Essays

William Gaddis and American Justice

By posted at 12:00 pm on June 28, 2016 8

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1.
“Justice? — You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.” I went around quoting the opening line of William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own before I’d ever read all those that followed. As a homeless outreach worker in Manhattan, I’d have occasion to transport people to shelters and in a 10-minute car ride would often get an earful of their lives and their problems. One particularly gruff man raged about the legal system and all the mess it had made of his life. I didn’t know if he would whack me or the driver in his fulminations, so I threw out the line and that stopped him. He laughed and settled, saying, “Whoever wrote that knew what the fuck I’m talking about.”

Last summer, I suggested to my wife, a criminal defense attorney in the Bronx, that we read the book concurrently. We’d both represented and tried to help the most helpless in our society, but we saw the legal system in different ways, though we could both admit it was, of course, skewed toward the rich. She saw her job as maneuvering around district attorneys, judges, and laws that often support the system of mass incarceration in this country. The homeless essentially have no rights, so the legal system is often more of a hindrance for them. I brought more skepticism.

The novel is a satire of the legal system, full of frivolous lawsuits, including Szyrk v. Village of Tatamount et al. In the lawsuit, the artist of a huge outdoor public sculpture (Cyclone Seven) sues a small city after a seven-year-old’s dog, Spot, becomes entrapped, leading to rescue operations that damage the work. Then there are protagonist Oscar Crease’s two lawsuits: the smaller suit, ostensibly against himself, springs from trying to hotwire his Japanese car (a Sosumi made by Isuyu), and having it run him over. The main action is against the film company that produced a Civil War epic, The Blood in the Red, White, and Blue, because Oscar finds it resembles an unproduced and unpublished play, Once at Antietam, he wrote some 17 years before. Oscar had once submitted his manuscript to the film’s then Broadway-leaning producer, though he can’t locate the rejection slip.

Reading together, my wife and I found ourselves taking the book and its dips — from narrative, to legal decision, to further dramatic scenes, to a deposition, to play excerpts, to legal opinions, to implosions of hilarious dialogue — in a certain stride. In the news that summer was a despicable lawsuit taken as seriously as Oscar’s: Manhattanite Jennifer Connell sued her eight-year-old nephew for jumping into her arms because she broke her wrist in the subsequent fall — on his birthday. It went to a jury but was dismissed. The most recent iteration of this obtuse use of legalese was probably New England Patriots fans suing the NFL over the team losing draft picks in the Deflategate debacle. Thankfully, a judge dismissed that, too. “Why do you think people sue?” I asked my wife. “Because we have been told by society that this is how we solve problems, plus most everyone else wants money,” she answered, putting her in mind of the old commercial from Saturday Night Live where a person in the street asks a law firm advertising their cutthroat tactics, “I’d love to sue somebody, but don’t I need a reason?”

Yet in the April issue of Harper’s, Ralph Nader argues that lawsuits, certainly commonsense ones, are good for America. Deregulation reigns as more and more corporations and politicians have become bedfellows, repealing laws protecting “the rights of injured people to recover adequate compensation for harm inflicted.” Nader adds that “multi-million dollar advertising campaigns, heavily funded by the insurance industry, made wild accusations about outlandish jury awards assessed against innocent companies, even clergy and obstetricians, in order to raise the public temper.”

Gaddis’s book could be used as propaganda by this corporate/political side, but it would also indict them as having a pioneering spirit of greed, power, and profit. And though Oscar eventually wins, the money awarded is meager because, as Nader points out, multi-million dollar corporate law films are a beast that can rarely lose. When lawyers start suing other lawyers, loopholes are everywhere.

coverThe 586-page book (the last published in Gaddis’s lifetime) is set in New York City and Long Island, though it takes place mainly in Oscar’s house in the Hamptons. Like all his novels excepting The Recognitions, Frolic is full a neurotic vernacular of Americana that purls and perfectly personifies the sue-happy, media-soaked years during which Gaddis constructed it, 1986 to 1993 — years of growing cable TV and its obsession with scandal, culminating in the Clintons and one of the first pitiful tabloid “stories” worthy of the national news: John Wayne and Lorena Bobbitt. In a scene from the middle of the book, there is a miniature of the type of satire Gaddis often engages in — that of the crashing together of people uncomfortable with other people. Christina’s (Oscar’s sister) rich friend Trisch comes to visit the Crease house with her dog, Pookie, to Oscar’s chagrin. When Pookie has an accident, Oscar characteristically finds a sinister motive: “Little! It was not an accident Christina, I saw him, he did it deliberately…”

