The Most Surprising Page-Turner I Ever Read You should see my copy of JR. In the course of a month, it went from a pristine Dalkey Archives* doorstop tThe Most Surprising Page-Turner I Ever Read You should see my copy of JR. In the course of a month, it went from a pristine Dalkey Archives* doorstop to "this is your novel after meth." Round about 250pgs, I found that the spine had cracked in several places. The corners are peeling back. And the spills: water-drips, whiskey, Old Style, some major bread-crumbage, chili, KFC special sauce, and coffee, eversomuch coffee. One afternoon I found a grain of fried rice tucked between the pages.
I mean I carried this thing with me like mono. Intimidated by its size and reputation, imagine my surprise when I found myself losing sleep because I couldn't put JR down. Which is not to say it was a beach read, but which is also not to say it was a headache - more on that later, for now all you need to know is I wasn't twisting my arm to skip to the finish line.
In my bedroom, the reading chair sits next to an open window, and whenever I eased in & popped open JR, I'd get all these cheap ringtones, irate Spanglish phone conversations, and pop radio, all breathing through my right ear. When that got old, I'd hike up to the local coffee/kitsch hub, assaulted by espresso machines, shouted orders, soul records, sometimes live jazz. In transit, in the park, even in the library I seemed to draw a lot of noise the second I cracked the (apparently fragile) spine.
Which is appropriate, considering. You know that JR is written in mostly unattributed dialogue. No chapter or scene breaks - just a sea of unfinished sentences, radio ads, music, needy phones, traffic, construction, clattering subway cars, broken faucets. In Gaddis' vision of America, the corporate world has become so intrusive that sitting down to make art is almost impossible without the modern noise of "buy buy buy" somehow slithering into the senses to stop one short. Bleak. On the other hand, the fact that myself and many others have braved the 21st-century noise-deluge to tackle Big Books About Everything, shucks I'd say that's pretty hopeful. It certainly helps that Gaddis' JR is potentially the funniest thing I've ever read, but also scathing, musical, erudite, learned, heartbreaking, I mean a page-turner worth spilling your food on.
Gimme the broad strokes, Fink People's shoes get mentioned a lot in JR. J R also being the name of this here 6th grader who takes a field trip to buy some stock, and picks up some neat tricks on how you only spend money to make money. You listening? So anyway this guy Edward Bast is a young & unstable composer caught up in an inheritance fiasco, and J R uses him to do the grownup business stuff, you know, buying stocks, buying businesses, meeting with laywers, composing zebra music. Only this Bast, see, is really disgusted with all this money talk. He falls in with some drunk writers (Gibbs & Eigen) while his family weirds around this here inheritance & family business. The Long Island elementary school, boy there's a sorry load of folks, misapproprurating funds and all.
So there's some greed, some incest, a bunch of Wagner, hearing vs listening, the commodification of art, and my favorite theme, failure. Not to mention the children.
The Kids Aren't Alright
—And there's this twelve thousand dollars [school-budget]item for books. —That's supposed to be twelve hundred, the twelve thousand should be paper towels. Besides, there's already that bequest for books in the library. —Did it say books in so many words? No. It's just a bequest for the library. —Use it for a pegboard. You need a pegboard in a library. Books you don't know what you're getting into. (pg 25)
I am a victim of public schooling - worse so, a very rural, abstinence-only-sex-education-type public schooling, underfunded, hardly-accredited, lawless-Thunderdome public schooling. Perhaps there is an alternate universe where I wasn't as driven by trailer-park lonesomeness, where my parents weren't bright people who taught me by making mistakes, where there was no handful of teachers who believed in me - perhaps there I am still trapped in the boondocks under a carnivorous system. Education is my "go-to social issue" (do not confuse this with a desire to teach), and the school system portions of JR are unsurprisingly my favorites.
