Sunday, July 8, 2012

Reflection on "The Recognitions" by William Gaddis

           So there is quite a bit of history around this book which is summed up for the most part here. Because of this I've chosen not to write a review which has been too many times already and which would imply some sort of an attempt at objectivity but will rather be writing a reflection of my own experience with the book. So this will be highly subjective, opinionated and heavily YYMV.
          The book is broken into three parts and the first is by far the easiest. I blew through it quickly and it is consistently entertaining, engaging, well paced and appropriately complex. The second part becomes considerably more complex: Gaddis begins to deliver his philosophies and views and the writing really kicks into gear. With these changes the entertainment value becomes less consistent with higher highs and lower lows. You really need to pay attention to seemingly minor, fleeting details (which I did not) to get everything Gaddis puts into the second part out of it but it is still very much worth reading. The third part gets a little sloppy and offers the least redemption. It consists almost entirely of characters dying, going psychotic, and listening to stupid tourists. The third part has the least impact and cohesion and I found myself reading mostly to just get it over with. During the first two parts I looked up some of the references but by the end I just let them go as my interest had waned. The ending however is a spectacular display of great art ( and ignorance) consuming itself and the book does finish on a rather strong (if exhausted) note.
           I would be hard pressed to recommend this book to most people. While not overly complex as such it is highly allusive, there are boatloads of characters and the pace of the book has been described elsewhere, and very accurately, as "glacial". Gaddis' never spoon feeds the book, and you will often need to determine the setting, characters and mood through hints which are not always immediately apparent. This is not awful in itself (and by no means as distracting as some other authors) but he expects you to be a bit more in his head than others and so the book can take a bit of effort. In addition Gaddis does  not consistently reward the work you have to put in. This isn't to say the book isn't rewarding: his sense of humor is dry and caustic (I laughed out loud at multiple points) there are dramatic sections which stand apart in how imaginative they are and the complexity of the story can be very pleasing, but again the rewards never feel "spoon fed". This issue seems to be at the heart of about half of the complaints surrounding the book the other half being that the dialogue is difficult to follow. While I can't argue against complaints regarding enjoyment of the book (The Recognitions simply appeals to a specific taste...) Gaddis always provides clues to who is speaking, you just need to pay attention for them.  It is definitely a book that begs multiple reading to get the full effect and I may feel ready a few years from now. Interestingly many sections (especially descriptive ones) are just as, if not more, striking when read outside the book than within its confines.
         The plot it described in most reviews as being about a painter in New York in the 50's who sells his soul and produces counterfiet paintings. This is a little like saying Ulysses is about a school teacher with a mood disorder or Star Wars is about a father-son relationship. In case I'm not being clear a WHOLE LOT is going on in this novel, at least three major plot lines and maybe a dozen smaller ones. Many plots intertwine in brilliant and satisfying ways, some pop in briefly then disappear only to be alluded to significantly 300 pages later. Suffice it to say Gaddis creates a whole world which closely mirrors our own 50 years ago but which has slightly different rules. The majority of this world fits within the New York art scene over the course of late December in the mid 20th centure but also stretches back to the 14th century Dutch and out to contemporary Central America, Spain and new England. Some characters are borderline insane, and some of those cross the border into full on psychosis. One character's protracted religious ravings are simultaneously confusing, obscure and frightening and after reading these sections felt myself to have slipped briefly into a altered state. While not very enjoyable these sections are a strong testament to Gaddis' writing ability and demonstrate how much power an author can wield over the reader.
       For the most part the novel is satirical and large portions of the book are taken up describing late night parties among groups of intellectual wannabes and has-beens. These sections predictably consist of context free snippets of speech: posturing, malapropism, misunderstanding, and pretension which buffer more coherent sections of drunken drama, ignorance and anxiety. Gaddis portrays the party scene as lonely sad people coming together to keep the harsh outside world at bay though drinking and puffing themselves up. It's at once hilarious and depressing and these sections go on and on and on. These scenes are contrasted by heavy religious imagery and allusion which, like the party conversations, usually end up going no where. Gaddis sticks mostly to Puritan and Catholic imagery and texts and wanders in Mithradatism, Islam and Judaism breifly. Intimate knowledge of these religions is not necassary but I did feel at times like I was missing some subtle cues by my lack of religious knowledge.
       The Recognitions in itself is obviously above average (especially for a first novel) but lacking at too many points to achieve any sort of transcendence. Put into historical context (as occurs in every review and which I will touch on out of necessity) the novel attains greater significance. The Recognitions is pinned as a direct forerunner to Pynchon, Wallace, and the whole bevy of post-modern/maximalist/hysterical realist writers. He isn't quite as far out as any of these other writers but he was one of the (if not THE) first authors to write in this general style. In hindsight he showed incredible care and restraint in how he pulled off the novel slipping in a funny names here or a multilingual joke there with out shoving it in your face every other line like some others. His novel also has heart, a certain sadness, and more depth to the characters than some of the typical post-moderns to follow. His later novels (J.R., Carpenter's Gothic et al.) are apparently more concise and brought him much acclaim.
      I'd like to end by mentioning his writing style. Since the content of his novel is unique, and the effort required at times to unravel it so great, many readers and critics seems to completely ignore Gaddis' style. It is (much like the content) at once unique and highly inventive yet understated. His word choice can be pleasingly unusual and his descriptions, while sparse, can be sublime. He takes great care in describing the sights and sounds of his environments and the way he describes them made me stop and reread multiple times simply because I had never thought of descriptions in the way Gaddis writes. He often anthropomorphizes the sky, sound, the air, a crack in a wall, and other scene items which literally brings the surroundings to life. Again it is often subtle but it is one of Gaddis' great strenghts and what sets him apart from many others.
                I'll recommend this book to:
  • Those who won't mind reading the same book hours a day for more than a month.
  • Those who like to be exposed to classical art, music and ideas.
  • Those who find intellectualism, scene politics and city dwellers artificial and pretentious.
  • Those who enjoy Pynchon's style and attitude but want something more subdued.
  • Those interested in the history of 20th American postmodernism.
  • Those looking for a moderately challenging read.
  • Those who can keep various small character details in their heads for hundreds of pages.

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