I have to confess: there are some parts in this section where I’m feeling sympathetic to the whole capitalist-industrial system Gaddis is going after.
For instance, it’s hard to argue with (I think) Major Hyde (who is otherwise pretty terrible in his opinions) when he gets upset when people act “as though there’s something wrong with company loyalty.”
I’m proud of my company loyalty I just want to make that perfectly clear, I’m proud of it. Look around you all you see’s a bunch of unwashed kids that don’t know what loyalty is because they’ve never had anything to be loyal to they never will, sewing the flag on the seat of their pants the way everything sacred’s breaking down the only place left for loyalty if you’ve got any’s the company that’s paying your way…
I like the idea of being proud of what you do and loyal to the people with whom you do it. And I don’t like the idea of opposing a system without offering a viable replacement (a symptom suffered by many in the Occupy movement). But like many angry old men, Hyde fails to see that the kids aren’t loyal to anything because he and his generation haven’t given them anything to be loyal to. Hyde’s worried that everything sacred is breaking down, and he has reason to. But he doesn’t realize that when we give blind fealty to our jobs and our money — “when my company says jump I jump!” — and the absolute Market-Knows-All philosophy where just about any decision can be justified based on balance sheets, we don’t leave a whole lot of room for the “sacred things.” Faith and family and quality of life and other intangibles tend to take a back seat, and people aren’t happy when that happens. As a proclaimed capitalist he’s doing a pretty poor job of understanding basic principles about incentives and rational actions in the marketplace.
Hyde is championing a capitalism that doesn’t quite exist in the J R universe, or that exists in places like Eagle Mills, which in this novel is not treated like a company that makes a product and employs people, but as an asset to be bought, sold and/or written off for tax purposes. He’s rebuked appropriately a few pages later by (I think) Vern, who says “all we’ve got left to protect here is a system that’s set up to promote the meanest possibilities in human nature and make them look good.”
The other part comes a few pages later, when J R himself is talking to Mrs Joubert about how “everything you see someplace there’s a millionaire for it”
like right now there’s this water fountain millionaire and this locker millionaire and this here lightbulb one I mean like even the lightbulb there’s this glass millionaire
The exchange reminded me of a job I had writing wrote for the small newspaper of a local industrial park in my hometown. Don’t ask me why the park needed its own paper, but I got paid $25 for each profile I did of companies in the park. It was surprisingly interesting work, mostly because of the glimpse it gave me of the sort of “supply closet” of the larger economy. These were companies that supplied bulk materials, or made parts for machines that made parts for other products. J R is focused on the millionaires who presumably invented or own these things, but he’s showing the rare awareness of entire sectors of our economy that we don’t tend to think about when we walk into a Target.
There’s a long and complex supply chain out there that I find fascinating, especially when thinking about all the non-millionaires involved, the men and women who make their living selling lumber or renting auto-tillers out of dusty warehouses with corrugated tin walls. And this is what makes me sympathetic to capitalism, because we see in these presumably boring jobs (maybe some people really love auto-tillers and plumbing supplies) that the system is meant to be a means, not an end in itself. It’s a tool we can use for the broad pursuit of happiness, not happiness itself. Think of it this way: Even the water fountain millionaire is probably not touched deep in his heart by selling water fountains, but maybe he is proud to be putting people into jobs, giving them what they need to support families and devote some loyalty to other things, including the sacred ones.
But then there are people like J R, whose worldview is pretty much defined when he tells Mrs Joubert that the Eskimos in the Museum of Natural History are stuffed.
After parting with J R, Mrs Joubert meets up with Gibbs, who has hit it big at the track. They leave to spend a few days having sex and getting their lives in order. At this point the novel moves uptown, moving between the chaos of the various company offices and the 96th Street apartment to the relative calm of Amy Joubert’s place. Both our artists and our capitalists are struggling. Bast is being sucked further and further into the company. Eigen’s wife left him and took his son, and Schepperman’s patron won’t let anyone see his paintings. Gibbs gets right, but goes wrong again on 96th Street when he starts trying to finish writing his book. Gibbs gets drunk and Rhoda gets high and J R’s company starts to fall in on itself.
– Michael Moats