That’s how William Gaddis’s 1975 masterpiece J R begins, and that is probably as concise of a thesis statement as ever was written in Western literature.
I first picked up J R sometime 2007 or 2008 at Skylight Books based on a small employee recommends card on the shelf in the fiction section. I had never heard of Gaddis before this, and evidently the recommendation was enough for me to take it home. As easy as it was to convince me to pick it up, reading it was a completely different matter.
Who the fuck writes a book in unattributed dialog? Even more using European standard for notation of dialog using the em-dash rather than quotation marks? Over 90% of the book is in dialog, and there are transitions in between scenes that are… Well, let’s just call it poetic for lack of a better term. This makes everything so jarring and disorienting for the uninitiated that you have no other option that to put it away after trying to gut it out after 100 or so pages. You don’t know who’s talking, where they are talking or why. It’s like reading a play with just the words, no character listing, no italics for stage direction – just everything jumbled together.
I’ve attempted this book many times over the last 15 years or so never getting farther than 150 pages. So what made this different? I decided to say fuck it and read this as slowly as I needed to. It didn’t matter that it took me an hour to get through 25 pages. I was going to do what I needed for these 726 pages (in the edition I had) of words to imprint in my brain.
And imprint it did.
This book is a scathing satire taking aim at American laissez-faire capitalism, the commodification of the education system, the waning impact of the arts in culture, gender norms and more all in this symphony that culminates in a fucking chaotic entropic mess. Among the players:
- J R Vansant – The titular 11-year-old kid who uses the adults around him to amass wealth at any cost. He’s too young to really understand ethics which is perfect in Gaddis’s critique. “I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can where you can be legal and get it all anyway!” By the end as everything crumbles around him, he justifies his actions by repeatedly saying that if he didn’t do it, someone else would have done it.
- Edward Bast – A wannabe composer who daylighted as a substitute teacher for a day, ran into JR, owed him for train fare which is what got him involved in JR’s schemes. All Bast wants to do is write his music, but the whole world conspires against him.
- Jack Gibbs – A teacher at J R’s school, he is a drunk and would-be author. He has an apartment on 96th Street that becomes the de facto headquarters of the J R Family of Companies. This is a broken-down apartment with leaky faucets that become torrential waterfalls, where mail is piled everywhere, where the Second Law of Thermodynamics has come to life.
There are so many other characters here, that it is impossible to make a complete list. But you can see where it is going.
What also fuels this book is the absurdity of it all. In the beginning, the kids of the J R’s school are rehearsing Richard Wagner’s “The Ring Cycle” at a Jewish Center. Then you have the school who messed up installing their closed-circuit television system for school learning and made it open-circuit allowing anyone to watch the programs. How horny all of the men are.
Sure this book required my full attention, took me a month to read, confused the hell out of me at times. But it was a fucking masterpiece and rewards everyone who can push through.