Speed, Systems, and Shame
by Lee Konstantinou
In my last round-up, I complained that the #OccupyGaddis Goodreads group was kinda quiet. Since then, it’s been on fire. A debate started in the discussion forum titled “Discussion of pp. 211–240” about whether J R is “hostile” toward its readers (continuing a debate that started on Twitter). In this thread, Brian writes, responding to a blog post by Sonia Johnson:
To succeed at “speeding the reader along” [Gaddis’s] stylistic changes would have to be easier to parse than the standard punctuation and style choices that we are all used to from other books. There may be a way to do this, but WG has clearly not done that here. [His first two goals seem to be in direct conflict […] One-third of the way into the book, I’m still backtracking every fourth paragraph or so to try to figure out who is talking, has the scene changed, and if so to where. There is no possible way that I am alone in that, despite the publicly professed ease with which other readers claim to be flying through the book.
Brian identifies the strange thorny problem at the heart of J R’s reception. Just as Jonathan Franzen and Rick Moody seem to be reading two different books, #OccupyGaddis readers seem to have very different views on whether J R enables fast-reading or defeats fast-reading; whether J R is a novel of realism, even verbal naturalism, or of affected and stylized surrealism.
In a post at Fiction Advocate, Michael Moats confronts this readerly contradiction when he writes:
The technique [of writing a novel entirely in dialogue] also seems to work counterintuitively as far as the characters go. You might expect that, if all you hear are characters’ voices, then J R is a character-driven novel. But this is more a book about, for lack of a better word, systems. Outside forces that act on people: education, sex, history, politics, art, bureaucracy – and did I mention money? This novel, so far, is about how money affects all of these different systems, and people whose daily lives inevitably get caught in the churn. J R Vansant is the title character, I suspect, because he is the only one who comes to this world as an innocent. At age eleven he is curious and precocious enough to thrive in certain ways, but unlike the adults around him, he is not preoccupied with either resisting or controlling the forces around him. At least that’s what it seems like so far.
Joe Tabbi, in his recent post here on the LARB blog, has emphasized the “systems” dimension of Gaddis’s fiction, the fact that he can often treat his characters as abstractions or as, at a deeper level, composed of the abstractions (e.g., cognitive systems) that are dashing around and colliding in these characters’ heads.
In a follow-up debate about Gaddis’s difficulty on the Goodreads group, Sonia writes:
Based on my experience teaching literature, I would say that there are definitely people who do not possess the skills to read Gaddis. Gaddis’ writing seems, to me, specifically designed to be more enjoyable for people with strong skills in the kinds of literacy demanded and complex, abstract thinking and with strong memories. Similarly, if you sink below certain thresholds in those areas then the text will become increasingly difficult tending towards incomprehensible.
J R then seems to be a strange sort of test, a complex structure designed to see if the systems in our heads are capable of keeping up with and making sense of the systems outside those self-same heads, or to be more precise J R is a novel about those systems within which our beleaguered heads are themselves embedded. Which explains, perhaps, the anxiety about difficulty many readers feel. Who wants to be told he or she didn’t pass the test? Who wants to be told, more, that the world’s complexity is just too much?
I haven’t really followed the debate on this that closely, or the rest of #OccupyGaddis at all for that matter. I mainly fell into the camp of “life [getting] in the way of [my] sincere efforts” to keep up, but really a good portion of it was, yeah, I just didn’t really like Gaddis. His difficulty seemed Baroque (in the kind of way the Reformation was right about) and a barrier to attachment, involvement, or enjoyment. Now, again, I didn’t end up following the group much or spending much gumption on keeping going, which perhaps would have aided me in my fumble for meaning, but there was definitely a visceral reaction of stylistic distaste.
Anyway, I have two points, or perhaps meandering admixtures of argument and question. One being that while I generally consider myself one of “the minority” whose “desire to read long and hard books is tied up with some sort of idea of personal virtue and self-improvement” and that while sure it often feels like when not “finish[ing] a book it’s not the book’s fault, not the world’s fault, but [mine]” I felt just about zero shame for not finishing Gaddis. Sure I was busy, and sure I was Just Not That Into It, but I guess it just makes me wonder how various aesthetic responses might potentially effect the strength of the shame the “self-improvement” camp’s readers feel.
My other short point is related to an earlier question I had been pondering to myself. Sonia’s suggestion that “Gaddis’ writing seems, to me, specifically designed to be more enjoyable for people with strong skills in the kinds of literacy demanded” — while ignoring the fact that it might sound, I have no doubt unintentionally, a little rude — is … well, no, not suspect, but perhaps not fully fleshed out. As a Classicist-in-training my regular diet consists of works requiring readers with “complex, abstract thinking and with strong memories” and yet, I still sort-of-hated Gaddis. I’m not sure where this point is going other than to wonder aloud (as a question of contemporary literary history) if the emergence of the Difficult “Postmodern” (or whatever) Novel stems from the contraction of the Classics in life and academia, say post-WWII-ish. Basically I kept asking myself “why in the hell do I need to spend so much time trying to parse Gaddis’s writing in my native tongue when I grope through Attic Greek all day, after all?” and speculating that it had to do with filling some vacuum of difficulty after Terence, Plutarch, and the like vanished from most curricula.
This hasn’t been all very coherent, but it was nice to get some of that out somewhere, eventually.