William Thomas Gaddis is regarded as one of the most brilliant and difficult American writers of the twentieth century, the creator of works that are extraordinarily complex in design, language, and vision.
After graduating from Harvard University Gaddis lived in Latin America, Europe, and North Africa between 1947 and 1955, and he was a freelance speech writer and screenwriter between 1956 and 1970. He received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation as well as several prestigious awards, including the 1976 and 1994 National Book Awards for fiction.
The Recognitions, nearly one thousand pages in length and dealing “with such matters as art forgery, counterfeiting, false religious rhetoric, ambidextrous sexuality, the fraudulence of political life, and the masquerades of intellectual and artistic society,” is a Menippean satire on the entire modern world. The largely comic novel is encyclopedic, dense in style as well as content, and it has little traditional plot. There are fifty characters whose lives–their pasts and presents, as well as their anticipated conversations–cross and parallel one another. The story, which covers a thirty-year period, takes place in France, Italy, Spain, New York, and New England.
The central figure, Wyatt Gwyon, rejects his father’s calling as clergyman and instead becomes an artist. Wyatt’s efforts at understanding art in relation to life and true art in relation to counterfeit art involve discoveries regarding the shams and counterfeits of modern life. At the end of his pilgrimage he experiences an epiphany at a Spanish monastery, realizing that art and the preoccupations of the ordinary life are human structures created to save human beings from ultimate chaos. It is during this great spiritual and creative experience that Wyatt gains a recognition of the unity of all living and nonliving things and extends himself beyond the temporal and artistic to a sense of the intermingling of life and death.
Like The Recognitions, JR details Gaddis’s concern with the loss of value and criticizes the corruption of contemporary moneyed society, with its wasted human relationships and aborted creative energy. Lacking traditional form and overt description or characterization, the novel consists of fragments of unattributed dialogue. Gaddis tries to mirror in his writing the distortions of language and the decay of communication in a dying world.
The plot of JR deals with an eleven-year-old delinquent, JR, an outcast from his family and society, who is in the sixth grade at a Long Island school. JR becomes a representative of the ugly wheeler-dealer society when he brilliantly builds an enormous, corrupt paper empire that reflects the political, cultural, and social power bases of contemporary American society. Into JR’s life comes Edward Bast, a former composer and teacher, who becomes JR’s agent. At the end JR gains an understanding of love and personal values, and Bast returns to the world of art.
In Gaddis’s 1982 essay “The Rush for Second Place” he describes the fusion of Darwinism and Christianity in American business, which he maintains has turned the American dream inside out. The vision of human corruption and lovelessness surfaces again in Carpenter’s Gothic, where Paul Booth, an immoral and scheming veteran, acts as a public relations consultant for the fundamentalist clergyman Elton Ude. Booth aims to transform all events–no matter how unethical–into positive public images. His ends, money and power, justify any means. All the events of the book take place in a house rented by a mad geologist-novelist, McCandless, who summarizes the failure of faith, in personal, political, and religious terms. He is an intractable, disturbing incarnation of twentieth century decadence.
In A Frolic of His Own Gaddis turns his satirical eye to America’s runaway legal system. The protagonist, Oscar Crease, a history teacher and playwright, files countless frivolous lawsuits, at one point suing himself because he was run over by his own car, a red Sosumi. His hilarious machinations are exposed through fragments of legal discourse, including briefs, depositions, opinions, jury instructions, and an excerpt from Oscar’s play about the Civil War, which is evidence in a copyright infringement case. Meaningless lawsuits multiply as Oscar wields the law to the letter but without its moral spirit.
Gaddis’s final novel, published posthumously, was Agapē Agape. At only 128 pages, it is significantly shorter than any of his other works, but it compresses his philosophy of the world and of writing into a single distillation. The plot involves a dying writer attempting to complete his final work, a social history of the player piano, presented in a stream-of-consciousness monologue in which the writer’s concern about his work is intertwined with his thoughts on the process of work and the effects of technology–epitomized by the player piano, which does not need a pianist in order to create music–in stifling artistic creativity.
In his novels, each filled with echoes from classic works of literature, Gaddis depicts a corrupt America driven by stupidity and greed. His characters search for redemption through individual control, love, and art, but it is uncertain that their efforts are equal to the grim environs in which their battles are waged.