship game, when I happened to be at a local bar with my brother. When the game ended, the entire bar erupted. A possibly homeless woman took the time to high-five everyone in the establishment. I applauded, felt a tinge of euphoria, and just as quickly, it subsided. While I'm all about civic pride, I was annoyed by the scores of people who took it upon themselves to don Patrick Kane jerseys because it was the chic thing to do. This year, the same thing might be happening. For the first time since 1998, the Chicago Bulls are a possible favorite to win the NBA championship, and many people, people who stopped following the Bulls after Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Phil Jackson left the team, will be dropping cash for Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah jerseys.

I'm a major fan of the Bulls and the Chicago Cubs, but I've always been diligent about distancing myself from the normal ebbs and tides of Chicago sports. I find it ridiculous that people still cling to the 1985 Bears, and when I attend a Cubs game, I actually watch the game instead of going to enjoy the scene and to get drunk (however, it is possible to consume more than the recommended amounts of Old Style while actually watching a baseball game). The civic pride will be terrific if the Bulls advance deep this year, but a part of me will be falling into the stereotype of a fan. I want people to be excited about this team. I love being able to exchange excited Facebook messages with a handful of my fellow Bulls fanatics. However, part of me wants to talk to everyone who hops on the bandwagon or dusts off the Bulls fanaticism that was tucked away in 1998. I've never stopped being a Bulls fan, and part of me will want to ask a few questions. Where were you? Where were you during the terrible years? Were you drumming your fingers watching Keith Booth and Rusty LaRue? Deep down, were you never buying the drafts of Eddie Curry and Tyson Chandler? Were you hopeful when the Bulls signed Ben Wallace, only to watch it fade rather quickly?




It's easy to get caught up in the potential of the 2011 Chicago Bulls. When Derrick Rose was drafted in 2008, he came with a ton of potential and skill, but nobody was able to foresee his leadership and the development of said potential. He challenges himself and his team every night, and while national commentators love to harp on his "shortcomings," nobody can deny the beauty of his layups and fast-breaks. Joakim Noah came into the league branded as a headcase, but his development is even greater than that of Rose. He matured, toughened up on defense, and made himself into one of the greatest assets on the team. Early in the season, he was rumored to be part of a potential deal with the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Carmelo Anthony. If this had happened, I would have been devastated. Even if 'Melo had dropped 35 points a game as a Bull, he never would have matched Noah's intensity and drive. Last year, the Bulls lost in the opening round to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even though they lost, their determination was never in question. ESPN columnist Bill Simmons stated that the mentality of Rose and Noah was a sort of love letter to last year's free-agent class: "We're wired the right way. We want to win." Instead of signing LeBron James, the Bulls signed forward Carlos Boozer; instead of landing Dwyane Wade, they signed Kyle Korver to strengthen the bench. While the consensus is that the Bulls "lost out" on the major free agents, the players that they did sign ended up contributing enormously, helping lead the team to the best record (62-20) in the league.

Nationally, the Bulls are sexy again. They have the best point guard (Rose) in the league, and they are a favorite for nit-picky sportswriters who assume that they don't have the talent to compete with the likes of the Lakers, Spurs, Celtics, or Heat. Among the Bulls' supporters, a lot has been made about the team's history. This year marks the twentieth anniversary of Chicago's first NBA championship, which was won against the Los Angeles Lakers. Along with the Lakers' penchant for being a terribly difficult playoff opponent, a lot of writers and commentators are gushing over a re-match twenty years in the making: The Bulls vs. The Lakers in the NBA Finals. Add a dash of Lakers head coach Phil Jackson (who led Chicago to their six previous titles) claiming that he's retiring after the season, and the supposed pieces are in place for the NBA's final playoff match.

While I would not complain about this if it did happen, the realist in me wants to take things slowly. In today's age of instant analysis and instant gratification, if the Bulls lose in the Eastern Conference semi-finals or conference finals, the onslaught of critiques and opinions will be overwhelming. Of course, living in Chicago adds yet another twist. As sports fans, Chicagoans are obsessed with the past and with history. The aforementioned 1985 Bears will remain the local favorite until a new Bears team finally wins the Super Bowl; the 2008 Chicago Cubs won the most games in the National League during the anniversary of their last World Series title in 1908, and while they didn't succumb to history, they succumbed to reality: a hot Dodgers team (more Los Angeles references) with great pitching and timely hitting. Simply put, Chicago needs to separate the current teams from the glory teams of years passed.

