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Paper Empire

William Gaddis and the World System

Edited by Joseph Tabbi and Rone Shavers, with contributions from Michael Wutz, J

Publication Year: 2007

Celebrates and illuminates the legacy of one of America’s most innovative and consequential 20th century novelists.

In 2002, following the posthumous publication of William Gaddis’s collected nonfiction and his final novel and Jonathan Franzen’s lengthy attack on him in The New Yorker, a number of partisan articles appeared in support of Gaddis’s legacy. In a review in The London Review of Books, critic Hal Foster suggested a reason for disparate responses to Gaddis’s reputation: Gaddis’s unique hybridity, his ability to “write in the gap between two dispensations,—between science and literature, theory and narrative, and —different orders of linguistic imagination.—

Gaddis (1922-1998) is often cited as the link between literary modernism and postmodernism in the United States. His novels—The Recognitions, JR, Carpenter’s Gothic, and A Frolic of His Own—are notable in the ways that they often restrict themselves to the language and communication systems of the worlds he portrays. Issues of corporate finance, the American legal system, economics, simulation and authenticity, bureaucracy, transportation, and mass communication permeate his narratives in subject, setting, and method. The essays address subjects as diverse as cybernetics theory, the law, media theory, race and class, music, and the perils and benefits of globalization. The collection also contains a memoir by Gaddis’s son, an unpublished interview with Gaddis from just after the publication of JR, and an essay on the Gaddis archive, newly opened at Washington University in St. Louis.

The editors acknowledge that we live in an age of heightened global awareness. But as these essays testify, few American writers have illuminated as poignantly or incisively just how much the systemic forces of capitalism and mass communication have impacted individual lives and identity—imparting global dimensions to private pursuits and desires—than William Gaddis.

Contributors: Crystal Alberts, Klaus Benesch, Nicholas Brown, Stephen Burn, Jeff Bursey, Anne Furlong, Tom LeClair, Joseph McElroy, Steven Moore, Stephen Schryer, Rone Shavers, Nicholas Spencer, Joseph Tabbi, Michael Wutz, Anja Zeidler

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii-vii

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pp. 1-14

Mass MoCA, North Adams, Massachusetts, June 2000: in the 300-footlong gallery of a converted textile mill hangs the Überorgan, a combination bagpipe, pipe organ, and player piano “elegantly jury-rigged mostly out of materials you might find at your local Home Depot and RadioShack.” Cardboard ducts wrapped in aluminum foil convey bellows, bleats, and moans...

Part 1: Aesthetics

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1. An Interview with William Gaddis, circa 1980

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pp. 17-27

It is somewhat obvious that William Gaddis became very self-conscious in front of a camera,as many photos of the author ¤nd him “posing” (in a fashion), and staring directly at thecamera lens. But as this shot helps to illustrate, LeClair’s hitherto unpublished interview, con-ducted in 1981, captures a rarely seen side of Gaddis, one in which....

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2. In the Diaspora of Words: Gaddis, Kierkegaard, and the Art of Recognition(s)

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pp. 28-45

In 1759 the English writer Edward Young published an essay in which he argued that novelty and originality should be the most important categories for evaluating a work of art.1 By valorizing original contributions, rather than the popular, slightly disguised copy of an earlier text, his “Conjectures on Original Composition” paved the way for much of modern discourses on...

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3. The Collapse of Everything: William Gaddis and the Encyclopedic Novel

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pp. 46-62

On the night of 26 January 1852, Gustave Flaubert noted that his ambition was to write “a book about nothing,” a book with “almost no subject” that would survive through the internal strength of its own style (Letters 213). For critics who see the development of twentieth-century fiction as a gradual emptying-out of content from the novel, Flaubert’s imagined work may seem...

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4. Gaddis Dialogue Questioned

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pp. 63-71

Imagine the film, with all that Gaddis left out of J R put in. Like faces, places, physical presence, gesture as language, collision, body’s collusion with or clothing of the soul, so much else, occluded from the novel not entirely, mind you, but embedded and receding within the impression that hits, surrounds, follows, fills your attention with a present and foreground screen, in fact a...

