Category Archives: #OccupyGaddis

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TheIntelligentInvestor

The Intelligent Investor is not our usual fare here at Fiction Advocate, but a combination of factors compel me to write about it. Specifically: that I read this book, and that my name is on the masthead. I’m hoping the market will bear it.

That said, another set of factors compels me as well. You’re probably familiar with them in some form or another: the 2008 financial crisis; rising CEO pay; declining wages for workers; hedge funds; Occupy Wall Street; record corporate profits; record student loan debt; unlimited and undisclosed corporate contributions to the politics that shape our government, and so on and so on. Chances are you’re not real happy about most of these. You’d probably even like to do something. If you could.

One perfectly natural reaction is to get mad and try to get away. Steer clear of malls; support small businesses; buy local and organic and so on and so on. All of these are great, and I support each of them — but none of these alternatives offers any kind of real solution. You’re bringing a knife to a gun fight, with Skynet. And by avoiding publicly traded companies, you’re also denying yourself access to a whole host of awesome things like Apple computers, Google searches, Starbucks coffee, pretty much all pharmaceuticals and communications technology. There’s really no way you’re reading this post without using some product by some company whose shares are making some dickhead rich on Wall Street right now*.

But even beyond the fact that avoiding Wall Street is pretty much impossible, the popular disdain for it may actually be harmful. Think about it like politics: People are disgusted with politics, so they don’t vote, and the government only gets worse. People are disgusted with big corporations and greedy capitalists, so they don’t exercise their (admittedly, limited) power to engage, and the economy only gets worse. This is why The Intelligent Investor is a book that more people should read. Especially, I assume, if you are part of our target audience here at FA, i.e. people like me who have spent most of their lives with no real interest or understanding of investing in stocks. If most of your knowledge of the stock market comes from “Trading Places,” then this book is for you.

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#OccupyGaddis: 601 – The End

I know it’s been a while, and honestly, I don’t have many insights to offer about the end of J R.  In the closing pages, things continue on in their wild, entropic trajectories — entropic in the most literal sense of systems losing order and collapsing, from the stock market to human bodies. For the most part, things get worse for everyone, and we don’t walk away feeling like we’ve reached a satisfactory conclusion. Nor are we really supposed to, I’d wager.

I feel okay with this abdication of blogging duties because Lee Konstantinou — founder of the #OccupyGaddis movement — has provided us with  “Too Big to Succeed,” a comprehensive and compelling review of the novel to close out OccupyGaddis at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Both publishing and Wall Street, Gaddis’s novel suggests, are “paper empires,” enterprises heinously, hilariously bad at what they do, and bad in similar ways. Both have subordinated their alleged functions — rationally allocating capital; optimally connecting readers and writers — to reckless speculation. Con men and gamblers rise, while the sensible and the serious are crushed. If Gaddis’s indictment is right, his novels may therefore be paradoxically doomed to be ignored, derided, and misunderstood, to fail to find the readership they deserve, not despite but because of their integrity. Gaddis’s novel would thus be both the great chronicler of Wall Street’s malignant rise and the victim of its triumphant ethos.

Whether one views Gaddis’s perspective as self-evidently true or as a self-serving story meant to displace blame for his personal failures onto others, one thing shouldn’t be in doubt: J R is a wild, rollicking success. It deserves the buzz and marketing budget typically reserved for writers who receive seven-figure advances. It deserves an army of dedicated readers who will, with near-religious devotion, take the time to unlock the wonders and mysteries of this hilarious, brilliant, and punishing satire of American capitalism. More than almost anything being published by young or established writers today, J R is the novel of our age.

Konstantinou finds J R to be a “tough, amazing book” and uses it to mount a defense of difficult fiction and critique the culture, starting with the publishing industry, tangling a bit with Jonathan Franzen, and then taking on society in general. It’s an interesting argument that you may or may not agree with, and a worthwhile read either way. Get the whole thing here.

- Michael Moats

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#OccupyGaddis: 451 – 600

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.” Continue reading

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#OccupyGaddis: 300 – 450

It is one thing to read a book about entropy. It is another thing entirely to read a book that is entropy.