—...it has nothing to do with curricular anything. The function of this school is custodial. It's here to keep these kids off the streets until the girls are big enough to get pregnant and the boys are old enough to go out and hold up a gas station, it's strictly custodial and the rest is plumbing. If these teachers of yours strike just sit still and keep the doors open, by the time these kids have been lying around the house for a week their parents will march the teachers back in at gunpoint. (pg 226)
The way in which adults treat children in JR is fascinating. Each field trip scene is polluted with choruses of anonymous "Mr Bast we going to a movie?," "When we eat Mrs Joubert," "What's this mean mister...," answered with swatted hands and pipe-down-back-theres. Ann DiCephalis is, by day, a hyperliberal crusader of education-reform; at home we see her at the dinner table, asking little Nora to catch up Mr DiCephalis on her Brownie-points then immediately cutting her off - without warning that evening, the Mrs tries to get the Mr to demonstrate Kama-Sutric sex in front of their children, both younger than 10 yrs. These grown-ups, who have voluntarily entered positions of teaching & parenthood, fucking suck dick at guiding children into maturity. When a kid isn't being ignored, he or she is being scolded; in Principal Whiteback's office, grown men play god with educational funds, dissolving special education ("...looks like we've got the retreads in there now, the..." "Retards that's supposed to be, that's the..." "Retards, right. A little trouble with your machine printout here Dan. Retards.") and eventually the entire kindergarten grade - tactical decisions advancing these men investmentwise, PRwise. Even Edward Bast stuffs a dime into a girl's hand so she'll quit interrupting his flirt-game. Every family is broken, plagued by divorce; Eigen's ending marriage reads like Tennessee Williams in Long Island, and towards the end of the novel J R is concocting a plan to get Bast dividends by way of marrying and divorcing an heiress in a line that made me shudder: "...then you get this divorce just like everybody hey Bast?" And poor, bitter Gibbs drunkenly reveals his childhood of being swept into boarding school, which taught him that children are always underfoot, "in the way."
These adults are collapsing under the weight of worries monetary & emotional; they're so spent from the aforementioned modern noise, its ubiquitous screamings of capitalism and culture, and let us not forget advertising, designed to make you feel bad enough about yourself to drop money - it's no wonder these adults are dismissive & negligent of the children in JR. Taking hold of Gaddis' entropy-hardon, I predict the kids here will grow up ignorant with a chance of jaded - after all, just miming their role models.
Reading these interactions reminded me of how lonely childhood often is. J R, who is one of my absolute favorite characters in all of literature ever, is so wholly unaware of how real his decisions are. To J R, it's all just figures on paper, and though his actions are disgusting, he is doing what most all of us were doing at 11: copying grownups. Kid can't even tie his shoes right and he's a Paper Empire mogul because a high-ranking stock-player told him to "play to win."
We learn little about J R's home life, aside from a quiet reference to his mother being a busy nurse, rarely home. Halfway through the novel, Gibbs catches J R making deals in the phonebooth, his filthy hanky masking the mouthpiece in an attempt to age his voice. As his wont, J R, always on, claims the hanky is just a precaution against potential flu-germs. So this:
—And that indescribable wad of, of cloth protects you from contamination? —Yes well, see like it's the only one I have see so... —Then let me make you a gift...and the initialed square came unfurling from the breast pocket of the jacket, —on condition you drop that one in the first wastebasket you see. —Well sure I, I mean that's neat thank you, that's neat... —It's certainly not neat but it's a little neater than the one you're giving up, so you don't have to thank me. —No but, but I mean people don't usually give me things, you know? Gibbs stopped the door, staring at him there, and then he cleared his throat —well, well then, you're welcome... (pgs 337-338)
Did I get misty reading this scene on the train? You tell me.
Textual Seduction A quick note on writers reading Gaddis: I happen to be a writer who is very sensitive to language. I lose interest in prose that clearly doesn't give a shit. So I'm always excited when an author not only finds a new way to utilize the language of storytelling, but when they've found a damn good reason to do so. Gaddis' loud, opaque, overwhelming style of dialogue in JR is inseparable from its substance. This is not assy for the sake of assiness.
But that linguistic sensitivity is hell on my writing. When I binge on DeLillo, I find that all of my characters are suddenly speaking DeLilloese. My first month in Chicago I was finishing up Grapes of Wrath, and for the bulk of that semester every one of my characters inexplicably became an Okie. And every young writer knows that Too Much McCarthy Makes the Baby Go Blind**. A few weeks ago I ruined a perfectly mediocre story trying to imitate Gaddis, em-dashes, ellipses & etc. Even as I was writing the story, I said to myself, c'mon Watkins, this doesn't need that touch.
Folks talk about Gaddis being the fellow who "perfected" dialogue, but I prefer to say he nailed it for exactly what his novels needed. Imagine if this were the standard. Eugh. But what grace! The misheard words (from J R's "subsiderrary" to a grown adult's use of "epitaph" instead of "epigraph," a mistake I have heard other grown, college-educated peers of mine make), the breathy cut-off monologues, the over-and-under saturation of commas, those bureaucratic nonsense words that have been parodied to pitch-perfection from Kafka & Krzhizhanovsky to Saunders & Foster Wallace. Nobody would read this fucking thing if the dialogue didn't rule. But if you're a person who writes fiction, use Gaddis with caution.
