Though The Recognitions may have overwhelmed more powerfully, submerging and clinging with an undercurrent, JR (so far; nearing a half-way mark) is the more astonishing novel, for the technical challenge it confronts, overcomes, and redeems—redemption being necessary because a novel depending on a limitation of form or technique alone needs, for success, to prove that the challenge opened a new horizon, accommodated feeling and thought that otherwise would have been impossible.
In an interview with Malcom Bradbury from the 80s, William Gaddis speaks about his need to have a problem in hand if he is to write; his goal is to resolve or work that problem out. He means in part the problem of subject matter: a conflict between characters, between ideas, between desires. But he means also, evident in both of the two massive, major works, a problem in technique and form. In JR, that problem or challenge is the dominance of the voices of characters to the structure and content of the novel. It is not without narration, but it is difficult to imagine a novel with less narration offered by a narrator, and with more dependence on what characters say, and who they say it to. Even (more on this later) for changes of scene, Gaddis relies on conversations intersecting, overheard, or coinciding.
Only rarely does Gaddis tag and identify the characters’ dialogue. Not least impressive is that he can hear, and make us hear, how differently, with subtly, different people speak; continuous with that, he is aware, and makes us aware, of how many ends people serve when they speak, so that we are recognizing in any utterance a bundle of desires, memories, compulsions, habits, and pressures exerted on the characters. Reading JR, the reader’s imagination is tested and exercised as in no other novel I know, because the work of hearing voices is unremitting.
Not least impressive either is that Gaddis can invest the novel, for stretches at a time, with lyrical intensity; what I mean is that he can take the garbage, the lies, the jargon, the half-truths, the lies, the unrecognized truths, the codes, the cunning of daily conversations, of interactions, and set them in motion, coordinate and sustain them, so that language—not just words, but entire discourses and habits and behaviors of language—presses on us with alien familiarity. Hardly the clearest way of putting things, but rather than distill, select, arrange words, Gaddis distills, selects, and arranges habits, behaviors, and functions of words and language-users, in their conversations.
The chief debt is not to drama—the medium of which is bodies moving in space, perhaps on a stage, and so depends so much on gesture, presence, intonation—the debt would be more to radio and telephone, the disembodying media of the twentieth century that define it as much as any other technology—and even here the debt is limited, since the power of intonation and timing cannot easily set on the page; but to the opportunity of listening that telephone and radio afford, Gaddis is deeply indebted. What similar opportunities are afforded by email or text messages? That is not a rhetorical question. I wonder, and maybe an author would provide me with an answer.
Gaddis is proof that by listening differently, we can be made to write and read differently in turn, and this in an age of mechanical reproduction. A corollary of the dissemination of Gaddis’ silent pages in JR is that each reader will be able to hear the voices set on the page, but not as each listener hears the voices on the radio: the imaginative work required of listening to voices on the page means that the incredible common intimacy of the radio or telephone is made simultaneously unique for each reader of the novel.
Gaddis trained himself not only to hear the music in the spoken voice—but to hear the music between speaking voices. It is as if he discovered that an entire house could really be made out of glass, after years of living in stone dwellings.
The music analogy, tired though it is, brings me to what I find most impressive in Gaddis. I’ll return to the “problem” that Gaddis feels he needs to have before him to write. In a general sense, the problem is there for all narrative writers, but they do not all recognize it, and they do not all recognize that it plays out differently depending on other limitations they face, other choices they settle on.
The problem is the tension between form and content, and I suggest that it be understood as follows: that a narrative is not a narrative unless it has an ending and unless its beginning supposes something anterior or prior; there is the truth of finality and the lie of anteriority. (Even God existed before the Bible begins). The truth of finality is what gives a narrative form; the lie of anteriority arises because of its content, because it has characters, a world, substances that are said to exist before it begins. Squaring the two is the challenge facing any narrative writer.
Though, for its sheer existence, any narrative requires an opening, the opening always acts as an interruption, a plunge into something already in existence; the end of a narrative, on the other hand, depends upon how that existence is handled, selected, framed, so that it allows for something opposed to interruption: escape.
In the novels of Jane Austen, the selection and framing moves us towards the engagement: that is the moment of escape (as if Austen, it’s been speculated, couldn’t bear to stay to see what would become of her characters afterwards). For the nineteenth century, the moment of escape from a world that makes for closure, and defines something as a narrative, is often marriage. But what makes the narratives differ are the smaller movements of interruption and escape, of opening and closure, that occur within them, propelling them: the “scenes” in other words. Even among Austen’s novels, there is real variety because of what occasions the opening and closing of a scene, of where she feels something has been resolved.
(For critics and historians, observing what counts, at any moment, as a finale, as a completed arc of action, is likely illuminating: different societies, and different cultures within a society, would define and constitute the unity of an activity differently, and seeing where narratives feel that interruptions occur might tell us about the social and temporal structures by which life in that society or culture is organized.)
Dropping in is a matter of skill, but there might be any number of points of entry into the current—getting out again is cause for perplexity. And, as with all attempts at artistic liberation, it is no good ignoring the challenge entirely in the name of iconoclasm or liberty; unless the possible points of closure are detected, an author cannot conscientiously, pointedly, meaningfully ignore them.
To a large extent the content determines the shape of the form; but the form can be made to direct the content to more than one end, and it can direct it with more or less haste.
Gaddis sets out to resolve, but also to heighten, the tension of form and content because he takes the conversation as both formal constraint and content matter. He writes about what the conversations of characters are about, and he pretty nearly only gives us the conversations directly, with occasional narration following a character as he or she sleeps or travels from one interaction to the next–but it’s always the prospect of verbal interaction that pulls them on.
It would be easy to think that the finale is reached, escape is permitted, when a conversation ends—but that rarely happens, as it might in, say a short story, where the end of a conversation marks the end of the narrative, or in another writer, where one conversation ends with a chapter, and another begins with the next. JR consists of no chapters; the conversations only rarely neatly end, and more often are transferred or transfer, overlap, interrupt, redirect; they diffuse and then reform, but they do not complete an arc as we imagine a scene in a novel normally does.
In effect, Gaddis chains himself to the speech of his characters, which need to have life and momentum of their own, if they are to be the speech of characters at all. In other words, he forsakes some authorial control as regards finding closure in the smaller movements of the novel. He can shift the direction of a conversation if a new character enters, if something external to the characters shifts their attention, or if they decide to think differently. And whatever happens needs to be registered in what they say, as they say it; he commits himself to temporal mimesis, recorded not in the narrator’s experience or recreation of time, but in the real-time of conversation, and in the interruptions between conversation.
Though conversations find closure, provide for escapes, end, transition, are interrupted, those moments, occasioned by the dynamics of the fictional world, are not necessarily those that an author would find or make, were a scene structured around a conflict, a location, or a character. The reason is not that conversations are not integral to narrative structure of any scene but that conversations, in most works of fiction, do not limit and set the limits to the attention of the author.
But there is an additional consequence of Gaddis’ method: conversations are rarely brought to a close, by the participants, with a sense of finality and closure–least of all when they are interrupted by events or other characters; so where a conversation ends, even if it provides the author with an escape, it will not usually end with a sense of resolution; instead, in Gaddis’ approach to scene development, one conversation opens into another even as it closes.
A friend of mine once opposed Romantic music to Classical music, suggesting Brahms represented an extreme of Romanticism: in Brahms’ symphonies, unlike Haydn’s, one movement falls into another prior to completion, so a complex figure emerges, always closing and always opening at once. Gaddis effects the same in JR. It’s not enough to say it’s symphonic; it’s a romantic symphony of voices.