J R is the long-awaited novel from William Gaddis, author of The Recognitions, that tremendous book which, in the twenty years since its publication, has come to be acknowledged as an American masterpiece. And J R is a book of comparable magnitude, substance, and humor--a rushing, raucous look at money and its influence, at love and its absence, at success and its failures, in the magnificently orchestrated circus of all its larger- and smaller-than-life characters; a frantic, forlorn comedy about who uses -- and misuses -- whom.
At the center: J R, ambitious sixth-grader in torn sneakers, bred on the challenge of "free enterprise" and fired by heady mail-order promises of "success." His teachers would rather be elsewhere, his principal doubles as a bank president, his Long Island classroom mirrors the world he sees around him -- a world of public relations and private betrayals where everything (and everyone) wears a price tag, a world of "deals" where honesty is no substitute for experience, and the letter of the law flouts its spirit at every turn. Operating from the remote anonymity of phone booths and the local post office, with beachheads in a seedy New York cafeteria and a catastrophic, carton-crammed tenement on East 96th Street, J R parlays a deal for thousands of surplus Navy picnic forks through penny stock flyers and a distant textile-mill bankruptcy into a nationwide, hydra-headed "family of companies."
The J R Corp and its Boss engulf brokers, lawyers, Congressmen, disaffected school teachers and disenfranchised Indians, drunks, divorcées, second-hand generals, and a fledgling composer hopelessly entangled in a nightmare marriage of business and the arts. Their bullish ventures -- shaky mineral claims and gas leases, cost-plus defense contracts, a string of nursing homes cum funeral parlors, a formula for frozen music -- burgeon into a paper empire ranging from timber to textiles, from matchbooks to (legalized) marijuana, from prostheses to publishing, inadvertently crushing hopes, careers, an entire town, on a collision course with the bigger world . . . the pragmatic Real World where the business of America is business, where the stock market exists as a convenience, and the tax laws make some people more equal than others . . . the world that makes the rules because it plays to win, and plays for keeps.
Absurdly logical, mercilessly real, gathering its own tumultuous momentum for the ultimate brush with commodity trading when the drop in pork belly futures masks the crumbling of our own, J R captures the reader in the cacophony of voices that revolves around this young captive of his own myths -- voices that dominate the book, talking to each other, at each other, into phones, on intercoms, from TV screens and radios -- a vast mosaic of sound that sweeps the reader into the relentless "real time" of spoken words in a way unprecedented in modern fiction. The disturbing clarity with which this finished writer captures the ways in which we deal, dissemble, stumble through our words -- through our lives -- while the real plans are being made elsewhere makes J R the extraordinary novel that it is.
William Gaddis was the author of five novels. He was born in New York December 29, 1922. The circumstances why he left Harvard in his senior year are mysterious. He worked for The New Yorker for a spell in the 1950s, and absorbed experiences at the bohemian parties and happenings, to be later used as material in The Recognitions. Travel provided further resources of experience in Mexico, in Costa Rica, in Spain and Africa and, perhaps strangest to imagine of him, he was employed for a few years in public relations for a pharmaceutical corporation.
The number of printed interviews with Gaddis can be counted on one hand: he wondered why anyone should expect an author to be at all interesting, after having very likely projected the best of themselves in their work. He has been frequently compared with Joyce, Nabokov, and especially Pynchon.
Gaddis’s first novel, The Recognitions (1955) is a 956-page saga of forgery, pretension, and desires misguided and inexpressible. Critical response to the book ranged from cool to hostile, but in most cases (as Jack Green took pains to show in his book of rebuke, Fire the Bastards!). Reviewers were ill-prepared to deal with the challenge, and evidently many who began to read The Recognitions did not finish. The novel’s sometimes great leaps in time and location and the breadth and arcane pedigree of allusions are, it turns out, fairly mild complications for the reader when compared with what would become the writer’s trademark: the unrestrained confusion of detached and fragmentary dialogue.
Gaddis’s second book, JR (1975) won the National Book Award. It was only a 726 pages long driven by dialogue. The chaos of the unceasing deluge of talk of JR drove critics to declare the text “unreadable”. Reading Gaddis is by no means easy, but it is a more lacerating and artfully sustained attack on capitalism than JR, and The Recognitions.
Carpenter's Gothic (1985) offered a shorter and more accessible picture of Gaddis's sardonic worldview. The continual litigation that was a theme in that book becomes the central theme and plot device in A Frolic of His Own (1994)—which earned him his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. There are even two Japanese cars called the Isuyu and the Sosumi.
His final work was the novella Agapē Agape which was published in 2002. Gaddis died at home in East Hampton, New York, of prostate cancer on December 16th, 1998.