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.

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