Archive for the ‘novels’ Category

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Booklog: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

August 16, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
Read: 7.21.07
Rating: Good

(I’ve been waiting to post this to avoid any spoilers, but by now you’ve had plenty of time).

At a certain point I began to expect too much from Harry Potter, to the point where a letdown was all but assured. I’d say this came in three stages: (1) the day I finished book four in a frenzy, and Dumbledore spoke of a war beginning — clearly this is the moment when the stakes were raised and I realized I was reading something that was already very good and had the potential to be engrossingly wonderful; (2) when most of my best friends caught on as well, and we found ourselves hypothesizing and dissecting and generally getting way too excited about what was and probably still is a children’s book (or, at least, an adolescent’s book), and, more specifically, (3) when I opened Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows a few minutes after midnight and saw this epigraph by Aeschylus:

Oh, the torment bred in the race,
the grinding scream of death
and the stroke that hits the vein,
the hemorrhage none can staunch, the grief,
the curse no man can bear.

Ohmygod! the nerdiest aspect of my being screamed: an epigraph! by Aeschylus! from The Libation Bearers! I love Aeschylus! Surely this book will be magnificent!

But then it wasn’t. It was good, and in different ways than I expected. What happened was that my favorite aspects of the series — “what’s going to happen to my favorite characters?” “how will this mystery be resolved?” “is Snape a good guy or not?” etc — were less than stellar in this concluding book; but its surprising reach, that the arc of Harry Potter would approach that of high tragedy, nearly made up for the book’s other weaknesses. This at least, I told myself for at least two weeks after finishing, was a major success.

Now I’m not so sure. I was willing to convince myself that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the series in general, was serious — certainly not “great literature,” but something close, at least in terms of the Big Ideas of Theme, Message, and Meaning. Written down a level, to be sure, but getting there, reaching for it, and sometimes grasping it. I was crying, after all, at the end of each of the last three books — didn’t this count for something?

Now the backlash has begun, as a result of Book 7’s disappointing conclusion. I’m not a fan who had an ideal ending in mind, and I still don’t, but I wish Rowling hadn’t tried to have it both ways. Sam Anderson, writing for New York, explains what I mean. The whole paragraph is very funny, so I’ll quote in full:

I’m not opposed to happy endings per se — I’m just opposed to an author trying to get emotional credit for both a tragic and a happy ending without actually earning either. Rowling had been gathering storm clouds for ten years; her fictional sky was as purple and lumpy as a Quidditch stadium full of plums, and the whole world had lined up to watch it rain. She owed this ritual sacrifice to the immortal gods of narrative: either the life of her hero or—infinitely harder to pull off—his convincing and improbable survival. With Harry’s death, the series would have graduated instantly from “light and possibly fluky popular megasuccess” to Heavy Tragic Fantasy Classic. Instead, at the last possible moment, she tacked on an episode of Leave It to Beaver. This is roughly the equivalent of Oedipus Rex’s tearing his eyes out, then stumbling across a wise old friend who tells him: “Hey, guess what, buddy? You know how you just killed your dad and slept with your mom, like the oracle predicted? Well, since you did it all with totally innocent love in your heart, it doesn’t count! Go tell your mom to untie that noose! And look, your eyes just grew back! All is well!” Rowling seems to misunderstand the power of catharsis. It’s not simple reassurance, it’s a primal release.

Right on! And about that “Epilogue,” my final, non-tear-stained, analysis is roughly: are you fucking kidding me! What kind of writer deems it a good idea to conclude her seven-volume epic with the worst piece of writing in the entire series? (But apparently, not everyone thinks so: Stephen King finds the epilogue “gorgeous.” For my response to this, see the words in italics just above.)

Really, though, at the end of the day, the Harry Potter series is more in the line (okay, at the front of the line) of a top-tier blockbuster movie franchise or comic-book story-arc. (This is one reason why the movies are so good.) Think Spiderman. There are plenty of awesome characters, some marvelous plot developments, plenty of reference to significance that the form can’t quite hold, plenty of contrivances, and most importantly, lots of things that make you think: “That was awesome!” This is a good thing, but not much more than that. I wish she wouldn’t have fooled me with the Aeschylus.

Recommended further reading:

‘New York’ Book Critic Sam Anderson’s ‘Deathly Hallows’ Reading Diary

The reaction Mr. Anderson reports is very similar, albeit more composed, to what I experienced around 7:30 on Saturday morning (a nap wasn’t really a possibility for me).

