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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


William Gaddis

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase J R

Title: J R
Author: William Gaddis
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975
Length: 775 pages
Availability: J R - US
J R - UK
J R - Canada
JR - France
JR - Deutschland
Jota Erre - España
directly from: New York Review Books
  • The New York Review Books edition (2020) has an Introduction by Joy Williams
  • The Dalkey Archive Press edition (2012) had an Introduction by Rick Moody
  • (American) National Book Award, 1976

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Our Assessment:

A- : grand; bustling and over-full; dark, but also very funny

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times F 3/6/1976 Isobel Murray
FAZ . 15/1/2011 Frank Hertweck
Harper's . 11/2020 Christopher Beha
London Rev. of Books . 6/3/1986 D.A.N.Jones
London Rev. of Books . 23/9/2021 Adam Mars-Jones
The LA Times A+ 17/12/2020 Scott Bradfield
The New Republic . 6/12/1975 Alfred Kazin
The New Yorker . 26/1/1976 George Steiner
The NY Times Book Rev. A 9/11/1975 George Stade
The NY Rev. of Books . 10/6/1976 John Gardner
TLS . 4/6/1976 Eric Korn

  From the Reviews:
  • "J R should have been a good novel. (...) It is in places a glorious indictment of all the least acceptable faces of capitalism. But it doesn't work, because it is enormously long, and virtually unreadable. Without a reviewer's high conscience, I could not have finished it. (...) There are far too many characters and similar plot situations; it becomes hopelessly confusing in a most unhelpful way." - Isobel Murray, Financial Times

  • "JR ist ein monströser Roman über einen elfjährigen Jungen, der ein gewaltiges Wirtschaftsimperium aufbaut. In aller Unschuld nimmt er das kapitalistische System beim Wort und auseinander. (...) (W)ährend die erfahrenen Banker von Typhon International das äußerst zynisch betreiben, macht JR das ohne Arg. Das Ergebnis ist das gleiche, weil Moralfragen nicht interessieren." - Frank Hertweck, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "J R operates on one level as a send-up of American capitalism. (...) But the book is more profoundly a portrait of a world that has given up on transcendent values. (...) Ultimately it is J R’s values, not Bast’s, that fit the world as it exists. None of the book’s secular artists can find a proper context in which to do their work. (...) The book itself, however, does not give in to entropy. It depicts chaos and, on the level of the sentence, often enacts it, yet taken as a whole it is a remarkably controlled performance." - Christopher Beha, Harper's

  • "JR is largely about a young American boy messing up capitalist processes. I am perplexed by some of the dialogue, being unfamiliar with the business-supplement jargon which Gaddis parodies" - D.A.N. Jones, London Review of Books

  • "Its genre is unmistakably comedy, some of it high though much of it low, a satirical farce on the supercharged American version of capitalism. (...) JR mostly offers monologues rather than dialogue. In group scenes, particularly in rooms that contain multiple telephones, it's a real challenge to work out who is talking. (...) The spoken words aren't the only challenge the reader must overcome. There are many rounds of the game of Hunt the Antecedent (.....) Yes, the book has some of the architecture of what JR calls a 'rolycoaster', but you have to get out and push." - Adam Mars-Jones, London Review of Books

  • "It is the biggest, funniest Marx Bros. film ever committed to text, and don’t worry too much about what it “means.” Like any great novel, it’s simply about the emotional lives of complex characters. If there’s a message, it’s simple: America has sold out everybody for crap. And the most successful wheeler-dealer is just a little kid looking for someone to talk to. JR knows making money isn’t hard; it just requires enough dedication to get up every morning and do stupid, dishonest things. In the ’60s and ’70s, when it was written, JR was about how bad America was getting. Today it’s about how awful America is." - Scott Bradfield, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Contemporary reality as represented in JR is a chaos of disconnections, a blizzard of noise. All the passages of narrative and description together would not add up to fifty of the book's over seven hundred pages. The rest is talk (.....) Gaddis's ear for the various tics and jargons, the pitch, stress and clangor of current American speech is so precise that its effects are uncanny. (...) But if you stand back from the wild and whirling words to where you can see the novel as a structure, as a system of relations among its parts rather than as an assemblage of referents to what is outside it, you see something other than the centrifugal forces of disruption at work. You see the equal if opposite centripetal forces of recurrence, reflection and analogy, of interlocking motifs and liked images, of buried puns and covert allusions, connecting the fragments. The esthetic order within the work is experienced as a compensation of sorts for the disorder without to which it refers." - George Stade, The New York Times Book Review

  • "JR is, finally, bad art, but despite what Steiner thinks, it's wonderfully and easily readable. Except for the last two hundred pages or so, where the novel takes a turn toward rant -- filling the reader with an indignation he would never feel at a writer's betrayal of some lesser fiction -- JR is a delightful, large and various, technically brilliant entertainment. But it is also false, in the end, because the novel's self-righteous, emotionally uncontrolled last movement poisons what went before it, casting suspicion on what seemed at first basically generous and fairminded, genially satiric or justly sardonic." - John Gardner, The New York Review of Books

