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Family Incorporated:
William Gaddis’s J R and the Embodiment of Capitalism
Ralph Clare
Boise State University

The chaotic and discordant world portrayed in William Gaddis’s J R is one against which not even the family can offer comfort or safe haven. In a novel composed mainly of fragmented speech, where people break promises, ethical codes, and hearts, it is hardly surprising to discover the various families in J R frequently broken or breaking-up as well. Indeed, family structure in J R appears to be fractured beyond repair, making Dan diCepahlis’s crumbling house an apt metaphor for all the “houses” or families in the novel. Their construction is tenuous, and they are all either falling apart or are in danger of doing so.

The only family that truly thrives in the novel, regardless of its ultimate disassembly, is eleven-year-old J R Vansant’s—not, of course, J R’s actual family but the “Family of Companies” that flourishes after he starts a corporation from a phone booth at his elementary school. Because Gaddis closely ties the fortunes of families to family “fortunes,” however, a curious relationship develops between the growth of J R’s Family of Companies and the dissolution of the “traditional” nuclear family in the novel. By adopting the discourse of the family and family relations, J R’s business model effectively conflates the “public” world of business with the “private” world of the family. This intertwining of business and family is hardly new to capitalism—it is vital to it—yet young J R’s crossing of the discourses between these two usually separate spheres indicates something remarkably novel in capitalism’s ongoing expansion at the dawn of the neoliberal age. For through the discourse of the family, capitalism is given a metaphorical body in the figure of the multinational corporation, granted all legal rights pertaining to it, and subsequently adopted [End Page 102] into a newly imagined global family. What begins, then, as a diversification or decentering of capital itself, a telling instance of its flux and tendency to destabilize various institutions, is later recaptured by the comforting image and discourse of the family, which recasts such potentially troubling revelations under the signs of stability (the family structure) and autonomy (individual family members).

The invention of J R’s Family of Companies, then, is one of J R’s most innovative capitalist strategies because it radically “capitalizes” on the structural changes occurring in the American economy during the 1970s, which demanded a more dynamic and fluid mode of production than earlier economic and business models allowed for. In response to the stagnation of a Keynesian model of capitalism, which had been in place since the New Deal and demanded strict monetary policy, careful regulation of business and financial markets, and active government spending, proponents of a new mode of capitalist production, neoliberalism, would argue for, and eventually win, the liberalization of capital through massive deregulations in industries and financial markets, and a weakening of government in its ability to spend and to oversee business as usual. J R resurrects an older corporate image-construction (the family) at this key transitional moment in capitalism and revitalizes it. Just as an increasingly unfettered capitalism continues to give rise to greater social instability, J R seizes on an image, perhaps the image, of “traditional values” that promises to stabilize and counteract this crisis.

J R ultimately suggests that the use of this family discourse by corporations is a way in which capitalism incorporates or embodies itself, and that this incorporation comes at the expense of not only nations, but individuals and individual social relations as well. At the same time that capitalism is embodied in and imagined as a transnational corporate family, individuals themselves are disembodied, and social institutions, such as marriage and the family, find their bodies or structures transfigured and transformed, and not so much consumed, but increasingly produced by the irrepressible flow of capital.

(Dys)Functional Families

In its absorbing family drama, J R can be placed firmly in the tradition of novels centered on troubled families, in which the family often holds a metonymic relationship to the larger nation and world it inhabits. Similar to how Faulkner, in both The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, mixes the Compson family history with that of the South and antebellum America itself in the petri dish of Yoknapatawpha County, Gaddis situates the families in J R, whether they realize it or not, at the heart of debates regarding democracy, free enterprise, and national identity, or, as one refrain in the novel puts it, “what America’s all about.” In this focus on complicated family history, J R shares something with the sweeping works of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy too—in particular The Possessed and War and Peace, respectively—in [End Page 103] which families find themselves imbricated in the pressing historical and political struggles of Czarist Russia. J R, however, in its sketch of transnational corporate power, necessarily steps outside such national boundaries, thus opening up an increasingly confusing and entropic American experience to a global perspective. That the family ties in Gaddis’s J R are even more complex and far-reaching than the aforementioned novels comes, perhaps, as no surprise since it is the first novel to emphasize the crucial connection between the family and an emerging late-capitalist world system.1

What is so unique about J R’s fractured families, therefore, lies much deeper than the mere representation of various dysfunctional family models. To be sure, the novel has its share of absentee fathers, adulterers, questions concerning paternity, and even quasi-incestuous relationships. The plot, for instance, begins with the death of one father, Thomas Bast, and the absence of another, James Bast, who, as long-bickering brothers, held equal shares in the General Roll Company, the ownership of which is consequently in dispute. One potential heir, Edward Bast (the “bastard” product of James’s affair with Thomas’s second wife), may be able to lay claim to parenthood with Thomas instead of James due to his parents’ dubious marital status at the time of his birth. This “paternal shift” would entitle Edward to half the shares in General Roll that his cousin/sister, Stella, is eager to secure after Thomas’s recent death. However, the “Law of the Father” founders here as the lawyer Coen’s exasperated efforts to settle the matter with James’s sisters, Anne and Julia, fail to assert the legal status of Edward’s paternity. As Coen tells one of the sisters, “The law seeks order, Miss Bast. Order!” (8). But without James’s physically being present to “defend” his half of the company, and with Edward’s paternal ties in question, the state of General Roll and the Bast family is thrown into complete disorder.

Joining James Bast in the ranks of absentee fathers are Monty Montcrieff, the head of Typhon International, and the young J R Vansant’s unnamed father. Montcrieff has rarely given his time and attention to his daughter, Amy, or his retarded son, Freddie, whom he has shunted away in some kind of hospital. Amy says to the family lawyer, Beaton, regarding her father, “he couldn’t take a moment to speak to me to, even to ask how I am there’s always a meeting an important meeting he hides in meetings” (211). As for young J R Vansant, the implication is he may never even have met his father. His mother, he tells Bast, is a nurse working irregular hours (134), and J R’s disheveled appearance and threadbare clothing indicate a less than satisfactory home life. As Amy tells Jack, he “looks as though he lives in a home without, I don’t know. Without grownups” (246).

