WILLIAM Gaddis’s second novel is a deadly serious attack on the American business ethic, the profit motive, and the materialism of contemporary life. It documents its charges in detail, and it covers the manufacturing, distributing, and advertising of shabby and often unnecessary products; stock market manipulations by lawyers, brokers, and investors, as well as by company management; the creation of vertical and horizontal monopolies and international cartels, and their aggrandizement; complex tax, stock, and company control operations; and the intricate and corrupt interrelationships between business and government. Not only does it expose the sordidness of this tangled knot of victims and victimizers, it expands to show the effect of this world on the corrupt world of art, the suborned American educational system, and the manipulable children whom it perverts into future victims and victimizers.
Nor is Gaddis content to describe merely the present state of things. A novelist within the novel is writing about F. W. Woolworth and the origin of the 5 & 10, for instance. But with Empedocles’s aid, Gaddis goes back much farther than that, to the birth of the world in a chaos of fragments. These fragments, still whirling today into momentary patterns and apparent orders, also forecast—with T. S. Eliot as guide—the entropic decay of our culture into a future wasteland more horrid than even the present. Is there a way out? Gaddis offers only the faintest of hints. A half-mad artist has carved a motto on a Long Island secondary school; the motto has been censored by changing the words into an Empedoclean chaos of meaningless Greek letters; but beneath them the careful reader can spell out “From each accord . . .” And then there’s the significant scene in which grade-school children are vaguely rehearsing, of all things, the Ring of the Niebelungs, and our attention is focused on the dwarf Alberich—who, it is explained, seeks the Rhinegold only after vainly seeking love. Love, then, and a loving communistic community of workers might save us—but nothing in this grim study of our time suggests that these are more than snowballs in hell.
Our literary history provides two modes for dealing with business. One mode—represented by Upton Sinclair and by William Dean Howells’s The Rise of Silas Lapham—approaches the matter with high moral tones and a sober air. The other mode—illustrated by Howells’s Traveller from Altruria and Twain and Warner’s The Gilded Age—abandons sobriety in favor of comedy, especially satire. Gaddis follows the second mode, and wisely. Though few of us know the business world with his detailed thoroughness, we all know its internal evils and its corruption of our culture. If we are to labor through an extensive analysis of them—and JR is 726 eye-boggling pages long—we must be offered no sticks but bushels of carrots. Gaddis has a wildly extravagant sense of humor and offers us everything from bitter satire—”where do you think we are over at Russia? where they don’t let you do anything? These laws are these laws why should we want to do something illegal if some law lets us do it anyway . . .?”— to the broadest slapstick (one example of Empedoclean entropy occurs when, in an attempt to transmit a person through space electrically, a minor character fragments and disappears).
The central comic figure of the novel is JR himself, a shabby, pudgy, endlessly energetic sixth grader, the embodiment of the eager and amoral capitalist, who parlays a handful of odd stocks into the JR Family of Companies, working out of a phone booth in his school with the confused and reluctant aid of a young would-be composer and a foul-mouthed and available young slattern in a chaotically cluttered room on East 96th St. Although JR doesn’t realize it, his Family of Companies (the material substitute, presumably, for his own apparently non-existent family) becomes locked in a fierce struggle with an interlocking complex of corporations controlled by JR’s adult equivalent, the heartless, acquisitive, and very bright ex-Governor Cates, who serves as Gaddis’s mouthpiece for much of the exposition and—inadvertently— much of the novel’s satire of business.
Meanwhile a swarm of lesser characters pullulates around the central plot, and one of them—an alcoholic teacher and would-be writer named Gibbs—takes over the novel. JR almost disappears, though his machinations rumble on, and Gibbs’s improbable affair with an even less probable fellow teacher preoccupies us for unconscionable stretches of type. Then the woman abruptly disappears, taking that plot line with her, and is scarcely heard from again, although Gibbs chatters on and on.
. . . As everyone does, and necessarily. To an extraordinary extent, this is a spoken novel. Description is cut to a minimum, summary and explanation are non-existent, while conversations—face to face and by ubiquitous telephones—chatter along interruptedly, confusedly, farcically, in several dozen styles, jargons, and dialects, while simultaneously technical literature, journalism, artistic literature, radio programs, and advertising contribute their babble to the novel’s towering hubbub. Here, too, chaos and entropy reign; a complete and grammatical sentence constitutes a minor cultural triumph, and one longs for the steadying and sane tones of a reliable narrator. (The one opportunity arises when Gibbs and his woman make love—of its nature a comparatively wordless activity. Alas, the narrative there is embarrassing: old fashioned, repetitive, soft-core, and sentimental porn. )
This spoken style, coupled with the general headlong rush of event and comment, constitutes the novel’s most obvious quality—and its weakest one. George Steiner has classified JR as a “truly unreadable text.” He is wrong, as usual; most of the dialogue is extraordinarily well written, skillfully complicated, wittily created. But the cumulative effect of this verbal torrent—especially since so many of the speakers are stupid, orally semi-literate, if one may say so—is almost stupefying. One must read at a certain minimum speed, after all, or language degenerates into nonsense syllables. But the text continuously sprays out particles of information about a myriad of subjects—some of them as complex as the many business transactions, some as arbitrary as Gaddis’s rather silly parodies of the critics who spoke unwisely of his first novel, The Recognitions, and some as deliberately hidden as JR’s last name (Vansant—mentioned only once). One cannot cope.
There are other difficulties too. The manner in which JR acquires and then is divested of his complicated empire is wittily contrived, like a financial chess game; but most of the characters are dismayingly trite—Amy the sexy but shallow sophisticate, Beamish the moral but compromised lawyer, Gibbs the sensitive artist made impotent by the crassness of our culture, Rhoda the good-hearted slut (“there’s not a mean bone in her body really just a sweet kid”). . .and even JR, the modern Tom Sawyer, is less realized and complex, less explicable, and finally less interesting than such coevals as Steven Millhauser’s Jeffrey Cartwright and Edwin Mullhouse. And as for Gaddis’s critique of capitalism (cf. Donald Barthelme’s “The Rise of Capitalism”), lawyer Beamish states the problem: “in this particular instance corporate activities seem so preponderantly inspired by such negative considerations as depreciation and depletion allowances, loss carry-forwards tax write-offs and similar . . .” Such negative considerations characterize almost all the business maneuvers of the novel, maneuvers also characterized by piranha-like voraciousness. But ordinarily piranhas are mild enough, and most of American business is more passively, even lethargically corrupt, just as most Americans are more absentmindedly materialistic and even more casually kind than Gaddis gives them credit for being. But this may be, a minor flaw at worst: we can hardly blame Dante for the dearth of likeable people in the Inferno, nor can we ask Jeremiah to lament moderately. Gaddis is right, essentially, after all. But few Americans will be able or willing to read JR.