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William Gaddis's fiction, says Gregory Comnes, puts forth a "vision of plurality and contingency" that disallows "prescriptive utterances" based on Christianity, humanism, or Newtonian epistemology. But the preponderance of chance and accident in Gaddis not only constitutes meaning; this randomness also clears a path to meaning. The folly of relying too heavily upon reason in our random world finds voice in Gaddis's belief that, if the conscious mind craves clarity and precision, the unconscious seeks out paradox and mystery. As Comnes shows, alchemy fascinates Gaddis because it probed deep interactions where reason was secondary. The production of the philosopher's stone subsumed but also transcended reason. The redemption of matter was a psychological as well as a scientific procedure, the psyche projecting itself into the physical realm. Even the stars could influence the success of a procedure.
Because the procedure wasn't strictly mental or material, it could only be conducted by means of a symbolism both confusing and arcane. Thus Gaddis, mostly in Recognitions (1955), favors a narrative texture that's thick and messy with a good deal of spill-over. This unwieldiness squares with his ontology. He resists imposing clean, consecutive discourse upon a reality consisting largely of a scumbling of depths, mirror images, and puzzling alternatives. The mysteries deepen. Judgments are a caution in Gaddis, mostly because the human nature he portrays is so tricky and evasive. For one thing, life's many demands preclude the stability of being just one person at a time; "There is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people," says Oscar Crease of A Frolic of One's Own (1994), either quoting or paraphrasing Montaigne. [End Page 375]
But this instability doesn't rule out moral choice or even moral development for the stalwart. "Don't bring a God damned thing to it can't take a God damned thing from it," says Jack Gibbs in JR (1975), in a passage Comnes quotes more than once. But how much to bring? An important idea may appear in a foreign language which Gaddis won't translate. Sometimes, he'll run an obscure reference before us, daring us not to look it up, as if he expects it to mean as much to us as to him. He may report only part of a scene. He has Liz Booth of Carpenter's Gothic (1985) tell her brother, "I wish you wouldn't smoke," without first describing Billy either taking out or lighting a cigarette. By eliminating the acts that prompted Liz's rebuke, he's not merely practicing good narrative selection and economy; he's hinting, too, at the richness of experience by indicating that he's only showing part of it.
His practice of splintering traditional storytelling modes forces us to seek merit and value along the margins. Comnes believes that the search reaps rewards. Drawing upon Walter Benjamin's language theory, he claims that Gaddis' collaborative fiction puts the reader on the same level as the characters. For instance, by keeping the chronology of his books vague, Gaddis transmits the pressure his people feel living amid guidelines and controls that can't be seen or felt, let alone made sense of. This pressure induces a dialogue between reader and text. Rather than reading passively, we join the quest for meaning and value—a quest that can send McCandless of Carpenter's Gothic all over the backwaters of the southern hemisphere. Our activity helps us live the fiction through.
The rigors of living our actions through go against the American predilection for speed and instant gratification personified by Gaddis's 11-year-old investment wizard JR Vansant; one needs time, patience, and imagination. But the process of living it through also teaches us that existence has intrinsic worth; it shows us how to soldier on without the help of absolutes; it confirms Tolstoy's belief that doubt, confusion, and even pain abet growth and self-transcendence. Invoking Alfred Einstein's words on The Magic Flute, Comnes...