Eddie Watkins's Reviews > The Recognitions

The Recognitions by William Gaddis
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May 01, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: american-fiction

I'm actually not finished reading this yet. I'm saving the last hundred pages or so, just to savor them. I did the same thing when I read through all of Proust. Sometimes I just don't want to finish a book.

This thing sat on my shelf for almost 20 years before I read it. I was intimidated by it, but I also wasn't too turned on by sections I would occassionally read. So it took me 20 years to recognize how wonderful it is. And what's strange is that it was a Recognition.

I read somewhere that Harold Bloom called the book uncanny, how strange things happen around it, and then he went on to tell how a copy of it mysteriously ended up in his briefcase. I had a couple uncanny things happen while I was reading it too. Like finding details from dreams of mine from the night before in the book while reading in the morning. And then one time my wife wanted to know how I'd know to come home from a party when she wanted me to come home. I told her I'd wear an alarm clock around my neck set to that time. The day after I told her this a character was introduced in the book whose distinguishing characteristic was that he wore an alarm clock around his neck. It doesn't necessarily mean anything, but I'd still call the coincidence uncanny.
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06/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-44 of 44) (44 new)

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Bram Great review--and good to know I'm not the only Proust-savorer. I really don't want it to end.

Maybe this will be my next big book.


Eddie Watkins Thanks Bram! Which reminds me - I still need to read the last few pages of this.

The Recognitions really is great. Nothing like Proust, but great.


message 3: by Bram (last edited Sep 09, 2009 01:59PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Good to know, thanks Eddie--I saw another reference to Proust in Matt's comment section of this book, so my next question was actually going to be about whether they were similar.



message 4: by KFed (new) - added it

KFed Cool review. I've got both this and JR in my collection, and can't wait to read them. Why don't people talk about Gaddis more? I've never encountered him in an English class or even heard him mentioned. I wonder if that might be possible to change.


Eddie Watkins I'm not sure why he's not talked about more. But the people who like him really like him.

I left my copy of The Recognitions on my shelf for so long it nearly dry rotted, and now the same is happening to my copy of JR. JR seems very daunting to me. It's nearly all dialogue with no indication who's speaking, and it's very long.


message 6: by KFed (new) - added it

KFed It is... Isn't that part of the attraction? =)


message 7: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Well, the first 70 pages of Recognitions are certainly great, but it's been a big disappointment to me after that. I'm about 400 pages into it, and it's never come close to matching the terrific beginning. I'm not very enthused about continuing, to be honest. I wish I had instead read Brother K or Man Without Qualities or another huge epic I've yet to conquer.


Eddie Watkins Kameron wrote: "It is... Isn't that part of the attraction? =)"

I know, I should rise to the challenge.




message 9: by Eddie (last edited Sep 10, 2009 04:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eddie Watkins Jason wrote: "Well, the first 70 pages of Recognitions are certainly great, but it's been a big disappointment to me after that. I'm about 400 pages into it, and it's never come close to matching the terrific b..."

Wow Jason, I'm surprised. I actually got about 400 pages in and started all over I liked it so much. I remember some longueurs, like party scenes that got repetitive, and maybe some of the stuff with the crazy woman writer, but other than that it was as if every word was significant and carried its own power and weight.






Jimmy This is my favorite novel.


Jimmy Hands down ... over anything else that I've read so far.


Jimmy I adore this book.


message 13: by Eddie (last edited Sep 10, 2009 04:15AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eddie Watkins Jimmy wrote: "I adore this book."

I'm glad you stepped in here. Jason might benefit from hearing your take on it. For that matter, I'd like to hear your take on it.



message 14: by Bram (last edited Sep 10, 2009 06:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Kameron wrote: "Cool review. I've got both this and JR in my collection, and can't wait to read them. Why don't people talk about Gaddis more? I've never encountered him in an English class or even heard him menti..."