Sunday, 6:38 p.m. Page 738. And here’s the cop-out. Harry Potter is actually Jesus Christ. It turns out that, because of the purity of his sacrifice, he doesn’t actually have to die — he gets to go back and kill Voldemort. And just as a bonus, his sacrifice has redeemed humanity

Tetsubo Productions – Wherein It’s Completely Legal Now So Bite Me

Another reading diary, this one much longer and completely hysterical. This gentleman, judging from his story, had a — ahem — hard time getting “a hold of” the book.

Page 7: Voldy: “That Potter lives is due more to my errors than his triumphs.” I refer you to David R. Henry’s old maxim about fiction: when the characters themselves echo common complaints about the plot, there are Issues.

Dispatches: Harry Potter and Hallowed Death

This 3quarksdaily post is everything mine is not: thoughtful, well-written, and fair.

In Deathly Hallows, after five hundred pages of strangely penitent plot starvation comes an emetic span in which the main storylines, and masses of other loose ends, are tied up within a hundred pages: plot bulimia.

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Booklog: Blood Meridian

August 13, 2007

Blood Meridian
Cormac McCarthy
Read: 8.4.07
Rating: Very Good

Blood Meridian is a multi-faceted assault on meaning. Certainly, it is well-known for being a deconstruction of the “myth of the Western,” and its fetishized violence, but below this surface, the text sets itself against all efforts to extract meaning from nature, from violence, from history and even from life itself. Any meaning present in the world, according to Judge Holden, whose voice dominates the book, is imposed upon the world by the man who is wise enough to realize that life itself has none.

Plotwise, Blood Meridian is loosely based on historical events that took place around the border of Texas and Mexico in the middle of the 19th-century. The action follows the path of “the kid,” a fourteen-year-old drifter who falls in with a band of scalphunters led by the ruthless John Glanton; but the dominant character is certainly”the Judge, an otherworldly figure who is responsible for nearly all of the book’s main passages and who leads the assault on meaning. Among the book’s characters, the majority of whom are impossibly reticent, only the judge understands, interprets, and speaks. The other members of Glanton’s gang pass through life, doing their best to remain unimpressed by it: killing, drinking, whoring, but never thinking — in short, doing their best to avoid meaning in all its manifestations.

The assault on the meaning of nature is voiced specifically by the Judge early in the book, yet it also is prevalent throughout the narration. As Glanton’s group of scalphunters traverse the terrain, the Judge often acts as botanist and historian, taking samples from the landscape and sketching them into his book; he then typically destroys the specimen. When a member of the party asks his purpose, the Judge replies “Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent,” and goes on to expose the view that “Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.” To the objection that the task of understanding everything on earth is impossible, the Judge explains:

The man who believes that the secrets of the world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.

It is important to note that the Judge does not merely study nature as a means to understand it — he wages war against nature with the intention of defeating it and bringing it into submission. The only meaning that it has for him is as an enemy.

For the Judge, war is both meaningless and the only chance man has to enforce his meaning on the world. It is meaningless in that it is always present, and it is useless to discuss it:

It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting the ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

War is thus also compared to stone in its actuality; thus, it is another thing to enforce meaning upon. In war, the Judge has an arena in which to set himself against others and dominate them. The only possible meaning of life is existence over non-existence, and war continually feeds his need for enemies against which to test his continued existence.

When considering the significance of Blood Meridian, it does not do to consider only the words of the Judge, for it is clear that he is an evil character, and that whatever moral compass the text does have points away from the Judge and towards something else. However, the fact that no other voice counters his, and that the even-toned nature of the text does not encourage the elucidation of other meanings, leads me to believe that the assault on meaning is not only voiced by the Judge, though it may be led by him. Consider this passage, typical of the book’s narration, which describes the party’s march across the desert:

The horses trudged sullenly the alien ground and the round earth rolled beneath them silently milling the greater void wherein they were contained. In the neuter austerity of that terrain all phenomena were bequeathed a strange equality and no one thing nor spider nor stone nor blade of grass could forth claim to precedence. The very clarity of these articles belied their familiarity, for the eye predicates the whole on some feature or part and here was nothing more luminous than another and nothing more enshadowed and in the optical democracy of such landscapes all preference is made whimsical and a man and a rock become endowed with unguessed kinship.

