Too Big to Succeed: On William Gaddis’s “J R”

By Lee KonstantinouOctober 28, 2012

Too Big to Succeed: On William Gaddis’s “J R”

J R by William Gaddis

AMERICAN LITERATURE'S HANGING in there, thanks in no small part to Dalkey Archive Press. Earlier this year, Dalkey reprinted two massively important — and simply massive — books by William Gaddis.

The Recognitions, Gaddis's first 976-page novel, an encyclopedic story of an art forger named Wyatt Gwyon, was a critical bomb. It was more or less unread when it first came out in 1955. Though it found a small, devoted readership over time, Gaddis struggled through a variety of odd jobs for another 20 years before his second novel, the 726-page J R, was published in 1975. This time, readers were better prepared for his achievement — his reputation had grown, the culture had caught up with the grandeur of his literary vision — and J R won the National Book Award; its author finally gained the recognition he and his fans always thought he deserved. In 1982, at the age of 60, Gaddis received the MacArthur Foundation's Genius Grant. Today he’s widely regarded as one of the great American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. His legacy has been a point of discussion — and bitter contention — among important contemporary writers like Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, and Ben Marcus.

Before Dalkey, Penguin had published Gaddis's big books, but the author's children, Matthew and Sarah Gaddis, decided to switch publishers because she felt her father's work wasn't getting the attention it deserved. One hopes that Dalkey does well with Gaddis's two masterpieces — the publisher's list, both back and front, is nothing short of a wonder, so it's hard to imagine that Gaddis could find a better home — but the move is nonetheless troubling. That Penguin should fail to serve the legacy of a writer as important as Gaddis, that his estate should feel it necessary to switch in the first place, is frankly an indictment of how publishing works today. More and more, desperate for bestsellers, the Big Six — Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin, Random House, and Simon & Schuster — have lavished attention on their frontlists, often at the expense of backlist and midlist books.

Unfortunately for the Big Six, apart from a handful of brand-name authors and certain strands of genre fiction, there's just no way to predict which books will succeed. From a financial perspective, most new books are unambiguous flops, but the logic of the marketplace leads publishers to take increasingly pricy risks, to pay huge advances for books that may or — more likely — may not pan out. Publishers subsequently spend most of their marketing money on books that have already garnered outsized advances, recklessly doubling down on enormous bets. In certain key respects, then, big publishing has come to resemble the highly leveraged world of Wall Street. It may therefore be quite appropriate that Gaddis's books have migrated from a big corporate publisher to a university-allied nonprofit, given that the book under review here — J R — is about how America has confused the logic of the marketplace for the logic of democracy, and the devious ways that capitalism corrupts art.

Both publishing and Wall Street, Gaddis's novel suggests, are "paper empires," enterprises heinously, hilariously bad at what they do, and bad in similar ways. Both have subordinated their alleged functions — rationally allocating capital; optimally connecting readers and writers — to reckless speculation. Con men and gamblers rise, while the sensible and the serious are crushed. If Gaddis's indictment is right, his novels may therefore be paradoxically doomed to be ignored, derided, and misunderstood, to fail to find the readership they deserve, not despite but because of their integrity. Gaddis's novel would thus be both the great chronicler of Wall Street's malignant rise and the victim of its triumphant ethos.

Whether one views Gaddis's perspective as self-evidently true or as a self-serving story meant to displace blame for his personal failures onto others, one thing shouldn't be in doubt: J R is a wild, rollicking success. It deserves the buzz and marketing budget typically reserved for writers who receive seven-figure advances. It deserves an army of dedicated readers who will, with near-religious devotion, take the time to unlock the wonders and mysteries of this hilarious, brilliant, and punishing satire of American capitalism. More than almost anything being published by young or established writers today, J R is the novel of our age.


