August 17, 2016KR OnlineReview

The Self that Did So Much: Writing William Gaddis

Nobody Grew but the Business: On the Life and Work of William Gaddis. By Joseph Tabbi. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2015. 304 pages. $35.00.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

Biographers of authors have a long history of soaking their subjects in a chemical bath of hagiography—often offering an epic 500-page or longer account of admiration, maybe two books, or even the colossal Leon Edel and Joseph Frank five-volume sets on Henry James and Dostoevsky, respectively. Many are painstakingly researched and cantilevered with a conservative equipoise, building drama where there is often none (a showdown with a blank page?), and sketching in anecdotes that create a too moderate picture of a legendary figure in the face of his or her often immoderate workings. These stories are told in very historically temperate terms: where the great-grandparents came from, what the grandfather did for a living, how the parents of the special one met. It’s well-meaning information, but often unimportant to the making of art. William Gaddis spent his life in production, writing hefty novels satirizing the American individual’s struggle against the state—better known as the corporate world—and the question of ownership. His novels from The Recognitions to A Frolic of His Own ask: When forgeries and lawsuits make more than the artworks themselves, what is worth doing?

Of course, people’s lives do contain drama and William Gaddis’s has a bit more than most: He enters Harvard twice and twice leaves with long travels and odd jobs bookending both experiences; the years 1947–1951 spent over many different seas—Central America, Europe, and North Africa; then marriage, children, and providing; followed by a spell in the corporate world; then bitterness and divorce; remarriage, JR; divorce, teaching positions, some acclaim; Carpenter’s Gothic, more acclaim, first interviews given; A Frolic of His Own, an end to a long-term relationship, and death. A full life and a life he made more and more transparent in his fictions, which, after the bounty of The Recognitions (956 pages with almost a dozen main characters, who go to many of the countries where Gaddis traveled), grew dialogue-centric, minimizing any narrative voice so that characters would dig their own graves with their scintillating and sloppy language. To make art is to risk failure, and though Gaddis’s first book had only failed commercially, its marginalization reinforced its own idea that forgers and people on the make are more revered than artists in this country. As Bast, the failed composer in JR, says:

I was thinking there’s so much that’s not worth doing suddenly I thought maybe I’ll never do anything. That’s what scared me I always thought I’d be, this music I always thought I had to write music all of a sudden I thought what if I don’t, maybe I don’t have to I’d never thought of that maybe I don’t! I mean maybe that’s what’s been wrong with everything . . . just doing what’s there to be done as though it’s worth doing or you never would have done anything you wouldn’t be anybody. . . .

Joseph Tabbi’s accomplishment in Nobody Grew but the Business is his winnowing of laborious details. At just over 200 pages, it is shorter than each of Gaddis’s own, with the exception of the posthumously published novella Agapē Agape. Yet this is not just a critical biography or a work of literary criticism, but a prolegomenon on how to persist in the creative world. It’s a portrait of an artist who struggled with how little attention his large efforts received (scant royalty checks for The Recognitions haunted him), and whose works still seem ahead of their time: Tabbi considers 1975’s JR, about an eleven-year-old who turns his penny stocks into a fortune in the midst of hapless adults, to have captured the spirit of the “corporate life world” of our present day more effectively than any contemporary fiction. Tabbi’s biography also serves as a critique of the current creative writing system, dominated by MFA programs in which community-building is, he claims, “secondary to the need for self-advancement within an institution devoted precisely to cultivating individual talents.” Though Tabbi is firmly seated in the academy, he forwards Gaddis’s hard-edged views against these programs. When Gaddis taught, he preferred to teach “creative reading,” and he saw creative-writing programs as emphasizing individual identity and branding, producing “the chance to make a living ‘not by poetry’ or novel writing but by ‘being a poet.’” The author Chris Mazza remembers Gaddis dismissing NEA fiction applicants because “the author purposely wrote as though the piece was memoir . . . to make it feel ‘real’ and . . . gain more audience interest and/or sympathy.” In contrast, Tabbi says, in each of his books Gaddis used highly autobiographical material to construct a “compositional self . . . specific to the aesthetic and technical problems” he encountered during the writing. As Gaddis said in a 1985 interview with Publishers Weekly, this self endures, “the real work . . . the thought and the rewriting and the crossing-out and the attempt to get it right”—and so the book is about what is happening to the writer but framed with a parable of her choosing, the way old masters put themselves into every Madonna and Child and Crucifixion they painted. Artists are the primary characters in each of Gaddis’s books: painters, novelists, science writers, playwrights, and musicians. Gaddis did speak through these characters, but the compositional self held it all together—the poet as opposed to the speaker of the poem. Their drama of failure was the writer’s own drama. The novel is an act, a performance, and Gaddis’s work encourages us both to watch the show and to consider the man behind the curtain, the life that both exceeds and requires the novel. JR is not really “about” an eleven-year-old who dupes everyone; it is about the outrage of a larger consciousness at the dehumanization of corporate life—Gaddis’s primary theme.

