“So listen I got this neat idea hey, you listening? Hey? You listening . . .?”
Thus ends J R. The voice of an eleven year old buzzing, in miniature typeface on the page, from a dangling phone line: a voice incessantly grabbing attention to peddle its newest scheme, hungry to interact in order to transact, and needing always more. It represents an intersection of the novel’s form and its content–where form is to be understood as the scheme and structure by which elements of the imagined world are selected and staged in narrative, and where content is to be understood as whatever energy in the imagined world gives the narrative momentum and direction. In Gaddis’ novel, the human voice, the din of voices, some intimate, some chattering, some on radios, on televisions, on closed- and open-circuit televisions, is main formal element. And the logic, rules, and demands of barely-bridled free-market American capitalism is the content. The basic rule of course being what the titular JR repeats (a rule so simple that an eleven year old can grasp it): you have to play to win, and not just to play. More must always be consumed; there can be no end to speculation; no end to consumption or expansion. And what is consumed, speculated on, and devoured exists in the novel, and even for the characters in the novel, who might experience it more directly, as sounds carried on voices, bantering and bartering. Trades happen over the phone, sometimes in person; entire companies, livelihoods, retirement options, marketing schemes, takeover, publications–events and products with material effects and realities–exist in the novel almost exclusively, for the characters and for us readers, as words issuing from mouths and in circulations of the printed word (these occasion much of the novel’s events–they inspire JR in his schemes–but they do not afford it momentum, within scenes; that the novel gives due to the printed word of cheap free pyramid schemes circulated in the mail feels right, given its own printed form). And the conversations continue, the novel gains momentum, because the market demands that they do; the novel drives, races from one conversation to another because, even when a character would not be a part of the system, would try to tear away, or sit it out, he or she cannot help but participate, and be drawn into the conversations, the exchanges of words impelled, at their root, by the exchanges of stocks and cash and deals.
Against all of this is a very different sort of sound: the music of Bach and Mozart and Edward Bast, near-failed composer, who has dedicated himself to music that we, readers, cannot hear, do not read, and have not had described, though we know it sounds something like Bizet…maybe. There is a running joke over whether Bast himself can hear the music in his head; it’s a difficult problem he says. (The meta-narrative extension would be to ask: can Gaddis hear the diverse voices of his characters as well as readers?).
Bast is paired with JR in the novel’s scheme. They are brought together in the novel’s world (the content that gives momentum to the plot) by, appropriately, a small debt he owes the boy after he (Bast) needs to buy tickets home from a class trip to Wall Street. On Wall Street, JR finds his calling; and it is a calling.
Near the end of the novel–at the novel’s true resolution–about eighty pages before that final dangling phone, J R speaks to Bast, walking along the side of a road. Bast has tried to make him listen and really hear a Bach cantata, but in the German words, JR hears only “up yours, up yours, up yours” and “up mine, up mine, up mine,” and none of the beauty. They argue, walking past trash, disused buildings, discarded kitchen appliances, on a poorly maintained side-walk. JR cannot understand why Bast is always upset with him–he has supported Bast, and it is Bast who has insisted that everyone does. In fact, says JR, Bast’s artistic drive has perverted the system, has made too many compromise when they should have been relentlessly pursuing profits. Bast asks JR why he insists on doing what he does, scheming and selling and appropriating, only to cheapen and destroy; he thinks in particular of a classical music radio station that the JR Corporation has purchased for ad-space, after finding that purchasing ad-space for a single hour on the station is ineffective owing to the duration of many pieces of classical music (JR prefers three minute segments); he wants to advertise everywhere, even in textbooks. JR explains that it is what he “should” do, and tells Bast that it is no different from his own musical pursuit.
The comedy and satire are held in tension, without the savagery of the latter suffering mitigation. Whatever the merits of Bast’s arguments, the debate itself is mocked, its very grounds and circumstances, by the reminders that JR is an eleven year old boy, who does not know what or where Honduras is, who cannot spell, who is something short of an advanced reader and speaker (he keeps mistaking the word “erratic” for “erotic” when describing the lawsuit that has been brought against him); but JR understands capitalism, its rules, its principles. They appeal to the puerile and speculative and limited imagination of an eleven year old. You don’t after all, a character later says, have to understand money; you have to understand people’s fears about money. But not even that. As Bast points out, JR speaks on impulse, half-understanding a half-read fragment, and the market drones, the sellers and accountants and lawyers, interpret his words and act accordingly, and provide justifications after the fact. All that it takes, really, is a willingness to aspire to gain more and gain more, and not lose, however patently stupid or cruel the scheme (Doctor Vogel–former gym teacher–promises to sell a sound-capturing device that freezes noise into shards to be deposited into the sea).
