Jason's Reviews > A Frolic of His Own

A Frolic of His Own by William Gaddis
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's review
May 21, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: postmodernism, humor
Read from November 20 to December 26, 2011

Gaddis has one of the most unique narrative styles I've come across, and it's the style that really makes this novel. Written almost entirely in unattributed dialogue, Frolic is about a pretentious would-be playwright who sues the producers of a blockbuster gore fest of a Civil War movie which the playwright alleges infringes on his unpublished/never-performed play on the same subject. What ensues is a zany tangle of lawsuits, countersuits, ethical violations galore, and family infighting which together form a long, dense attack on American popular culture, religion, and most obviously the legal profession/industry and the absurdly strong American impulse to litigate.

The reason to read Gaddis is for his use of dialogue. When I think of lifelike dialogue, I typically think of writers like Salinger who have an excellent ear for dialogue that sounds as if people were really talking, but with grammar that is better suited for the page than the fragments most people actually speak in. If you've ever read the transcript of a deposition or trial, you understand how awful it can be to read the way even really smart people actually talk. Well, Gaddis pulls off the seemingly impossible feat of writing dialogue in the halting, fragmented syntax people actually use in the real world, but which is punchy and beautiful and extremely fun to read. He even includes a full-length deposition right in the novel. Which is not to say that the characters do not employ uncharacteristically intelligent vocabularies and witty epigrams.

And the strength of Gaddis's dialogue is not just how lifelike it is, but how Gaddis uses unattributed spoken word to develop character and drive plot with almost no exposition at all. Once you get into the book, you have very little difficulty knowing who is talking, who is present, what the characters are doing and thinking, and how much time is elapsing -- all without a narrator telling you any of this explicitly or with physical detail outside of the characters' speech. In addition to dialogue, Gaddis also adds in the full text of legal opinions, briefs and depositions, as well as most of the protagonist's play, as if to say that we understand the world only in text as it exists in the real world. In fact, the 1% or so of the novel in which Gaddis reverts to exposition is the book's primary weakness. I can't imagine why he decided to let dialogue and interior texts carry so much weight of the novel without carrying the whole of it.

Another problem with the novel is that Gaddis gets so deep into the law that he was bound to make a few glaring legal errors, such as a confusion of federalism and preemption issues, and improper use of legal terms of art like "judicial notice." Small blunders which really stand out. While the amount of legal research Gaddis obviously did is impressive, the solid grasp he has on copyright law and even federal procedure only make his errors all the more glaring. I read this book shortly after finishing The Floating Opera by John Barth, which I felt used a more optimal amount of legal discussion to critique the law. By diving in as deeply as Gaddis did here, he was bound to get some things wrong.

I also tend to get tired of the self-consciously heavy-handed puns that some of the old guard postmodernists just can't resist, like naming the car manufacturer at the heart of a products liability suit "Sosumi" and calling the white shoe firm defending the copyright suit "Swine & Dour." It's kind of Gaddis's schtick, but stuff like that wears a little thin for me.

Overall though, Gaddis is clearly a formidable voice in the 20th Century canon, and it's amazing to me that it took me so long to hear about him. I've frequently looked for his titles at bookstores and found that almost nobody carries his stuff. I think his work deserves to be read if for no other reason than his incredible narrative style.

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