Friday, June 15, 2012

Occupy Gaddis, pp 1-15: Money, In a Voice That Rustled

As best I can tell, William Gaddis's JR is a single uninterrupted block of text, with no chapter breaks or divisions of any type. You know what else is a similarly unified, formally coherent, uninterrupted block? Life itself. Hah.

Anyway, my first exposure to Gaddis was Agape Agape, which I purchased on a Saturday night during my restless and sexless highschool years. I bought it from Kramerbooks and Afterword, a  pretentious and overpriced book shop near Dupont Circle. I had spent a disappointing evening visiting with a friend of mine from my previous summer's trip to Israel. He was in town for a model UN conference, which was being held at the same hotel where Ronald Reagan had nearly been assassinated in 1981. We couldn't stray far from the hotel; nuclear war could break out at any moment, yes even on a Saturday night; lives and college applications were on the line, and over-earnest 10th graders in dress shirts had no choice, just no choice other than staying within a five minute walk of the place. So we reminisced, watched some Olympic ski jumping--a physical absurdity whose repetitiousness hardly detracts and probably even adds to its undeniably hypnotic quality--and went to a Fuddruckers.

I want to say that my night was salvaged by the chance purchase of a book that somehow changed or at least slightly enlarged my world, or that has stuck with me in some way or another, but this is not the case. Gaddis was an unfamiliar name to me, and the book was short and struck me as at least vaguely potentially intriguing, for reasons I can't really recall. Perhaps the cover blurb or the opening pages indulged or vindicated whatever disaffectedness I was feeling at the time--maybe they explained or more likely deepened the psychic displacement of being cold and alone and like, an hour and half from home, and acutely aware of just how futile and unsatisfying the performance of basic social obligations could be, even the ones that you consider to be real, self-imposed, meaningful obligations. Even those could leave you milling around an expensive bookstore for reasons you're not quite sure of, looking for something or possibly anything, even an incomprehensible 100-page rant about player pianos, just anything that will deepen this awareness of the meaningless and the random that's suddenly and seemingly inexplicably descended upon you. The English seminar po-mo symbolism of the player piano was totally lost on the purer, gloriously unfertilized, just blazingly original mind I carried around back then (the last time in my life that I blogged on a consistent, even bi or tri-weekly basis), and while I can remember the formative books of my high school years (Dos Passos, Faulkner, Whitman, Abdelrahman Munif and Hunter S. Thompson all figure prominently) I wouldn't include Agape Agape among them. My ownership of that book is a physical tribute to a brief and still bizarrely vivid moment of deep juvenile frustration and dread, nothing more or less.

Is there inherent coherency and meaning to something that's presented in a single, intimidating block of text, or is any coherency and meaning necessarily imposed upon it by expectation? This is a question that immediately presents itself in JR. Two details from the first page: "We never saw paper money till we came east." East from where? Coincidentally, the very friend I was meeting at the Reagan assasination hotel the night I first discovered William Gaddis was the descendent of Russian Jews who fled to China and then immigrated to the west coast of the United States before settling in Cleveland (they spent several months in Shanghai, which once had a surprisingly not-inconsiderable Jewish population). This is to say that the historical experince of "coming east" is not a common one in this country of ours. Typically you go west--you only "come east" if you've gone west and either you or fortune changed its mind at some point or another--or if east is the direction you're moving in the first place, as per my friend's family's novel experience.

Then a few lines later: "There was never a bust of father, Anne. And I don't recall his ever being in Australia." This is connected to some anecdote related earlier in the conversation, but it's not one that You the Reader are privy to. Or maybe it's related to "moving east?" Who knows. My point in this is that actual, real life is made real by the lack of external, objective signifiers or signposts--no one is telling you what's happening, YOU are tell you what's happening, all the time, right now, while reading this even. In that sense your life is consistent, coherent. In the end, you're alone in there. Depressing! Empowering! Does JR have a similar unity of perspective? It would seem so.

Yet: the first fifteen pages of this book are geographically diffuse: summers in Cairo, awards recieved in Europe, busts drowned in Vancouver bay, mysterious stints in Australia, permenant moves east. Indiana, which isn't local. And yet the action is totally trapped. It is claustrophobic, with physical, environmental details deliberately withheld: "Sunlight, pocketted in a cloud..." is the only desciprtoin we get on the first page. The action inhabits a world beyond physicality: these are voices from nowhere. The action is happening far, far away, as if on the other end of a telephone conversation (I think a lot of the novel actually is a telephone conversation? Maybe I'm getting ahead of myself). This talk of bastardy and dividends and business interests doesn't seem to apply to anything or anyone, just a series of dissociated names, spoken by three very odd people. Because there are no chapter breaks, there's no hint of when or if these people will be transitioned out of the story. It's all a bit like the Circe chapter in Ulysses, isn't it?

This dissociation is deliberate. One of the first things that jumped out at me was that Thomas's company makes piano rolls, or cylinders(?) that are inserted in player pianos. James is a composer, a "real" musician, in other words. You'd think that there's sort of a symbiotic relationship between the two brothers' pursuits: James writes piano pieces, Thomas repackages them as piano rolls; James can share his music with masses while Thomas can profit off of his piano rolls. Why it's the dawn of popular music, or art as a mass product. But this is not the case: very quickly, we learn that Thomas and James are not particularly close, which is to say that the creation of music and the mass-production of music are not particularly close, at least not now. They embody personality types that can't really get along, in other words, even if they should get along. I don't know if Gaddis is trying to set up a kind of polar opposition between two clashing artistic or aesthetic value systems--doubtful; I'm only 15 pages into this, and I'm guessing the player pianos are left behind before too long, and the kind of disembodiment and dislocation of Art (did you know you can watch  Metropolitan Opera performances in movie theaters now?!?) will seem like a quaint and obscure little matter by the time the American Dream is turned inside out or whatever the heck this book is famous for doing. For now: we have voices chattering about something we can't place, in a location we can't really envision, in what's probably a midwestern but nevertheless comparatively "eastern" part of the country. Matters of money--the ultimate totem of arbitrary assigned value, the emblematic collective fiction of this and really every age--is the sole topic of discussion, although other things (family, a broken button, a broken chair) keep getting in the way. Now, and for however long I stick with this (I'm planning on blogging every day, or as close to it as possible--hold me to it!) we're adrift in a massive block of text, adrift in something approximating life.


  1. Great to read! I'll be blogging over at when I get some thoughts together.

    The movement east, the geography, and the dissociation between the voices and locality very much stood out to me too in this first bit. I wouldn't count on the piano rolls disappearing though, I think they're a big symbol. At least a big minor symbol.

    I haven't read it, but Agape Agape is one of my favorite book titles.

    Pressing on!

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