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Reviewed by:
  • Hints & Guesses: William Gaddis’s Fiction of Longing
  • Peter Wolfe
Christopher J. Knight. Hints & Guesses: William Gaddis’s Fiction of Longing. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1997. 302 pp.

Knight’s title recalls Martin Heidegger’s words about the nature of nothing. Nothing isn’t really nothing, said Heidegger but, instead, a world elsewhere that defies description or analysis. More accurately, it’s an absence that implies a presence we can only intuit through hints and guesses, that is, what Gaddis calls recognitions, or signs of the unswerving punctuality of chance.

Appreciating the force exerted in Gaddis by the shadows or echoes of absent things, Knight resists reading him as a postmodernist. Though helpful, literary theory, he claims with good sense, disregards much that’s important in Gaddis and distorts much that remains. He also shows that taking on his own terms a writer who describes himself as more traditional than has been credited can generate some sharp insights. Knight’s knowledge of art history helps explain the role of symbolism in those Flemish painters who influenced the artistic development of Wyatt, the main character of The Recognitions. It helps disclose the part played in Gaddis’s 1955 novel by the colorful Dutch forger of Vermeer’s paintings, Han van Meegeren (1889–1943). It leads to instructive similarities between Wyatt and the Flemish painter, Hugo van der Goes (1440–82). Useful insights into Gaddis’s later work come in a section on the importance of children, especially lost children, in J R (1975) and in the link between domestic violence and the violence permeating American capitalism in Carpenter’s Gothic (1985).

You’ll note the absence of praise for Knight’s treatment of A Frolic of His Own, which comes just before his conclusion. There’s a reason for this silence. Either Knight’s sense of purpose flagged or his concentration deserted him before his FroIic chapter. In any case the chapter fails to do justice to the novel’s vision and craft. Hindsight removes the element of surprise from this failure. The wheels had started coming off as early as the Recognitions chapter. Knight quotes Esme’s statement in the novel, “To paint is to intensify, to remember.” Yet he slights the truth that the intensity of which Esme speaks can be as much of a dead end as the commercialization of art. Gaddis quotes several times the [End Page 1003] phrase from Nietzsche, “the melancholia of things completed,” to suggest the artist’s premonition of the identity between attainment and defeat. But Knight doesn’t cite the passage any more than he refers to a major 1977 essay by Joseph Salemi in Novel that deals with his very subject, the redemptive power of art in a postreligious age.

Knight’s first and best chapter invites other complaints. For one thing, the chapter is far too tentative and inconclusive. Addressing a major issue in Recognitions, he can’t come up with a braver explanation than “l think that [. . .] we might answer with a maybe.” The chapter itself ends lamely, with an invocation of “the hope and faith that, in time, things will come full circle.” Selection had already humbugged Knight. The long quotes from art critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg both distract the reader and slow the presentation.

The chapter on J R impugns Knight’s judgment again. Crawley and Jack Gibbs, Knight claims, “go out of their way to help the young composer” Edward Bast. Yet the one humiliates Bast in public and the other cheats him, both men overturning the value of any services they may have performed on his behalf. Knight’s observation that the New York milieu of J R “has willfully chosen to compartmentalize its workings” also distorts the evidence. The paths between Wall Street and Long Island are well worn, a sign of which is the frequency with which the characters keep stumbling on each other’s feet. Gibbs’s daughter lives near the offices of the firm where Gibbs once worked. What’s more, besides having once been the lover of the wife of the firm’s manager, Gibbs owns some shares in the firm, which he relinquishes...

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