What truly distinguishes the most compelling families in the novel, however, are their significant relationships with big business, the Basts in General Roll and the Montcrieffs in Typhon. This, perhaps, should not come as a surprise since roughly eighty to ninety percent of all businesses in the United [End Page 104] States are “family owned,” which generally means “that decisions about their [businesses’] management or ownership are influenced by a family” (Dyer 3). Gaddis’s choice, then, to bring together family and business in J R is a shrewd one, intended to some degree to uncover the relationship between social and economic structures in an explicit way.

This connection, moreover, frustrates an easy condemnation of capitalism in the novel because a social and human face is offered in addition to the faceless and monstrous economic forces that capitalism unleashes, as shown through the struggles of Norman Angel, who, Christopher J. Knight argues, “is a good man” (99). Along with the co-owner of General Roll, Thomas, Angel “never lost interest in what they were doing, so that profits were never the first interest, especially for Angel” (Knight 99). In terms of family-run businesses, Angel represents the second generation (not by blood but by marriage) that must take over operations after the passing of the first generation. This is a common occurrence in family businesses, and marks a time in which the business finds itself in a moment of crisis. W. Gibbs Dyer writes that “[t]he founder’s departure from active participation creates a power vacuum in the business and in the board that family and nonfamily members eagerly rush to fill” (81). In J R, this power vacuum is made all the more intense by the absence of James. The race by several characters to fill this void, though it may seem motivated purely by greed, is a necessity if the business is to survive this crisis. Understood in this context, Angel’s explanation to Coen of his motivations in securing as many shares as possible to prevent General Roll from going public appears legitimate:

Can’t you see this is what’s going to happen right here, after all it took to put all this together? Can’t you see you go public and all these people owning you want is dividends and running their stock up, you don’t give them that and they sell you out, you do and some bunch of vice presidents...they spot you and launch an offer and all of a sudden you’re working for them....


Angel’s fears are well founded, for what is really at stake is the passing of the private family business to the public arena, or turning the private into the public.

Angel wants, echoing the sentiments of the would-be artists in the novel, “to keep it [the company] doing something that’s, that’s worth doing” (359). For General Roll is not a multinational corporation, and Angel and other family members have invested not only capital but creative energies into making the business a success. Angel’s experience of the family business is one in which social (family) relations are a key aspect, and the making and exchange of commodities is less important than the autonomy to make decisions and the immediate gratification of creative labor. Certainly, in his role as capitalist entrepreneur, Angel perpetuates the exploitative capitalist system as a whole, [End Page 105] but not nearly to the same degree as a ruthless multinational corporation, such as Typhon. More importantly, he still retains a sense of ethics in business, as many small business owners and family-run businesses are able to do. To go public with the company, however, is to open up the General Roll Corporation exclusively to the bottom line.

This does not let Angel off the Marxist hook, however. It could be that his plea for keeping the business “in the family” represents merely a rhetoric of sentimentality and nostalgia that masks self-serving ends (which is precisely how J R employs such rhetoric of the family, as we shall see). While he appears to hold the belief that he and the business stand for more than profit, Angel may well have reduced Stella and himself to commodity status by their marriage. This union, a proven failure, could have been initiated in order to “keep the business in the family,” a central concern of Angel’s.2 Nor can Angel’s ethical stance towards business ensure the fair treatment of others. Since businesses change over time in terms of their leaders and objectives, and capitalism itself is amoral, there is nothing to ensure that today’s benign company cannot become tomorrow’s Enron. Indeed, if the “play to win” philosophy of capitalism so prevalent in J R is not ascribed to, then the only remaining options for a growth-stalled company are bankruptcy or being purchased and incorporated into another. As the arch-capitalist Pierce Inverarity puts it in The Crying of Lot 49, the trick to capitalism is to “[k]eep it bouncing...that’s all the secret, keep it bouncing” (148).

Typhon, unlike the smaller, privately-owned General Roll, is a publicly-traded multinational corporation, and those who run it make sure to “keep it bouncing” purely by a tenacious pursuit of profit. Montcrieff sums it up, telling J R and his classmates, “as long as you’re in the game you may as well play to win” (107). Typhon has, to pluralize an Adam Smith term, its “invisible hands” in the government and has gone so far as to incite a revolution in Gambia. Yet Typhon International, while wielding much more power and influence than General Roll, nonetheless retains some features of a family-run business, though this appears to be the result of nepotism and cronyism. Outside of blood relation, even Zona (a chief executive), although she is not blood-related, is an old friend of the family and holds a top executive position because of it. She is basically “part of the family,” as is Beaton, the company’s lawyer, whose father once worked for Cates.

Not surprisingly, Typhon and the J R Corporation’s business strategies also involve the exchange of people as goods. Montcrieff and Cates encourage Amy to marry Dick Cutler solely for business purposes. Early in the novel, Amy claims, “that would be like, like marrying your issue of six percent preferreds” (214), but Cates and Beaton imply, probably rightly, that Lucien married Amy for her financial assets (102). Yet even Amy submits and marries Cutler in the end for financial and emotional stability. And, not to be outdone by his teachers, J R tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Bast to marry Boody [End Page 106] Selk, Zona’s spoiled daughter, for her holdings in a merger-marriage that would ironically wed J R’s Family of Companies to Typhon International (657).

As human beings are reified and exchanged in marriage as a means to financial ends, it becomes impossible to distinguish genuine human emotion from calculated business strategy. As Amy complains to Beaton, who tells her not to “make an emotional issue” of Typhon’s using her for a tax avoidance scheme, “[w]ell it is! It is an emotional issue it simply is! because, because there aren’t any, there aren’t any emotions it’s all just reinvested dividends and tax avoidance that’s what all of it is, avoidance the way it’s always been” (212). Amy’s statement here unveils how capitalism promotes the idea that the domestic sphere is separate from the economic sphere, while in reality the two are inextricably conjoined.