Part II: Systems

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5. The Aesthetics of First- and Second-Order Cyberneticsin William Gaddis’s J R

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pp. 75-89

Throughout William Gaddis’s 1975 novel, J R, musicians, artists, and writers espouse an aesthetics different from the one embodied in the text. Edward Bast, for example, the young composer whose decline the novel traces, conceives of the work of art as an alternative and sheltered world. His model for the ideal composition is Wagner’s Rhinegold, whose opening chord “goes...

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6. William Gaddis and the Autopoiesis of American Literature

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pp. 90-117

Gaddis’s last fiction, which is also in some ways a final accounting, brings the author’s own work deliberately into conversation with the work of the dead. The book presents itself in one solid block of text without paragraphs or section breaks, in sentences whose infrequent commas seem only to indicate pauses, or gasps, for breath. A deathbed monologue, the work is nonetheless...

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7. Cognitive Gothic: Relevance Theory, Iteration, and Style

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pp. 118-133

In 1995, William Gaddis discussed Carpenter’s Gothic in an interview with Paul Ingendaay, seeming to draw back from it: “I thought to myself, just take these clichés, and keep yourself to the strict unities, don’t break out into the world, but let everything take place on this little stage. I simply wanted to know if I could bring it off. It was really nothing more than a finger exercise” (82)...

Part III: Capital

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8. Critical Mimesis: J R’s Transition to Postmodernity

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pp. 137-150

While many discussions of postmodernism focus solely on cultural issues, some of the most influential analyses of the postmodern emphasize the economy and its relation to culture. As one of the most detailed studies of postmodern capitalism, David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity epitomizes this latter critical trend. By identifying connections...

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9. Cognitive Map, Aesthetic Object, or National Allegory? Carpenter’s Gothic

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pp. 151-160

Part of the genius of the character J R is that he embodies the innocence of Capital. Unlike the vulgar critique of capitalism, which always ultimately requires a pathological figure at the root of any particular problem—a conspiracy or a corporate monster fully aware of the consequences of his or her actions—J R’s next move is always entirely innocent: any inquiry into his...

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10. The End of Agape On the Debates around Gaddis

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pp. 161-181

Published posthumously in 2002, William Gaddis’s Agape Agape displays an aesthetic temperament only hinted at in earlier Gaddis work. In its pages, an unnamed narrator, ravaged by cancer and debt and alone in a room throughout the course of the novel, attempts to get his papers in order and write down his history of the player piano. The narrator slips in and out of hallucinations...

Part IV: Media

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11. Writing from between the Gaps: Agape Agape and Twentieth-Century Media Culture

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pp. 185-210

William Gaddis is widely known for not being known better. Despite winning the National Book Award for fiction twice, in 1976 and 1994, he is and has always been, in a contemporary formulation, an absent presence in current curricula and reading lists. Recognized as the brilliant author of gargantuan novels that have redefined the limits of ambitious fiction, he has never...

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12. Mark the Music: J R and Agape Agape

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pp. 211-227

“Listen . . . !” Anne in alarm calls to Julia after Coen has left their house on Long Island, his car “burst[ing] out into the world.” The two women follow its noise, deciphering the acoustics of his departure; readers are asked to do the same. That is what this reader will do: trace the music that appears in manifold forms in Gaddis’s 1975 novel and plays such a prominent role in his...

Part V: Biography

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13. Valuable Dregs: William Gaddis, the Life of an Artist

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pp. 231-255

In the half century since The Recognitions was published, William Gaddis has yet to take his rightful place among the American literary canon. He has been called “experimental”; critics have incorrectly “demonstrated” his debt to Joyce; and reviewers have proudly proclaimed they could not and would not...

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14. The Secret History of Agape Agape

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pp. 256-266

When the obituaries appeared for William Gaddis a week before Christmas 1998, one piece of good news surfaced in those otherwise dismal announcements, namely, that Gaddis had finished a new book shortly before his death. This final book, with the rather ungainly title Agape Agape, is a project he had been working on all his professional life. Perhaps “struggling with” would be...

Works Cited

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pp. 267-276


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pp. 277-279


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pp. 281-291

E-ISBN-13: 9780817381523
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817354060

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 463172747
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Paper Empire

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Capitalism in literature.
  • Literature and technology -- United States.
  • Globalization in literature.
  • Mass media in literature.
  • Gaddis, William, -- 1922-1998 -- Criticism and interpretation.
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