The challenges of working through dialogue without attribution have been compounded in these pages with phones ringing and people dying, shoes getting lost and multiple Generals, two guys in slings and face bandages and people in each others’ suits, and sex and faucets that won’t stop running and mail flying through the air…

It’s been a little tough to keep track of things. It’s a testament to Gaddis that the story continues to make some sense, but I’ve found these pages to be among the most difficult in which to maintain a reasonable momentum and keep track of the scenery going by.

Similar struggles have been contemplated by Daryl L.L. Houston over at Infinite Zombies, who wrote in a post titled “Worthwhile?

I am curious whether anybody else is finding the length of the book, and especially of some passages, to be taxing.

I find that the portions of the book that take place in boardrooms and offices or on the phone between people situated in these locales get old pretty quickly.

Personally, my frustrations tend to grow with the presence of Gibbs, who turns into an un-listening, interrupting fount of allusive gibberish and bad marriage advice once he gets hold of some liquor. Whiteback’s office, with its two phones and competing streams of visitors and broadcasts is a close second.

Adding to the confusion are J R’s increasingly complex business dealings. This seems to be the one place in the novel where a system holds its shape long enough to be effectively acted upon. J R uses tax laws and banking strategies to increase cash flow and invest in companies without really concerning himself in the production and sale of any particular product. He’s making sure that his money works for him, even if his companies don’t.

On the other side of J R’s business adventures are Eigen, the late Schramm, Gibbs, Schepperman and Bast, the artists trying to make a living with their products. The cold hard business of capitalism here is moving ahead with handshakes and phone calls, and the production end is a peripheral concern when it’s not useful for a tax write off. In this long book about modern American capitalism, the true workers and producers are the painter, the writers and the composer. The artists are the only characters who actually make and sell tangible products. And so far, one writer has hung himself, one is unable to follow-up on his previous novel and another can’t write at all.  The painter’s works go straight into storage where no one sees them, and the composer can’t get a dime for the pieces he’s written. As disorienting and confusing as this novel can be, these stories are all too recognizable.

- Michael Moats

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#OccupyGaddis: 151 – 300

Land of the free $1.

Things are definitely starting to happen in some kind of recognizable way — especially with the aid of this very handy scene-by-scene guide of Gaddis Annotations.

Last we saw, Norman Angel — who manages the Bast roll plant and is married to Stella (who tried to seduce Bast but shows no interest in her husband) — was leaving work on a business trip after seeing some compromising pictures of his secretary (who is helpfully named Terry). Days pass as the radio interjects. As the scene moves through the subway we run across Gibbs visiting his daughter who lives with his ex-wife, followed by Dan diCephalis running into his unhappy, conspiracy theorist, harpy wife Ann on the train.

If you’re not already getting the message about marriage in this novel, Mrs Joubert’s union is also on the rocks. She gets some hapless legal counsel from Beaton on whether her husband can take her son overseas.

Then we get another unhappy marriage, between Eigen and his wife, which loses center stage to the suicide of Schramm, the recently one-eyed writer who shared the 96th Street studio with Gibbs and now Bast. Gibbs goes on an aggrieved, drunken rant under the influence of Schramm’s death and the discovery of some whiskey in a cabinet. (Side note: I too once discovered a bottle of Old Smuggler left in a kitchen cabinet, though in my day the bottle was plastic. I can assure our readers that it is as high a quality of whiskey as the 96th Street studio’s general squalor would indicate.)

On a different, sadder point of comparison, Gibbs’ rant about the author who has hanged himself echoes the thoughts of David Foster Wallace. In his well-known TV essay, Wallace wrote about — among other things — the challenges for fiction that requires active engagement when it’s up against television and the passive reception of entertainment. As Gibbs says:

– Good. I hope every reader will, from this history, take warning, and stamp improvement on the wings of time problem most God damned readers rather be at the movies. Pay attention here bring something to it take something away problem most God damned writing’s written for readers perfectly happy who they are rather be at the movies, come in empty-handed go out the same God damned way what I told him Bast. Ask them to bring one God damned bit of effort want everything done for them they get up and go to the movies…

