Let’s explode one myth right at the outset — that The Recognitions and the other four novels of William Gaddis are difficult (whatever that could possibly mean these days). It is a misconception that has dogged the writer’s reputation and career since that first novel was published in 1955, and few passing references to Gaddis’ work manage to avoid that characterization. “Through the famous obscurity of The Recognitions, Mr. Gaddis has become famous for not being famous enough,” goes Cynthia Ozick’s back-cover blurb on the recent Dalkey Archive Press reissue of the book; Jonathan Franzen’s characterization of the author himself as “Mr. Difficult” in the pages of the New Yorker some years ago may have given this impression a blunt edge, but no blunter than could be found in the twenty or thirty previous years of criticism, often from Gaddis enthusiasts themselves.
Well, as I read the novel again, about ten years after my last period with the book — I first read it in the late 1970s, shortly after the bulky and error-riddled Avon mass-market paperback edition appeared — I find that The Recognitions is not a difficult book to read, arguably no more than his other four books (among all five, his second novel, J R, might be considered his most difficult). The reputation, however, does not arise from nowhere. Gaddis’ reputation for obscurity and difficulty rests on two central features of his work: its allusiveness and its style.
Before taking each of these in turn, it’s worth noting that none of Gaddis’ themes are distant from our own contemporary concerns, and all are set in our times. At the center of all of his novels are concerns with love and family, but even the more external thematic emphases are pulled, as they say, from the headlines. The Recognitions: authenticity and art; J R: twentieth-century capitalism; Carpenter’s Gothic: empire and geopolitics; A Frolic of His Own: justice and the law; and, finally, with Agape Agape, authenticity and art once again.
And with the possible exception of this last, they are all comedies. “[The Recognitions] was a sometimes heavy-handed satire but I wanted it to be a large comic novel in the great tradition,” Gaddis told the Paris Review in a 1986 interview, and J R and A Frolic of His Own are also lengthy comic epics — and laugh-out-loud comic; there are excellent jokes to be found on nearly every one of The Recognitions‘ 956 closely-printed pages, from aphorism to physical slapstick to scatology (one of the main characters of the book, an art dealer, is named Recktall Brown).
The most formidable challenge to the reader new to Gaddis’ work is its length, at least of the first two novels: the nearly 1,000 pages of The Recognitions and the only slightly shorter (at 752 pages) of J R, but for anyone familiar with the 20th century novel this alone should not be enough to put most off. The 3,000 pages of Remembrance of Things Past, the 720 pages of The Magic Mountain, the 783 pages of Ulysses (not to mention, more recently, the 1,104 pages of Infinite Jest and the 784 pages of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon) — requiring substantial investments of time and attention to be sure, but not in themselves forbidding enough to be significant obstacles.
Obviously, though, there is length and there is length. Proust’s prose style is straightforward enough, as is Mann’s; once we’re on to Pynchon and Joyce, though, we’re on stickier territory, and the pages turn more slowly, requiring more of our attention. It is the allusive quality of Gaddis’ prose, especially in The Recognitions, that prevents us from easy entry, rather than the style itself. In the first chapter alone there are obscure references to mythology, to alchemy, to 15th century art — but as critic Steven Moore has pointed out, Gaddis found much of this material in no more than about a half-dozen easily available books, including Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, C.G. Jung’s Psychology and Alchemy, and Frazer’s The Golden Bough. (Despite this seeming academic expertise, Gaddis was an auto-didact; he attended, but never graduated from, Harvard University.) The allusions weave a fabric which ties past and present, mythology and history, art and science together, making connections both conscious and unconscious; for the worried neophyte, in any event, Moore’s useful annotations to nearly every arcane reference in the novel can be found, for free, online.
Moore, in his 1989 monograph on the author, also provided perhaps the most concise description of both Gaddis’ style and content when he described The Recognitions as “The Waste Land rewritten by Dostoyevski.” Apart from noting the two most important and acknowledged influences on Gaddis’ work, this also points the way to the most useful perspective on both Gaddis’ method and style. But more on this soon.