The 25th anniversary of A Frolic of His Own
William GaddisA Frolic of His Own
William Gaddis was one of the 20th century’s most acerbic writers of dialogue, a novelist who, from simple words and serpentine sentences, evinced the mendacity of the current zeitgeist in four different decades. With each novel, Gaddis satirized a different aspect of the American Dream, that Janus-Faced ruse which has inspired so many people to ruination. Gaddis’s novels depict a certain cultural threnody, and hark to a style of high modernism that reached its apex during the year of his birth (1922, the year of Ulysses and The Waste Land). Here, from Agape Agape (2002), his posthumously released final novel, the single paragraph-less soliloquy of an expiring man: “...that’s what it's about, that's what my work is about, the collapse of everything, of meaning, of language, of values, of art, disorder and dislocation wherever you look, entropy drowning everything in sight…”
Gaddis wrote two gargantuan, Byzantine novels, one about the chicanery of the art world and the fallacy of originality (The Recognitions, in 1955) and one about a young boy who gets rich on paper playing the penny stocks and selling junk (J R, in 1975), as well as a slightly slimmer story about a confusticating love triangle in which the appearance of a Gaddis-esque man discombobulates a couple’s life (Carpenter’s Gothic, 1985). Then, in 1994, he released his most accessible satire, A Frolic of His Own, a pasquinade told in trenchant torrents of dialogue. It concerns a coterie of selfish, garrulous Americans who talk a lot but rarely listen. Gaddis depicts a world replete with motor-mouthed jerks, everyone a schemer trying to get rich quick.
The Recognitions and J R are rooted inexorably in their respective epochs (a school pay phone figures prominently in J R), but the exuberant Frolic is, as they say, still “timely.” Its depiction of legal loopholes and the charlatans who take advantage of them is as fresh and fierce as it was in 1994. When the country is ruled by an orange-hued despot who is prone to ungrammatical blathering and bellicosity, a man of nebulous wealth who is always embroiled in legal imbroglios, Gaddis’s portrayal of selfish schlubs suing each other doesn't seem quite so ridiculous. The novel begins with no context, just a thesis statement and the badinage of a couple in argument:
Justice? —You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.
—Well of course Oscar wants both. I mean the way he talks about order? She drew back her foot from the threat of an old man paddling by in a wheelchair, —that all he’s looking for is some kind of order?
—Make the trains run on time, that was the…
—I’m not talking about trains, Harry.
—I’m talking about fascism, that's where this compulsion for order comes up. The rest of it’s open.
—No but do you know what he really wants?
—The ones showing up in court demanding justice, all they've got their eye on that million dollar price tag.
—It’s not simply the money no, they want…
—It’s the money, Christina, it’s always the money. The rest of it’s opera, now look.
Later scenes involve handfuls of characters all talking at once, all interrupting each other, the pleated banter going on for pages and pages. The plot is serpentine, and absurd: Oscar, an unsuccessful playwright, runs himself over with his own car, and becomes embroiled in an imbroglio of a lawsuit with the maker of the car (they insist that the driver of the car should be liable, which means Oscar would be suing himself). Oscar is also in the process of suing a filmmaker whose blockbuster hit, about the battle of Antietam, stole from his unpublished play (Oscar asserts, despite having not seen the film) about his grandfather, a duplicitous man who hired soldiers to take his place in the Civil War, and who would go on to become a judge on the Holmes circuit. Oscar’s sister’s husband is hired to represent the filmmaker, to Oscar chagrin, while Oscars hires a fraud, resulting in further legal and familial complications. At the same time, Oscar’s father, a controversial circuit judge, is handling a highly publicized case concerning a dog who has become trapped inside of a steel structure erected by an irritable artist, and everyone has an opinion on what should be done. By the end of the novel, two people will be dead and no one will win any money, which, in a way, is almost like a form of justice being served.
The one thing that everyone knows about Gaddis’s novels, even if they haven’t read them, is that the narratives consist mostly of dialogue demarcated by Joycean dashes, the speaker ascertained by speech patterns and tics (making the reader an active participant in creating characters). Gaddis first played with the approach with the party scenes in The Recognitions, his only novel to be written in traditional third person, and he mastered the technique in the sprawling J R; but with Frolic, the cast of characters is smaller, the focus narrower, so everyone’s voice is more fully developed. It’s easier to discern who is saying what, not because Gaddis got soft, but because he got better at his craft. People talk less in monologues than in soliloquies, spewing firehouse deluges of words. Characters take turns delivering circuitous harangues, pithy aphorisms, their pontificating and tautological obtuseness sometimes frustrating and almost always uproarious. Everyone speaks in blithering idioms and run-ons that circle back like an ouroboros, with petulance, self-pity. They interrupt each other, engaged in endless circumlocutions, go on long, meandering diatribes, ask questions even though they’ll insist they already know the answers. Niceties are eschewed and conversations grow increasingly churlish as characters, often imbibed and unable to reconcile with the futility of their endeavors, become vexed, vitriolic. There is a Sisyphean sadness to the dialogue, how everyone is desperate to be heard but no one listens to anyone. Gaddis’s dexterity with dialogue is, of course, what makes his novels great, but the importance of his omniscient third person prose is almost always under-considered. Consider this passage from early in J R, which works as a segue between scenes:
Past the firehouse, where once black crêpe had been laboriously strung in such commemoration as that advertised today on the sign OUR DEAR DEPARTED MEMBER easy to hang and store as a soft drink poster, past the crumbling eyesore dedicated within recent memory as the Marine Memorial, past the graveled vacancy of a parking lot where a house, ravined by gingerbread, had held out till scarcely a week before, and through the center of town where all allusion to permanence had disappeared or was being slain within earshot by shrieking electric saws, and the glint of chrome that streaked the glass bank front across the resident image of bank furniture itself apparently designed to pick up and flee at a moment’s notice doors or no doors, opened, as they were now, to dispense the soft music hovering aimlessly about a man pasteled to match the furniture, crowding the high-bosomed brunette at the curb with—something, Mrs Joubert, something I’d meant to ask you but, oh wait a moment, there’s Mister Best, or Bast is it? Mister Bast . . .? He’s music appreciation, you know.
These passages act as interjections, sapiential observations, sweeping in and carrying the narrative the way a bee transports pollen—long, sinuous sentences written with immediacy and fluidity, verbose yet exact, rhythmic and wry. They describe life with the same absurdity as the Marx Brothers did in their best films. The deluge of dialogue is always biased, but Gaddis’s narration lends the world a sense of logic. A Frolic of His Own is the most varied and experimental of Gaddis’s last four novels, with its legalese and play manuscripts. The world is, after all, a stage, and all of these gimcrack schemers are putting on an act. Gaddis’s character are more ideas manifest as corporeal entities than empathetic, fleshed-out people. His novels feature long-suffering women and emotionally mercurial men who seem to speak in a perpetual fugue state, men who are, in their volubility and bellicosity, insecure. In A Frolic of His Own, it is Oscar who plays the role of domineering and incompetent man. He is stubborn, ignoring the advice of his sister, his scatterbrained lover, his lawyer (who turns out to be a fraud, in the same way Oscar is a fraud of an intellectual). Oscar’s lawyer brother-in-law, whose firm is representing the film producer that Oscar is suing, tries to ameliorate the situation and placate Oscar’s anxieties, but the failed playwright is too conceited to listen. A Faulkner quote comes to mind: “Talk, talk, talk: the utter and heartbreaking stupidity of words.”