Knight identifies this attempt to separate business and social institutions from one another as a key problem in capitalism, which the novel lays bare:

it is the belief that society’s components can be bracketed, so that its ethical and religious beliefs are assigned one space, its culture and arts another space, and its laws of business a third....[Yet] the consequence is that one order—exchange value—begins to hold sway over the others.


Thus, what J R does, in part, is challenge the concept of the family as a “natural” social institution where members can share genuine feelings of love and support—and which is supposedly a separate sphere from the world of capital—by showing how it is ultimately subject to the rules of the market itself. The “private” world of the family and human emotion is always already subordinate to the public world of capital. Gaddis, by focusing on families that are involved in building companies and corporations (and not merely working for them), gains a more nuanced view of capitalism’s merging of these spheres and its disavowal of doing so. In regards to representing the family, then, Gaddis is concerned with the ways in which ideas of the family are socially constructed, in addition to how and why those constructions fail. Marx once claimed that the bourgeoisie had “torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and...reduced the family relation to a mere money relation” (476). The same could be said of J R’s treatment of families, though it also heralds the arrival of a new kind of family on the block.

From Family to Family, Inc

In creating his Family of Companies J R realizes the socially constructed aspect of a family and applies it directly to the world of capital. J R, in one sense, creates the J R Corporation because he has no real family. Early interactions with Edward Bast show J R searching for a kind of father figure, a potential relationship that by the end of the novel has been somewhat inverted, with J R playing a more paternal role to the hapless Bast. J R constantly strings [End Page 107] Bast along with promises of future gains and by playing on his sense of guilt: “I mean like I have to do practically everything myself, like I set all this up to try and help you out so you can do your work and all and you don’t even...” (466). Davidoff, a corporate PR man, tells Bast that J R “really looks after you” (538), and while one can construe this paternal metaphor as entirely ironic, it nonetheless contains a degree of truth. Although J R is always looking to use Bast to his advantage, he attempts to keep him happy in more ways than just throwing money at him. Setting up a foundation so that Bast can pursue his music shows at least some thought and affection on J R’s part.

J R soon comes to understand his paternal role as founder of the J R Family of Companies, expressing a certain pride in fatherhood to Bast: “the paper’s always saying the parent this the parent that I mean that’s me the parent!” (653–54). Earlier in the novel, J R hears the lore surrounding Cates during his class’s visit to Typhon where Davidoff proclaims that Cates is “one of your country’s outstanding Americans” whom “presidents come to for advice” (91). This image apparently sticks with J R, and, after recognizing his new fatherhood, he borrows another page from the business playbook of Montrcrieff and Cates by hiring Davidoff to create an image of J R-the-Man. Always canny when it comes to business, J R realizes the importance of creating an image of the company’s founder that projects the kinds of qualities he wants associated with the J R Family of Companies as a whole. Building the image of a founder, then, constitutes the first step in building an image of a corporation.

The image of J R that Davidoff constructs is a very precise one and is tailored mainly to J R’s specifications. J R highlights some of its features as he reads articles about “himself” to Bast. J R is “a man of vision” with a “bulldog jaw” (650), and “[m]en who have worked with him...for years say his chief characteristics are enormous powers of concentration and dogged persistence in attacking a problem” (651). Yet he also embodies “a mysterious thing which is hard to identify, the vital creative force of the whole J R Family of Companies” (651). In a women’s magazine, he embodies “this masculine image for this here feminine reader” (651). Such mythologizing successfully deifies J R by emphasizing traditional masculine and paternal ideals—ruggedness, determination, physical strength, virility, and potency—and melding them with mystical and seminal energies.

Davidoff’s creation is highly indebted to the popular understanding of various wealthy industrialists, from Carnegie to Ford, who, in their Horatio Alger-like tales of triumph, seem to radiate such hard-nosed and God-given “American” qualities. In typical fashion, however, J R reverses the established order of such mythologizing. As Davidoff says, J R “thinks his own success story may rub off on the company and vice versa” (516). A Captain of Industry of old would have, so to speak, made a name for himself through his business success—first the triumph, then the recognition and retro-mythologizing/ whitewashing. Take Pierce Inverarity from Lot 49, once again: he refers to [End Page 108] himself as a “founding father” (15), yet this distinction is troubled by the “whitewashed bust of Jay Gould” he keeps over his bed (1). J R, intuitively aware of how such images of founders have functioned in the story of capitalism (and needing a fictional body to serve as a founder, since he is literally a child), completely fabricates an image that will function, ideologically, as part of the corporation itself. True, J R’s dealings have been lucrative, and he has created a formidable (though dangerously leveraged) corporation, but he is hardly a well-established, venerable name in the business world. Yet, in an America increasingly obsessed with images (especially of success), there is an audience hungry for such reassuring and inspirational stories of personal triumph.

More importantly, the audience for such stories is composed not merely of the American public, but of the business world as well, which has increasingly come to rely upon a CEO’s “image” as a kind of barometer for the fortunes of the corporation itself. As Robert B. Reich notes in Supercapitalism, apropos of the changes in the role of CEOs since the 1970s,

[a]nnual shareholder meetings were [in the ’50s and ’60s] perfunctory affairs where CEOs offered well-scripted little presentations, took a few questions, and departed. Today’s CEO engages in an ongoing effort—in person, on the phone, in meetings and formal presentations—to reassure major investors, impress Wall Street analysts, and assuage any worries of bankers and credit-rating agencies.


In a postmodern world where the sign often trumps what is signified, J R heralds the importance of a CEO’s image to the corporation itself, anticipating the sort of superstar CEO of the past twenty-five years or so, from Steve Jobs to Ken Lay and Michael Eisner.