Derrick Rose is not Michael Jordan; he's Derrick Rose. Joakim Noah is not Scottie Pippen; he's Joakim Noah. Even if Rose and Noah had playing styles similar to Jordan and Pippen, it would be ridiculous to keep making the comparisons. While contemporary athletes are constantly compared to their previous counterparts, this year's Bulls team should be respected and loved for their difference. They play the best defense in the league, and with Rose, they have a player who can take over nearly at will. Their bench players can go hot and cold, but in a playoff atmosphere, I'd err on the side of hot. If Chicago fans want to make a comparison to the past, it would be wise to go with this one: Derrick Rose is in his third year as a professional basketball player. It took Michael Jordan seven years to win his first championship. While I'm aching for the Bulls to go all the way, I'm hoping that, if they don't, the fans and media personalities think back to the build-up of the previous championship teams. After years of being close to winning a title, the first one in 1991 was a perfect culmination.

Chicago: get excited when the Bulls tip off tomorrow against the Indiana Pacers. However, don't get caught up in the potential ending, since it could be disappointing or spectacular. Enjoy the ride, and know that if it doesn't happen this year, the foundation is set. In 1991, there were no such things as Facebook and Twitter calling for instant happiness. The current team, much like its predecessors, will get by with practice and sweat. Some things never change with the times.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Data Accessibility: "The Recognitions"

"...The Recognitions was perfect for the task. Reading the whole thing would also confer bragging rights. If somebody asked me if I'd read The Sotweed Factor, I could shoot back: No, but have you read The Recognitions? And blow smoke from the muzzle of my gun (Franzen 247)."




I recently completed a long-term goal of mine, a project that has been on my to-do list since I was twenty. Back in December, I began reading The Recognitions, the 1955 debut novel of author William Gaddis. Several times in the past, I started it, but never managed to make it beyond the first fifty pages or so. After a couple of months of on-again, off-again struggling, I finally finished the book. Even though I opened with it, the above passage from novelist Jonathan Franzen does not represent my beliefs. I didn't read the book for any bragging rights or literary hipster street cred. And even though I finished it, I'll be the first one to openly admit that I was lost at times, and that the book is packed with allusions and references that I undoubtedly missed. I had to turn to online summaries to pick up on some characters who were lost in the shuffle, and I found myself being slightly passive at times, skimming through parts written in Spanish, Latin, and Italian without taking the time to translate them. Even though this is an admission of literary sins, I still feel as if I made an accomplishment. Reading can be a combination of pleasure and work, and reading The Recognitions was a lot like my reading of Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: I knew it would be a challenge, but a good one. The readings were done out of a desire for the literary pleasure, but with full knowledge that I'd have to roll up my sleeves and devote time to vastly long narratives. Admittedly, this was far from easy. Even when the book was first published, a lot of critics and readers found it daunting, as William Gass explains in his relatively famous introduction to the Penguin Classics edition, which works as an example of Gaddis defenders being extremely devoted to the writer's cause, and also offering a glimmer of hope to the first-time reader.

"Its arrival was duly noted in fifty-five papers and periodicals. Only fifty-three of these notices were stupid. But the reviewers' responses to the book confirmed its character and quality, for they not only declared it unreadable and wandering and tiresome and confused, they participated in the very chicaneries the text documented and dramatized. It was too much to expect: that they should read and understand and praise a fiction they were fictions in. You, too, can let your present copy rest unread on some prominent table. A few critics confessed they could not reach the novel's conclusion except by skipping. Well, how many have actually arrived at the last page of Proust or completed Finnegans Wake? What does it mean to finish Moby-Dick, anyway? Do not begin this book with any hope of that. This is a book you are meant to befriend. It will be your lifelong companion. You will end only to begin again (Gass vii)."

