I have to agree with Lee Konstantinou in disagreeing with Rick Moody: J R is a hard book. Or at the very least, it is not an easy, straightforward affair. A few pages in, you realize that this novel actually is 700+ pages of this:
A loud buzz cut him off. She pushed her nail polish aside and repsonded to the box at her elbow. — Yes sir, yes sir . . . oh and Mister Crawley, Mister Davidoff is here with . . . yes sir.
— And Shirl, tell him . . .
— He’ll be right out, she said, as an unencumbered massive panel behind her proved to be a door.
— What in God’s . . . !
— I want you to meet a real live stock broker boys and girls
Broken dialogue. No attributions. Interruptions and overlaps. At times, ambient noise from a background TV or radio will cut its way in. There is the occasional scene-setting — often these are the places where Gaddis reminds you that he really can write: “Sunlight, pocketed in a cloud, spilled suddenly broken across the floor through the leaves of trees outside.” — but few of these are orienting. Not “a door opened behind her” but “an unencumbered massive panel behind her proved to be a door.” This format takes getting used to, to say the least, especially when the events jump from one set of characters to the next. It’s like Mrs. Dalloway with even less clarity about who is at the center of the narrative.
For someone like me who comes to Gaddis by way of David Foster Wallace, it’s easy to see the influence passed down from J R. Each of Wallace’s three novels has scenes of unattributed dialogue within the first 30 pages, and you could reasonably claim that Brief Interviews with Hideous Men is a variation of this technique. Wallace clearly mimics the satirical, comedic pacing where characters misfire sentences into and over each other in an accelerated, everybody-talks-but-no-one-listens way.
But Wallace did small snippets, short scenes inside a larger context of more recognizable styles. J R offers no such break, and reading this sustained dialogue has some interesting effects once the initial shock wears off.
For one, the book starts to feel like what it most resembles in form: a play. Not a meditative drama, but something exaggerated, chaotic and Vaudevillian.
The basic ingredients of time and space provided in most novels, are so conspicuously absent — or so opaque in their presence — that I’m forced to fill them in myself. The places are familiar: a school, a suburban neighborhood, Wall Street, a train platform, a boardroom. But without any guidance on what they look like, I find myself filling in the gaps with a richer-than-usual imagining of the world around these voices. It’s counterintuitive; one of those rare instances where less actually appears to be more.
The technique also seems to work counterintuitively as far as the characters go. You might expect that, if all you hear are characters’ voices, then J R is a character-driven novel. But this is more a book about, for lack of a better word, systems. Outside forces that act on people: education, sex, history, politics, art, bureaucracy — and did I mention money? This novel, so far, is about how money affects all of these different systems, and people whose daily lives inevitably get caught in the churn. J R Vansant is the title character, I suspect, because he is the only one who comes to this world as an innocent. At age eleven he is curious and precocious enough to thrive in certain ways, but unlike the adults around him, he is not preoccupied with either resisting or controlling the forces around him. At least that’s what it seems like so far.
More info on J R and #OccupyGaddis can be found at Infinite Zombies. You can also follow along on the #OccupyGaddis Facebook group, and read Konstantinou’s first, second, third, fourth, and fifth posts to get fully caught up.
- Michael Moats