On William Gaddis

I’ve written a couple of pieces about the great US novelist William Gaddis recently. One is a review of his collection The Letters of William Gaddis (edited by Steven Moore, Dalkey Archive Press), which appears in the November issue of Australian Book Review -although note it’s behind the paywall. You can read the first paragraph (or the whole thing if you’re a subscriber of that excellent publication) here.

I also write a homage to William Gaddis that first appeared in the September issue of the SA Writers’ Centre magazine Southern Write. With thanks to the SA Writers’ Centre, it appears in full here:

Author – 2 – Author

Patrick Allington

I’m not generally a fan of so-called difficult novelists. Thomas Pynchon leaves me lukewarm, for instance. I’ve never tackled Proust and probably never will. But I make an exception with William Gaddis, the late, great giant of twentieth century US literature. Gaddis is undeniably hard work but I think he’s worth the fuss, his novels glorious ripostes to the complex and farce-filled world he witnessed, interpreted, railed against, and begrudgingly participated in.

I was in my mid-late-twenties when I discovered Gaddis, a period in my writing journey that I dedicated to ‘honing my craft’ (there’s some positive spin for you) but in truth more closely resembled jogging on the spot. I don’t remember why or how I picked up The Recognitions, Gaddis’s immense 1955 debut novel about art forgery, or what compelled me to keep reading the 950-odd (and 950 odd) pages that followed. Maybe I was trying to impress a girl (more jogging on the spot).

Re-reading the opening paragraphs now, for the umpteenth time, they still scream ‘ENTER AT OWN RISK’. But take a little time to get a feel for the rhythm of Gaddis’s dialogue-driven storytelling and his vision begins to unfold like a sardonic flower.

Many fiction writers influenced me as a child, from Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series to Roald Dahl to the great South Australian writer Colin Thiele (I thought of February Dragon just the other day, while I was redrafting a mangled bushfire scene in my novel-in-progress). A little later in life, as I started to take the idea of writing fiction seriously, I admired Peter Carey (some days, still, I take Illywhacker off the shelf and read a few lines or just grasp it in the hope that its magic will rub off on me), the seriously important George Orwell, the seriously weird Carson McCullers, the self-absorbed Gore Vidal, the visionary Margaret Atwood, and more.

In my reading life, William Gaddis came after all of those other writers. And he tops the lot. To explain why, I suppose I could dissect his writing and examine its elements one by one: its relentlessness, the crackling dialogue, Gaddis’s eye for visceral detail, his devastating wit, his inventiveness, his capacity to combine grace with sledgehammer force. But Gaddis’s genius is something more than all of that. I think of his novels as monuments I can climb all over, like Angkor Wat. Or the Giant Pineapple.

I read Gaddis’s novels in the order that he wrote them. His second book, JR, about an 11-year-old über capitalist, is his finest achievement. But I also particularly love A Frolic of His Own, in which, amongst much else, a man called Oscar sues himself.

Gaddis’s posthumously published Agapē Agape — even the title is forbidding — was the only one of his novels to appear after I started reading him. I can still remember the anticipation of its release, the hope of something truly great, the dread that it would be a dud. It’s a slim book, a distilled artistic howl: ‘that’s what I have to go into before all my work is misunderstood and distorted and, and turned into a cartoon because it is a cartoon, whole stupefied mob out there waiting to be entertained, turning the creative artist into a performer, into a celebrity like Byron, the man in the place of his work’.

On and on it goes, the narrator — like Gaddis himself — desperate to say his piece before the death he knows is coming silences him. I often dislike this sort of book — a self-absorbed character writing about writing — but I loved every medication-drenched word of Agapē Agape. But by then, I was biased. I hope that a little barracking is permissible in reading, just as it is in sport.

Like the narrator in Agapē Agape, Gaddis bemoaned the trend of treating the author as a talking head, as a performer. Upon receiving the National Book Award for JR, he said: ‘I feel like part of the vanishing breed that thinks a writer should be read and not heard, let alone seen.’ He would, I think, have sighed in exasperation at the twenty-first century explosion of writers’ festivals. He would have despised facebook and Twitter.

For years I held Gaddis’s ‘write don’t speak’ philosophy close to my heart, partly because I fervently believed in it and partly because it was a nifty crutch: like many writers, in my natural state I’m more comfortable expressing myself via the written word than through the (ooh yuck) act of speaking in public.

These days, though, I only half-agree with Gaddis. Partly that’s because as a working writer I am genuinely grateful and pleased when somebody asks me to talk about my writing. But it’s also because these days I actually enjoy chatting about books and ideas. Still, the trend of author as celebrity, as talking head, has intensified in the years since Gaddis’s death in 1998. I’m not strongly for or against this trend — it is what it is —but with all the time some of us spend talking about books, I do wonder when we ever find time to read.

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