My fascination with Gaddis (despite the fact that I've only read three of his books, including the slim essay collection The Rush For Second Place) began at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where I lucked out and studied under Joseph Tabbi and Rone Shavers, two Gaddis scholars who also edited an invaluable critical collection entitled Paper Empire: William Gaddis and the World System. It was at that time that I began following Franzen's critical work, and professor Tabbi and I occasionally clashed over the issue of Franzen's assessment of Gaddis, in his essay "Mr. Difficult." At that time, I wasn't anywhere close to being ready to read The Recognitions, even though I gave it some attempts. The enthusiasm that Tabbi and Shavers brought to even the most basic studies of Gaddis rubbed off on me. I still have quite a way to go before I a.) complete the Gaddis bibliography, and b.) can profess to have a more complete knowledge of his style and sources. But even with just one basic reading of The Recognitions, the amount of information and genuinely brilliant passages is exhilarating.

The novel follows several interconnected and dissecting plot lines. A preacher's son named Wyatt Gwyon grows up with intense religious fear, partly due to his Aunt's belief that he should devote himself to God, not the emulation of him (namely, recreating God's creations via art). As an adult, his marriage is strained and possibly sexless, his wife is engaged in multiple affairs, and after bad reviews, he takes an offer to forge the paintings of old masters to be re-sold as originals by a corrupt art dealer named Recktall Brown. Wyatt's path crosses with Otto Pivner, a playwright dogged by hints of plagiarism and pursuing a troubled poet and model named Esme. In the beginning and the middle of the novel, the reader is introduced to a counterfeiter whose son is mixed up with Esme. Showing up at a party and taking the dubious center stage at the novel's end is Stanley, a tortured Catholic composer who lives his life under a continually troubled religious code. Granted, in a twisting novel of 956 pages, this is just a sampling of the complete list of characters. Other ones play small to semi-important parts, others drift in and out, and some make mere cameo appearances. Giving a capsule description of each character would be both helpful and pointless, since, much like the novel's themes, picking and choosing their ultimate destinations is challenging.

The novel's themes and sources are many, and the historical and classical references alone are daunting to keep up with (again, as I mentioned above, I know that I missed most of them; some of the historical allusions are even explained within the novel, but a full understanding of their relation to the story requires nearly infinite background studies and resources). However, the implications and questions pop up at the reader from the beginning, and make for a literal whirlwind of ideas. Religious fanaticism and hypocrisy are bluntly explored. The nature of art, art criticism, and reality are debated. Few, if any, of the character relationships are genuine or truly long-lasting, creating a sense of isolation and despair in the multiple cities and countries in which the stories take place, thereby making The Recognitions a truly underrated example of 1950s unhappiness (Franzen hints that, stripped down, the novel is akin to Catcher In the Rye). What is, on the surface, a continual search for happiness is actually a search for integrity and reality in a false, corrupt world. For such a vast work, it's important to read carefully, since Gaddis had a knack for creating intensely philosophical and sociological details in his fiction. It's really the best of both worlds, with consistent, smaller character examinations mixed in with the novel's more expansive, overall messages. For example, look at the details infused in a brief sketch of the marriage between Wyatt and Esther:

"A year later, they had been married for almost a year; which was unlike Wyatt. He had become increasingly reluctant wherever decisions were concerned; and the more he knew, the less inclined to commit himself. Not that this was an exceptional state: whole systems of philosophy have been erected upon it. On the other hand, the more insistent from those depths, became the necessity to do so: a plight which has formed the cornerstone for whole schools of psychology. So it may be that his decision to marry simply made one decision the less that he must eventually face; or it is equally possible that his decision to marry was indecision crystallized, insofar as he was not deciding against it (Gaddis 79)."

Given that the novel was published in 1955, reading it today still renders it fresh, and shocking in the sense that Gaddis' criticisms were almost literally years ahead of the times, even if this is only evidenced in hindsight. As William Gass hinted, Gaddis seemed to poke fun at his eventual critics, but he also shows a deft hand for critiques of the consumer, political, and overall cultures of the 1950s, especially in the face of art and creativity. Some of these critiques are blunt, but at times, they are sly and carefully worded.

"He listened to the radio during periods of political heat, the speech in which one senator told the truth about another (this was known as a 'smear campaign'); and then the raucous gathering where people were paid in five-dollar bills to shout, clap, parade, and otherwise indicate the totally irrational quality of their enthusiasm for a man they had never met to take office and govern them (Gaddis 290)."

