Gaddis Was The Man

Today, Wood S Lot reminded me that eighty-one years ago, one of the most underappreciated American novelists was born.

I first came across Gaddis when I was 25, stumbling through a bookstore and coming across some book called The Recognitions that had an incredible Hugo van der Goes painting on the cover. Something that looked like an anguished Neanderthal, but could have easily been a tortured wrestler. Plus, the book was thick. And instinctively, I’ve always been drawn to anything huge.

It took me three weeks to finish the sucker.

Gaddis wasn’t your fly-by-night novelist. He demanded that you work. One minute, he’d be drowning you in remarkable descriptions, placing you in fascinating tableaus that would never end. The next minute, he’d be giving you sentences like, “The door was opened to the length of a finger,” or “He got up and lit an American cigarette,” always reinforcing precise absurdities. (Why should the nationality of a cigarette matter so much? Why measure a door by a finger when a hand isn’t there?) The thing that kept his books worthwhile was Gaddis’s presence as a relentless imp. He’d skewer anything, whether it was Dale Carnegie’s disciples, bizarre organizations like the Use-Me Society, or the chronic counterfeiters who riffed throughout his books. His dialogue of debutantes and dilletantes always came across to me as astutely observed. The spoken lines were prefaced only by dashes, immersed within the pages as if to imply that the dialogue itself was inseparable from the tragic vapidity of human behavior.

Without Gaddis, there would not have been a Thomas Pynchon, nor a David Foster Wallace, nor a John Barth. He ushered in a postmodern wave where anything was fair game, where Balzacian observation could dance hand-in-hand with Mencken and the Marx Brothers. And that’s why I was particularly sad the day he died not long later.

Related Link: William Gaddis video interview with Malcolm Bradbury.