By now, you probably know: J R is told entirely in dialogue, almost all of it unattributed, demarcated not by quotation marks but by ambiguous, European-style dashes. Often, the reader encounters only one half of a conversation. Paragraphs can run for pages. There are no chapter breaks, no section breaks, no breaks of any sort — just 726 pages of continuous text. Conventions of punctuation and typography are not, let us admit, strictly respected. Transitions between scenes happen without warning. Half way through a sentence, days may suddenly pass. The third-person narrator intervenes sparingly with hallucinogenic garden-path sentences that read like this: "Past the firehouse, where once black crêpe had been laboriously strung in such commemoration as that advertised today on the sign OUR DEAR DEPARTED MEMBER easy to hand and store as a soft drink poster." A bewildering variety of discourses and voices — legal, scientific, corporate, all expertly mimicked — crowd Gaddis's packed pages. This is a tough, amazing book.

The novel's main storyline involves an 11 year-old boy named J R Vansant — the latchkey child of a nurse, his father mysteriously absent — who manages to build a complex corporate empire from the payphone in his elementary school in Massapequa, Long Island. The boy, who knows enough to use a handkerchief to mask his voice on the phone, seems not entirely conscious of what he's doing — his first line of dialogue is a question, "Playing?" — but he's utterly brilliant at playing the financial system, buying junk bonds, raiding pension funds, deftly integrating his different companies, and cleverly manipulating the tax code.

J R begins amassing his empire after a school trip to the New York Stock Exchange during which his class purchases a share of a company called Diamond Cable, buying what his teacher calls "a share of America." J R convinces Edward Bast, an aspiring composer whom he meets on the trip, to help him build what becomes the J R Family of Companies. Before the end of the novel, J R has acquired a diverse array of firms — Eagle Mills, Triangle Paper Products, Ray-X, X-L Lithograph, among others — all run out of a hotel suite in Manhattan, managed by a staff that, with the exception of Bast, doesn't understand they're working for a child. This description, which probably sounds tangled enough, only gives a vague idea of the novel's complexity. There are so many plots — plots atop plots; plots hidden inside plots; plots involving closed-circuit educational schemes; the fight to control a company that makes player piano rolls; a documentary film about zebras; divorces; suicides; the cynical manipulation of Congress; African civil wars — that any summary threatens to become as long as the book itself. It's a virtuoso performance, one of the unambiguously great novelistic achievements of the last 50 years.

Like Thomas Pynchon before him, Gaddis's great theme is entropy. Unlike Pynchon — who is more concerned in his classic postmodern novels with how entropy operates in thermodynamics and information theory — Gaddis means entropy to be a metaphor for the din of American life and the "free enterprise" system, a figure for the miscommunications and cons that allow a character like J R to fool enough of his adult interlocutors to build his business, almost instantly, from nothing. There's therefore a performative element to J R: it tries to find a form that might evoke the chaos it wants to critique. It challenges its reader to create a hierarchy among a maze of characters, plots, and voices. This is not always easy to do. One is tempted, not infrequently, to withdraw, to look away from the intense glow of Gaddis's dazzling prose universe, to assume that there isn't a main thread or coherent structure to his world. As Franzen observes in his famous attack in the New Yorker, Gaddis's prose style seems to invite a sort of Protestant masochism of its readers. This description may be unfair — for one thing, it misses the great fun of reading J R — but what Franzen rightly captures is that Gaddis's moral indictment of unrestrained capitalism is intimately connected to the reader's struggle to understand his novel.

I'd suggest that what J R documents is the way that America is hollowing out the foundation necessary to even read a book like it, an America that teaches its children via closed-circuit television, an America that thinks democracy means owning a share of profit-maximizing publicly traded corporations. This is what it means to say that J R is about the conditions underlying the impossibility of its own reception. If there were a welcoming mass public for books like this, a public able to appreciate its beautiful difficulty and astonishing imagination, we wouldn't live in the sort of world so in need of savage satirical critique in the first place.


The worlds of Wall Street and publishing are linked in Gaddis's novel not only at the level of style but also, quite literally, at the level of plot. It's not an accident that Gaddis has J R Corp go into the trade publishing business. Himself the victim of literary neglect, Gaddis's target is, just as much as Wall Street, an American publishing industry that has been undergoing radical transformation since the 1960s, merging with or being purchased by large multinational media corporations.