Oscar’s high-pitched hysteria typifies how unserious and childish he is in many ways, complicating his “creative” character with his tendency to blame others for his mistakes (making a maid who can’t speak or read English look for the  rejection slip; continuing to watch TV after his girlfriend asks him to examine a lump in her breast). There is a great laziness to this “artist,” now a history professor at a community college where the value of his “work” constantly gets called into question. The question we kept coming back to while reading was: Did Oscar seriously believe the studio plagiarized his play, or was he after a handout? His impetus is called into question when he staggeringly chides the producers for stealing certain parts, while being disappointed they did not use others. Perhaps our question is best answered when, after Oscar temporarily wins and is granted an injunction, the studio shows the film on television to make money and the main characters watch it together. At first Oscar complains about its crude opening, but the battle (the main thrust of the film) mesmerizes him, and he becomes as bloodthirsty as the producers who insist on gory battle scenes. He celebrates how they pictorially duplicated the century-old skirmish, “…unbelievable, it’s unbelievable look at that! Half the regiment wiped out at thirty feet…”

2.
coverI had been turning into a Gaddis freak since interviewing William H. Gass, the author and friend of Gaddis’s, with whom he was often confused in literary circles. I read my wife snippets of The Recognitions and JR in order to bring her into the fold.  A Frolic of His Own is a book that has become a lost classic. Usually an author becomes synonymous with one or two of her titles, while the titans are allowed three to five. It hasn’t taken people so long in years to come around to Gaddis. It started happening in his lifetime, but (despite winning the National Book Award) there has been no new edition of Frolic since the paperback in 1995, and Brooklyn’s main library at Grand Army Plaza doesn’t include it in the stacks. 

There’s not a chapter or page break in the book, which also might go towards explaining its obscurity compared to the gobs of white space and other breaks de rigueur in many current novels. Gaddis, since 1975’s JR, is one long gush where everything happens on top of something else — where everything interrupts, including his favorite stage prop, the telephone. The play in Frolic was as much a part of Oscar’s past as Gaddis’s, since he wrote it in the late-’50s after The Recognitions came out, though it was soon abandoned. In his own brooding intensity, he found the right profile to insert himself and exorcise his ghost self — the failed artist who takes to a Faust-like selling of his soul to earn a living while shirking his morally responsible art, something Gaddis never succumbed to but observed all around him.

Gaddis took the book’s title from The Handbook of the Law of Torts, which he found during his voluminous research on the legal system, including obtaining the then-84 volumes of American Jurisprudence (the encyclopedia of U.S. law) while corresponding with lawyers and clerks about the validity of his fictionalized judicial opinions and one long deposition. During that 50-page exchange (in legal transcript form and font), the studio’s lawyer attacks Oscar’s, badgering them just because they made a Civil War movie that shares a few ideas with his play (another lawyer says, “You can’t copyright the Civil War”) and connecting William Shakespeare’s practice of taking his material from familiar sources to Oscar’s own ways of borrowing:

Q  In other words…it was all just there for the taking, wasn’t it?…Whether you were Shakespeare or Joe Blow, you could turn any of it into a play if you wanted to, couldn’t you?

A    Well not the, if Joe Blow could write a play?

Q    Do you mean it would depend on the execution of the idea?

A    Well, yes. Yes of course.

Q  Not the idea, but the way it was expressed by the playwright? Isn’t that what makes Shakespeare’s King Lear tower above Joe Blow’s King Lear?

Gaddis’s propulsive style of writing blends the chilling admonitions of the great Russian novelists and T.S. Eliot with the evaporating social order seen in the late-20th-century America. He took the detritus of our age (TV and radio commercials, print ads, etc.), churned it about in his outraged mind, and delivered an art as timeless as the ancients, but obeying the oft-quoted dictum: Good artists copy, great artists steal. Yet Gaddis came to the point where he had to steal from himself, as the excerpts of Oscar Crease’s play, Once at Antietam, are verbatim bits of Gaddis’s unproduced play (same title), written around 1960. Perhaps if Oscar had stolen from Shakespeare, his play might have been produced all those years back.

After 40-some years in this world and being all too cognizant of the hype-driven galleons, it’s fully apparent to me that the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville. Whether it is entitlement in all forms, or simply the result of sticking our nose into other’s people’s business and taking offense where there is none, these very hypocritical acts are the basis for many laughable lawsuits, including Oscar’s pursuit of a handout. Is this how Americans think?

