The Recognitions by William Gaddis

the recognitions“–Reading it? Christ no, what do you think I am? I just been having trouble sleeping, so my analyst told me to get a book and count the letters, so I just went in and asked them for the thickest book in the place and they sold me this damned thing, he muttered looking at the book with intimate dislike. –I’m up to a hundred and thirty-six thousand three hundred and something and I haven’t even made fifty pages yet. Where’s your pants?”

This book is big. Simply noting it has 956 pages & tiny print does not do justice to the physical presence of the damn thing. It’s of a size you think twice about before packing in your bag for a hike. The size where you have to develop strategies of how you plan to read it on the bus when you can’t find a seat (answer: arm behind the spine with your fingers looped over the top, cradling it against your body like an infant). On top of this is the inaccessibility of the text itself — endless allusions to flemish painters, mithraic cults, obscure martyrs, not to mention the multitude of untranslated french, latin, spanish, german and more. 

The Recognitions in a nutshell: the final fate of the closest thing it has to a protagonist, Wyatt Gwyon, is entirely in latin.

The Recognitions is described as a book about art forgery. Nominally, it is, I guess. But if you asked me to describe it, which several people did after seeing me lug it around for a month, I’d tell you it was a book about vacuous art posers having amusing conversations in bars and parties in 1950s New York City, with occasional jaunts in Paris, Madrid, and Mount Lamentation, Connecticut. Also, the soulless zeitgeist and deadened spirit of our modern times and corrupt civilization.

Gaddis is among several other angry men of the 50s, declaring our society dead, slain by consumerism. You might call it phony, like everything from paintings to twenty dollar bills to novels to music that are made counterfeit over the course of this epic. The things is — all the terrible and occasionally correct things these guys were pissed off about happened. While we’ve eased up on some things Gaddis mentions like marketing drugs to children, we’re even more bombarded by constant marketing, consumer messaging, products products products. We’re living William Gaddis’ dread future. But, somehow, we survived. Art survived. Idyllic yearning for the past is now suspect. The whole thing feels passe. It’s almost self-congratulatory to be nodding your head along with Gaddis at this point. Like you just discovered Catcher in the Rye for the first time and found it found it shockingly new and illuminating.

Gaddis is especially angry though. He writes his characters to skewer them. We’re invited along to listen to them spout all these lines that the narrative voice pretty much loathes, follow them from one disappointment to the next, until Gaddis has virtually all of them try to kill themselves! This isn’t bleak, it’s caricature. I found myself wishing to grasp Gaddis by the shoulders, which I imagined slight and fleshless like Wyatt’s, and shake him while demanding “Then what is good, William??” Dedicated monastic life? Passionate flemish painters? Some sort of obscure and not entirely nailed down historic ideal that was probably bullshit in the first place?

The thing is, the reason I actually read this whole screed is that Gaddis manages to sell his hateful pessimism in an entertaining way. His dialogue is absolutely masterful — it’s a collection of unattributed lines separated by hyphens ‘–’. It strives to give the reader the impression they’re overhearing several different conversations at once and it works perfectly. Possibly the best application of unattributed dialogue I’ve ever read. He actually courts the vagaries of human speech — interruptions, repetition, filler sounds and words, the type of thing that generally isn’t readable — and it rolls right off the mental tongue.

This is all well and good, but what really drives this home is that Gaddis is funny. Even when he’s being an insufferable asshole, breaking the fourth wall by introducing a bestselling novelist just to mock him, he’s drawing laughs. Black humor abounds. He rivals Joseph Heller and David Foster Wallace in being able to sustain a single conversation for tens of pages at a time that is both deeply engrossing and hilarious. Indeed, the book is at its worst when it abandons the humor and tends towards solemnity, mercifully a rare occasion.

Still, I hoped for more. This guy supposedly influenced several of my favorite authors afterall. But Wallace and Heller and DeLillo and Pynchon are all fueled by something other than crotchety malice and doomsaying. I don’t think a story has to be hopeful. Not at all. But The Recognitions is just kicking you in the face with the message that society is corrupt and art is dead forever over and over and over. It’s gleeful almost.