- Innovation in Literature
A series of poems by Gabriel Welsch in this issue records the conversations of a bored telemarketer with several well-known poets (including one who has been dead for three hundred years) about such matters as credit card debt and erectile dysfunction. If you are even a casual reader of poetry, they will entertain you. Doug Hunt's sizable history-as-literature essay, "A Course in Applied Lynching," describes an ugly event that occurred in 1923 on a street that is now in the heart of one of the genteel neighborhoods of Columbia, Missouri, where both Doug and the Missouri Review reside. We don't normally publish writers who teach at the University of Missouri, but every once in a long while something like this comes along that we can't let go. The issue also features an interview with Frederick Barthelme, fiction writer and editor of the widely admired Mississippi Review, a respected journal of new and experimental literature. Also, we are pleased to include three previously unpublished stories by William Gaddis. Gaddis was a true innovator in fiction whose novels, like those of his contemporary Thomas Pynchon, bridged the gap between the high novel and the postmodern.
Fans of William Gaddis include many writers, who appreciate his novels for their ineffable mix of hilarity and serious intent, gentleness and satire, qualities not typical of American fiction. He has been compared to Cervantes, although at times he is reminiscent of the side of Mark Twain that couldn't believe the stupidity afloat in the world. Gaddis began publishing in the mid-1950s with The Recognitions, an ambitious novel about forgery and art. It confounded the many reviewers unable to handle its length. To support himself and his family, he worked as a writer for various companies and the government. In 1975 he published the National Book Awardwinning novel JR, a funny, wild book about a child who creates a business empire from a telephone booth. Carpenter's Gothic (1986) explores the evils of religious fundamentalism and media manipulation. It was the shortest of the four major novels and very warmly received. About ten years later came the last major book, A Frolic of His Own, a hilarious tale about misuse [End Page v] of the legal system, which won the American Book Award. The last three novels are told primarily through zany, stumbling and oddly realistic dialogue, all with the Gaddis trademark lack of attribution regarding who is speaking. Characters at times seem to hide in fogs of words. Yet the voice of each one is so distinct that it doesn't take long for the reader to catch on and even enjoy not being told.
In 1978, the year this magazine was founded, I wrote a note to Gaddis soliciting a story from him. Some things take a while. He wrote the three stories in this issue (for which we thank the Washington University Library and Sarah and Matthew Gaddis) during the '40s and '50s, when he was living a bohemian life in New York trying to learn his craft and find his voice. Writers become innovators by a combination of trial and error, accident, temperament, disappointment and discovery. These journeyman pieces demonstrate how naturally Gaddis experimented as he attempted different types of stories and voices. One of them reflects the New Yorker style of the 1940s; another is reminiscent of Beckett and the third is a sincere, moving story about underdogs, with echoes of proletarian fiction.
While rereading Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own, I imagined myself to be an agent with earphones on, listening to a group of entertaining lunatics who at times, unfortunately, reminded me of myself and people I know. The book called to mind how much fun experimental writing can be, and how true, and how rarely novelists are both antic and so eloquently real. It also made me wonder about a widespread secret assumption--held by many intelligent readers and writers (including me in certain moods)--that any example of experimental literature must be difficult, opaque and, while technically interesting, in other ways frivolous.
Possibly this is due to the fact that there are...