  • "(A) rich muddy Mississippi-Missouri of a roman-fleuve (.....) It's a fairly undemanding point to get across, and Mr Gaddis extracts a stiff price for it. The novel is brutally hard to read, the reader's well-being treated with indifference or sadism. (...) If the texture of the writing were all, this would be fine, but there is a plot of exceptional complexity, which advances slowly and tempestuously like a glacier hidden in a dust storm, a new datum every dozen pages, the narrative thread desperately easy to lose like a treasure map concealed in a Jackson Pollock." - Eric Korn, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       From the first word -- "– Money ... ? " -- money and its flows dominate J R. It is slippery throughout, as concept and concretely. Cash is literally hard to hold onto, from the beginning, when the bag of twenty-odd dollars collected in a sixth grade social studies class for the purchase of a stock certificate (a "lesson in how our system works"), slips from teacher Amy Joubert's hands, "spilling the coins from its burst bottom into the unmown strip of grass", to the hapless Edward Bast, fishing coins out of his sock ("I have a hole in my pocket and the coins drop down my trouser leg"). Financial instruments -- of which myriad variations are tangled into the story --, meanwhile, prove slippery both in terms of ownership and valuation.
       J R is a novel of the capitalist system and its workings -- all flow and trickle and spills, exchange and excess. It is a system that here is shown driven by sheer activity rather than actual underlying values, a perpetual motion machine of ceaseless circulation (often going in circles) that doesn't actually advance anything except itself. Money is often in the form of tangible, physical coins -- the smallest denominations -- the novel awash with them, from the bag of collected cash for that class stock purchase to the handfuls needed to feed pay-phones. School and city budgets and stock dealings, meanwhile, involve much larger sums -- but, in their more abstract paper form, are shifted even more easily around. The sense of out of control excess -- small or large scale -- is pervasive: even in a would-be hideout from this world in Manhattan, used by some of the characters with artistic aspirations, reminders are inescapable: water taps can't be turned off, continuously gushing, and with the address used as a mail drop by the J R of the title, absurdly great heaps of mail keep piling up (culminating in a delivery of a hundred thousand plastic flowers, a: "whole fucking truckload").
       Style mirrors content in its embrace of excess. The novel is presented largely in the form of dialogue: it is nearly all talk, a near-incessant quick-burst back and forth that is only nominally conversational and is often not easy to follow. The narrative is uninterrupted, with no chapter- or other obvious breaks; one scene segues into the next, often disorientingly rather than seamlessly, without an obvious transition, plunging the reader into yet more uncertainty. Dialogue is unattributed, with any mention of names casual and incidental; often it is not immediately (or long ...) clear who is actually present and/or speaking in a given scene.
       Gaddis does have his characters speak to one another, but the dialogue he captures isn't the (all too) neatly-presented give-and-take most authors offer but rather the raw back and forth much truer to real-life exchanges, people talking past and over each other, often missing (or avoiding) what would seem to be the point, much more frequently evasive (or willfully obtuse) than responsive. (In this regard too several go to considerable extremes -- most obviously Jack Gibbs addressing a train-conductor in German to avoid explaining why he only has a half-fare ticket while later spouting Spanish in another exercise in avoidance). Quite a bit of the dialogue is telephone conversation -- and often just the one side of it -- complete with bad connections, disguised voices, and crossed wires, but the in-person back and forth (and frequent cross-talk) is practically as confounding. Occasionally, even the characters acknowledge they're lost -- "Anybody know what he's talking about ?" -- and readers are certainly challenged from beginning to the end, as Gaddis does not make it easy for them (and never lets up: there's an incredible drive to the narrative).
       At one point Gibbs rants:

