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BOOK REVIEW / Wordy men in suits: 'A Frolic of his Own' - William Gaddis: Viking, 16 pounds

Peter Guttridge
Saturday 18 June 1994 23:02 BST

EVERYBODY is suing somebody in A Frolic of His Own, the exuberant fourth novel from one of America's greatest post-war writers. Among the suits and counter-suits, judgments and appeals, the central character, Oscar Crease, scion of a distinguished legal family, is even suing himself for personal injury after his aptly named Sosumi car runs over him as he hot-wires the ignition. And in the background are the big cases, like the dollars 50m 'Pop and Glow' suit the Episcopal church has filed against Pepsi-Cola for traducing its reputation with an ignoble anagram.

The main suit of the book is the one Oscar has filed against the Hollywood director of a Civil War epic which Oscar claims is based on his own unpublished, unperformed play about his grandfather's experiences. As the book proceeds, Oscar's obsession with the plagiarism is seen to have a valid basis - but in Gaddis's fiction there's never been much correlation between being right and getting justice.

As always in his work, the real subject is language. People never stop talking, but seldom communicate. As Oscar's sister Christina says: 'I mean you talk about language how everything's language it seems that all language does is drive us apart'. And as Oscar's lawyer points out to him as he starts his main action: 'What I tried to tell you from the start. Words, words, words, that's what it's all about.'

Few other writers have Gaddis's grasp of the rhythms and nuances of American speech. His dialogue - through which most of the action takes place - is unforcedly funny, presenting in its overlaps, interruptions and non sequiturs a giddily hilarious simulacrum of everyday life and the stream of our fragmented consciousness.

In his second novel, JR, different voices were distinguished only by their speech patterns and rhythms and by the things they were saying. Here, Gaddis gives more clues about who is speaking, and even adds the odd stage direction, for the novel is in essence a play set in Crease's Long Island house, with the characters making sudden entrances and abrupt exits. Although his books are sometimes called 'post- psychological' because, it is argued, full characters can't be developed in this way, A Frolic of His Own does have a number of strong characters, including Crease's wacko girlfriend, who leaves her breast implants in a coleslaw carton in the fridge.

The result is masterly satire, heady with language but with scarcely a word wasted in its 586 pages. Like all good satire, this is a very funny but also a very serious book, haunted (Gaddis says) by Soames's line at the end of The Forsyte Saga: 'What was it all for?' Most litigation is seen as futile because it can never satisfy what Christina sees as its real purpose: 'It's the only common reference people have for making other people take them as seriously as they take themselves.' For Crease, little has been resolved by the novel's end, yet Gaddis has insisted elsewhere that all his books contain some hope and, as he pointed out in an earlier novel, Recognitions, 'one must simply live through corruption. Even become part of it.'

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