Tabbi accomplishes the difficult task of bringing us close to this “compositional self”: not a magician or a saint, but the “self that could do more” (a phrase in every Gaddis novel)—the aggregate of the hard work, the hours, days, and years of throwing away, revising, rethinking, and making the object, the art, and the drama better. This is exemplified by a photograph of Gaddis’s writing desk (a garage converted into a study) in Piermont, New York, where he wrote JR in the early ’70s. Books line the walls and on the long desk is a typewriter with pages laid out that Gaddis added to by typing inserts and affixing them to other pages with Scotch tape, a manual method of accretion that lends JR its bounty of leitmotifs. This quiet, ennobling picture is where the maelstrom of creativity occurred.

Gaddis’s letters, published in 2013 by the Dalkey Archive and edited by Steven Moore, Gaddis’s main scholar aside from Tabbi, provide insight into his last relationships—his second marriage to Judith Gaddis, his sixteen-year co-habitation with socialite Muriel Oxenburg Murphy—and show us how he transformed his everyday world into words. JR’s characters are stuck talking to each other in a series of rooms, while Carpenter’s Gothic and Frolic are each essentially set in one house that resembles two he lived in during his last thirty-some years. As Tabbi says, Frolic is a critique of the country, “through PR and legal maneuverings, in the sphere of power and influence that Gaddis himself now could know from the inside.” His traveling days were over and he wanted to be settled, but he would need to complete his work as the compositional self took on primacy. His second wife left in the late ’70s, leaving him aimless—as he wrote to a friend, “Still a terribly quiet house & somehow a chilly one, wash out one’s shirts, cook for 1, nobody to share the small great things of life with like the turning of the leaves”—and bitter: “I’m a bit sick & tired of people stepping out to ‘find themselves’ coming up at last with too often, in Cyril Connolly’s exquisitely harsh phrase, ‘a cheap sentimental humanism at someone else’s expense.’” These emotions were carried forward into Carpenter’s Gothic, a book that nearly had the first four words of Shakespeare’s seventy-third sonnet as a title. The book is a paean to Shakespeare’s intricate thirteen lines of feeling, as T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets were a touchstone for The Recognitions: the novel is set in autumn (“. . . brought down a burst of half yellowed leaves . . . ”—one of twenty-seven times “leaves” is used) among those same changeable leaves of the Bard, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold, / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang.”

Books make other books, said Cormac McCarthy, a writer Gaddis nodded to approvingly. How else could the compositional self become the self that could do more? When he was a sickly child, Gaddis had more than enough time to pore over the classics, and later sought out Robert Graves in Spain and Katherine Anne Porter by post to further find the author in himself. Maybe instead of any of Gaddis’s own novels, this biography is the best place to start with Gaddis because Tabbi isolates some of those works’ exquisite passages and their many themes. And maybe this book is best for the artist or for anyone who wants to do something with his or her life—no matter if it isn’t writing. Gaddis’s story impels one to get to work, even when few people recognize art as worthy work, even when one can’t make a living at it, and even when many believe it’s all been done before—so why try.

Greg Gerke's fiction and non-fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Paris Review Daily, and Film Quarterly. A fiction collection, My Brooklyn Writer Friend, is out from Queens Ferry Press.