Then, in 1985, Gaddis produced what some might consider his 'breakthrough' work. Weighing in at well under 300 pages, Carpenter's Gothic marked a turning point in his career. For the first time in his life, Gaddis was unread for reasons that had nothing to do with length. From now on, he wasn't being read because he was Literature.
Like Henry James, Gaddis writes obsessively about the inauthenticity of American experience. There is no weight, texture or body to his America - only unravelling voices, buzzing radio-jingles, endless corporate hype and soulless legal blather. His people are always yearning for life's Deeper Meaning: (art, truth, reality, self) but all they ever divulge is more money, commerce, lies, and junk. In Gaddis's best and funniest novel, J R, a 12-year-old boy masters the junk bond market by hiding behind a smoke-screen of telephones, corporate logos and commercial hyperbole. In America, Gaddis complains, the game is everything, so it doesn't matter who plays it.
For William Gaddis, the American crisis is a crisis of representation, and it has produced a country in which prices don't represent value, language doesn't represent things, and politicians don't represent people. It's a place where money acts as a sort of universal solvent, reducing everything and everybody to the same smudged, greenish blur.
Gaddis's fourth novel, A Frolic of His Own, is about justice, and how impossible it is to achieve - especially when you're dealing with over-priced lawyers. 'You get justice in the next world,' one lawyer remarks in the novel's crisp opening sentence: 'in this world you have the law' (see extract, right). For Gaddis, the law is a system of language that doesn't refer to anything but itself. It never assigns guilt, innocence or value; it just keeps recirculating the same bad faith over and over again.
The central protagonist of Gaddis's new novel, Oscar Crease, looks to the law in order to regain the integrity of who he never was. Bereft of his father, his inheritance, and his art, Oscar decides to get even by demanding the only restitution available to him - money. Having managed to run himself over in his own car, he takes himself to court. Then he sues the makers of a Gettysburg-like movie for plagiarising an old, unproduceable play he wrote, while moaning all the while that they didn't even bother to steal his best stuff (the film is directed by 'Constantine Kiester' and stars 'Robert Bredford' - in all his books, Gaddis's puns are intrusive and dumb). Suit leads to counter-suit until everybody's suing everybody else: artists and cities, husbands and wives, people and dogs. Meanwhile, Oscar hides away in his deteriorating family mansion waiting for what he's owed. It never arrives.
As Harry Lutz (Oscar's brother-in-law) explains at one point: 'Every profession is a conspiracy against the public, every profession protects itself with a language of its own . . . till it all evaporates into language confronted by language turning language itself into theory till it's not what it's about it's only about itself.'
As in the work of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, the reigning narrative trope of Gaddis's fiction is entropy. Statements and actions are never completed; messages are lost and misdelivered; systems of information run down; discommunication reigns. People restlessly scout the wreckage of their lives for glimpses or 'recognitions' of the original, the beautiful, and the true. But meanwhile forgeries continually multiply, and reflections usurp the place of what they are supposed to reflect.
By this time it's impossible to doubt either Gaddis's integrity or his conviction. His books are unclassifiable, unique, ruthlessly uncommercial, and demand to be read at their own speed - but at the same time, they go on far too long, and don't entirely work.
Like Hawthorne and Melville, Gaddis is fascinated by the allure of surfaces, and the inexpressibility of what may (or may not) lie behind them. But by writing about a world in which people take a long time saying nothing, the inconstant drone of Gaddis's characters often grows more monotonous than the world it's supposed to parody. Gaddis tends to repeat the same jokes, trope the same tropes, and obsess the same obsessions until most readers will eventually lose interest in the stunning architecture and simply walk away. About halfway through any Gaddis novel, even the most patient reader starts to feel like one of Gaddis's characters - bereft of everything but words.
Nevertheless, for a man who writes about a society washed over by cheap imitations, Gaddis remains one of contemporary fiction's true originals. He is funny, relentless and uncompromising. Not enough people read him - even if he is already Literature.
Justice? - You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.
Well of course Oscar wants both. I mean the way he talks about order? She drew back her foot from the threat of an old man paddling by in a wheelchair, - that all he's looking for is some kind of order?
Make the trains run on time, that was the. . .
I'm not talking about trains, Harry.
I'm talking about fascism, that's where this compulsion for others end up. The rest of it's opera.
No but do you know what he really wants?
The ones showing up in court demanding justice, all they've got their eye on's that million dollar price tag.
It's not simply the money no, what they really want. . .
What they really want, your fascists, Oscar, everybody I mean what it's really all about. She tapped a defiant foot against the tinkling marimba rhythms seeping into the waiting room somewhere over near the curtains, where the wheelchair had collided with a radiator and come to rest. Trains? fascism? Because this isn't about any of that, or even 'the opulence of plush velvet seats, brilliant spectacle and glorious singing' unless that's just their way of trying to be taken seriously too - because the money's just a yardstick isn't it. It's the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves, I mean that's all they're really asking for isn't it? Think about it, Harry.
I've thought about it, now look. How long do we have to wait? I've got to be in court in an hour.
He's been in therapy they said, it shouldn't be long. The nurse said he's in a highly agitated state.
Ever see him when he wasn't?
Well my God can you blame him? She was digging deep. . .