William Gaddis let his novels gestate slowly, spending a decade
or more on each work in his oeuvre. Yet his shortest book took the
longest to finish. He first considered writing about player pianos
while working as a fact-checker at The New Yorker in the mid-1940s.
But more than a half-century elapsed before this obsession resulted
in a published book-his Agapē Agape, released posthumously in
Gaddis initially conceived of his player piano
history as a non-fiction project. He wrote an
essay on player pianos back in the 1940s,
which The New Yorker promptly rejected. He
had better luck with The Atlantic Monthly, and
that periodical's publication of "Stop Player.
Joke No. 4" in July 1951 marked Gaddis's
first appearance in a major magazine.
But the snappy prose of this work ("Selling
player pianos to Americans in 1912 was not
a difficult task.") bears little resemblance to
the eccentric, digressive, confessional book
known as Agapē Agape. Gaddis revisited the topic of player
pianos during the intervening years, and the subject flutters
around the margins of his best known books, The Recognitions
and JR. The main themes of The Recognitions, which deals
with issues of originality and imitation in the age of mass-
produced culture, must have been conceived, at least in part,
while Gaddis mulled over the implications of the mechanical
piano. In JR, a player piano company figures prominently
in the plot, and one of the characters, an aspiring writer of dubious
talent, wrestles with a rambling manuscript he is incapable of
finishing, entitled—yes, you guessed it—Agapē Agape.
What drew Gaddis to this subject? Well, let's get this straight
from the start. The player piano may strike you as a quaint
invention, one you view nostalgia as a reminder of a simpler
day. You might associate it with music-making in the home or
the wizardry of inventors during the age of Thomas Edison.
Above all, you probably consider the player piano as emblematic
of the past, the musical equivalent of the Ford Model A or the
McGuffey Reader. But if you believe any (or all) of that,
Gaddis's book will come as a shock.
William Gaddis, his final days coinciding with this rise of the
Internet, saw the player piano as the forerunner of everything
that's most modern and digitized in the current day. The first
iPod came on the market a few months before the publication
of Agapē Agape, and too late for Gaddis to mull over its
implications, but he clearly would have seen this device as
the heir of the mechanical piano. By the same token, he would
have considered the sampling and software effects of
contemporary popular music as the fulfillment of the marketing
promise made by the manufacturers of player pianos: "You can
play all pieces while they can play but a few." he quotes with
derisive satisfaction from an advertisement. "And now even
untrained persons can do it. The biggest thrill in music is playing
it yourself. It's your own participation that rouses your emotions
For Gaddis, these are fighting words. Gaddis may have been
a modernist prose stylist, but he was also an old-school snob.
Jonathan Franzen even picked out Gaddis to serve as the poster
boy for elitism in art, the heir of Flaubert and Ortega y Gasset,
the curmudgeon who points out the dark side of the democratization
of culture. He is the nemesis of Walter Benjamin, whose famous
essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
celebrated the mass production of culture as a decisive break-
through that transformed the audience from reactionaries to
progressives. Gaddis doesn't buy it, not one bit.
Strange to say, Gaddis had not read Benjamin's essay as late
as 1987 (as revealed by his recently published correspondence),
and in 1992 he admitted that it was fortunate he had finally made
the German critic's acquaintance, otherwise Agapē Agape would
have been "pilloried for plagiary"—an especially shameful fate for a
novelist who made plagiarism a major topic in his books. But
Gaddis's lack of awareness of a Benjamin, a writer known to
almost every grad student in the humanities during the 1980s,
is perhaps not as surprising as it seems at first blush. This
defender of elitism did research in the manner of a lowbrow
populist, as his notes for Agapē Agape make clear. He clipped
out articles from newspapers and popular magazines, studied
advertisements, drew information from his correspondence. His
readers may be struck by the references to Plato and Tolstoy, but
this novel may be even more representative of the ethos of
Popular Mechanics and Madison Avenue.
Gaddis has a reputation for difficulty, and many readers might
be tempted to start their study of this author by tackling his shortest
book. I would caution them against such a rash move. The work
consists of a single, very long paragraph, but that's hardly the
biggest challenge presented to readers of Agapē Agape. The
references fly thick and fast in this book, and even though the
narrator makes a great pretense of explaining, nothing is ever
really explained. So if you aren't familiar with, say Tolstoy's The
Kreutzer Sonata or Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens, or the
dozens of other reference points in this book, you may end up
lost in the stream-of-consciousness prose. And even if you can
comprehend these passages, Gaddis will probably snag you on
his favorite technique, the mid-sentence shift between talking
about the mechanization of culture to a discussion of the health
woes of the narrator. Again and again, Gaddis plays this game
—Huizinga would probably call it 'play activity'—with his readers,
and you can decide for yourself whether this is an amusing pastime
or an annoyance. Either way, readers will soon realize that when
Gaddis signals right, he often turns left.
A typical example:
Flaubert says he just wants to be around long enough to dump a
few more buckets of merde on the heads of his countrymen, end
of an elite end of an era of, whole leg down there numb and heavy
as a, foot numb and heavy as a clubfoot or do they just look numb
...follows Hegel here they say where suffering's necessary for
self realization shades of the Pythagorean catechism two or
three thousand years ago here to be punished if I can, hold on
to something sit up straight and get the other leg over why they,
why I was put in this empty room no light, no air can't, sweating
as if I'm, if I'm frightened?
But the biggest obstacle in this book comes when you finish it and
try to classify what you've just read. Is Agapē Agape really a novel?
Or does it still betray its origins as a non-fiction exercise in the
history of technology? Or is it a work of cultural criticism, in the
spirit of the aforementioned Walter Benjamin? It might very well be
considered a dramatic monologue (Torschlusspanik, a German
version of the book has been presented as a radio play). And
some justifiably see Agapē Agape as a homage to German
novelist Thomas Bernhard—and it does bear a striking similarity to
the latter's book about Glenn Gould (The Loser). But for me,
Gaddis's last work is none of these. If I can draw upon the populist
spirit that Gaddis imitated even as he derided it, I would call Agapē
Agape a rant—one that goes on, without a break, for almost one
hundred pages. And even if Gaddis's last book is just a fair-to-
middlin' novel, it's one of the most persnickety rants I've heard.
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book
is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published on September 30, 2013
|Agapē Agape: William Gaddis's
Strange Novel About Player Pianos
by Ted Gioia
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