William Gaddis's The Recognitions consists of 956 pages
of very small print—some half million words in total.  But the
author summed it up in a single word. "The book is a novel
about forgery," Gaddis wrote to physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer
in 1955.  And then the novelist quotes Oppenheimer's own
words, seeing them as a summation of the concerns of
The
Recognitions
.  "I tried my prolonged best to show ‘the integrity
of the intimate, the detailed…the
evils of superficiality and the terrors
of fatigue.'"

Alas, Gaddis’s "prolonged best"
has proven too prolonged for many
readers, more than a few of whom
have succumbed to the "terrors of
fatigue." The reviews that greeted
this long, difficult book upon its
publication in 1955 suggest that
even professional critics may have
lacked the patience to read the
work in its entirety—or
may not
have read it at all.  Gaddis actually
anticipated that.  On page 936 of
The Recognitions, a point where
many of  his critics would have abandoned him, Gaddis
presents a book reviewer who runs into a friend at a tailor shop.  
"You reading that?" the friend asks, pointing to a book in the
critic's hand. "No. I'm just reviewing it," the critic responds,
"…all I need is the jacket blurb to write the review."

Coming Soon:  A Previously Unseen Memoir About
William Gaddis from One of His Closest Teenage Friends

Even friends of The Recognitions have found it a daunting
text.  Jonathan Franzen, the best known of the book's current
day champions, has offered both praise and words of warning
to potential readers. "I loved it," he proclaimed in the pages
of T
he New Yorker back in 2002, where he held up Gaddis's
novel as the preeminent example of what Franzen calls "the
Status model" of literature.  Authors who subscribe to the
"Status model" embrace fiction as the springboard for
"a discourse of genius and art-historical importance" freed
from the demands of the marketplace or the requirements of
mass consumption.  Yet even Franzen acknowledges the toll
exacted by this particular masterpiece.  He declares that
The
Recognitions
is "the most difficult book I ever voluntarily read
in its entirety," adding that he completed the task "as a kind
of penance."  

Let’s clarify the difficulties of this book, one of the most
misunderstood and misrepresented works of modern
fiction.  You may have heard—as I frequently have—that
The
Recognitions
is "like James Joyce" or stands out as "the
American
Ulysses" or (in the words of Harold Bloom): "The
Recognitions
parodies Joyce's Ulysses.”  This could hardly
be true, if only because Gaddis hadn't read
Ulysses at the time
he wrote his debut novel.  "My Joyce is limited to
Dubliners and
some of his letters," he admitted to John Seelye in 1962.  So
how did this Joyce story get started?  Well, I suspect this goes
back to reviewers who judged the novel on its jacket blurb.  
Joyce scholar Stuart Gilbert offered praise for
The Recognitions
on the back cover of the first edition, and for those who, contrary
to the wise adage, judge books by their (back) cover, this
served as proof positive of influence.

Yet anyone who reads even a few pages into
The Recognitions
will see that we are dealing with a writer with a very different style
and temperament from James Joyce.  Gaddis was certainly
capable of writing in a stream-of-consciousness style (see his
last novel
Agapē Agape for an extreme example) but he did not
employ that technique in
The Recognitions.  Instead the prose
is choppy and interrupted, almost the antithesis of
Ulysses.  
Sentences are sometimes cut-off even before the verb appears.  
Long stretches of dialogue are presented with few or no
contextual clues.  (One of the great challenges in reading Gaddis,
especially in his second novel
JR, is trying to figure out who is
saying what.)   Where Joyce aims to probe the inner workings
of the consciousness behind the speaker, Gaddis deliberately
leaves us guessing.  Time and again, characters in
The
Recognitions
, do strange things that are simply left unexplained.
If Joyce wants to draw us inside the psyche, Gaddis is
determined to keep us locked out, to turn the mind into a
metaphysical mystery, all the grander for its impenetrability.  

But the story itself is far from impenetrable.  In
The Recognitions,
Gaddis presents a conventional narrative, at least on the surface
level.  The kinds of guessing games a reader of Joyce must play
in figuring out the basic elements of the plot are not required in
this book.  We may wonder why painter Wyatt Gwyon makes
such unusual career choices, abandoning his own works while
turning his considerable talents to forgery.  Or why his father, a
minister, decides to preach about Mithraism rather than
Christianity.  Or why Gwyon's friend Otto walks around with
his arm in a sling, even though it is perfectly functional and
uninjured.  Motivation is constantly a speculative exercise in
this novel, but the basic storyline unfolds with the utmost clarity.  

