“Carpenter’s Gothic”: William Gaddis’s Compositional Self

THERE ARE STOLEN MOMENTS when raising a young child, the letup during nap time being a prime example. In one of these recent pauses, I read to my wife the beginning of the fifth chapter or section (they are unnumbered) of William Gaddis’s 1985 novel Carpenter’s Gothic, a book most seasoned readers of the author would rank behind The Recognitions (1955), J R (1975), and A Frolic of His Own (1994). As I age, I’ve been letting go of the impulse to rank. Carpenter’s Gothic fits perfectly with the other three novels as one long scroll of words.

I chose the section to read randomly. In it, the main character, Elizabeth (Liz) Booth, is in bed with McCandless, the man who owns the house that she and her agro Vietnam vet husband, away on a “business” trip (he’s involved in shadowy religious and political scheming), rent. McCandless, who has some checkered CIA connections in his past (fitting him for the Gothic template of “the mysterious stranger”), keeps a locked room in the house, which is up near the Hudson River, about an hour from New York City, and is built in the style referenced in the title. This house is the book’s only setting. McCandless had encountered Liz in two previous scenes, in which one could sense an attraction developing between them.

The passage I read commences with the couple pillow-talking either before or after sex. (The book is dialogue-heavy, like the final three the author published.) In fact, they are dishing about quite important matters, such as Liz’s memories of her dead father, recounted while McCandless suckles her breasts: “[W]hen he used to read out loud to me and I thought all the books were about him, and he wasn’t really reading to me at all. Huckleberry Finn, The Call of the Wild […] He was just turning the pages and telling the story the way he wanted.” Then she delves into the meaning of life in a quilted paragraph where their dialogue is combined, the narrator briefly interposing to handicap the exchange:

I mean if you could get this tremendously powerful telescope? and then if you could get far enough away out on a star someplace, out on this distant star, and you could watch things on the earth that happened a long time ago really happening? Far enough away, he said, you could see history, Agincourt, Omdurman, Crécy … How far away were they she wanted to know, what were they, stars? constellations? Battles he told her, but she didn’t mean battles, she didn’t want to see battles, — I mean seeing yourself … Well as far as that goes he said, get a strong enough telescope you could see the back of your own head, you could — That’s not what I meant. You make fun of me don’t you.

And thus we are presented with another battle in the war between men and women, a theme central to the final three novels. Generally, Gaddis’s men favor the grandeur of impersonal history — and sex. His women, by contrast, seek to communicate; they want to grasp their own history. The labyrinthine complexity of Gaddis’s novels is constructed out of such minute, one-on-one scenes, the delicacy of chamber music braided into symphonic structures.

As the scene goes on, Gaddis continues to broadcast information and emotions from his own life, manipulated into fiction. He extends his well-known views on writing, ascribing them to McCandless: “They think if something happened to them that it’s interesting because it happened to them.” McCandless denies being a writer to the woman he is sleeping with, though he did write a novel — or at least a novelization — about his time working as a geologist for the CIA. Gaddis’s book was written in the early 1980s, after the author had taught at Bard College for a few years. The constrained 250 pages of Carpenter’s Gothic are filled with discourse about “writing” and types of fiction in vogue at the time. Liz herself, coping with the two other crazed men in her life, her husband and her ne’er-do-well brother, clandestinely thinks up phrases and then writes them down, hopeful they will become passages in her own novel.

In bed with McCandless, Liz continues to seek emotional intimacy, speaking of her and her brother’s relationship with their father:

[W]hen we started to say things he thought were critical and he sort of drew away and he got those dogs, those hateful little Jack Russell terriers they just adored him, they followed him everywhere they’d do anything to please him and we never could.

Meanwhile, McCandless continues to stroke and probe her body, but when this heavy petting goes nowhere, he relents and begins to speak of his own past, revisiting why things went wrong with his ex-wife: “[T]hat fear of disappointing each other and those inadvertent little betrayals that poison everything else, isn’t that it?” This leads to her musings about procreation (“it’s really children that choose their parents just so they can get born?”), then a rant by him about the afterlife (“coming back as the Dalai Lama choosing his parents in some Tibetan dung heap”), before settling into more cross talk about creativity and fiction-making: “I mean I don’t know if I’ve read Faulkner much either. Except The Heart of Darkness, I think I read that once.” The phone interrupts (it’s a man looking for McCandless’s ex-wife), which provokes a squabble with Liz, before, finally, the couple have sex. The next morning, all of this intimacy, whether triggered by lust or anger at someone else, is neutralized when, after her brother shows up, McCandless refers to her blandly as “Mrs. Booth.”

Such is life, such are the games people play. Gaddis’s novelistic art involves the dramatization of these small tragedies, which slowly add up, ending in an apocalyptic meltdown. As Cynthia Ozick said in a perceptive review of the novel: “It isn’t ‘theme’ Mr. Gaddis deals in (his themes are plain) so much as a theory of organism and disease. In Carpenter’s Gothic the world is a poisonous organism, humankind dying of itself.”

In his classic 1961 study The Rhetoric of Fiction, Wayne C. Booth argues that “[t]he author creates […] an image of himself and another image of his reader; he makes his reader, as he makes his second self, and the most successful reading is one in which the created selves, author and reader, can find complete agreement.” Gaddis once gave a name to this “second self”: the compositional self. In his 2015 study of Gaddis’s work, Nobody Grew but the Business, Joseph Tabbi writes that in each of his books, Gaddis used highly autobiographical material to construct a “compositional self […] specific to the aesthetic and technical problems” he encountered during the writing. As Gaddis remarked in a 1985 interview with Publishers Weekly, this self endures “the real work … the thought and the rewriting and the crossing-out and the attempt to get it right.” The compositional self is the nightside of writing, which all the so-called glamour of being a writer can never touch upon; this labor cannot be understood by those outside the inner circle. That’s why any film about writing or writers fails: you can’t see this internal combustion; it’s password-protected.

