William Gaddis’ The Recognitions

The introduction to the Dalkey Archive edition of The Recognitions, William Gaddis’ first, longest, and most difficult novel, references a moment when the self-effacing author drew a picture of himself for a collection of essays.

Appropriately, he left out the head.

In a century that would have no shortage of “invisible novelists” Gaddis was not only the first, he was also the best hidden. Some would say he still has not yet been found.

It might be easier to explain Gaddis in terms of who came after him. (Jonathan Franzen calls him “the grandaddy of difficulty.”) Gaddis was the proto-Pynchon. He was his generation’s David Foster Wallace. No, he was William T. Vollman with better skin. Novelist William Gass, the author of that introduction to The Recognitions, confesses he himself was occasionally mistaken for the other William G at parties:

Even The New York Times, at one low point, attributed his third novel, Carpenter’s Gothic, to that self-same and similarly sounding person.

Gaddis won the National Book Award for his second novel, J R, but it is for his first book, The Recognitions, that sustains his modest literary reputation. At 956 pages and weighing in at about 3 pounds, it scared off most readers by its sheer size. It scared off many of the rest by its subject and style. When it was published, most of the reviews were critical, though a later survey of those reviews found that perhaps only two of the critics had actually read the book. Many of the rest either stole from the book jacket blurb or gleefully confessed to not having gotten to the end.

Gaddis himself likely anticipated his book would turn away most critics. In a scene from the final chapter, he has a fictional reviewer offer his reason for not reading, you guessed it, The Recognitions:

An intimidating tome.

—You reading that? both asked at once, withdrawing in surprise.
—No. I’m just reviewing it, said the taller one, hunching back in
his green wool shirt.—A lousy twenty-five bucks. It’ll take me the
whole evening tonight. You didn’t buy it, did you? Christ, at that
price? Who the hell do they think’s going to pay that much just for a
novel. Christ, I could have given it to you, all I need is the jacket
blurb to write the review.

It was in fact quite a thick book. A pattern of bold elegance, the
lettering on the dust wrapper stood forth in stark configurations of
red and black to intimate the origin of design.

First editions of this little-loved book, with a cover of stark configurations of red and black, now run for $600-$700.

Jan van Eyck’s mysterious brother Hubert, whose work is all lost, is a fulcrum for much spilled ink in The Recognitions.

Like Joyce’s Ulysses, The Recognitions demands a great deal of pre-reading. Gaddis goes on at great length about medieval popes and saints, the ancient Roman cult of Mithras, and the Dutch masters.  A Harvard graduate and New York habitue, he speaks in the many shibboleths that characterize both, namedropping final clubs and little known corners of Greenwich Village. The Gaddis Annotations clears the fog away from many allusions, but one wonders what a reader picking this book up in 1955 would have thought. It is intentionally, aggressively elitist. Though The Recognitions is often cited as an early postmodernist work, it is richly embedded in modernism.

Many of the things that define modernism (sexual detours, a fragmentary plot, distaste with the structure of the novel while a hidebound attention to its restrictions, jocoseriousness, and a salad-making of high and low culture) are found within The Recognitions. Its postmodernist toe-dippings are harder to pin down. Where is the cut-up style of a Burroughs, or the metafiction of Calvino or Borges? Where’s the abolishment of character, plot, physics, and even sentence structure? Certainly, there are preposterous characters. One named Recktall Brown is, rimshot, quite anal retentive. And yes, there are nightmarish, fantastical scenes. But such moments don’t get The Recognitions past the goalposts into postmodernism. Appropriately as a genre’s patient zero, Gaddis is a liminal author, neither straight modernist nor ferociously post.

But let’s get past the taxonomy of genre. It is safe to say that The Recognitions is one of the most beautifully-written novels of the 1950s. Gaddis seems most loose and confident in some of his scene-setting vistas, done up like he’s on a summer trip with the Hudson River School. He is one snippet from where the anti-hero Wyatt meets his sun-worshipping father in a small New England town:

Gwyon’s face was creased with lines of necessity. They sprang from the eyes he lowered down from the clotted sky and right past the face before him, a faced lined itself whose every lineament watched him anxiously. –Ahh, Gwyon said, –you’ve come… and his gaze settled on the gold bull. Then as Gwyon reached forth a resolute hand and rested it on the head of the bull figure, an unsteady and blood-streaked hand came up and took his arm and they stood like that, each looking at the hand of the other, when the sun was suddenly blotted out and they were left standing shadowless on the lawn. The sky was becoming littered with fragments of cloud. They were being fed across it from a great bank in the north. The cloud bank was gray and motionless, and it did not diminish.

Gaddis also has a remarkable knack for capturing the enigma of his characters. Some of these make for paragraphs most writers can only dream of writing:

Otto felt strange, holding her thin wrist: that Esme could give all and lose nothing, for the taker would find she had given nothing; plundering her, the plunderer would turn to find himself empty, and she still silently offering.

There are also brilliant witticisms like this one:

–Do you know what happens to people in cities? I’ll tell you what happens to people in cities. They lose the seasons, that’s what happens. They lose the extremes, the winter and summer. They lose the means, the spring and the fall. They lose the beginning and end of the day, and nothing grows but their bank accounts. Life in the city is just all middle, nothing is born and nothing dies. Things appear, and things are killed, but nothing begins and nothing ends.

This sort of cleverness is too common, unfortunately. Most every character in The Recognitions exposits wittily on society, art, and religion. And at 1000 pages, that’s a lot of exposition. There is so much information that Gaddis wants to share, so many clever ideas he wants to communicate, that no one moment rises above the rest. After several hundred pages, I will confess, I was like most Gaddis readers: ready to move on. Like one of the critics  Jack Green excoriated in his survey of Recognitions reviews, my notes in the text became less intense as I proceeded. In the end, perhaps that’s what is most modernist about The Recognitions. A modern novel has a true conclusion while many postmodern ones simply fade. Guilty-ridden readers finish modern novels. And that is what I did. I finished The Recognitions much as a half-assed marathoner limps across the finish line.

There is a line early on in Pascal’s Pensees that comes to mind after having made this modest accomplishment:

How vain painting is, exciting admiration by its resemblance to things of which we do not admire the originals!

Why work so hard to admire this work, when all it does is recast beauty found all around us? Like a portrait by  Gaddis’ beloved van Eyck, the thing is only admired when seen as artifice. We give these books value above the things they imitate by elevating them, as I am doing here. Is there value in the thing itself? Perhaps, if it offers a new lens on the original. But mostly we read books such as The Recognitions because they are there. In his essay on Gaddis, Jonathan Franzen boils down reading such “hard books” in much the same way:

I needed proof that I was a serious Artist… and “The Recognitions” was perfect for the task. Reading the whole thing would also confer bragging rights. If somebody asked me if I’d read “The Sot-Weed Factor,” I could shoot back, No, but have you read “The Recognitions”? And blow smoke from the muzzle of my gun.

Problem is, The Recognitions doesn’t confer such cred. No one knows it to admire it. What good then is such an effort without the acclaim it deserves? For its own good? The last line of The Recognitions, referring to a musician named Stanley killed in a collapsing church, is regularly quoted ironically as addressing the novel’s own fate: 

He was the only person caught in the collapse, and afterward, most of his work was recovered too, and it is still spoken of, when it is noted, with high regard, though seldom played.

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