J R goes into publishing not because he has any interest in putting out books — in truth, it's not clear he has any interest in any of his companies, except as pieces in a game — but because he has come to acquire, through various complicated deals, a lot of idle timber. As one of J R's employees says:

whole reason this publishing end's got top priority in the first place all this paper the Boss says we might as well print books on it, now he's heard it costs more to keep presses idle than to run them so he wants them rolling day and night's why Skinner's got his gal here doubling in brass on this

This passage gives a good flavor of the book's style of satire. Though conversational in tone, Gaddis does away with traditional punctuation, creating a run-on quality that both renders the novel surreal and allows him to pack information densely onto his pages. Gaddis often reveals major plot developments only through three or four layers of mediation, which can at times threaten to conceal the full impact of his very funny gags. J R's publishing enterprise, we learn, puts out books with titles like I Choose Rotten Gin ("The story of a disillusioned Communist, who had not the courage to go against the party"), O! Chittering Ones ("A serious work which urges us to lay aside our fears and realize our true strength"), and The R I Coons Ignite ("Violence in a small southern community, the racial question delicately and faithfully dealt with"), execrable books about which critics say (for example): "[…] nowhere in this whole disgusting book is there a trace of kindness or sincerity or simple decency […]"

We learn that "the initial outlay" for the publishing enterprise "is in the neighborhood of a third of a million, two hundred sixty-six thousand on promotion sixty-six thousand in production and, yes and six hundred sixty dollars went in research writing and editorial costs." How can J R justify spending so little editing his books? Even if his purpose in publishing is purely cynical, how can he avoid the question that plagues all publishers, especially today: finding a bestseller amidst the dross? How, in other words, can he hedge against the radical uncertainty of the book market, as described above?

Gaddis reveals the answers to these questions, in one of the most biting exchanges in J R, during a conversation where several peripheral characters are talking about J R's companies.

—Get into these mass paperbacks print an edition of five hundred thousand might as well ship three straight to the shredder one thing I hate it's waste, can't figure out costs to sales too many unknowns too damn much waste…

—Yes sir what they've done is reduce the significance of the cost factor, largely write off the waste element and outrage traditional publishing convention by using the entire list as a readymade advertising enterprise, they…

—Have to advertise the damn things how else they going to sell them.

—No sir in the books I mean ads in the books themselves sir, textbooks and novels filled with columns of advertising the prime space goes to their own subsidiaries but most of them appear to be quite tastelessly solicited, what figures I've obtained from our sources indicate a startling amount of billings which no excuse me sir just my briefcase I, yes here are some of the figures, it's created a furor in publishing particularly the textbook area and drawn violent objections from some prominent writers who threat…

—Always objecting to something only damn reason they're writers, make their damn peace the country could get on with its business if this bunch hadn't done it somebody else would here what's these figures, haven't got my glasses…

(my emphasis)

Like its myriad other plots, the story of J R's foray into trade publishing is distributed across the novel, and is easy to miss. This is, after all, only one of the many industries the boy explores and instantly corrupts. And yet I focus on it here because it is, arguably, the most emotionally fraught of J R's acquisitions — the one Gaddis is most frightened by and finds the most amusing. Gaddis wasn't interested merely in excoriating Wall Street-style capitalism, but was intensely interested in thinking about the intersection of finance and art. In an era when publishing has taken on an increasingly corporate character, this is one reason his concerns remain so alive and pressing.

It's true, publishers don't yet place advertisements inside novels — apart from ads for other books on their lists — but it's not hard to imagine how, in another version of reality, or in one of may possible futures, they might. E-reading devices like the Kindle are already incorporating ads into their design, and as these devices increasingly mine and analyze our reading habits, there's no doubt that publishers will be greatly tempted to take advantage of the insights such sophisticated datasets might yield. In the world of Gaddis's novel, as in our own, every aspect of literary art's integrity and autonomy is under attack. Readers, writers, and publishers are all being subsumed by the needs of a system greater than the sum of its parts.


The alcoholic physics teacher Jack Gibbs — a miserable, failed writer who is sometimes identified as a partial stand-in for Gaddis — tries to sum up the causes of this crisis with a pithy phrase: "whole God damn decline from status to contract what's wrong with the whole God damned modern…" Gibbs doesn't elaborate on what he means by the decline from Status to Contract, but he's almost certainly referring to the thought of Sir Henry Maine, the British legal historian who in his book Ancient Law (1861) describes the transition of the intellectual basis of law from an ancient view wherein rights and duties emerge from traditional social institutions like the family to the modern view that grounds the foundations of law in contractual relations, agreements drawn up among freely choosing individuals with rational faculties.