For a novel that packs in a stunning wealth of religious history and study, the subject is another one that doesn't escape Gaddis' wary eye. A few of the characters, most notably Stanley, profess intense religious feelings. Wyatt's father alternates between his life as a preacher, as well as a descent into madness, Mithraism, and pagan worship. However, a prevailing sentiment is the fact that religion is fueled by money and hypocrisy, which isn't so far-fetched today, but one can only imagine how daring this was in 1955. Again, Gaddis combines both explicit critiques with ones that the reader either discovers or stumbles upon.

"There was, in fact, a religious aura about this festival, religious that is in the sense of devotion, adoration, celebration of deity, before religion became confused with systems of ethics and morality, to become a sore affliction upon the very things it had once exalted (Gaddis 311)."




I feel as if I'm picking and choosing various aspects of The Recognitions, but its scope is such that one essay on it cannot hope to reveal every question or theme. However, the prevailing ruminations center on art and creativity, and again, the balance of the real (personal integrity) and the false (corruption, monetary aspirations). Passages and pages of dialogue are devoted to these very notions. Some of the most striking ideas come in conversations between Wyatt and Basil Valentine (an associate of Recktall Brown).

"--You? the, what was it you said, the shambles of your work? What a pitifully selfish career! being lived, as you said? by something that uses you and then sheds you like a husk when its own ends are accomplished?......

--No I, it's just, listen, criticism? It's the most important art now, it's the one we need the most now. Criticism is the art we need most today. But not, don't you see? not the 'if I'd done it myself...'Yes a, a disciplined nostalgia, disciplined recognitions but not, no, listen, what is the favor? Why did you come here (Gaddis 335)?"

A substantial part of the Gaddis "mystique" is his lifelong separation between his work and his personal life. While he wasn't a recluse in the sense of J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, writer Cynthia Ozick was famously noted for saying that Gaddis was famous for not being famous enough. His art was meant to stand alone with little to no readerly expectations to wonder or assume how personal or autobiographical his novels were. His most famous interview was conducted in 1986 in The Paris Review (The Art of Fiction No. 101), and his first published statement puts to rest any notions of wanting to be a public figure.

"I suppose because I've got some illusion about finally getting the whole thing out of the way once and for all. In the past I've resisted partly because of the tendency I've observed of putting the man in the place of his work, and that goes back more than thirty years; it comes up in a conversation early in The Recognitions. That, and the conviction that the work has got to stand on its own--when ambiguities appear they are deliberate and I've no intention of running after them with explanations--and finally, of course, the threat of questions from someone unfamiliar with the work itself: Do you work on a fixed schedule every day? On which side of the paper do you write? That sort of talk-show pap, five-minute celebrity, turning the creative artist into a performing one, which doesn't look to be the case here."

Perhaps with this introductory essay, I've committed the same mistakes of the early Gaddis readers. I've sketched some of the themes, I've admitted the work's difficulty, but in reality, I haven't dived into anything truly substantial; in fact, given the impossibility of doing so on a small scale, I've left vast amounts of The Recognitions unmentioned. One of my next blog posts will be a more detailed look at some nuances of the novel, but I felt that a general introduction essay was warranted. The Recognitions has been called an encyclopedic novel, has been noted for its vast amounts of data, almost rendering it as a book of codes to be deciphered. However, while these notions are in part true, for an overall assessment, the novel is accessible for a good majority of readers. Given the passion of Gaddis scholars, and the sheer length of his first two novels (the other being JR), there's a definite sense of intimidation that goes along with any attempts to ease into his bibliography. However, the book is a very real novel, and not an impossible mass that some would make it out to be. William Gass makes the deceptively simple advice seem even grander than it actually is: it just takes time and understanding, but the works of Gaddis are not impossible, but challenging in the best literary sense. Again, this is the first of two essays that I'm planning to write about this book. Perhaps I've introduced the important topics, or perhaps I've glossed over more important themes. I'll be getting into specifics in my next piece, and if anyone reading this is unfamiliar with Gaddis, I'm hoping that this introductory outline helps with perfunctory understanding. I'm also writing this for myself, and hoping that within these notes, I'm working towards a more complete understanding of not only the novel, but of the majority of the Gaddis bibliography.

Works Cited:

Franzen, Jonathan. How To Be Alone.
Copyright 2003 by Jonathan Franzen.

Gaddis, William. The Recognitions. Copyright 1983 by William Gaddis. Introduction copyright 1993 by William H. Gass.