Rick Moody, in his pleasant introduction to this edition, bends over backwards swearing to you that JR is "entertaining and not difficult at all." Eggers does the same thing in his intro to Infinite Jest, claiming that you won't go running to the dictionary every page of this one, nosiree. They're a couple of goddamn liars. JR is a ton of fun: much like Pynchon, a lot of it can be boiled down to highly literary Tom & Jerry with some philosophy & history peppered in for good measure. There's a scene wherein a lawyer tracks down some dishonest money to find that most of it has been spent on a defunct rollercoaster. But every reader is bringing a different skillset to the table. I had the advantage of reading Carpenter's Gothic about a month before picking up JR, written in the same style, so "getting into the dialogue" wasn't as jarring for me as it may be for a Gaddis first-timer.
I can breeze through pages of dialogue in JR, laughing, uncovering the intricate web of character connections, shaking my fists at the gods who damned us to such a corrupt world...but then I'll get to these transitions of narrative prose, and the train slows down. You'd see me fidgeting, looking around, checking my watch, hell I don't even wear a watch. I mean like comma-dry paragraphs that read like Woolf on peyote, these transitions between scenes that follow zephyrs or pockets of sunshine halfway across Long Island and drop you into the middle of some strangers' conversation. Those prose bits range from breathtaking/immaculate to hyper-literary bullshit. Cool, Gaddis, you found the prettiest and most opaque way to let us know a day passed. You are very well read and very misunderstood. Anybody who says this book is "99% dialogue" must've skimmed the shit out of the transitions. Dense Dense Revolution.
Don't even get me started on the huge chunks of stock market jargon - as long as you can gather the basic who-is-buying-what of those scenes, you're golden. But much like in DeLillo's End Zone, you'll be saturated in this exclusive language that may be incomprehensible, but you'll have to find the beauty in it regardless. Gaddis spent a lot of years in the world of finance: he knows his shit here so that you don't have to.
The novel is also always entertaining, if not a bit slow-going. Bast mentions how Wagner opens Rhinegold with over one hundred bars of the same note. I think Gaddis subscribed to the modernist idea of really kicking the reader around at the beginning of your novel, just so they know what they're in for. Status? Contract?
Recommended: Read Carpenter's Gothic first; re-read the transitions aloud; use the Gaddis Annotations in case of emergency; have a fun summer book club.
The Geometry of Business In both JR and CG, Gaddis reveals conspiracy & injustice by continually zooming out to reveal the complex scaffolding of shifting power dynamics. Nothing is as it seems. Entropy, chaos theory, etc. We see stockfolk trying to get to natural resources in Africa, circumventing a violent revolution that their enterprise caused. These businessmen are foremost concerned with their public image & newspaper statements, discussing the violent coup strictly in terms of their own gain. It's just the covering of one's own ass (big ups to Nixon & Regan). J R pulls a similar move early in the novel, calculating figures while ignoring the fact that a classmate may have been lost on a field trip.
While Gibbs and the other lowlife artists in JR find themselves hooked on gambling, boozing, and banging, the money-players seem to be dehumanized via their vice-lessness - unless you count money. "Cash rules everything around me / C.R.E.A.M, get the money / dolla dolla bills, ya'll." Method Man's influential hook on "C.R.E.A.M" is often misunderstood as some praise of excess; in context with the verses, it speaks to how everything ever comes back to money, and those who have it hold the power. Consider it JR's mission statement to observe how cash rules everything.
The novel is, to use an outdated, flash-in-the-pan term, a "systems novel," meaning it's this here sprawling analysis of how social, economic, governmental, and personal infrastructures play off eachother & impact their tenants. The connections never stop; the geometry of business is drawn in three dimensions.
In Which the Reviewer Draws the Whitest Analogy Ever YA'LL IT'S LIKE THE WIRE IN THAT WAY, alright, glad I got that out in the open. Hey, Jack Gibbs as Jimmy McNulty? Huh? Anybody else want to play this game with me? You listening?
Meet Me at the Dollar Bin Satire. The ideal blend of high- and low-comedy. Splendid form. Relevant "even more now than when it was written" (said everyone about any book featuring social commentary). Challenging work that pays off. No book was written for everyone. Nobody should read the titans out of obligation alone; read if its ambition sparks your curiosity, or if it's your favorite author's favorite novel. Read it or don't. Whether or not you carry it with you through the modern noise, JR will be waiting - not to supply answers, but to entertain and enlighten. And what else are you going to do with your money?
Looking out the window Dreaming 'bout this money Baby girl left me and that's all she get from me Ain't nothing left when these days ain't sunny No smile on my face, just trying to get this money***
*The handsome Dalkey copy also has a super-smudgy cover. And riddle me this, why did Dalkey skim on the margins? Penguin 20th Century Classics has margins for days, what gives? **Unintentional Outer Dark spoiler ***Jeremiah Jae's "Money," from the album 'Raw Money Raps'...more