Ancient Law hardly describes this as a "descent," so Gibbs isn't simply adopting Maine's view wholesale. In describing the move from Status to Contract as a "descent," it seems unlikely that Gaddis is advocating a return to feudal relations, ancient slavery, or the Roman legal system, but Gibbs's assessment of the transition between epochs highlights the cracks in Maine's optimistic story of progress. Just as the basis of life becomes contractual, Gaddis tries to demonstrate in J R, the supposedly freely choosing individual gets snowed under titanic social and economic forces. The individual may have the formal right to establish contracts, but he finds his range of freedom constrained by the market; finds his information limited or fallacious; finds that those with financial resources have tremendous power over those who, like him, have less or none. Maine's optimistic theory of the evolution of legal justification becomes, for Gaddis, a pessimistic theory of the unfreedom of actually existing "free enterprise."

Which brings us back, at long last, to Jonathan Franzen's furious 2002 New Yorker essay, "Mr. Difficult." In this essay, Franzen dismissed Gaddis as an angry, "constipated," and recondite fraud, whose intense difficulties can be "a smoke screen for an author who has nothing interesting, wise, or entertaining to say." Franzen admits to admiring The Recognitions, but only, in the end, because its main character reminded Franzen of himself. He couldn't make it through J R, despite two serious efforts. "I'm the reader you want!" Franzen imagines telling Gaddis. "I'm looking for a good Systems novel. If you can't even show me a good time, who else do you think is going to read you?"

In making his case against his constipated nemesis, Franzen also uses the terms Status and Contract — though he doesn't admit where he gets them from — and, once more, the valuation of the terms flips. The descent from Status to Contract is, it turns out, a good thing. In Franzen's re-revision of the terms, Status and Contract become ways of describing different types of relationships that readers can have to writers. They become literary descriptions.

The short version of Franzen's argument is "Contract Good, Status Bad," but the more you dig into the details of "Mr. Difficult" the trickier his argument becomes. At first, he uses the term Status to refer to art-novels, books that seek out excellence at all costs, even at the cost of having no readership. But by the end of his sneering essay, Status seems to refer to the plaudits and prizes misguided literary elites confer upon sadistically difficult novels in order to shame dunderheaded proles into reading them. The Contract novel, meanwhile, starts as a novel written specifically to speak to particular communities (even Franzen admits that Finnegans Wake can be viewed as a Contract novel); it ends up getting identified with a very narrow slice of prose fiction, specifically those works that follow nineteenth-century novelistic conventions, which seem to represent the only authentic form of narrative art for Franzen.

Argumentatively, Franzen squares this logical circle by claiming that the market for books is democratic, implying that writers who succeed do so after competing on a fair field of battle. Contracts drawn up in democratic marketplaces just happen to make use of a very narrow set of liberal, nineteenth-century novelistic conventions. Writers should just get used to that basic truth. Only nasty Status-mongers could be so haughty — so angry, so antisocial, so hideously dismissive of what is after all only the outcome of freely choosing readers — as to not give the democratic marketplace What It Wants. In Franzen's view, Gaddis substitutes symbolic/elite capital (Bad!) for financial/democratic capital (Good!), in order to accumulate as much Status as possible before the ship of American literature — steered into the rocks by pointy-headed professors and antisocial avant-gardists — goes down.

There are so many intertwined problems with Franzen's loopy reasoning that it's hard to know where to start debunking. As a pointy-headed professor, anything I say might be suspected of secret Status-mongering. But my point here isn't to valorize Status novels or to decry the Contract crap The Masses foolishly enjoy, nor for that matter to tritely declare that there are reportedly human beings who can read and enjoy both Contract and Status novels, but rather to point out that both literary types — both Status and Contract — exist within unequal relations of power and the highly asymmetrical resources of the marketplace, something any careful reader of J R should notice immediately. The market, even the market in books, is not democratic.