This scene, around page 660 in the (sole) Dalkey Archive edition feels like the close. Why not end, as Gaddis might have been tempted to do, with Bast staring out looking at the empty lot that had held his aunts’, and his, house? Or maybe end with the explanation that it had been bought at auction (as is later revealed) for a dollar transported for use by a Catholic teen center? In other words, why not have this be the final conversation, the end of all conversations, with Bast rejecting JR, and JR rejecting Bast?
For one, he wants to show defeat. He wants for us to see Bast, in a hospital in Manhattan, recovering slowly and expressing a terrible conclusion, having been persuaded by his roommate Mister Duncan, formerly employed by a subsidiary of Typhon Industries:
I was thinking about all the things you’ve said, I was thinking there’s so much that’s not worth doing suddenly I thought maybe I’ll never do anything. That’s what scared me I always thought I’d be, this music I always thought I had to write music all of a sudden I thought what if I don’t, maybe I don’t have to I’d never thought of that maybe I don’t! I mean maybe that’s what’s been wrong with everything maybe that’s why I’ve made such a, why I’ve been thinking of things you’ve said as though just, just doing what’s there to be done as though it’s worth doing or you never would have done anything you wouldn’t be anybody would you, you wouldn’t even be who you are now…
As The Recognitions is, J R is in part a story of a person’s attempt at total and isolating commitment; but whereas the earlier novel is about the cost of that total commitment, J R is about its fate when sustained by 1970s America (the word “corporate” before the country’s name is redundant).
Second, Gaddis wants us to return to the locus of the novel–not the decayed idyllic scene of Long Island, but the Dickensian clutter of the apartment on ninety-fifth street. Dickensian is the only word for an apartment of uncontrollable running water, lost documents, boxes of overstock, mail-order wastage, and assorted canned delicacies eaten off a copy of Moody’s. It is Gaddis’ version of Krook’s shop in Bleak House, or maybe the house in Little Dorrit; and this is Gaddis’ version of either of those novels, an attack on an entire system, rotting out a nation (The Recognitions, perhaps, was his David Copperfield).
Third, he wants us to keep one part of Dickens at bay. The character who brings Bast back to the apartment, after his release from the hospital, is named Stella Angel: his cousin, a former lover (and nearly, possibly fiancee) of Jack Gibbs. The name ought to immediately bring us to the most famous Estella–Dickens’ in Great Expectations. And in J R she is cruel and ruthlessly devious, especially in her gambits to attract men. Her final speech to Bast, in the car, is especially heartless, telling him that he failed to inherit his father’s talent; she is motivated by her own desire to inherit, a family fortune, and she is confused in who she should or would marry, but settles ultimately for the socially acceptable and convenient choice of Norman Angel (over unstable, alcoholic, brilliant Jack Gibbs). Bast has been working on a piece dedicated to her, a setting of Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” casting him as the poem’s speaker and suitor, and casting Stella as woman, Amy, who has rejected him (there is another Amy in the novel–Amy Joubert; she too marries for social stability and wealth, but she believes that Jack Gibbs, whom she loves, has abandoned her or changed his mind). It is all very Victorian, with the inheritance, the names, the poem, the apartment….and in another time, another novel, maybe even another novelist at the same time, it would have sufficient momentum to generate a plot. It feels strange that Gaddis wants to end hear–strange, reading it, that Gaddis wants to give Stella a last word, a last scene, as Dickens does his Estella in Great Expectations. But of course he does not. Bast leaves her in the cab and she is forgotten, abandoned there by novelist and character once Bast arrives in the apartment where he is assigned the charge of Amy’s mentally handicapped brother Freddie. The point that Gaddis wants to make, I think, is that these elements of Victorian fiction–even of Dickens–do not possess the force and sway of the market itself either over characters or over the momentum of narrative. There can be no marriage plot, no inheritance plot. There is only a market plot.
Which is why, finally, he does not end with Bast and J R talking alongside the road. He brings Bast back to the apartment; Gibbs is still alive; some straggling investigators are still trying to make sense of the legality of what has transpired (J R points out that if the law lets you do so much, why bother to break it?); more deliveries arrive; the phone rings; and Bast is pulled back, back into his role as executive of a company that didn’t even seem, in his mind to exist, back into the world of Gibbs and Eigen who, despite their brilliance, also have the capacity for monstrous selfishness, (Gaddis’ ambivalence about Gibbs is itself Dickensian; c.f. Dickens on Steerforth), and back into the world of greed and speculating. Is he listening?