First allow me to say that this is magnificent; McCarthy’s prose, at its peak, is unrivaled. The phrase “optical democracy,” wedged within this passage, speaks marvelously to the book’s depictions of the landscape and the culture in which Blood Meridian is set. In this land where difference is annihilated, and rock and man approach sameness, the importance of the Judge’s quest for dominion resonates.

The violence of Blood Meridian is breathtaking in its banality and the casual nature in which it is committed and described. Anyone approaching the text looking for “redemption through violence” (I’m not sure what this means) will find none. Violence itself has no meaning, and no one group or person is above another in the committing of it. Glanton’s band is originally hired to hunt down Apaches, who are depicted as ruthless killers who not only kill and scalp but hang dead babies in trees as a warning to their enemies. Clearly, one would not have to climb very far to reach the moral high-ground with these “savages,” as they are unflinchingly called, as an enemy. But the members of Glanton’s scalphunting troupe are not interested in morality; they kill, rob, and plunder with the same thoughtlessness as the Apaches. The only person in the text who succeeds in rising above thoughtless killing is “the kid,” who still kills, but is often depicted as hesitant, and in one case spares the life of a man he was meant to eliminate. However, the kid’s voice is never sufficiently fluent, and his reasons for his action or inaction remain mysterious to the reader. In contrast, the Judge not only explains his own thoughts and motives but those of the kid as well:

You came forward, he said, to take part in a work. But you were a witness against yourself. You sat in judgement on your own deeds. You put your own allowances before the judgements of history and you broke with the body of which you were pledged a part and poisoned it in all its enterprise. Here me, man. I spoke in the desert to you and you only and you turned a deaf ear to me. If war is not holy man is nothing but antic clay.

The kid’s resistance to the voice of the Judge is the book’s main act of heroism, but it too is a rejection of meaning, not the creation of it. The Judge here speaks of history, hinting that if there is any meaning to be drawn from events, it is applied after the fact. The kid’s insistence on making judgments on his own actions, instead of simply acting and surviving, is to the Judge a sign of weakness and will lead to his annihilation.

As is hinted in the quote above, Blood Meridian also contains an assault on history. The kid and his thoughtful approach towards violence will not make the history books. This is textually rich on two levels. First, Glanton and the Judge, Blood Meridian’s two most violent characters, are the only ones based on historical fact (although from what I have gathered the history is very sparse). Second, it must be remembered that the kid is the book’s main protagonist, and its hero if it has one, so passages like the following have double-meaning. The kid lies in a swoon, recovering from surgery:

Whatever his antecedents he was something wholly other than their sum, nor was there system by which to divide him back into his origins for he would not go. Whoever would seek out his history through what unraveling of loins and ledgerbooks must stand at last darkened and dumb at the shore of a void without terminus or origin and whatever science he might bring to bear upon the dusty primal matter blowing down out of the millennia will discover no trace of any ultimate atavistic egg by which to reckon his commencing.

In short: even history will not provide meaning. But should we expect the text itself, which “heroizes” the kid, to do so?

During the book’s final section, which takes place over a decade after the demise of Glanton and his gang, the kid, now referred to as “the man,” encounters the Judge, who is eager to reminisce. The setting is carnivalesque, and the Judge, looking around, offers his opinion that life is analogous to a dance in which we all participate, “and none here can finally comprehend the reason for his presence for he has no way of knowing even in what the even consists.” In the pages that follow, the Judge’s assault on meaning is made manifest, and takes on a larger target: life itself. He tells the man that they are playing

A solitary game, without opponent. Where only the rules are at hazard. Dont look away. We are not speaking in mysteries. You of all men are no stranger to that feeling, the emptiness and the despair. It is that which we take arms against, is it not? Is not blood the tempering agent in the mortar that bonds? The judge leaned closer. What do you think death is, man? Of whom do we speak when we speak of a man who was and is not? Are these blind riddles or are they not some part of every man’s jurisdiction? What is death if not an agency? And whom does he intend toward?

Again, and more clearly, meaning is assaulted, and only existence is propped up in its place. The Judge lives life as if it were a game where the enemy is death itself, and there is nothing more. Therefore, when the book comes to a close, and the Judge finally succeeds in killing the man, his victory is complete. The book’s final words are: “He never sleeps, the judge. He is dancing, dancing. He says that he will never die.” He is the winner; meaning, and its last resort, death, are both defeated.