This particular masculine-gendered construction of J R-as-CEO is the perfect image not only because it projects a charismatic figure more and more essential for investor confidence, but also because J R needs this figure in order to construct himself as a “father” of a “Family of Companies.” As Davidoff remarks to Bast at one point, “[b]oss [is] pushing the family image” (538). What J R hopes to “rub off on the company” is the image of a strong and virile patriarch in charge of his family’s increase and maintenance. For the family image—modeled after the “traditional” nuclear family in its patriarchal hierarchy—is the overall image J R strives to create for his corporation. Thus, while the image of a driven and trustworthy CEO suggests a company’s toughness and reliability, retaining these qualities while allying them with the warmth and security of a family offers something else entirely.

J R is not the first to use the rhetoric of family to create an image of the corporation as a kind of paternal and benevolent being, however. In Creating the Corporate Soul: The Rise of Public Relations and Corporate Imagery in American Big Business, Roland Marchand traces the genesis of corporate image construction in advertising from the end of the nineteenth century to [End Page 109] the beginning of World War II. As Marchand demonstrates through a close reading of an array of advertisements and corporate propaganda, the twentieth century saw corporations grow increasingly image-conscious, eager to sweep away the negative reputations earned during the “Gilded Age” by creating a “soul” for what the public perceived as a soulless institution. Indeed, images, such as the monstrous one Frank Norris appropriated in The Octopus, appear to have been on the minds of corporate leaders during this period. For example, one GM executive asked, in 1922, whether it was possible to represent the company “not as resembling an octopus, but as being the parent of a large and creditable family?” (qtd. in Marchand 103). Marchand’s citation of the GM executive’s question highlights the pervasiveness of familial images put forth by corporations around this time. Nurturing familial images, however, were developed alongside military metaphors that stressed a company’s efficiency, discipline, and collective effort, as well as its relationship with, and constitution of, its work force (103). Not surprisingly, in response to the growing social unrest and labor disputes of the 1930s, military metaphors in corporate rhetoric became scarce. The family metaphor spread in its place, as “public relations officers began to cultivate a new kind of family image for the corporation— one that stressed identifiable individual employee families, real or fictional” (107). Ultimately, “[t]he family’s relations were more intimate than a team’s, and its bonds of loyalty deeper and less situational, while the father’s moral authority was greater than that of any coach” (107).

In regards to image-making, then, J R is one step ahead of Cates, Montcrieff, and Typhon International. Montrcrieff, whom Davidoff earlier fashions into an “an aggressive competitive team player” (95) in a bio piece, relies upon a sports metaphor to convey his image. In the “play to win” business world of J R, a sports metaphor stressing teamwork and competition seems quite apt, but J R goes out of his way to avoid using this metaphor in his company’s rhetoric. Davidoff instructs Beamish not to “try the team player image no play with this family of companies angle divisional autonomy” (529–30). By promoting a family image, J R keeps the companies he buys and controls feeling a certain (false) sense of autonomy, as well as a sense of security in relation to the Family of Companies. A “family” of companies headed by a reliable patriarch creates a far more alluring image than the sports metaphor with its potentially negative aspects of over-competitiveness and victory at all costs. A team can be held together by familial-like bonds, but it is always fighting another team, whereas a family can forever grow and extend itself, incorporating others not by beating and humiliating them but by “wedding” them to itself.

Moreover, J R’s use of the family image is no mere resurrection of an earlier advertising strategy. Just as the family image that corporations once projected was subject to change amidst shifting economic conditions in the 1930s, so too do the economic particularities of the 1970s (J R was published in 1975) affect the kind of family image that J R constructs. For instance, when pre-World [End Page 110] War II corporations employed the images and rhetoric of the family, there was often a kind of commitment to a paternal ideal behind the obvious façade. In an age in which “welfare capitalism” sought to atone for much of the brutality of nineteenth-century industrialism, corporate benefits, such as pensions and stock-sharing programs, became the norm. Such paternalistic ideals lasted, in one form or another, into the decades following World War II; though combined with a new age of American prosperity, the corporate family dream seemed a real possibility to many (Reich 25). Under such conditions, labor collaborated with business, in a way hitherto unparalleled, to establish secure jobs, wages, and benefits for many workers—concessions which corporations saw as ultimately benefitting their own stabilized business expectations. Thus, corporations often functioned as if they were citizens somewhat beholden to the communities in which they existed—they not only employed entire towns but paid a fair amount of taxes that benefited the communities in which they put up stakes. Corporations could use the rhetoric of family and strive to create a family image, and, in a limited sense, there was still a kind of reciprocity and paternalism in the relationship between business, on the one hand, and labor and the public, on the other.

Thus, when the upheavals in social and economic conditions during the 1970s—such as the failure of Keynesian economics, the rise of “stagflation,” and the Arab oil embargo in 1973—drastically changed American businesses, corporate paternalism (whatever its actual merits) became largely a thing of the past. As David Harvey argues in The Condition of Postmodernity, a new kind of economic structure arose during this period—which Harvey calls “flexible accumulation” (essentially his term for the shift to a post-industrial, global economy)—marking the end of mass-production, or “Fordism,” in “developed” nations, such as the US and Great Britain.3 Harvey links this transition from Fordism to flexible accumulation with certain resulting “postmodern” social and cultural formations. In short, as flexible accumulation (we might comparably say globalization or neoliberalism) took hold, a further fracturing and fragmentation of various social and cultural structures resulted, such as the decline of working-class labor movements, the growth of suburbs, and the decentralizing of corporations and capital from nations (175–79). This left a large number of people without the safety nets of earlier decades—jobs that were well-paid, secure, and provided good benefits, for instance—and gave rise to anxiety and fear for the future. Yet, Harvey writes, “as Simmel... long ago suggested, it is also at such times of fragmentation and economic insecurity that the desire for stable values leads to a heightened emphasis upon the authority of basic institutions—the family, religion, the state” (171). In a postmodern world, however, images of such “basic institutions” function even better than the changing institutions themselves. As Harvey writes, [End Page 111]

[c]orporations, governments, political and intellectual leaders, all value a stable (though dynamic) image as part of their aura of authority and power. The mediatization of politics has now become all pervasive. This becomes, in effect, the fleeting, superficial, and illusory means whereby an individualistic society of transients sets forth its nostalgia for common values.


