The Missouri Review 27.2 (2004) 91-95
[Access article in PDF]
Three Early Stories by William Gaddis
Click for larger view
Born in 1922 to Edith and William Gaddis, Sr., in New York City, William Gaddis is revered as a preeminent postmodern/contemporary novelist whose literary career spanned over four decades. Up to his death in 1998, Gaddis continued to turn out work that offered a sharp-witted criticism of twentieth-century American culture, including five novels—The Recognitions (1955), JR (1975), Carpenter's Gothic (1985), A Frolic of His Own (1994) and the posthumously published Agape Agape (2002).
While a student at Harvard, Gaddis was president of The Harvard Lampoon for two years (1943-1945). In 1945, he moved to Greenwich Village. To make money, he worked at The New Yorker as a fact-checker; and in his free time he read, socialized, traveled, wrote short pieces of fiction and worked on his first long fiction, The Recognitions. In New York he counted many of the soon-to-be-famous Beat Generation writers among his acquaintances, including Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Anatole Broyard, Alan Ansen and his roommate, Chandler Brossard. Although he would not become a Beat writer himself, Gaddis influenced this group of authors: characters based on him appear not only in Brossard's Who Walk in Darkness (1952) but also in Kerouac's The Subterraneans (1959) as well as other novels of the era. Gaddis was unaware of Kerouac's "generous regard" for him at that time, but he knew how other Beats felt about him and his work. In the fall of 1953, Alan Ansen allowed Gaddis to use his farmhouse in Woodmere, Long Island, for $35 a month while Ansen traveled abroad. When Ansen returned from Europe, he sat down "in that ghastly diningroom & [read] it straight through in a day and a half."1 Anatole Broyard, after reading a hundred pages of The Recognitions, commented: "People who aren't writing their first novels can't know, I suppose, what it means to write a real, honest-to-God novel while saying what it is you want to say, cracking all your favorite jokes, grinding your axes, etc. You did [End Page 92] it, and I admire you for it. . . . . you're so much better than Chandler and the others."2 William S. Burroughs also acknowledged Gaddis's influence; he inscribed a copy of Junky: "To Bill Gaddis, who knew me before I knew myself."
Later, novelist William Gass would count The Recognitions, which is a complex story of forgery and deception, among the great novels of the century. Gass, a friend of William Gaddis beginning in 1975, places him in the company of Flaubert, Kafka, Joyce, Beckett and Borges. "The Recognitions was a thunderclap," he wrote. "It was a dull decade, the fifties, but here was a real sound. . . . Here was a man whose business was seeing through—seeing through bodies, minds, dreams, ideals—Superman was Mr. Magoo in comparison."3 Gass later elaborated upon Gaddis's ability to penetrate surfaces: "Gaddis knew the realities so worshipped by readers were fakes. Instead he created realities fashioned from their lies, their superstitions, their fatuous remarks, their pretensions, their envy, their guilty excuses and habitual bad faith. His chuckle was the chuckle of someone whose business was seeing through."4
It was nearly twenty years before the appearance of Gaddis's next novel, a period during which he supported his family by working for both the government and industry. JR, published in 1975, is an ambitious, complex and hilarious tale, consisting almost entirely of dialogue, about an eleven-year-old genius who creates a financial empire from the phone booth outside his school. During the '80s, Gaddis published his shorter, to some readers more accessible, Carpenter's Gothic, which concerns creativity gone awry in the milieux of politics and religion. It was his last major novel, A Frolic of His Own, published ten years later, that became the most popular of...