Charles Dickens appears as a character in Gaddis’ The Recognitions, published in 1955, and it is hard not to believe that Gaddis did not, if he did not arrive there himself, come to an appreciation of Dickens through the praise of Edmund Wilson, written some fifteen years earlier and carrying others in its wake since.
In The Recognitions, Charles Dickens attempts suicide, and later, after a stay in Bellevue, and an appearance seeking razor blades at a party hosted by Esther and Ellery, commits it, throwing himself under a subway train (a Dickensian way to go); like his Victorian namesake, he is a novelist, though earlier in his life he was in some way responsible for dropping the bomb on Hiroshima.
A quick Google search has shown me that one of the sketches by Phiz (Hablot K. Brown) for Nicholas Nickleby is titled “The Recognition” .
Critics and admirers of Charles Dickens may feel they do not need other authors to vindicate the work of the Inimitable, but it would not be seeking vindication to seek later authors whose works discern possibilities in Dickens that critics and admirers may miss. (There are books on Dickens and Dostoevsky, Dickens and Freud; studies of Dickens and T.S. Eliot; Dickens has been claimed by Tom Wolfe, and others, as a forefather).
Gaddis is that author. Reading The Recognitions, it is not difficult to imagine that it is a novel that Dickens might have written had he started to write after Dostoevsky and Joyce (we will ignore the paradox that they would have been different writers had it not been for the Victorian Dickens), had been an American, and had been invested with a fascination in religious arcana and esoteric history. Which is to say that students of Dickens ought to read Gaddis and that students of Gaddis ought to read Dickens.
What in Gaddis is distinctly Dickensian, without feeling ever like a pastiche–feeling instead like a borrowing of techniques that open up subject matters for the novelist?
–The doubling of characters, most notably when Otto mistakes his father for another man, the counterfeit artist Frank Sinsterra, and where Frank Sinister mistakes Otto for his business associate.
–The weave of coincidence, so great that a character from the first pages, Frank Sinisterra, emerges as a leading figure three quarters of the way through the novel, and another Doctor Fell, who tends to the young Wyatt, tends, near the novel end, to the injured Otto.
–The baroque, frosted, pomaded prose, often in the service of description of countenances, buildings, or else in the service of scenes of exquisite melodrama (Recktall Brown, the supremely Dickensian figure, falls to his death in a suit of armor).
–The understanding of suspense and atmosphere–the keys to melodrama–in single scenes, and the ability to magnify characters to extremes that might be either melodramatic, sublime, tragic, or grotesque, or some balance of all four.
–The ability to recognize what is ridiculous in what is sublime, or even tragic, and the ability to maintain the sublime and tragic alongside the ridiculous.
–An intoxicated absorption in cities, New York above all. Here, a debt to Joyce is obvious too, especially in the feel for the strange rhythms and near (but only near) empty stretches of chance encounters in the street, in the uncounted minutes of days, which tie lives together, if only feebly.
–A consistent communication of place and space; the distinct identity of rooms, apartments, and regions, city v. country, Madrid v. Paris v. Rome v. New York, Europe v. America, ship v. train, are always clear in his novels, and they are different indirectly, in how characters perceive differently (not just in the objects but manner of their perception) in different places, in how they speak differently in different places (even if they speak about the same thing, doing so with the consciousness, or the delusion, that their speech is novel on account of being elsewhere). The air in the parsonage is different from the air in the bars of the west village, and neither is the air of Esme’s apartment or the lavender-air (one of the few smells in the novel, incidentally) of Wyatt’s rooms.
–A keen eye for difference, minor and major, but minor especially–in faces, in walks, in objects nearly identical–and the identity that such difference establishes. It is a demonstration of the powers of observation, but leads also to an appreciation for those who can observe differences.
–The novel is an homage to seeing, to hearing, to looking and listening, at surfaces, not as surfaces, but as demanding attention. The willingness to test the limits of standing without; following the glances of characters, and then glancing at the characters, rather than within them, to reveal them to the reader; asking us to see characters as they, in mirrors and reflections of objects, not their minds, see themselves; asking us to listen to them listening to themselves and listening to others, and not just listening to their thoughts.
–The ear. Dickens’ eye for faces may be unparalleled by Gaddis, but Gaddis shares Dickens’ rare talent for dialogue, for speech-patterns, for affectation and mannerism in choice and arrangement of words. The original imbrecation of voices in the party-scenes (and other scenes) of Gaddis’ novel descends first from Proust’s salons and Joyce’s bars, but, behind that, from Dickens.
–Violent and the outlandish ends to immense and complex plots. When, in the final paragraph of The Recognitions, a church collapses around Stanley has he plays, at long last, his composition on the organ; when, some pages earlier, the edifice of a hotel likewise collapses; when we are given statistics about suicides and specifically those who have leapt to their deaths as a summary account of the world that the novel writes from and of; when Otto is crushed by a horse in a Panamanian insurrection, and then abducted by Doctor Fell, to serve as a subject for drug tests and experimentation on his Barbados plantation; when Recktall Brown plummets down a flight of stairs in a suit of Renaissance Italian armor, possibly done in by the unwieldiness of the German shoe-pieces… we are in the world of Dickensian self-combustion, falling houses (Little Dorrit), and implausible destruction, and all of the cosmic, psychological, and social corruption they imply.
–Most centrally, though, Dickens sets a precedent, and Dostoevsky and Joyce as much as Gaddis are indebted to him for it, though none as much as Gaddis, I think, for portraying broken lives, and for portraying them as broken both psychologically but also socially, such that the two are indistinguishable, and their brokenness is apparent outwardly, in compulsions of speech, destructive behaviors, repeated projects to succeed where no success is possible, in manners of moving, and in where they reside and live; they are studies as much for sociology as therapy, and they are damned by the world they live in, as much as by personal foibles or failings. The Sexton constructing his balloon in a barn, spending his days in a bar; Frank Sinisterra counterfeiting an Egyptian mummy through stealing a corpse; Aunt May possessed by a Puritan’s religion, warping Wyatt’s mind; and Wyatt himself, whose expectations are not artistic in a world that has no room for artists, who is nearly coopted by the expectations of others, and ultimately rejected; all can rightly be called Dickensian.
What separates them from Dickens world is the nature of the breaks they have suffered. One of my friends finds a key to Gaddis’ novel in a line spoken by Fuller, Recktall Brown’s slave. He speaks to Wyatt.
–Yes, sar, Fuller said, looking relieved.–It seem an impractical measure, to lock up the whole world.
–Yes, but…you lock it out. You can lock it out
–Can you, sad? Fuller looked up at the face suddenly turned upon him–Seem like such a measure serve no good purpose, sar. Then the mahn lose everything he suppose to keep, and keep everything he suppose to lose.
Dickens’ broken characters are often (or often end) locked up, locked away, or locked within themselves (the figures of containment and confinement in the novels is well-studied). Gaddis are ascetics, idealists, extremists for perfection; when they break it is from attempts to lock out the world, to rise impossibly above it; to not give away what they do not want to give.