In this context, it becomes clear that J R’s Family of Companies is not merely another example of a grand narrative trumpeting the triumph of laissez faire American capitalism, but a specific example of a company responding to, and benefitting from, the constantly evolving capitalist system. J R’s Family of Companies succeeds at this crucial moment in capital’s restructuring because it, too, is dynamic and malleable. It both responds to the new fluidity of the emerging neoliberal economy and projects a nostalgic and comforting image as an ideological cover for the drastic changes in social, cultural, and political life that are a major result of these economic changes.

J R’s purchase and dismantlement of Eagle Mills in the aptly named town of Union Falls, for instance, is entirely symbolic of both the economic shift from Fordism to flexible accumulation and the resulting shift in the rhetoric and image of the corporation as a family. Eagle Mills is “[o]ne of the oldest textile mills in the region and mainstay of the Union Falls economy for more than a century,” and has been run by men such as “president Fred Hopper, who has...served on Eagle Mills Board of Directors since nineteen twenty-eight” (293). The town also holds picnics on company property, and the company softball team’s weekly games comprise one of the town’s favorite social functions. Union Falls represents the classic one-company town that has had a long and involved relationship with a corporation.

Thus, when J R institutes the first of several measures aimed at gutting the company to increase profits and cash flow elsewhere, which leads to the destruction of the town (660), Bast chastises him: “these are real people up there....A lot of them who owned the stock still can’t believe it’s not worth anything and even the ones who owned bonds, a lot of them are old and when they first bought the bonds it was almost like they were lending money to, to someone in the family” (296). Bast’s defense of the people of Union Falls uncovers the assumptions that honest people could, at one time, make about companies they believed were trustworthy and ethical. For the sense of the company as family is one that capitalism has always perpetuated at the local or community level where smaller businesses stay in touch with their clientele (not to mention the more “paternal” corporations noted by Marchand [pre-World War II] and Reich [mainly post-World War II to the 1970s]). The people in Union Falls are remarkable for their capacity to believe that a large corporation was looking out for their best interest and nothing more.

For these people Eagle Mills is like a family. But believing a company is like a family is not the same as its actually being one. The employees tragically [End Page 112] learn this truth after J R’s takeover, which is representative of the predominance of a new economy that stresses flexible accumulation. Sleepy Union Falls, still dreaming of post-World War II prosperity, receives a rude awakening at the dawn of a new era of deregulated capitalism. Ironically enough, Bast’s speech may be the moment that the perceptive J R realizes the power of the family metaphor, and this “almost like” is what J R will exploit in his Family of Companies in a way that no corporation before the 1970s could have imagined.

Considering that J R will, as a sign of the times, utterly destroy many of the companies he “adopts” into his Family of Companies, he cultivates the family image to assuage any fears of such an occurrence at the corporate level itself. To be sure, J R’s business tactics are as brutal as Typhon’s, but they are well-disguised. The family image actually helps win J R support from Mister Brisboy and his mother, owners of a chain of funeral homes. Mister Brisboy confides in Bast that “it’s all so exciting...being asked to join your family of companies Mother feels that’s what we need and she’s never really been one for family” (544). For the Brisboys, the allure of independence and familial safety clearly woos them to “join” J R’s family. Hence, J R’s family image not only presents a warm and friendly façade to a confused and frightened public, but also to an increasingly guarded and suspicious business world, wary of just the kind of hostile takeovers regularly engaged in by corporations like J R’s and Typhon International.

Furthermore, the case of Eagle Mills illustrates how, as deregulation and privatization increasingly became governmental policy, the resulting tsunami of capital fostered the kind of cutthroat capitalism of the ’70s and ’80s (so meticulously depicted and predicted in J R), wherein companies began to swallow one another up in an age of increasing corporate monopolies spurred on by corporate raiding, leveraged buy outs, and mega-mergers, all of which would play a part in triggering the S&L crisis and stock market crash of 1987. Poised at the onset of this new age of corporate cannibalism, J R shows that old advertising strategies take on new and ever more dynamic and troubling facets in the age of global capital. Thus, where earlier corporate images of the family may have had some modicum of truth to them, J R’s is wholly an image. And where corporations once projected such images mainly to change the public’s perception of business and ensure worker loyalty, J R broadens his audience to include shareholders and other companies too.

Corporate Imagi-Nation

By offering companies, employees, and customers the image of a Family of Companies, J R is creating an “imagined community” in Benedict Anderson’s sense of the term. In Imagined Communities, Anderson argues that the nation is “an imagined political community,” and such imagined communities “are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined” (6). J R’s Family of Companies, as false and abhorrent as [End Page 113] it may be, can be seen to function in a similar way to such a community. It is surely an imagined community/family for the companies it owns (as seen in Eagle Mills and the Brisboys’ funeral homes), as well as for its employees, which even Eigen, a struggling writer, acknowledges when he complains that “these companies are so damned paternalistic with their deferred stock options retirement plans insurance medical benefits they finally have you tied hand and foot” (261).

If corporations can foster an imagined family relationship with their employees, entire towns (such as Union Falls), and other companies too, then the potential of J R’s imagined family could be, or, according to the logic of capitalism, must be limitless. And the remaining element in such an expansion is the consumer, whom Davidoff considers a stockholder or stakeholder (even if she actually holds no stock) in the company. Davidoff mentions how affixing each of their companies’ goods with the “parent company logo audience knows it’s dealing with a reliable dependable outfit builds your stockholder relationships see it someplace and they feel a nice warmth like somebody in the family just died [sic]” (536). His reasoning here is telling in that logos and brand-building do as much ideological work, if not more so, on consumers as they do stockholders. The result is a conflation of consumer and stockholder. Davidoff’s vision, however, conveniently mystifies the (purse)strings of power. In this case, the “stock” that all men hold is not of the common or preferred variety, it is a figurative stock, meaning the stockholders/public are beholden to a system or corporation that has complete influence over all aspects of society—it is a “holding company” indeed—but against which they have no individual say in any decision-making process, socially, politically, or culturally.