It's a great luxury that Franzen was able to spend so much time reading The Recognitions — that he was able to tune out the world to devote himself to the book, that he had the educational background that prepared him to identify with its characters — but it's no less important to note the significant leisure time required to read The Corrections or Freedom as well. It's a grave mistake to detach the terms Status and Contract from Gaddis's critique of Wall Street. To be the sort of reader for whom the Times' comparison of Franzen to Tolstoy is meaningful — to be the sort of reader with the freedom to read Freedom — requires almost as much of an educational foundation, almost as much of an investment of capital, as it takes to read J R.


But there's also something inadequate with Gaddis's critique, I think. Gaddis — who even at his most hilarious is relentlessly pessimistic — is wrong to ignore the hope we might find in Maine's original idea of Contract. After all, Contracts aren't Covenants. They don't simply drop down from heaven, fully formed; contracts are drawn up within political systems created by human beings, and are always therefore subject to renegotiation. In their tremendous anger, both Gaddis and Franzen are more alike than different. Both treat social and literary degradation as unstoppable natural forces. Both wish American literature were unified, with a single standard of success to govern all the players on the field. But whereas Gaddis's response to literary history was to create a gorgeous novel (to paraphrase Jack Gibbs again) as "difficult as he could make it," Franzen's response is to give up on the enterprise of literary innovation, to revert to writing novels that hew as religiously as possible to today's literary mean.

The larger problem, Franzen might reply, is that American readers simply aren't interested in, or don't feel they can read, books as seemingly complex as J R. In the new Dalkey edition, Rick Moody tries to perform an end-run around such arguments by asserting — falsely, in my view — that J R isn't difficult. It is. No, it's not impossible to read, but it requires an investment of time and attention to unlock its many pleasures. On this point, Franzen is right and Moody is wrong. And yet after reading J R, after meeting countless others who joined me in the LARB-sponsored "Big Read" #OccupyGaddis, I'm not convinced that there isn't a large audience eager to read hard and innovative fiction. The desire to read books like J R is tremendous, even if the actual practice can be overwhelming.

If you're drawing up literary contracts in today's America, many readers, even the most ambitious, wouldn't be well positioned to read or enjoy Gaddis. There's a reason many people read big, difficult postmodern novels while in college. Academic schedules can be perfectly suited for such enterprises; reading difficult novels alone can be alienating and confusing. Reading big books requires support. What's required is not only time and social support, but also investment. American publishers partly depend on an elaborate and publicly funded educational apparatus to cultivate the readers who will become their consumers. That is, publishers have externalized the costs of reproducing their customers. When the institutions entrusted with the task of reproducing our reading class fail, corporate publishers have no choice but to hawk their wares at lower and lower levels, especially if they're under pressure to turn a quick profit. This is the root of the problem.

Unfortunately, no single author can write her way out of this crisis. The solution must be collective — and political. A serious literary culture needs powerful literary institutions with the resources, editorial talent, and time to cultivate and support great writers. A serious literary culture would work as hard to develop demand for great writing as it would to create supply. However excellent the work of Dalkey — and there should be no doubt of its excellence — laying our hopes solely on small publishers, nonprofits, academic presses, startups like Richard Nash's Red Lemonade, self-publishing, ebooks, or Amazon is a mistake. In a better world, Dalkey would be one great, healthy imprint among many. A future, better literary system might consist of firms that are privately owned (and highly regulated) or it might be public, but if we're in sympathy with Gaddis's indictment, if we think there's something wrong with publishing as it exists today, if we think the problem with publishing is that it looks very much like Wall Street, if we have a problem with rampant speculation that faddishly follows the market rather than leading with innovation and quality and sustained investment in readers and writers and critics, if we're displeased with the ugly terms of our literary Contract, it might be time to imagine what it would mean not only to occupy Wall Street, but also to occupy the Big Six.

There may be no more important literary task today.


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LARB Contributor

Lee Konstantinou is associate professor of English at the University of Maryland, College Park. He wrote the novel Pop Apocalypse (2009) and the literary history Cool Characters: Irony and American Fiction (2016). With Samuel Cohen, he co-edited The Legacy of David Foster Wallace (2012). He is currently completing a study of Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai.


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