a website devoted to radical,
unconventional and experimental
fiction with a particular focus on the
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Twenty years elapsed between William Gaddis's debut
novel
The Recognitions (1955) and his follow-up book
JR (1975).  Don’t blame Gaddis for laziness.  During
that period, he needed to work a series of demanding
day gigs to pay his bills, earning his keep from IBM, the
US Army, Eastman Kodak and other big organizations
to compensate for the royalty checks that never arrived.  
When interviewer Malcom Bradbury
told Gaddis, years later, how he and
all his friends recognized the brilliance
of
The Recognitions when it was first
published, the author tartly responded:
"My royalty statements were $4.72."
Did Bradbury’s clique, he wondered,
simply pass around the same one or
two copies.

Okay,
JR was a long time coming. But
Mr. Gaddis starts up his second novel
exactly where he left off with
The
Recognitions.  His debut book
ended with a composer struggling to
overcome a creative block and un-
expectedly causing a grand calamity
when he finally finishes his project. In
JR we soon meet
a similar character, Edward Bast, who like so many
Gaddis protagonists, can never make much headway
on his artistic projects.  Like Stanley in
The Recognitions,
Bast inadvertently causes mayhem and disaster on his way
to achieving—or, more often, finding ways to avoid achieving
—his goals as a composer.     

Related Articles:
William Gaddis's The Recognitions
William Gaddis's Eight Rules of Unruly Dialogue
William Gaddis's Player Piano Obsession

But the continuity with The Recognitions is even more
marked when we consider the tone of the work.  Gaddis
often complained that critics and readers did not
appreciate the comic elements in his debut novel.  But,
in truth,
The Recognitions starts out as a twisted existential
narrative, and only gradually evolves, over the course of
almost one thousand pages, into a equally twisted work
of dark humor.  In
JR, in contrast, the comic element is
evident from the outset, and continues for the entire
duration of the book.  Indeed, Gaddis seems willing to
put every kind of gag, joke and stunt in this novel.  We
have malapropisms, slapstick, satire, parody, even a
section of a hundred pages or so that tries to recreate
the
stateroom scene from the Marx Brothers’ A Night
at the Opera
.   

Much of this humor is still timely today.  Critics of the
current shift from face-to-face teaching to online courses
will find much to enjoy in this novel's depiction of a 1970s
school that spends large sums of grant money on a
half-baked program to instruct students via television
broadcasts.  In a similar manner, Gaddis's sendoff of
corrupt politicians, obfuscating lawyers and crass
corporate execs shows that some things never change,
even if they should.  And those still suffering from the
housing and mortgage meltdown of recent times will
laugh, or perhaps cry, at Gaddis's presentation of a
similar financial collapse—caused by the market
machinations of an over-reaching eleven-year-old
operating out of a payphone.   

JR, our precocious corporate kingpin, drives our story
as well as the financial markets, and ranks among the
strangest characters in 20th century American fiction.  
This youngster starts with modest ambitions, trading
novelties and magazines with fellow classmates, but
soon learns that his skill at arbitrage can earn greater
rewards in the world of grown-ups.  JR lacks social graces
and his intelligence is limited to money matters, but even
he realizes that the titans of commerce don't want to
deal with preteens.  So he enlists, the down-and-out
composer Edward Bast, and a host of other inter-
mediaries, to serve as fronts for his business
transactions.  

When one deals is finished, JR rolls the proceeds on
to another one, like a gambler who lets everything ride
on the casino gaming table.  When asked to justify his
ceaseless ambition, the child offers a simple explanation:  
"You can’t just play to play because the rules are only for
if you’re playing to win which that’s the only rules there
are."  Or put even in fewer words: "I didn't invent it I mean
this is what you do."

JR knows a considerable amount about business,
despite his tender years.  And Gaddis clearly does
as well.  I've read many novels about business, but
haven't encountered any work of fiction that gets so deeply
into tax-loss carryforwards, accelerated depreciation,
restrictions on the exercise of stock options, equity-for-
debt swaps and a host of other arcane topics that
novelists rarely have any reason to understand.  Most
of the jargon and marketplace minutiae are tossed off
in passing in these pages, and I'm sure many readers'
eyes glaze over when Gaddis allows JR or another
character to expound on the tactics and economic
rationale for various wheelings and dealings.  But given
the shallowness of most depictions of high finance in
modern fiction, Gaddis’s attention to detail warrants
praise, especially given the comic nature of his book,
where few would seek this degree of realism in the finer
points.

But the real achievement in
JR is in the dialogue. Did
I mention that this novel consists almost entirely of
conversations?  Yet this isn't your typical repartee.  
You may wonder how a book filled with dialogue on
practical matters, such as business, education and
politics, ever got a reputation for being difficult to read.   
After all, how hard can it be to follow a discussion on
such prosaic topics conducted by characters of
average intelligence?  But Gaddis uses every possible
trick and device to make these conversations hard
to follow.  (See my related essay on
"William Gaddis's
8 Rules for Unruly Dialogue.")  JR would demand our
respect as a pathbreaking novel if only for the technical
mastery demonstrated in the construction of these
convoluted colloquies.  What Joyce did for stream-of-
consciousness, Gaddis did for stream-of-speaking.

The result is a peculiar hybrid. The slapstick elements
of the humor—some of it markedly lowbrow, relying on
car collisions, broken plumbing, and other set-ups straight
out of the aesthetic of the Three Stooges—don’t always
mix easily with the experimental intentions of the prose.  
I occasionally found myself laughing out loud at an
especially choice bit of comedy in these pages. But I
suspect that the longest lingering impression of
JR won't
be the one-liners, but rambling monologues and crazy
financial transactions.  

And, yes, JR himself.  This child tycoon is the centerpiece
of the novel.  True, he is almost a parody of a parody.  
Even the most ridiculous characters out of Dickens, a
Mr. Micawber or Miss Havisham, seem staid and
reasonable by comparison.  Yet Gaddis somehow
also imparts a dose of humanity to JR, perhaps even
a measure of pathos.  In this one figure, the sometimes
contrary ambitions of the novel—the darkness, the
lightheartedness, the serious and the ludicrous—all
cohere.  Above all, JR is a distinctly
Americacharacter,
the heir to all those other troubled and troubling
youngsters in our homegrown fiction, from Huckleberry
Finn to Holden Caulfield.  These kids want to grow up
on their own terms and in their own cussedly intransigent
way.  God bless 'em and God bless America, but watch
out below!

And what can be more dispiriting, but also beguiling,
than to find our national character so closely wedded to
the traits of dreaming and scheming youngsters?   If we
ever grow up as a nation, this kind of book won't have
much of an impact, and a character such as JR will be
little more than a puzzling anachronism.  But the smart
money—not that you find much of it in this book—says
that JR keeps relevant for a long time to come.  


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 25, 2013
To purchase, click on image
William Gaddis's
11-Year-Old Tycoon


by Ted Gioia
fractious fiction
JR
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