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Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Recognitions

My latest book was  The Recognitions by William Gaddis.  Next up are Chapterhouse: Dune, The Education of Henry Adams, and The Sound and the Fury.

It's not easy to describe this book, and I mean that on couple of different levels.  There's no simple way to summarize the plot and my feelings cannot be described as simple like or dislike.  When it was published, most reviews of the book were negative.  While many people, the author foremost among them, have gone to great lengths to castigate the critics who didn't like the book, I can certainly understand why it got such a poor reception.  It's like the author came up with an interesting story with compelling characters but felt a pretentious need to make it as difficult to read as possible in order to be artsy.




I'll admit that I started off annoyed with the book before I ever opened it.  For some reason or another (as far as I could find, nobody's cared enough to find out why), it's not available on Kindle.  The only other book I've had to get in physical form so far was Proust's By Way of Sainte-Beuve, which is only a little over 200 pages.  Gaddis's 984 page tome was a different matter.  I significantly increased my reading time to finish it before a trip so I wouldn't have to lug it around with me.  I was happy with this cool little magnetic bookmarks that I found.  They show exactly where on the page you are and won't slip out.

Now back to the content of the book.  As I said, it's not a book that lends itself to an easy summary.  The protagonist, to the extent the book focuses on any one person, is Wyatt,the son of a Calvinist minister who grows up under the severe guidance of his great aunt.  He eventually strikes out to become an artist but only ends up disillusioned when a critic looks for a kick back.  Critics are a large focus of the novel, which can only be said to loosely follow Wyatt's story.  

There are over a dozen other main characters, largely those involved in art as painters, critics, forgers, or dealers.  There are a little over 200 other characters in the book, who may or may not have names or dialogue.  This was a large factor in one of my major annoyances with the book.  Gaddis will often not refer to people by name, but only indicate who they are by a garment, speech pattern, or by mentioning they were in that location in another chapter.  This might work in a shorter book with a smaller cast of characters, but here it was simply obnoxious.  I would have had to take copious notes to be sure who everyone was.  I wasn't willing to do that, so I ended up reading a synopsis after each chapter to make sure I caught all of the major events.

Adding to this confusion are the chapters where the author seems to intentionally bury the most significant facts and events in the worst mind-numbing tedium.  The two major examples of this are psychotic ramblings and party scenes, which both occur fairly frequently.  In the former, a single paragraph will stretch for pages, with the character simply talking to himself, saying meaningless nonsense, often in other languages.  In the latter, there will be pages of pure dialogue, interweaving several completely separate conversations with no indication of who's talking at any given time.  In both of these scenarios Gaddis drops crucial pieces of information in the moments a reader's are most likely to have glazed over.

Making things worse still, the author felt that the quotation marks that have been standard since the early 19th century were not good enough for him.  This is my best approximation of what one of his paragraphs would look like if he followed the dialogue conventions used by every other author:

"Pagan indeed! And I suppose you couldn't resist setting food inside yourself?  Did you?" Again she paused, getting breath she appeared to prepare requital for his answer, admission or denial, and when he withdrew mumbling only "Set foot inside myself...?" she snapped immediately, "At least I have finally had the satisfaction of hearing you call the Roman Catholic Church pagan!"  She filler her grievous gaze a moment longer with the picture, and finishing with "Now that we all know what the inside of a Catholic church looks like,..." she was gone, holding the abhorrent memento at arm's length, her eyes alert upon it, as though it might take life and strike.
He instead chose to use a quirky method of showing dialogue entirely his own:
--Pagan indeed! And I suppose you couldn't resist setting food inside yourself?  Did you? Again she paused, getting breath she appeared to prepare requital for his answer, admission or denial, and when he withdrew mumbling only --Set foot inside myself...? she snapped immediately, --At least I have finally had the satisfaction of hearing you call the Roman Catholic Church pagan!  She filler her grievous gaze a moment longer with the picture, and finishing with --Now that we all know what the inside of a Catholic church looks like,... she was gone, holding the abhorrent memento at arm's length, her eyes alert upon it, as though it might take life and strike.

It seems to me that the most likely reason for this is to hope people are impressed by bucking tradition rather than any benefit to how the story is conveyed.  Similarly, I could not help the impression that, as often as not, his words were chosen, not because they conveyed precisely what he meant, but because they would impress the reader with his very large vocabulary.  The same seemed true of his frequent insertions of Latin, French, and Spanish.  Using foreign or obscure were not his only methods to come across as pretentious, however:

Pivner elevated himself slightly upon one narrow ham and broke wind, a soft interrogative sound which went unanswered.

As I said, there's an interesting story here, but it's buried deep.  If you enjoyed Infinite Jest, you'd probably like this book.  But if you're not looking for a book where you struggle to figure out who is doing what to whom (let alone when and where it is taking place), I wouldn't recommend it.  Even John Aldrige, someone who supported the book, characterized it this way: "In 1955, William Gaddis published his now infamous first novel, The Recognitions, a massive and brilliant work so heavily weighted with erudition and thematic ambiguity that for all but a few readers it was totally inaccessible."  I don't know about brilliant, but everything else is spot on.

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