What is one to make of a book whose message is so impossibly bleak? James Wood, one of my favorite critics, asserts that the Judge should not be confused with McCarthy, and I am certain that this is true. However, it is very troubling that no other voice is included in the text to counter the sever eloquence of the Judge. Wood believes that this is a serious flaw, present in McCarthy’s work as a whole:

But there is often the disquieting sense that McCarthy’s fiction puts certain fond American myths under pressure merely to replace them with one vaster myth—eternal violence, or Bloom’s “universal tragedy of blood.” McCarthy’s fiction seems to say, repeatedly, that this is how it has been and how it always will be. In “Child of God,” we get this assurance: “As in olden times so now. As in other countries here.” The mercenaries in “Blood Meridian” are said to ride “like men invested with a purpose whose origins were antecedent to them, like blood legatees of an order both imperative and remote.” The inflamed rhetoric of “Blood Meridian” is problematic because it reduces the gap between the diction of the murderous judge and the diction of the narration itself: both speak with mythic afflatus. “Blood Meridian” comes to seem like a novel without internal borders. (source)

I agree wholeheartedly: Blood Meridian has no borders within the text, and the effect is absolutely crushing. The only possible counterweight to the voice of the Judge is the conscience and judgment of the reader, who must surmise a method of responding to the book’s assault. It is a deeply personal struggle, and a difficult one.

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Now I want to re-read Middlemarch

August 9, 2007

A. S. Byatt’s shower of praise in the Guardian won’t shed any new insight into Eliot’s Middlemarch, but it will remind you why “It is possible to argue that Middlemarch is the greatest English novel.”

When I was younger it was fashionable to criticise Eliot for writing from a god’s eye view, as though she were omniscient. Her authorial commenting voice appeared old-fashioned. It was felt she should have chosen a limited viewpoint, or written from inside her characters only. I came to see that this is nonsense. If a novelist tells you something she knows or thinks, and you believe her, that is not because either of you think she is God, but because she is doing her work – as a novelist. We were taught to laugh at collections of “the wit and wisdom of Eliot”. But the truth is that she is wise – not only intelligent, but wise. Her voice deepens our response to her world. Here is Casaubon, having just been told he is mortally ill: “When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die – and soon’, then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel; afterwards he may come to fold us in his arms as our mother did, and our last moment of dim earthly discerning may be like the first.”

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Booklog: Franny and Zooey

July 30, 2007

Franny and Zooey
J.D. Salinger
Read: 7.3.07
Rating: Very Good

I suspect that most readers have a work of fiction they turn to for comfort and rely on for encouragement; Franny and Zooey has, for many years, been mine. I suspect that the time is coming when it will be replaced by some as-yet-unknown book, but Franny and Zooey has served me well for six or seven years, and I will be sad to see it supplanted.

I typically read Franny and Zooey right after reading The Catcher in the Rye, during the summertime, when I am in a state of mental disarray. I admit that it is often reading The Catcher in the Rye that puts me in a state of mental disarray — or at least pushes me further into one — so it’s only fitting that Franny and Zooey should be part of the solution. If The Catcher in the Rye is an dear choleric friend whose monologue reveals the sadness of life, Franny and Zooey is the older, more detached, friend who has “been through it” and can offer a charming, almost inspirational antidote.

That being said, Franny and Zooey does not hold as much meaning for me as it once did. The revelations at the end, that the fat lady is Christ himself, for example, now seems a little silly, and a lot unhelpful. Now the earnestness of Salinger’s prose, which is hopelessly clever and heartwarming, is the main attraction. I do not grow tired of the narrative voice adopted by “Buddy Glass,” nor do I lose any affection for the two main characters. It’s an affection that Salinger himself clearly shares: I can’t think of a writer who is more obviously fond of his characters, which makes his narrative voice of the loving older brother a particularly good choice.

Franny and Zooey is a deeply spiritual book, in a way that most works of modern fiction don’t dare to be. The personal religious hodge-podge adopted by the Glass family is deeply personal and idiosyncratic, specifically in that it rolls religion and the making of art into one giant ball, rolling it towards the phony disappointments of life, trying to knock them all down at once. The target is familiar from The Catcher in the Rye, with the adversarial word here being “ego” instead of “phony.” Like its predecessor, Franny and Zooey rails against the superficial, the surface, and anything that you could call “the earthly.” My paraphrase of the problem is: “What can one do without feeling like a terrible phony? without hating it?” The “answer,” or at the very least the coping mechanism, presented here, is this:

The artists only concern is to shoot for some kind of perfection, and on his own terms, not anyone else’s.