The direct appeal to these potential consumer-citizens underscores this point. One of the ads for a J R company reads as follows: “Alsaka Development working day and night to bring the American family its full share of the world’s energy. Alsaka. A proud member of the J R Family of Companies. When you see a product. A service. A promise of human betterment for all. If it’s J R. It’s Just Right. J R. An American family of American com...” (578). The conflation of nation and corporation here rightly signals the growing power of corporations like J R’s that now proclaim their nationality (to a specific national audience) in a global context/market and make themselves appear necessary for the allocation of basic goods and services, which government, that toothless, old flag-waving patriot, cannot properly insure.

The unspoken claim is that what is good for America is that American businesses succeed, even if all else fails. Gaddis’s stint as a corporate copywriter gave him a true insider’s view of the work that images and signs do in such advertising. The cover and first few pages of one pamphlet, “The Growth of American Industry” (1959), reproduced in The Rush for Second Place (27–29), for instance, stands as a perfect example of Gaddis’s understanding [End Page 114] of advertising, corporate power, and America. One picture in the pamphlet depicts a little boy staring at a bible, a key, a pencil, and a voting ballot. The text below explains the symbolic significance of these objects in a specifically American context. Gaddis clearly sees that, for many Americans, American industry must be “sold” as particularly American. Free enterprise (let us not invoke that French phrase laissez-faire in this context) is successful because of America’s democratically insured freedoms, which ultimately means freedom from government regulation: “the United States has not developed as it has merely because we are a people free from undue government interference and restriction. Opportunity to is the second essential” (29). What Gaddis is playing on here, and what remains unspoken, is that opportunity is linked to nongovernmental interference.

Thus, when Major Hyde (the Endo corporation man attempting to capitalize on grammar schools via implementing closed-circuit television) asserts that “the only place left for loyalty if you got any’s the company that’s paving your way, when my company says jump I jump!” (455), he indicates that the conflation of nation and corporation that J R’s Family helps to bring about is perhaps mainly a replacement of national identity with corporate identity, unbeknownst to the consumer-citizen. Here, then, arises another dynamic aspect of J R’s family image amidst the mutation of global capitalism: imagining America becomes imagining J R’s Family.

In other words, J R represents an early fictional representation of the apparent power of corporations eclipsing that of nation-states. This notion is given a fresh turn in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire, in which the authors theorize “Empire,” a concept tracing the decline or changes in the sovereignty of nation-states that “has taken a new form, composed of a series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule” (xii). They contend that

[t]he activities of corporations are no longer defined by the imposition of abstract command and organization of simple theft and unequal exchange. Rather, they directly structure and articulate territories and populations. They tend to make nation-states merely instruments to record the flows of commodities, monies, and populations that they set in motion.


This is certainly true of the corporations in J R, with Typhon International leading the way. The J R Family of Companies, in contrast, never quite reaches the status of a multinational by the time it collapses, but its advertisements and business strategies are clearly treating America itself as a map on which to record various potential economic flows.

Moreover, the movement of the J R Family by the novel’s end is toward a complete control over life and death. Hardt and Negri, employing Foucault’s notion of bio-power, explain how economic powers, like corporations, “within [End Page 115] the biopolitical context...produce needs, social relations, bodies, and minds...” (32). So deep does biopolitical production run that “the whole social body is comprised by power’s machine and developed in its virtuality....Power is thus expressed as a control that extends throughout the depths of the consciousnesses and bodies of the population—and at the same time across the entirety of social relations” (24).

The tendency toward biopolitical production can be seen in two ways in the J R Family: first, in the J R Family’s scheme to create, in Davidoff’s words, “A Personalized Plan from Nave to Grave” (519); and second, via the extension of the imagined J R Family onto an imagined America. One of J R’s last business deals is to acquire a string of nursing homes, which he hopes to tie in to the Brisboys’ Wagner Funeral Homes (516–17). Davidoff calls the plan a “Health Package,” evidently because the pharmaceutical company Nobili will be brought on board to supply prescription drugs to customers. Davidoff sums up the package as a “funeral right through the cemetery with the drug line nursing home tie-in” (519). Such an all-encompassing scheme takes corporate power and applies it directly to the bodies of individuals, but in such a subtle way—it is for the care and benefit of one’s own body and life—that it makes the individual’s “choice” to join the plan a “necessary” one.

If this were not chilling enough, J R reveals to Bast the full implications of his plan: “I mean like banks we could have these different kind of banks like this regular bank and these blood banks these eye banks these bone...” (654). The dismemberment of bodies, and subsequent investment of them in a sort of bio-economy, illustrates, once again, the desire of capitalism to commodify life itself. Gaddis, however, takes the idea of the commodification of life even further than Pynchon’s play on capital’s literal consumption of life (and death, via Beaconsfield Cigarettes) in The Crying of Lot 49 by stressing the commodification of the production of life itself. This notion goes further than the idea of human beings being replaced by the inanimate, as evidenced in Governor Cates’s various surgeries, because here blood is capital and it must be made to circulate in a bio-economy that will produce life-as-commodity. Bodies will be banked on, invested in, loaned out, and financed. From birth to the grave, the J R Family of Companies will father and take care of its own.

The institution of such a health package, therefore, would represent the J R Family of Companies’ final conversion of the citizen to the citizen-consumer. In such a case, the care of the individual body is sustained not by the body of the State, but wholly by a corporate body. But since the corporate body is concerned only with the expansion of capital, individual bodies must become capital as well. This is where the literal and figurative elements of a corporation come into play. Corporations have been legally treated as persons since Justice Marshall declared, in 1819, that a corporation is “an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in the contemplation of law” (qtd. in Donaldson 3). Thomas Donaldson summarizes the outcome of this legal declaration, writing [End Page 116] that “[w]ith the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, U.S. corporations acquired full status as abstract persons, complete with rights to life, liberty, and state citizenship. (Most U.S. corporations are citizens of the state of Delaware.)” (3). Thus did the invisible hands of Adam Smith find an invisible body in the corporation.