We don’t necessarily need a lawyer to intimidate someone. Lionel Trilling writes, in “The Meaning of the Literary Idea,” “We are…the people of ideology.” A furor and gusto similar to the Salem Witch Trials, but without the physicality, is put to use by viral Internet campaigns to bully and shame people — the hysteria of doctrinal vindictiveness all too easily a click away from actually ruining someone’s life. But this consequence gives few people pause before sallying a reactionary social media “fuck you.”

This free play of opposites is played up in Gaddis’s epigraph, care of Henry David Thoreau, the epitome of American individualism, who spoke to Ralph Waldo Emerson thus: “What you seek in vain for, half your life, one day you come full upon, all the family at dinner. You seek it like a dream, and as soon as you find it you become its prey.” Oscar seeks fame and fortune, but he gets a token payment, and all his other ridiculous lawsuits garner him nothing.

The book speaks to our moment, not only in terms of authorship, entitlement, and an oligarchy created by the corporate-political police state, but also because we are still the same people of ideology. However, now that we are armed with the technology to more easily harass and destroy each other, even Gaddis couldn’t anticipate how we easily we would cede our humanity for fame and fortune at other people’s expense.





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8 Responses to “William Gaddis and American Justice”

  1. Joel
    at 1:15 pm on June 28, 2016

    This is an excellent appreciation of a great novel, but the paragraph about the Jennifer Connell suit was misleading. It was eventually revealed that Connell had been encouraged to bring the suit as a formality to collect on her Homeowner’s Insurance policy. http://www.cnn.com/2015/10/13/us/aunt-nephew-lawsuit/ While this demonstrates something insane about the legal/insurance system, it wasn’t exactly Connell’s fault.

  2. Gadfly
    at 11:30 am on June 29, 2016

    Gaddis is perhaps the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, though I suspect he is read less than ever these days because he’s one of those unfortunate “white male writers” who have become practically illegal to enjoy.

  3. Bob Gardner
    at 12:41 pm on June 29, 2016

    Great review. I especially liked JR when it first came out, but the audio version was a revelation. It spoiled me, a little, for doing the work of reading myself, but maybe it’s time to read Frolic again.

  4. Anon
    at 2:41 pm on June 29, 2016

    Gaddis is not read because 99.99% of people neither know how to read fiction like his nor do they have the inclination to teach themselves how to read fiction like his. People still read ‘white male writers’; they’re just reading the wrong ones. But Game of Thrones is awesome!

  5. il'ja
    at 3:48 pm on June 29, 2016

    As a certified Gaddis “completist”, I feel I should weigh in here.

    Struggled with every book Gaddis wrote. Every damn one*. Like Bob, above, I would not have made it through “JR” without the audiobook. Ordinarily, I’m no fan of these newfangled gadgets, “tape recordings” etc., and frankly, am shocked that everyone insists everything be in English these days, but in this case, thank goodness for the technology. That narrator deserves a prize, two even: for reading it nice and clear, and for reading a book he probably didn’t even understand.

    You’d think millennials would be all over this guy; William Gaddis is the poster boy for “authenticity.”

    Only one ancient bone to pick with the author of this otherwise excellent read.

    “…the novel comments on our culture’s incredible jealousy at other people getting what we think they don’t deserve, a truism since Alexis de Tocqueville.”

    American society is certainly is Gaddis’s most immediate culture reference, but doesn’t the universality of Gaddis’s critique rely on a trope that predates de Tocqueville by nearly five millennia? Cain and Abel, Genesis 4 – the first recorded litigation: The People and the Divine Ruler, God, of the Garden of Eden, hinc, “the Plaintiff” vs Cain, “the Defendant”.

    To me, there’x where the real force lies in “Frolic” – it’s not just that we’re litigious because we’re covetous (9th & 10th Commandments), but that we’re litigious because we’re bloodthirsty (5th).

    *This is a lie. I didn’t struggle with Agape, Agape!, rather laughed like a hyena throughout.

  6. Ryan
    at 6:45 pm on June 29, 2016

    Great writing on Gadfis! Great read!

    Just want to second what Joel said, and thank him for his comment. That woman has been unnecessarily shamed enough already.

  7. Ryan
    at 6:46 pm on June 29, 2016

    *Gaddis……obviously

  8. Lusty Howell Plums
    at 11:16 pm on June 29, 2016

    “Gaddis is perhaps the greatest American novelist of the 20th century, though I suspect he is read less than ever these days because he’s one of those unfortunate “white male writers” who have become practically illegal to enjoy.”

    Ah yes, the requisite “white male writers are neglected/trashed” post on the Millions, in regard to a white male writer being written about and praised. Bravo!

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