Brian's Reviews > JR

JR by William Gaddis
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's review
Jun 10, 2012

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bookshelves: novels
Read from June 15 to August 25, 2012

Genre and literary fiction are different. After reading JR, Cloud Atlas, Zazen, and a few other books this year, I think I'm finally starting to learn a bit more about those differences. Consider (and I promise to bring this discussion back to JR, bear with me):

The Wizard of Oz. It’s about a girl trapped in another world, and the enemies and friends she makes while trying to get home. Every sentence forwards that story. The book could not be any shorter and still tell that story. The book has a beginning, middle and end.

Anathem. It’s about a kid who grows up in a mathematical monastery, but his life is upended when aliens visit his world. Every chapter of the book is focused on telling that story. The author engages in some interesting asides about mathematics and philosophy; these add interest to the story without advancing the plot much. The story has a beginning, a middle, and (somewhat surprisingly for a Stephenson novel) an end.

Infinite Jest. It’s about what happens to a tennis student whose father created the most dangerous video in history, and the recovering drug addict destined to help him find it. MOST of the book is focused on telling that story, but not all of it. It has a beginning and a middle, but no end. The story’s left dangling at the end of the book, although you can piece together bits of the end of the story if you read closely.

J R. It’s about an 11-year-old boy who is a financial genius and secretly creates a multinational corporation from a public school pay phone. But not really; the author has other goals besides telling that story. MOST of the book is not related to that story line at all. The book really only has a middle; there’s no beginning or end in the conventional sense. The story is simply a clothes hanger for the author to display the larger fish he has to fry … stylistic experimentation and a singularly grim treatise on the relation of art and work in late capitalism.

Finnegan's Wake. I'm not even going to get into it, partly because I haven't finished it (who has?) and partly because if you know anything about that book, you already know the facts about it that are relevant to this discussion. It's the epitome of the "difficult literary book."

This short summary partly describes the spectrum between pure genre fiction and literary fiction. I seem to be happiest somewhere in the middle; I found Oz and JR both somewhat trying, while Anathem and Infinite Jest were top-notch. As writers abandon story, they start to experiment with other aspects of text. I'm sure that can be compelling in the right hands -- Joyce and Gaddis simply don't hold much attraction for me. I've had an opportunity, with the #OccupyGaddis group, to read this book more deeply than I'm used to. That experience, more than the book itself, was unique, compelling, and enjoyable.

I think 400 pages of the middle of this book lift right out, leaving a much better book. I also think Gaddis would be horrified at the very idea, and probably considered those 400 pages the soul of the book. And who the hell am I to take an ax to a National Book Award winner? My likes and dislikes are not necessarily relevant to a true literary analysis, although neither are they immaterial. I find it hard to look past them, however, which is probably why pomo texts were part of what turned me away from a literature degree.

In that middle 400 pages, drunken Gibbs’ ranting and Whitebeck’s insipid stammering are hackneyed, tin-eared, and ultimately poisonous to reader communication. Gibbs’ dialogue, in particular, resembles the very worst sections of Stephen King’s prose, with endlessly repeated phraselet motifs that don’t get any deeper or more meaningful when they’re repeated 37 times. After 10 pages of Whitebeck, there's not a reader alive who wouldn't get the point that bureaucrats and bankers don't listen to anyone but themselves. But you don't get 10 pages, you get 150.

Having said all that: J R certainly does have a unique effect on the reader, and as you round the final curve, somewhere around Rhoda's soliloquy to Gibbs in the squalid 96th St. apartment, that effect begins to shift from annoyance to a quiet frisson. You begin to think back over the book and realize the amazing things Gaddis has achieved ... that he's written a novel entirely without any hint of internal experience; that he's painted perhaps the most damning and accurate portrait of work and finance in America between Sinclair Lewis and Douglas Coupland; and that between the lines of J R, he has described life in the 1970s in a way that I, as a child of that decade, found compelling and darkly nostalgic.

I'm conflicted about J R, and about this review. I hope the above sums up my different thoughts, but if not, here's a one sentence summary: Here's a good book that I'd not read again.

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