Two from William Gaddis

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The Rush for Second Place
by William Gaddis Edited by Joseph Tabbi

At the time of his death in 1998, readers and critics alike were still divided over William Gaddis. He’d been given the National Book Award twice, won a MacArthur and was a member of that fancy Arts and Letters club, but still to an awful lot of people, his dense, convoluted and hefty novels were simply unreadable. To still others, however, Gaddis’ blend of sparseness (a la Beckett or Thomas Bernhard) and richness (his novels were thick with historical, literary and scientific references, much like Thomas Pynchon’s), placed him atop the list of America’s greatest postwar writers.

There’s no denying that reading his novels—there were only four in his lifetime—took some work. It was often hard to tell when a scene or a time had shifted, or when one character had finished talking and another had started. Plus there were all those references to keep track of.

Question is, were the books worth the effort? Myself, I tend to think they were. Gaddis was a satirist, after all, and if you put the effort in, his books were funny as hell. Bleak, yes, and nasty and dark—but brilliant, exploding with ideas, and hilarious. Others seem to think he was nothing more than a hyperintellectual snoot who intentionally made his books impossible to read. It’s not necessarily something Gaddis himself would have denied.

That’s another thing—Gaddis’ personality didn’t always help matters. He was a grump and a crank, who avoided public appearances and granted only a handful of interviews. In short, he didn’t play the game—wondering aloud why anyone would ever want to interview a writer, given that a writer, you’d think, would have put down his best thoughts about things in his books.

Near the end of his life, however, he became a slightly more public figure. Back in the mid-90s, I was lucky enough to see him at the 92nd St. Y, where he made an appearance with William Gass. Gaddis had recently released his satire on the legal industry, A Frolic of His Own, and Gass had finally finished The Tunnel. After Gass read a selection from his novel, Gaddis stood up and spent five minutes explaining that he wasn’t going to read anything aloud because he thought it was a silly practice (though I don’t recall him using the word "silly"). Then he sat down again, only to watch in horror as Gass read a selection from Frolic.

When he died, speculation immediately began to swirl concerning Gaddis’ "player piano book." It had apparently been completed before his death, but when would it come out?

Gaddis had long been fascinated with the social history of the player piano, planning a book on the subject long before his first novel, The Recognitions, was released in 1955. The first piece he ever published in a national magazine, "Stop Player. Joke No. 4" (which appeared in The Atlantic in 1951) was actually an excerpt from an early version of the novel that has now finally appeared, some 50 years later.

Through those intervening decades, he continued to gather notes and references regarding the player piano, developing, revising and rethinking what he’d already written. In his final years, he brought it all together transforming 50 years of research into Agapé, Agape (Viking, 113 pages, $23.95)—a surprisingly slim novel about an aging writer with terminal cancer, trying to get his papers in order before he dies, all the while maintaining a running internal monologue about the same issues Gaddis had been exploring throughout his career—artifice, imitation, authenticity, entropy and the mechanization of art.

There’s a bit on page two that lays everything out, clear as—well, as clear as it’s likely to be laid out:

"…that’s what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight…that’s what I have to go into before all my work is misunderstood and distorted and, and turned into a cartoon…"

When I say the novel involves a man trying to get "his papers" in order, I’m not talking about insurance papers or bank statements—though those find their way in there as well. Rather, it’s that 50 years’ worth of research. The novel takes place in a room filled with towering stacks of books, notes, clippings, old advertisements, historical references and things jotted down in haste on tiny slips of paper. That’s one level of entropic distress. At the same time, while he’s trying to hold these teetering stacks together, he’s also trying to hold his body together, as he develops strange bruises and his legs go numb and his head hurts and his vision blurs and he accidentally cuts himself. And as he tries to take care of those things, he’s also decrying the slow decay of culture and society.

A man pawing through stacks of notes provides a clever device by which Gaddis can condense his research. The old man pulls out a slip of paper, reads what’s on it (often leaving the reader to make all the necessary connections), then moves on to the next. It’s reminiscent of Beckett in that way.

So why the player piano? For Gaddis, as well as his unnamed protagonist, the player piano represents everything that’s gone wrong with America. It’s the perfect symbol for the mechanization of art, the death of creativity, the search for entertainment and pleasure without effort or pain. As his regular refrain throughout the book puts it, "That’s what America was all about."

The player piano—in those terms—is also the novel’s jumping-off point, allowing the protagonist to consider, in fractured, stuttering sentences (and a single, book-length paragraph), everything from the history of the digital computer ("all-or-none machines," he calls them) to Glenn Gould, to mechanical birds, to modern medicine, to school violence, to religion to professional jealousy. ("It’s my opening page," he erupts upon reading the first paragraph from Thomas Bernhard’s novel, Concrete, "he’s plagiarized my own work right here in front of me before I’ve even written it!") He argues that technology has always developed in the service of entertainment, and blames the masses—and those authors who play the game—for the death of literature. He takes on Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Flaubert, literary prizes, book critics—even cloning.

Despite its slimness, it can still be exhausting at times. As always, Gaddis plays with punctuation, his sentences are splintered and repetitious, quotes and half-quotes and references float into and out of the monologue like water. Yet there’s something on virtually every page—an idea, a turn of phrase, a bit of invective, a peculiar historical note—that stopped me for a moment.

If you get into the manic, angry rhythm of Agapé, Agape, if you establish this bitter, singular voice in your head—a voice not your own, speaking all of this in a single breath almost, it isn’t so bad. Not exactly user-friendly (how he must have hated that term!), no—but hardly "unreadable." In the end, it represents the perfect introduction to Gaddis’ work and thought, having condensed a lifetime into about 100 pages. (Though looking at it that way, of course, would have pissed him off as well.)

Another reason for Gaddis fans to be happy is the simultaneous release of The Rush for Second Place (Penguin, 182 pages, $14), a collection of essays, criticism, speeches and other uncollected writings. A bootleg version has been around for a while, but was hard to find and awfully expensive. Along with the above-mentioned "Stop Player. Joke No. 4," it includes both of Gaddis’ acceptance speeches for the National Book Award (the speech for JR must’ve had him onstage for all of 20 seconds), a piece he wrote for Eastman Kodak while he worked for them, his review of Saul Bellow’s More Die of Heartbreak, together with various scrips and scraps—including an uproarious and savage short piece about Dan Quayle.

The anthology also provides a mountain of background material concerning Agapé, Agape—selections from early drafts, notes and historical references. Joseph Tabbi’s lucid and fascinating introductory notes to each piece concisely place them within the proper historical and biographical context, often providing a bit of psychological insight as well.

I can’t think of another Gaddis novel that’s ever been released with so much extant background material right there along with it. To read his commentaries on the state of writing, etc., I’m sure it’s yet another thing he would have abhorred. He never was much one for explaining his work to anybody. Yet at the same time, as evidenced in The Rush for Second Place, his critical writings, rare as they were, continued to explore the same themes—fakery, entropy and mechanization—in great detail.

Together, these two books provide a perfect introduction to William Gaddis for those readers who’ve heard too many horror stories about trying to read The Recognitions. They’re much more than that, though. Agapé, Agape in particular stands together with his other novels, representing a final summation, a sometimes frenzied, often bitter, but always brilliant closing chapter for a writer who wouldn’t compromise and who’s work, I’m guessing, will never ever be turned into a cartoon.

To make things easier still, a line-by-line annotation of Agapé, Agape may be found at [](

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