Obituary: William Gaddis

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The Independent Culture
WILLIAM GADDIS was among the most important of the new American novelists to appear after the Second World War. He was also among the most undervalued - perhaps not surprisingly, for his work, encyclopaedic, anagrammatic, intricately carpentered and constructed, was never to every taste.

Perhaps it was unfortunate that his first novel, The Recognitions (1955), a 956-page tour de force on fraudulence, counterfeiting, and the deceptions of art and religion, with a cast of some 50 characters, appeared in the 1950s. It was not a time given to literary experiment, and the book was subjected to much hostile reviewing - "a sobering experience", reflected Gaddis.

But it did find its own band of readers, was passed from hand to hand among students, deeply admired by fellow authors (Bellow, Doctorow), celebrated by Tony Tanner in his masterly 1971 study of modern American fiction, City of Words. Finally it came to be seen as perhaps the first "postmodern" novel, a forerunner of the fiction of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth.

Possibly because of the poor press response to his first novel, Gaddis took 20 more years to produce his second, J.R. (1975), a satirical comedy about an 11-year-old high-school boy who learns the rules of speculation and becomes a successful capitalist, exploiting the games that money lets us play.

Again, the book is massive, centred around a notion of extreme conspiracy, and deeply concerned with linguistic and lexical codes. The novel's first word is "Money" - "spoken in a voice that rustled" - and money is the interconnective tissue of this vast, sprawling, manipulating world. Language itself is manipulated, and the book belongs to that body of lexical fiction where the nature of language, codes and discourse is always under test. Modern information theory, cybernetics, is used to code and structure the novel - a game of "noise" and silence. This time the novel was well received, earning its author the National Book Award.

Ten years later Gaddis produced Carpenter's Gothic (1985) - a book whose title said much about the nature of his work. "Carpenter's Gothic" is an American style of domestic architecture where grand European designs are adapted and recarpentered for more humble circumstances, producing "a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions". It was a fair description of his own flavour, for the novel exploits many of the generic aspects of Gothic and sensational fiction without ceasing to have an air of parody. Gaddis's parody was intensely serious, however, his theme being the corruption - political, artistic, financial, and linguistic - of the modern American world in its age of hyper-reality. At this time, Penguin reissued all his books in paperback.

Since then Gaddis produced one further book, A Frolic of His Own (1994). As J.R. begins with the word "Money", this begins with the word "Justice?", and is an elaborate comedy of the role of the law and legislation in American society. This book has an increased topicality now that the American legal system has succeeded in allowing a small incident in an Arkansas hotel to develop, through a series of ever more absurd accusations and claims for restitution, into the grounds of impeaching a president. "Every profession is a conspiracy against the public," Gaddis writes wrily, "every profession protects itself with a language of its own."

Gaddis's themes have been central to modern American fiction in the age of Pynchon, Barth and DeLillo; he has been a major experimental writer who, over time, has greatly influenced many. Yet there was always a sense in which his own work was a frolic of his own, to some degree protected by a language of its own.

William Gaddis had strong literary credentials. Born to an affluent family in New York City, he went to Harvard and, like so many American writers, edited The Harvard Lampoon. But a drunken brawl ended his university career, and he went to work for the New Yorker. He then travelled a good deal in Latin America, settled in Greenwich Village (where he knew the "Beats"), then worked in Spain and Paris as a freelance author and speech-writer.

At various times he worked for American international corporations and witnessed American intervention in foreign lands, something that earned his satirical rage. Behind Gaddis's language experiments, his game-plans, his clever ironies, there was always a political bitterness and a battle against the inauthentic. He was a man of great charm, wit and intelligence. Before he died, William Gaddis had completed another novel, Agape. His was an unusual but a major literary career, and one hopes it will earn him full recognition.

Malcolm Bradbury

William Gaddis, writer: born New York 29 December 1922; died East Hampton, New York 16 December 1998.