Corporatizing is, in J R, a way in which capitalism incorporates or embodies itself in the guise of a person/body. So too is this a “healthier” body than the novel’s representation of the human body that, as Stephen H. Matanle notes, “is incoherent, fragmented into a variety of parts, deprived of stability and balance” (109). Furthermore, the emergence of a “tighter,” more interconnected global economy allows Gaddis to take this notion of capital’s embodiment and extend it through the family metaphor. With the adoption of the family metaphor, an incorporated capitalism in J R clothes its supposedly invisible body (and the bodies it now encompasses), which retains similar rights to the ones American citizens are granted. Through incorporation—literally, the creation of a corporeal being, a body—capitalism creates an imagined body (or the bodies/members of the J R Family), which is then mapped onto the body of the socius (citizen-consumers), thus becoming the socius itself.

Incorporation, from the point of view of investors, is a way of ceding personal liability or responsibility in a capitalist enterprise to a fictional body (as the law sees it). As J R explains this process to Bast, “[g]etting incorporated all it is is then you don’t get screwed on taxes like everybody else and like for this here limited reliability and all if something happens” (345). Yet, as Donaldson notes, “[m]odern corporations are created by persons, but they are created in the image of their creators” (3). The result is that the corporate body appears to transcend its creators’ control, but it is driven by the same desire to increase capital that governs its creators’ and investors’ actions. So whereas for Justice Marshall, writing in the early nineteenth century, this invisible body exists “only in the contemplation of law,” in the latter half of the twentieth century, the era of multinational capitalism, this invisible body not only finds metaphorical and imaginary weight, but exists literally “outside” the law, and with drastic consequences to many. Once America itself has become synonymous with J R’s Family (or that of any corporation), comprised by a “nation” of consumer-citizens, this imagined corpora-nation attempts to replace an increasingly unstable nuclear family (traditionally capitalism’s basic unit of production) with a global family. Nations are like families in the global community, and since nations are increasingly eclipsed by corporations, corporations have no trouble presenting themselves as the default families of the future.

Same as it (N)ever Was

Considering the success of the family image for J R’s Family of Companies, occurring as it does amidst great economic and social shocks, it should be [End Page 117] no surprise to discover that so many of the families in the novel are crippled or broken apart. Gaddis’s interplay between family and capital is strategic, intended to call attention to the inverse relationship developing between the two spheres—the expansion of capital and the relative “fractionation” of the family. The ideology of the nuclear family, which a corporation like J R’s perpetuates, eventually falters as the private and the public merge in the imagined J R Family of Companies. J R’s corporation is able, literally, to produce blood-ties (through bio-power) between the socius and its own Family, while it helps to sever the (older forms of) kinship and blood-ties that constitute such constructions as the nuclear family. Thus Gaddis calls attention to the fact that, as Pauline Irit Erara writes, “[t]he family is not simply a social institution. It is an ideological construct laden with symbolism and with a history and politics of its own” (2)

As we might expect, then, Gaddis’s fractured families are also indicative of actual changes in family structures around this time. The rapacious capitalism emerging during the 1970s found its counterpart in the radical changes occurring in “traditional” families. In The State and the Family, Anne Hélène Gauthier writes that, since World War II, “[f]ertility, marriages, cohabitation, divorce, and the participation of women in the labor force, have all been on the increase and have changed the dynamics of family formation and dissolution. If the 1960–75 period witnessed the onset of some of these transformations, the period from 1975 witnessed their deepening and extension to all countries” (146). Undoubtedly, many of these changes in family structures were a direct result of the social and cultural movements of the 1960s, the legalization of abortion, and the popularization of the birth control pill, but economic factors played just as much a role in these changes as social ones. While I argue that the capital/family relationship does not operate under a simple cause/effect model, it is clear that economic changes have their counterpart in changing family formations (see Erera 4).

J R’s critique of the global capitalist dream—a world united as one harmonious family—makes sense here because changing familial structures since the mid 1970s are an international phenomenon. Similarly to nation-states’ constructions of the family (the basic unit of production) to perpetuate various ideologies, capitalism adopts the family mantle in an effort to subsume even the nation-state’s image of the family. After all, writes Paul Gilbert, “[t]he social agents responsible for the family’s discursive formation are those who hold political power—the power to control government in their own interests...” (141). Since corporations, like Typhon, often influence government decisions, they also have the power to change the family’s discursive constructions, as J R’s company shows. Hence, when capitalism’s myth of the separate spheres of business and family breaks down, the rhetoric of family merges with capital’s master narrative, and the “play to win” capitalist ethic gives birth to a new kind of family and new kinds of social relations. We have only to [End Page 118] look at the behavior of two of the children in the novel to find evidence of capital’s unethical acceptance of this new breed: J R Vansant’s (trans)actions, of course, and the actions of Eigen’s son, David, who, as Moore notes (76), expresses his love for his mother in quantitative, monetary terms and who cheats at children’s board games (263, 267).

Gaddis’s portrayal of families in crisis is no mere nostalgic and reactionary call for “family values,” though such radical and abrupt changes in family structures and values at the time led to the perception that the family was in “crisis” (a perception that still persists). Gauthier remarks that “it is evident that family issues have received increasing attention [since 1975], and moreover, that support of families has emerged as a major political winner” (148) and that “initiatives launched by governments since 1975 have revealed an increasing interest in family issues” (150). In America, for instance, 1980 saw the “White House Conference on the Family,” which had to be changed to “Conference on Families,” writes Gauthier, since “[t]here was no longer one single family type but instead a plurality of family types” (153).