Yeah, Gaddis is yet another name that I've only recently encountered. I love this site.

For those of you who've read some or all of this book, are there similarities to any other author/book?


message 15: by John (new)

John Regarding "similarities" to Gaddis, I'd mention is his own later novels, in particular JR, which for my money is an even greater masterpiece --though that abused word also regains some of its original force when applied to RECOGNITIONS, mos def. I've got a 5-star for JR, here on the site. Anyway, Eddie, hats off. Jason, try this: what you call slowness is also richness, a scrupulous rendering of a counterfeit world, smothering whatever's genuine & good under crazy-making materialist weight.


message 16: by Eddie (last edited Sep 10, 2009 06:50AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eddie Watkins I'd say there's a strong Joyce (Ulysses) influence on The Recognitions, in the language itself (a kind of precise steeliness) and the overarching and ambitious symbol systems, but it's tempered by a NY 50's Beat party culture which Gaddis was in the thick of.


message 17: by Bram (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Sounds fantastic--thanks for weighing in John and Eddie (and very nice JR review, John).

I've spent the morning reading about Gaddis instead of working...it's pretty much inevitable that I will be heading to a bookstore during my lunch break.


message 18: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 10, 2009 09:17AM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I'm only about a hundred pages in (and set it aside for other things, I tend to do this kind of juggling with books these days) but "precise steeliness" just struck me as a really good description of his prose style. I really enjoyed the first hundred pages and plan on getting back to it soon. One thing I'm not crazy about (which Greg points out in his review) is the way the dialog becomes confusing at times, in the sense of not knowing who's doing the talking. The lack of certain punctuation and indentation was a very minor annoyance to me.


Eddie Watkins MyFleshSingsOut wrote: "I'm only about a hundred pages in (and set it aside for other things, I tend to do this kind of juggling with books these days) but "precise steeliness" just struck me as a really good description ..."

I don't remember that about the dialogue, but he must've liked it because the entirety of his next novel is that way.




message 20: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 10, 2009 07:52AM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Fans of The Recognitions may also want to check out this book that Jimmy (#1 Fan of Gaddis in my mind) lead me to called Fire the Bastards! which is a critical analysis of something like 55 of the first reviews (almost all of the first reviews were negative) of The Recognitions and from what I've gathered basically calls these critics out on their laziness and basically proves that many of them hadn't even read much of the book at all while also generally rising heroically to the book's defense.


message 21: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Eddie, there are certainly virtues to Recognitions: many of his sentences, his fascinating integration of research about painting and counterfeiting, the novel's ambitious scope.

But there are an equal number of things to dislike: the bland characters (once Wyatt's dynamic father and aunt leave the picture), the extremely unrealistic dialogue, the lack of focus. There are about a hundred pages concerning Wyatt's first marriage that are damn close to unbearable.

It's surely not a bad novel at the halfway point, especially for a debut, but given the level of hyperbole in some of the reviews here, I'd have to say an overrated one. If it were all as strong as the beginning, I'd have no qualms about calling it great so far, but instead I'm hard pressed to dub it more than "decent."

I wish I'd started with JR instead, although given my dislike so far for Gaddis's dialogue, maybe a dialogue-heavy novel would be a mistake.


message 22: by Eddie (last edited Sep 10, 2009 09:41AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Eddie Watkins Jason, very well put and also very interesting. It's always good to hear dissenting intelligent opinions.

I read this a year or two ago but I do remember the opening being very strong, almost like he was trying to create a powerful first impression, and I also remember the writing as being very different in different sections (not necessarily of greater or lesser quality, just different approaches and techniques for different purposes), but I didn't think the characters were bland and I don't generally care if dialogue is realistic or not just as long as it's not dialect.


Jimmy John wrote: "Regarding "similarities" to Gaddis, I'd mention is his own later novels, in particular JR, which for my money is an even greater masterpiece --though that abused word also regains some of its origi..."

