William Gaddis's JR has a reputation as a difficult book. Yet most of its 700
pages are filled with conversations on mundane issues—money, politics,
household matters, etc. How hard, you ask, can dialogue get? Well, with Mr.
Gaddis, the sky's the limit. In this novel, he pushed the rules of dialogue
beyond conventional boundaries, and in the process created a new type of
How did he do it? Here are William Gaddis’s eight rules for unruly dialogue:
1. Make it impossible for the reader to determine who is saying what.
—Say excuse me, could you tell me where the….
—One flight up end of the hall, the door’s open
—Want to move that truck buddy? You’re blocking the
—What’s this kid in my car!
—Excuse me just let me get past here….
—Out of this godforsaken place, taxi? Taxi….!
—Watch where your pushing that junk heap you crazy bunch of,
—So who finally died? [pp. 631-632.]
2. Let characters engage in endless, awkward circumlocutions.
—In simple straightforward terms Dan, you might say that he structured the material
in terms of the ongoing situation to tangibilitate the utilization potential of this one
to one instructional medium in such a meaningful learning experience that these
kids won’t forget it for a hell of a long time…. [p. 47]
3. Omit commas and other helpful punctuation
—No see she has like this interview at this government thing someplace so she
brings us in where it's all fixed up with this here new principal this Mister Stye we
got where Mister Davidoff thought it's this neat publicity idea for where we're like
buying the school you know? [p. 633]
4. Mix two languages together in the same sentence (or broken sentence).
Wait who’s…ah oui. Oui, c’est fait tout…l’inventaire complet out, même que
dans le catalogue c’est warehoused hell’s the word for warehouse…. [p. 575]
William Gaddis's The Recognitions
William Gaddis's JR
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5 Present entire conversations where no one ever finishes a thought.
—I’ll give him these here same little books to read up come on just pick them up…
—Then how come you even put this little telephone number he’s not even around
—That’s my business look shut up will you, Mister Gibbs just came in you think I
want to broadcast the whole…
—Okay but he’s not even around anyplace, my father said…. [p. 187]
6. Allow characters to engage in two conversations simultaneously—one on
the phone and the other in person.
—Well just, here. Hello, Stel…just walked in this minute yes, what…yes well fine you
go ahead then I’’ll just fix something when I come in, are there any eggs…? Don’t do
that no I’ll find something, you didn't hear from our boy Edward while I was gone did
you…? No wait a minute, Terry? Did you ever get ahold of that Mr. Bast at that Long
Island number I gave you? [p. 156]
7. Leave out quotation marks and move back and forth from dialogue to
description without clearly defined boundaries between the two.
— Your, gee no she said as the doors opened silently and he stepped in, closing
as silently on her—come see us again, and the figure rounding the corner behind her
fighting loose a tie with—Oh Carol….descending to Don't Fence Me In and a lobby
filled with policemen which he got through and as far as the city ambulance at the
curb before his—What happened? provoked response…. [p. 218]
8. Let drunk characters ramble on
But turn your eyes from Lazarus that cannot find a tomb, took one look around saw
what he'd come back to and did it all over again…..Make way, make way for
Lazarus that must go search among the desert places where wait, his eye,
his eye…. [p. 284]
Ted Gioia writes on literature, music and popular culture. His most recent book
is The Jazz Standards: A Guide to the Repertoire.
Published on September 25, 2013
|William Gaddis's Eight
Rules of Unruly Dialogue
By Ted Gioia
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