Singleness of vision. A sense of personal goodness, and the ability to pursue it despite the phonies that surround you, and the phoniness that is within in. Is this a satisfactory nugget of wisdom? I used to think so, and I still do think it’s helpful. But I think it’s appropriate that as I age, I find more enjoyment in Salinger’s art itself than in his pronouncements about what it should be.

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Booklog: The Natural

July 9, 2007

The Natural
Bernard Malamud
Read: 6.27.07
Rating: Fair

Sometimes a book disappoints, either because it does not live up to the expectations I held before I began reading, or because it displays signs of promise early on only to falter towards the middle and/or end. Alas: The Natural was disappointing in both ways.

As moviegoers know, The Natural is a baseball story. What the reader should know is that the novel on which the movie is based is less a baseball story than a quintessentially American tale of myth, heroism, and failure — topics that are perfectly suited to post-war era baseball, the Golden Age of America’s greatest sport. In this near-mythic setting, Malamud chronicles the rise, fall, second rise, and final fall of his folk hero, Roy Hobbs, in a winning (at first) style that attempts to create a folk mythology with vernacular-laced, stripped down diction. The style takes some getting used to, but after a few early successes, I took to it, and it seemed that Malamud had really accomplished something. Take this sentence for example, that describes the third strike that the young Roy Hobbs tossed to strike-out “the Whammer,” baseball’s leading hitter:

The third ball slithered at the batter like a meteor, the flame swallowing itself. He lifted his club to crush it into a universe of sparks but the heavy wood dragged, and though he willed to destroy the sound he heard a gong bong and realized with sadness that the ball he had expected to hit had long since been part of the past; and though Max could not cough the fatal word out of his throat, the Whammer understood he was, in the truest sense of it, out.

This is very nice, and I underlined with great relish, looking forward to another 200 pages of Malamud’s folk hero-mythology.

So what went wrong? First of all, Malamud has no ability to describe the sport that is his main subject. When his style strays from the mythic into the descriptive, it’s clear that he hasn’t really understood baseball and how it is played or spoken of. It’s possible that his slang is accurate — hard to tell, since it’s fifty years old — but when he writes about the game itself or the people who play it, it’s hard to read. A deeper problem is that Malamud’s folk mythoheroic style is dense and murky by default, especially in regard to his characters and their motivations and thoughts. Roy Hobbs is clearly meant to be a vague figure, but this is very problematic, for his choices and his character, especially his love affairs, are what drives the book’s plot and meaning.

The Natural‘s failures are oddly appropriate to its structure, and analogous to its hero: it begins with an appealing strength and freshness, and surges during its early career, only to stumble when it should clinch. The book’s final act is a disappointing failure, which is richly ironic, given that disappointment and failure are the book’s main themes.

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Booklog: Where Angels Fear to Tread

June 13, 2007

Where Angels Fear to Tread
E. M. Forster
Read: 6.4.07
Rating: Very Good

E. M. Forster’s first novel was published in 1905; he was twenty-six years old. The mystery of how a man my age could write such a mature, worldly, and wise novel is one that remained at the forefront of my mind as I read Where Angels Fear to Tread. (Also, Keats wrote “Ode to a Grecian Urn” when he was 24 — think upon that, ye mighty, and weep.)

At the start, Where Angels Fear to Tread is a criticism of proper Edwardian English society and morals (represented by the matriarch Mrs. Herriton), and the thin, constrained life it offers, especially as compared to the ancient nobility and beauty of Italy, where most of the book’s action takes place. Caught in between the two worlds are Lilia Herriton (who has married into the family, and is now a widow) and Philip Herriton, the family’s youngest, a “champion of beauty.” As the novel begins, Lilia embarks on a tour of Italy, accompanied by a friend of the family, Miss Caroline Abbott. Lilia’s trip was suggested by Philip, who has spent quite a bit of time in Italy, and has returned from his travels with a mild rebellious streak. He has great hopes for Lilia, trusting that she will return from her visit to Italy changed by its beauty, just as he was.

Lilia does fall in love with Italy. Indeed, she falls in love with an Italian, Gino, the son of a back-country dentist, and secretly marries him. When this news reaches the Herriton’s in England, Philip is dispatched by his mother, who hopes to protect the family name by bribing Gino and forcing an end to the romance — but when Philip arrives, he is helpless: Lilia and Gino have already wed. The marriage is a most unfortunate one from the perspective of all parties; Lilia is soon miserable, and dies giving birth to a son. When this news reaches Mrs. Herriton, she attempts to intervene and “save” the child, again sending Philip to Italy, this time accompanied by his sister, the stubborn-beyond-proper Harriett, and Miss Caroline Abbott, who, having failed to prevent the first disaster of Lilia’s marriage, hopes to atone in some way by helping with the mission to obtain the baby.