I agree that JR is his masterpiece. The Recognitions is an amazing novel, but even Gaddis has attested to the fact that it was written by a much more naive writer. JR, despite its length and complete lack of structure, is actually a formal masterpiece; in a way, the book's lack of structure makes it so pristine, like a well-contained cycle. It's difficult to explain. Anyway, he just seemed to have very clear intentions the second time around.


message 24: by Jimmy (last edited Sep 10, 2009 10:15AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jimmy Jason wrote: "the extremely unrealistic dialogue

I've heard people mention this before, and to be perfectly honest, it's surprising. I couldn't possibly agree less with any other criticism of the book, and I'll admit that The Recognitions has many flaws, it's just that I hardly think that this is one of them.

I mean, dialogue is basically intended to serve the overall theme of a given novel anyway, if that is your problem with it, which I could see that being the issue in the first part with Wyatt and his father, as well as Aunt May. Dialogue is an unavoidable contrivance, but Gaddis has clearly went both ways because JR captured the real-time essence of people speaking in conversation, as least for a novel anyway.

Keep in mind too, that dialogue in the context of The Recognitions was intended to sound a bit ridiculous. Gaddis was trying to write a great black comedy, one basically lacking in clearly defined heroes. That in mind, it stands to reason that a lot of the dialogue, especially in the center of the novel (much of the Greenwich Villiage, Modernist satire) which was supposed to sound like a bunch of fraudulent bohemian phonies.

It's really his dialogue that I cherish the most.




Jimmy Oh, and if anyone is interested, this is probably one of the most fascinating author-devoted websites out there.

http://www.williamgaddis.org/


message 26: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Jimmy wrote: "Jason wrote: "the extremely unrealistic dialogue

I've heard people mention this before, and to be perfectly honest, it's surprising. I couldn't possibly agree less with any other criticism of the..."


Jimmy, the party dialogue Gaddis satirizes is probably his best use of it, although he goes to the well too often and it becomes repetitive.

To me Gaddis fails repeatedly in dialogue not because it's pointless but because he puts an absurd amount of contrived development into the mouths of his characters. Even Esme, a zoned-out junkie, rambles on for pages at a time about every nuance of Wyatt's personality and art. It's silly and distracting. This type of forced dialogue is forgivable in nineteenth-century novels, but not in one from the fifties, IMO.

If readers value detailed information above all in dialogue, then Gaddis could be considered a success; otherwise, by any other stretch, his dialogue is rather contrived and often laughable. He has his moments with satirical zingers, though.

Eddie, I'll take a look at JR someday to see how his use of dialogue developed, thanks.


Jimmy Jason wrote: "Jimmy wrote: "Jason wrote: "the extremely unrealistic dialogue

I've heard people mention this before, and to be perfectly honest, it's surprising. I couldn't possibly agree less with any other cr..."


I can agree with most of that. You're right, you should read JR, his dialogue matured to a considerable degree in that novel. I still think that, at times, the dialogue gathers a great deal of momentum and rhythm, maybe it's the more ponderous moments of the book that indulge in what you seem to think is poor dialogue. As I mentioned, these people are mainly caricatures of artist types, which would lead me to think that contrived dialogue might suit them well enough.






Jimmy Also, just to gather some context here, can you cite an example of what you think is good dialogue?


message 29: by Jason (new) - added it

Jason Yeah, surely there are plenty of moments where the pompous discussion is meant as a send up of those characters. But it's those other times, the important descriptions of, say, Wyatt's project, where I wish Gaddis had not posed the elaborate opinions as dialogue. I don't fault the information given, just the delivery.

I would have forgiven the dialogue more if I didn't think Wyatt, Otto, et al. were such weak characters compared to the early reverend and pious aunt, who were both strong and interesting. I'm still waiting for the Wyatt's dad to come back!