But if the motivation of these strange actors is puzzling, the
reader will soon start noticing patterns in their behavior.  The
characters in this book are clearly plagued with what the
aforementioned Mr. Bloom once aptly described as "the anxiety
of influence."  Bloom didn't mention Mr. Gaddis in his book
on the subject, but he could very well have turned to
The
Recognitions
as the preeminent case study of what this anxiety
looks like in modern life.  Almost every character in this book
struggles with a sense of inauthenticity, of
phoniness (the word
preferred by Gaddis's contemporary J.D. Salinger), of both the
need for originality and its ultimate impossibility.

The Recognitions is a great novel, but not without its bumps in
the road.  Gaddis has trouble maintaining a consistency of tone,
probably due to the massive scope of the book and the many
years he spent writing it.  His magnum opus starts out as a
serious novel of ideas, permeated by a tragic grandeur almost
Dostoevskian in its intensity.  But by the time Gaddis reaches
the finish line, he has turned
The Recognitions into a dark
comedy, more akin to
Evelyn Waugh or even Martin Amis.  
Gaddis later griped that reviewers didn't appreciate the humor
in his writing, but I don’t think the author himself understood his
comic intent until much of the book was written.  I often felt,
while reading
The Recognitions, as though there were two
different novels at work in these pages, both fighting for control
of the book.  Eventually the comic novel wins out, but this reader
sometimes mourned the passing of the other novel within, that
stirring chronicle of anguish and soul-searching that disappears
from view around page 700.

The main character, as noted, is an art forger.  But almost
everyone else in
The Recognitions is practicing some other
type of forgery.  Sometimes this forgery is illegal, as in the case
of counterfeiter Frank Sinisterra, who takes enormous pride in
his phony twenty dollar bills and decides to tackle an even
more ambitious con job, namely recreating an Egyptian mummy
from a stolen corpse, some linen and a few items from a local
supply store.  In other instances, the 'forgery' is merely unethical,
as in the many cases of literary plagiarism presented during the
course of
The Recognitions.  My favorite example: Mr. Feddle,
takes books off the shelves at friends' apartments, say
Moby
Dick
or Seven Pillars of Wisdom, and inscribes them as though
he were the author.  But in most cases, the forgery is simply a
matter-of-fact attribute of day-to-day life.  People hear clever
quips at cocktail parties and later pass them off as their own.  
They adopt dogmas unthinkingly, and not always religious ones
—some of the most cherished doctrines come from advertising,
a recurring target for Gaddis in this novel. Or they mimic the
mannerisms and fashions that, they hope, will give them a dash
and panache they could never earn, they fear, on their own merits.

Yes, Gaddis was correct in his one-word summary of
The
Recognitions
.  This whole book is about forgery.  And when
he is not making that point in the plot, Gaddis emphasizes it
in symbolic form. There must be hundreds of signs and symbols
of inauthenticity in this book.  I didn't count them, but there
might even by a thousand or more. Indeed, I have never read
a novel in which the author put so much effort into inserting
symbolic representations of his main theme.  If you pay attention
you will find them everywhere in this novel—in pieces of furniture,
in objects on a coffee table, in seemingly random fragments of
overheard conversations, and above all in the masterpieces of
art and culture.  Everything in
The Recognitions is a palimpsest,
from the painting on the museum wall to the inner working of the
soul.

And this is why
The Recognitions is a wickedly up-to-date
novel, despite its arrival on the scene more than a half-century
ago.  We live in a cut-and-paste society that has turned forgery
into something as simple as a retweet or a copied
Wikipedia
entry.  If Mr. Sinisterra, in Gaddis's book, spent countless hours
on his phony $20 bills, the modern day cultural consumer can
pass on a perfect copy with just the click of the mouse.  The only
thing missing is that pesky anxiety of influence.  The characters
in Gaddis's novel agonize over their lack of originality, but the
contemporary spirit embraces it as part of the zeitgeist.

But should we?  Maybe the copy-and-pasters could learn
something from William Gaddis—who in this regard reminds
me not of James Joyce, but of Robert Musil, whose sadly
under-appreciated novel
The Man Without Qualities, provides a
comparable indictment of the soul in search for an original self
in the midst of a society that has abandoned that all-too-subtle
pursuit in favor of other, less angst-provoking pastimes.  Gaddis
was on to something.  And, again, he said it best in his letter to
Oppenheimer.  He alerted us to "the integrity of the intimate, the
detailed…the evils of superficiality and the terrors of fatigue."

We really ought to pay some attention to just those matters, and
this book offers a gateway to that very type of self-reflection.  
But what we see here perhaps hits too close to home, and casts
a harsh light on the compromises (or forgeries) many of us fall
back on as easy expedients.  In the final analysis, that may be
the biggest obstacle to this book's assimilation—neither its length
nor its difficulty, but simply that
The Recognitions demands the
most severe and unforgiving degree of self-recognition.



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 20, 2013
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The Recognitions:
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