As V. S. Naipaul (who will later appear in Carpenter’s Gothic) commented in an interview on Charlie Rose:

A writer has — he’s going to do something. He’ll do one thing; he’ll do two things; he’ll do three things. Probably there are three levels of consciousness. But in the writing, there are many more levels if the writing is any good, and this is where the reader starts reading his own book because the better the writer, the more he’s sunk into his material, the more there are things in it that he’s not aware of at the moment of writing.

This experience of being “sunk into his material” is the state Gaddis sought in his most fruitful hours.

The compositional self is the supreme metafiction. To call Carpenter’s Gothic Gaddis’s most personal novel is to miss the point. Yes, Gaddis lived in Piermont, New York, in a similarly styled house. Life may imitate art, but what about the reverse? How did Gaddis take his life and parse it, put it through a sieve, and then craft it into an organic work of art? An artist’s letters can give a glimpse into method, and Gaddis’s certainly do (at least for his last two novels). In a missive where he first mentions what will become Carpenter’s Gothic — from October 1977, sent just after his second wife had left him — Gaddis goes on a full roar to a trusted old friend:

In fact Judith’s been away for so damned long by this time (since the end of February) that she’s rapidly becoming rather an idea than a person. Still a terribly quiet house & somehow a chilly one, wash out one’s shirts, cook for 1, nobody to share the small great things of life with like the turning of the leaves, nobody but the fool cat stamping about & shouting for his supper while the porch steps collapse & I add that project to my list of things undone, invitations to stylish openings unattended in favour of sitting here with a glass of whisky & wishing I could write a maudlin popular song.

Later, he adds:

[R]eally worse that I have no work of my own & haven’t for a year so the 4th or 5th whisky doesn’t get that down since it’s not there, simply not one damned idea after the terminal obsession of J R that holds enough interest, enough passion, for me to sit down to it with any sense of sustaining these things for long enough to complete it, to resolve it. Though perhaps looking back up the lines of words I’ve dumped upon you here there may be something, a latter-day American version of Waugh’s Handful of Dust perhaps which I’ve always admired & may now be mean enough to try to write.

“Perhaps” would turn into “sure enough,” though it took three more years. As he told William Gass just before the 1980 presidential election: “the only thing that rouses me these days are all these God damned born-agains & evangelicals” — a politico-religious context that would come to form the backdrop of Carpenter’s Gothic. Drafting commenced soon after, and a few months later, he had the first 50 pages. In March 1985, he sent his daughter, a novelist in her own right, the final revised page proofs, adding:

[I]n fact the whole passage where Liz talks about seeing herself as a child through a telescope light-years away […], grew out of my remembrance of the story of yours that of course touched me closest about the girl watching her father going down the walk at Fire Island.

The “mysterious stranger” turns out not to be so mysterious. He is the lustful, destructive figure whom “Mrs. Booth” aptly sticks a knife in later (“you’re the one who wants Apocalypse […] because you despise their, not their stupidity no, their hopes because you haven’t any”). Six months before he finished writing it, Gaddis told literary critic Steven Moore that he himself was McCandless.

In the scene just before his bedding of Liz, this ruined man — who can still seduce women, and shortly will — walks around his Carpenter’s Gothic home. (Later he will detail the history of it to Liz: “It was built that way yes, it was built to be seen from outside it was, that was the style.”) Now he goes about burning papers, including the information an ex-associate has just offered him $20,000 for. Then he puts an old stew on the stove, and turns on the radio, “which eagerly informed him that a group of handicapped mountainclimbers had carried an American flag and a bag of jellybeans to the summit of Mount Rainier.” Then he burns more things in the fire, a passport and an address book, before opening a “slight book’s paper covers to page 207” — Naipaul’s 1967 novel The Mimic Men — to find “a slip of paper, a list in an open and generous hand, milk, paper towels, Tampax, tulip bulbs,” a guide for shopping written by his ex-wife, which he also burns. Then he reads out a passage from the book until the narrative voice returns: “[W]hile from the kitchen, the chords of Bach’s D major concerto heaved into the room around him and settled like furniture.” This is how we live when we are alone — artfully detailed with pathos, satire, and intrigue, echoing the powerful confession of loneliness made in the letter to his friend.

What most impelled Gaddis’s prose was a sense of calling out personal responsibility — exposing how people persist or give in to vice in the face of corporate or political forces. Liz may pick the wrong men to be attracted to, but the males in this book are the prime problem. They represent those legions of men today who are fascinated with violence and the ways people literally destroy each other. Cloistered, they dutifully read towering, scrupulously researched books on the Nazis and the Holocaust, watch the second plane going into the South Tower from all 43 known angles, and then take the family to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as if serving under some obsolete flag. The world in all its cruel particularity churns on, and we live in modest houses often slightly off their foundations, cleaning out our past to reduce what weighs down our present — but not by too much, for otherwise we would lose some of the relation, the sustaining memory. Carpenter’s Gothic deserves to be read — and reread — because if we are all “humankind dying of itself,” we need a little beauty as the collective ship goes down.


Portions of this essay previously appeared in the author’s “The Self That Did So Much: Writing William Gaddis,” The Kenyon Review (Summer 2016).


Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, will both be published by Splice in the autumn of 2019.