"...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.
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.