One thing I'm not hearing here is whether the second half of the book is different or better than the first half? If I haven't liked the last 300 pages, will I enjoy the rest?


message 30: by John (new)

John For what it's worth, count me as a lover/admirer of Gaddis' dialog. A number of his characters' lines -- like the haunting reiteration, "Is Christ watching?" from RECOGNITIONS -- are things I still find myself saying, at apt moments, or even inapt.

Great thread, here.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio There's a little conversation about unrealistic dialog in a thread beneath this one star review of White Noise. I just added a comment there and noticed the parallel to this conversation, and thought I'd mention it.


message 32: by Bram (last edited Sep 28, 2009 01:30PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Have you seen this fascinating 7 part series on Vermeer forgeries? http://morris.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/...

Supposedly, this is Gaddis' inspiration for Wyatt's career. I was just starting to wonder about this (having read the Times piece a couple months ago), and sure enough, Van Meegeren turned up in the online readers guide as Wyatt's real-life model.


Eddie Watkins Thanks for that Bram. I remember seeing that series in the NYT, but didn't make the connection. I started reading it when it was being published but it seemed too padded and protracted to me. But now that I know this I'll definitely go back and read it.




message 34: by Bram (last edited Sep 29, 2009 05:14AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram It's definitely padded and protracted with many divergences. The parts about the Vermeer forgeries are truly fascinating though--it's amazing how thoroughly Van Meegeren fooled the art world (and not that long ago). Although I haven't read very far into The Recognitions, I'm sure this will add to the genuineness (ha) of the art forgery plot.


Eddie Watkins It's amazing he fooled anyone because that first repro looks nothing like Vermeer to my eyes. I remember the fact that people nearly willed themselves to be fooled as being a part of Morris' essay.

In case you haven't seen it - Orson Welles' F for Fake would be a great film to watch in conjunction with The Recognitions.


message 36: by Bram (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Yeah, Van Meegeren's figures seem clearly different/inferior to my eyes, but I imagine there's nothing more tempting, for those enmeshed in the art world, than the potential discovery of old masters.

And thanks--I'll definitely check out the film.


message 37: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Sep 29, 2009 08:40AM) (new) - added it

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I've heard so many good things about F for Fake. I must get it soon.


Eddie Watkins It is excellent! and very thought provoking. Welles as easy-going prankster. Criterion came out with an edition a few years ago with some very good extras.


Jimmy Eddie wrote: "It's amazing he fooled anyone because that first repro looks nothing like Vermeer to my eyes. I remember the fact that people nearly willed themselves to be fooled as being a part of Morris' essay...."

I second the F is for Fake similarities. It's an excellent film.




Jimmy This, I believe, is one of the influential references that Gaddis used for Gwyon and Brown's little partnership in the novel.

http://www.nytimes.com/2001/03/18/mag...


message 41: by Bram (last edited Oct 07, 2009 10:37AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram Awesome article Jimmy--thanks for posting that. I would say that this definitely influenced Gaddis, but I was surprised to see that Hebborn was born in 1934. This means he would still have been a teenager while Gaddis was writing this. Is it possible that The Recognitions actually inspired Hebborn? Sounds crazy, but I can't help wondering after looking at the dates.

Anyway, I just got to the part where Mephistopheles (Recktall Brown) enters the story...really loving this. I was actually starting to wonder when/where the Faust would show up, as I know Gaddis originally set out to write some type of modern take on this story.


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio I can't believe I've still never read Faust. Someone kick me.

The Sorrows of Young Werther really appeals to me as well. So much to read!


message 43: by Bram (last edited Oct 07, 2009 10:47AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Bram I haven't either, MFSO. I picked it up at the same time as The Recognitions, intending to read it first. But I read the first few pages of Gaddis, and I didn't want to stop. For some reason, I always feel a tad guilty for reading things "out of order" like this, although I guess it's pretty much inevitable to some degree.


message 44: by John (new)

John When I *think* of all the great books I haven't read...


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