#42 – The Recognitions, by William Gaddis

I apologize for the lack of updates over the last five weeks or so, but I knew this book would require considerable amounts of both time and concentration. I considered taking notes, but I don’t review in a professional capacity on this site, and nor do I wish to go into academic levels of detail. And really, whoa, this book has a lot of avenues to explore. It’s essentially a satirical exploration of all kinds of fakes and forgeries, from the world of art, currency and religious artifacts to the most fundamental ways in which people live their lives. Ostensibly the main thread of the plot follows Wyatt Gwyon as he goes from being a talented artist working in an antiquated style to a master forger unable to separate himself from his fantasies about a past that never truly existed. I say “ostensibly” because the majority of the book has absolutely nothing to do with Wyatt. Most of the novel is actually concerned with the peripheral characters. In some ways this is good, because like Underworld, the quality of the prose is much higher when Gaddis is writing about those characters and their lives. It’s frankly a shame that Gaddis can’t (or won’t) direct the same attention to Wyatt that he does to Reverend Gwyon or Mr. Pivner, because those are not only the sections of the greatest beauty, but they are funnier, more fun to read, and their satire is more effective. Here is Gaddis describing a sunrise:

The sun rose at seven, and its light caught the weathercock atop the church steeple, epiphanized in there above the town like a cock of fire risen from its own ashes. In the false dawn, the sun had prepared the sky for its appearance: but even now the horned moon hung unsuspecting at the earth’s rim, before the blaze which rose behind it to extinguish the cold quiet of its reign.

In the daylight’s embrace, objects reared to assert their separate identities, as the rising sun rescued villagers from the throbbing harmony of night, and laid the world out where they could get their hands on it to assail it once more on reasonable terms. Shapes recovered proper distance from one another, becoming distinct in color and extension, withdrawn and self-sufficient, each and entity because it was not, and with daylight could not be confused with, or be part of, anything else. Eyes were opened, things looked at, and, in short, propriety was restored. (p. 700)

I know of no way to describe this prose that will do it justice. It is ecstatic, overflowing with both the grace and innovation of a genuine master. If all nine hundred and fifty-six pages had been as beautiful I would have sailed through this book in the kind of state many believe can only be achieved via massive doses of recreational chemicals or sex with super-models, or both at once. Maybe ten percent of the book is like this. The rest of it is inane pseudo-bohemian dialogue overheard at cocktail parties. I’m not exaggerating by very much. At one point Gaddis gives us nearly a hundred and twenty consecutive pages of cocktail parties, and I’m not even certain that’s the longest such section. It’s almost as though Gaddis knows of no other way to bring more than three people together in a room at one time. The dialogue is fragmentary, shifting from one speaker or location to another without giving any indication of having done so. Sentences are left unfinished, all predicate with no subject. Questions are asked five, six times before they are (unsatisfactorily) answered or given up on, and half the speakers can’t decide if they want to use slang or quote from The Golden Bough.

I think that part of the problem for me, as far as enjoying the book, was that most of the thematic heavy lifting is done at these cocktail parties. It’s through all of these overheard and half-understood remarks that we realize how little in the book is authentic, how selfish and ignorant and vicious are even the best of these characters. And some of them (quite a few of them, actually) are demonstrably insane. In a recent interview, Charles Foran said this of Michel Hollouebecq: “I just sensed a smart and, yes, prescient, provocateur who has expelled his bile by page fifty or so—with another 300 pages left.” I feel much the same way about Gaddis and this book, except that there were more like six hundred pages left by the time Gaddis made the switch from razor-sharp satire to the undignified thumping of a long-deceased horse. Not even his spectacular thrashing of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (at one point referred to as How to Procure for Friends and the Vanquishing of Everybody by a Spanish friar possessing only a passing familiarity with English) could save me from frustration at the endless unnecessary repetition.

I almost wish I could say that I hated the book, but I didn’t. While it truly had many of the same problems as DeLillo’s Underworld (too much focus on secondary and tertiary characters, inconsistent quality of the prose, and far longer than it needed to be), it was ultimately not the messy failure that book was. There were so many hidden pleasures and serendipities and moments of genuine revelation and genius scattered throughout the book that I doubt I could call it anything less than a masterpiece—but with the caveat that it is a deeply flawed masterpiece, and not to be engaged with lightly or by the faint of heart.

Next is Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, by David Simon.


Writer. Editor. Critic.

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