The novel’s plot is small, well-executed, and fully engaging, but the heart of Where Angels Fear to Tread beats in its main character, Philip Herriton. Philip is opposed to what he considers the limiting, old-fashioned customs of “proper” English morality and society — preferring to think of himself as possessing a level of detachment and lofty ideals unknown to his mother and sister. He loves beauty, and life’s beautiful things, but he appreciates from a distance. His composure is deeply rattled by his third trip to Italy, as he finds himself taking sides with his mother and sister, in opposition to the charm and beauty of Italy. Also troubling are his conversations with Caroline Abbott, who is more impulsive, and less proper, than Philip had expected, both in that Miss Abbott challenges his detached, humorous stance towards life, and because he begins to find an intoxicating hint of romance in the relationship. As Miss Abbott criticizes his idle speculating, asking him to actually make a firm choice — “to settle what’s right and follow it” — he is forced to face the shortcomings of his detachment.

Far more than mere social criticism, Where Angels Fear to Tread is ultimately a novel concerned with two opposing attitudes towards beauty. Philip appreciates beauty from a distance, but is never able to love actively: Miss Abbott tells him “you look on life as a spectacle; you don’t enter it; you only find it funny or beautiful.” Lilia, on the opposite side, also loves the beauty of Italy — and her method of entry is very active. Neither method is championed by Forster: Philip’s detachment is rightly mocked, although the particular joys afforded by this stance are honestly portrayed (Philip is praised by Miss Abbott as having a “view of the muddle” unavailable to her). Lilia’s rashness results in a miserable marriage and a premature death, but we feel a particular sense of joy when reading of her lack of concern for what her in-laws may think (“thank goodness, I can stand up against the world for now, for I’ve found Gino, and this time I marry for love”).

Here we find the see that blossomed into the Forster’s great novels, particularly Howard’s End. In Where Angels Fear to Tread, we learn that it is not enough to merely appreciate beauty from a distance, but at the same time it is unwise to fly into it without forethought. The answer, as always, lies on neither side. But also, as we know from Howard’s End, it is not “halfway between” either: “It was only to be found by continuous excursions into either realm, and though proportion is the final secret, to espouse it at the outset is to insure sterility.”

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The Recognitions: Part III

June 2, 2007

Two weeks ago, I finished Part III of The Recognitions, bringing my maddening/thrilling two month relationship with this mammoth tome to a close. Since then, I’ve been wading through some critical and supplementary texts, trying to shore up a better understanding of the novel. It’s worked so far. I anticipate it will take me another two or three weeks before I’m ready to write a (very long, I hope) “booklog” of The Recognitions. In the meantime, here are a few of my immediate reactions:

  • my wild hopes for a relatively clear, summarizing conclusion were roundly denied. I certainly didn’t expect this baggiest of monsters to achieve any neat “closure” — but the fact is that Gaddis not only wrote a book that is exceedingly difficult to rise above and come to a conclusion about, but he seems to have gone out of his way to leave strings untied at the end.
  • I almost universally failed to recognize the importance of Stanley, one of book’s army of secondary characters, for close to 800 pages. Therefore, I was more or less unprepared for his ascent to near-protagonist in Part III .
  • Gaddis clearly has next to no concern with helping his reader. Important events in The Recognitions are treated with such soft indirection that it’s very difficult to know what to focus on. It would be best, obviously, if I could have remembered everything that happened in the book — but when Gaddis connects specific happenings and phrases from page 10 with those on page 859 (this is a specific example), I feel that I can be forgiven for not picking up on it, especially considering the level of detail and sheer number of characters and references that are presented in the text. It’s masterful writing, to be sure, but it defeated me. This is most sobering.

It doesn’t appear that there has been all that much scholarship published on Gaddis, at least in comparison with other major writers of the twentieth century (and he certainly is one of these). I’ve already read the two chapters on The Recognitions from Steven Moore’s William Gaddis, and am now reading selected essays in the Harold Bloom’s Critical Views William Gaddis compilation. Most exciting is an essay detailing Gaddis’s debts to T.S. Eliot, which are myriad. It feels good to spend so much time with one text, and The Recognitions is certainly one that demands it.