Such politicization, however, while a response to a perceived “crisis,” further legitimatizes this perception through the very nature of politicization itself. The resulting crisis of the family, of course, was the despair at the dissolution of the nuclear family, often considered the “traditional” family structure by many in the West. Yet as Caroline Wright and Gill Jagger point out in discussing a century’s history of the discourse of family values in Britain, “there is nothing new in today’s talk of a crisis in the family” (18), and “the narrative of family crisis accompanies a primarily ‘moral’ or ‘moralising’ state, concerned with inculcating the ‘right’ sort of values and cultivating individual responsibility to meet needs” (22). Thus, whenever family configurations are radically altered, a familiar discourse of crisis concerning these changes arises. As Stephanie Coontz notes in The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, “[h]istorically, Americans have tended to discover a crisis in family structure and standards whenever they are in the midst of major changes in socioeconomic structure and standards” (257).

What such alarmists of this perceived crisis fail to take into account is that the nuclear family is not a “natural” familial structure. Many critics of the nuclear family (Cheal [1–14], Thorne and Yalom [1–20], Gilbert [141], Wright and Jagger [10–14]) have called attention to its historic specificity and constructedness. As Edward Shorter argues in The Making of the Modern Family, “[t]he nuclear family is a state of mind rather than a particular kind of structure or set of household arrangements,” and “[w]hat really distinguishes the nuclear family...from other patterns of family life in Western society is a special sense of solidarity that separates the domestic unit from the surrounding community” (205). Gaddis, for example, is no alarmist per se and acknowledges the socially constructed nature of the family through Eigen, who defends his sorry actions as a husband and father to Marian thusly: “[h]ow many husbands do you think [End Page 119] come home from work all smiles come on Marian, it’s the oldest God damned story there is putting up with the same crap day after day trying to make a living and then coming home to I’ve been slaving all day over a hot stove while you’ve been down in a nice cool sewer” (269–70). To be sure, Eigen’s gripe is self-serving (artistic failure has embittered him), but his story nonetheless comprises a critique of the entire history of work under capitalism—where the traditionally gender-determined public-work sphere and private-domestic sphere are separated—in addition to a critique of the supposed “happy” nuclear family. Hence Gaddis anticipates the call for “family values” that will become the rallying cry of many politicians and pundits (mostly conservatives) during the Reagan era, which he will address in Carpenter’s Gothic.

For J R fits Deleuze and Guattari’s description of capitalism, in Anti-Oedipus, as a “twofold movement of decoding or deterritorializng flows on the one hand, and their violent and artificial reterritorialization on the other” (34). In some sense, then, the “decoding” of older family narratives and their “recoding” in a global capitalist enterprise unleashes vast amounts of energy and capital, yet much of this energy is immediately rechanneled into the “imagined family” of J R’s corporation. For, as Deleuze and Guattari write, “[c]apitalism institutes or restores all sorts of residual and artificial, imaginary, or symbolic territorialities, thereby attempting, as best it can, to recode, rechannel persons who have been defined in terms of abstract quantities. Everything returns or recurs: States, nations, families” (34). Indeed, in J R everything returns, from the faux global family, to the corpora-nation, to the “failed” ideal of the welfare State.

If families and the nuclear family structure are irreparably fractured in J R, so, in the end, are the individuals who try to make these families. The novel’s final image is exemplary of this: it is merely J R’s voice incessantly speaking from a dangling telephone receiver. This human absence completes, as Peter Wolfe writes, “the process of his [J R’s] abstraction from a person to a corporation” (159). Likewise, it also completes capitalism’s incorporation from abstract entity to social body. If all speech in J R involves, as John Johnston contends, “not a human being talking, but money itself [and] not just the language of money but the speech of money, the flux of capital as it enters into and becomes part of verbal communication” (204), then the construction of J R’s Family of Companies is the perfect social body for that voice. J R, a natural spokesperson for capital, is not so much speaking for capital as capital is speaking through him. Not really an orphan after all, J R is capitalism’s child, and a grim reminder of the consequences of the breakdown of any kind of family or social structure that, however it may be composed, promotes values based on love, trust, and understanding, values that find their worth in human interaction and not in the marketplace. [End Page 120]


1.  Gaddis’s “global move” also establishes a genealogy with his closest literary heirs, such as Jonathan Franzen, whose The Corrections and Freedom are both rooted firmly in the nuclear family drama, and David Foster Wallace, as evidenced by Infinite Jest, wherein the biological family of the Incandenzas and the support-group-as-family at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House provide dual anchors to a whirlwind series of narratives. Each of these works also gestures to the far away, yet too close to home (America), radically shifting realities of the late-capitalist world system: post-Berlin Wall Eastern Europe (The Corrections), post-invasion Iraq (Freedom), and post-Great Concavity/Convexity Canada (Infinite Jest).

2.  Steven Moore suggests, quite plausibly, that the opposite may be true: that Stella marries Norman for his allotment of shares (95). Nor would it be surprising if both married each other for similar reasons.

3.  Nicholas Spencer similarly explores the historical particularity of 1970s capitalism as it bears primarily on the aesthetics of J R in an essay employing a close reading of David Harvey’s The Condition of Postmodernity. I would like to use Harvey’s main ideas here not only because they offer a detailed analysis of the economic sea-change of the decade, but particularly since they help to explain the genius and timeliness of J R’s image constructions—from the CEO/founder to the Family of Companies—in the novel. Spencer applies Harvey’s ideas on postmodern culture and economics to J R, concluding that “[i]nstead of being simply mimetic, J R literally mirrors the attributes of postmodernity to produce a critical mimesis” and that “Gaddis’s emphasis on historical transition and interconnected economic and cultural tendencies creates a narrative whole that is clear and stable” (149). Spencer uses Harvey primarily to grapple with aesthetic issues, whereas I will return to some of Harvey’s main premises regarding the economic changes of the 1970s mainly as they relate to J R’s specific business tactics and corporate image-building.

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