Bast escapes Gibbs and the studio to meet with J R at the Museum of Art. Here we see J R’s empire truly starting to take shape, with the help of Bast as his half-willing business representative. We also get to see the childish J R make some very adult, capitalist decisions. As I said before, J R seems innocent, or at least lacks the anxiety that seems to trouble every other character in the novel. There is a lightening of the mood when he appears on the page, which can be attributed at least in part to the fact that it’s easy to recognize exactly who is speaking with all his this heres and heys. But that must be weighed against what he’s actually doing. Lee Konstantinou has his own sharp interpretations on the character J R in his most recent #Occupy Gaddis post, “The Playful Destruction of J R”:

And yet, unlike other characters, who struggle with the chaos they’re embedded within – Gibbs and Eigen particularly come to seem like stand-ins for Gaddis – J R is at home in the world of entropy. Gibbs, Eigen, and Edward give evidence of interior struggle. By contrast, J R is a master of chaos, a manipulator of paper – what Crawley calls “wallpaper.”

[…]

By making J R a perfectly innocent child, so young so as to not yet have a fully formed personality, by stripping J R of the need to ideologically rationalize his activities, Gaddis gives us a picture of naked capitalism.

Much more on J R and #OccupyGaddis can be found at Infinite Zombies. You can follow along on the #OccupyGaddis Facebook group, and read Konstantinou’s first, second, thirdfourthfifth, and sixth posts to get fully caught up.

- Michael Moats

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#OccupyGaddis: 1 – 150

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, thirdfourth, and fifth posts to get fully caught up.

- Michael Moats

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#OccupyGaddis: Read is Good

“Goddam money. It always ends up making you blue as hell.” So says Holden Caulfield, and so say the last five years of American history.

The dominoes that started falling in 2007 led to lost homes and empty retirement funds for millions of Americans, and lost performance benefits for the people who set the dominoes up. Americans sputtered with outrage in every city and small town, throwing out the old bosses in 2008, then opening the doors to a louder and stunningly less competent group of new bosses in 2010. Economists, investors, world leaders, law makers and voters around the world have struggled to understand exactly what happened, and determine what needs to happen next, and pretty much everyone is still blue as hell about it all.

Hollywood has responded with a sequel to “Wall Street,” but what about our publishing houses? These are times ripe for being written down. Michael Lewis deftly captured the tumble and fall period in The Big Short (our thoughts here)More recently over at Bookforum, Christian Lorentzen speculated on “a novel about Occupy Wall Street,” explaining that sweeping fiction about money will be difficult to come by because, “The impulse to become a writer suggests a fundamental fiscal incompetence.” So there’s that. Here at Fiction Advocate, Brian Hurley batted around his own thoughts on the presence of an Occupy Wall Street novel, and offered a reading list of books that — if not classic OWS novels — may help illuminate what is going on.

But it may be that the best Wall Street novel we have was written almost 40 years ago. William Gaddis’ J R is the story of an eleven-year-old boy who makes a killing on the stock market, or as the Dalkey Archive Press says of its beautiful re-issue of the novel, “J R is a biting satire about the many ways in which capitalism twists the American spirit into something more dangerous, yet pervasive and unassailable.” Before you get to the opening sentence — “–Money…? in a voice that rustled.” — Rick Moody introduces the novel saying, “J R Vansant could not seem more plausible and emotionally satisfying and true these days , in this Madoff-esque present.” The book itself is long, more than 700 pages, and comes with Gaddis’ reputation for difficulty, but the fact that it remains so celebrated after so many years is literature’s best approximation of Too Big to Fail, which is why I aim to read J R this summer.

Fortunately, Lee Konstantinou at the Los Angeles Review of Books has created #OccupyGaddis, a reading challenge/support group for taking on J R. I will be joining in, and blogging about it here, and I hope you will take part as well. Visit the LARB page for more information about pacing and other logistical details, then come back and comment on our posts or send us links to your own.  You’ll probably want to get started soon; we’re supposed to be 150 pages into this thing by the 29th.

See you out there.

- Michael Moats

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