Whole God damned problem tastes like apricots, whole God damned problem listen whole God damned problem read Wiener on communication, more complicated the message, more God damned chance for errors, take a few years of marriage such a God damned complex of messages going both ways can't get a God damned thing across.
       Much the same applies to the communication throughout the book, with what should be simple in fact a complex of messages. J R isn't so much a novel of misunderstanding but rather a story grounded in more fundamental failures of communication.
       J R is often described as the story of an entrepreneurial sixth-grader -- the J R Vansant of the title -- who builds up a financial empire ("the multimillion dollar multiface, facet, faceted J R Corp") on the basis of the smoke and mirrors that is so much of the American corporate-financial system, leveraging, merging, and trading his way to a J R Family of Companies conglomerate valued at hundreds of millions of dollars. It is only one several storylines, however, that overlap in a complex narrative net. Many of the others also deal with financial matters, notably the Bast family trying (or avoiding trying ...) to figure out how to handle the future of their privately held company, General Roll, including the possibility of being forced to go public, in order to pay off hefty death taxes. With the company's stock holdings evenly divided among family members the issue of Edward Bast's paternity -- which determines any claim he may have to a stake -- is one that needs to be cleared up, while former employee Jack Gibbs left the company with a possibly decisive (in determining the outcome) five shares (without his apparently being aware of the value of the paper he holds).
       The Long Island school J R attends -- which Gibbs also teaches at, and where Edward has a brief gig -- is closely tied up in local politics and money-matters and involved in a variety of schemes (notably, here, in setting up an in-school television support program); typically, the principal, Whiteback, doubles as president of a local bank. Education here is not exactly the priority; in one cynical (realistic) view:
The function of this school is custodial. It's here to keep the kids off the streets until the girls are big enough to get pregnant and the boys are old enough to go out and hold up a gas station, it's strictly custodial and the rest is plumbing.
       So also the spending priorities are clear, as when they discuss the budget:
Now here's thirty-two thousand six hundred and seventy for blacktopping the parking lot over to the tv studio.
     – That's the only bid that came in.
     – And there's this twelve thousand dollars item for books.
     – That's supposed to be twelve hundred, the twelve thousand should be for paper towels. Besides, there's already that bequest for books for the library.
     – Did it say books in so many words ? No. It's a bequest for the library.
     – Use it for a pegboard. You need a pegboard in a library. Books you don't know what you're getting into.
       (And profit is paramount: among the schemes here is one to put advertising in the school textbooks.)
       Other corporate interests include Typhon International -- run by Amy Joubert's father -- and Diamond Cable, the company the sixth grade class buys the stock certificate in. Romantic entanglements (as well as strained and broken marriages) weave their way through the story too -- among others: Edward and the married Stella Angel, and Amy Joubert, whose marriage has collapsed, and Gibbs. Several characters are parents of young children but struggle, in various ways, to be a part of their lives. There are any number of accidents, a few crimes (car theft; thefts at school and in homes), an almost staggering amount of injuries and illnesses (a lot of people wind up in hospital), and several deaths, including suicides. And at one point a whole house disappears. Yes, Gaddis piles a great deal on.
       Fundamental to the novel is the tension between a capitalist system that sees everything only in terms of financial gain and loss and the idea of living a fuller, richer life.
       Gaddis does never let readers forget the role of money: even -- or especially -- those not wheeling and dealing on the corporate level are constantly borrowing or scrounging for money, counting it, figuring out how to pay. It does, very clearly, make this world go round. J R is the one extreme: he sees nothing beyond the dollar sign, an end in and of itself; his teacher describes him as:
that bleak little Vansant boy and it's not funny, really. He's so earnest so, he thinks there's a millionaire behind everything he sees and that's all he does see, it's just all so sad.
       (In the novel's incongruously sappiest scene, Amy Joubert tries to open J R's eyes as to the grandeur of the world beyond -- "And over there look, look. The moon coming up, don't you see it ? Doesn't it make ...", etc. -- but the boy can't see it.)
       Edward Bast just wants to compose music, but he's roped into J R's corporate-building scheme (and can't seem to extricate himself from it) as a front-man, the necessary adult face for those situations J R can't handle with disguised voice over the telephone and otherwise. Typically brilliant is one exchange where J R explains his ambitions and tries to entice Edward:
– Would you want to do that ? Mr Bast ?
     – Do what.
     – This import export business right from your own home.
     – Import and export what.
     – How do I know but I mean that's not the thing anyway, you know ? he kicked a can up the highway's unkempt shoulder kicking the weeds for some remnant of sidewalk, – I mean the thing is just where you get to sell something like, wait a second ...
       The actual business is never the point here; it's all about accumulation and agglomeration; even a business that is losing money has value as a tax write-off against gains elsewhere.
       In most ways, Edward is not exactly the ideal man for the job: the professionals recognize:
     – Who this, this what's his name Bast ? Looks like he wouldn't know an eight percent debenture from a pork belly damned amateurs don't know the rules come in and ruin the whole damn game for everybody.
       He, like several of the characters, is a frustrated artist -- all unable also to escape the need for and hold of money, even as they hope(d) to pursue creative endeavors. Composer Edward is pulled into J R's scheme over a trivial debt, and while he finds it hard to escape it at least he manages to continue his creative work, including getting what turns out to be a decent commission. (He is also -- from the opening scene -- a remarkably elusive character, in whatever role, proving to be consistently hard to pin down.) Gibbs is also working on a book, while friend Thomas Eigen -- the closest to a Gaddis stand-in in the novel, even if it is Gibbs that is player-piano and agapē-obsessed -- has already published a novel, one that was hailed as important -- "I think it's the most important book I, one of the most important books in American literature", another would-be writer gushes -- but a commercial failure. But all three struggle to advance their art, with Gibbs diagnosing that they're a:
     – Whole Türschluss generation, kind of paralysis of will sets in and you're ...
       Unable to finish your sentences, among other things, apparently ...... The Türschluss syndrome -- "beginning to see the doors closing, all sad words of tongue and pen the same God damned doors" -- taken from the German Torschlusspanik, a fear of time running out and missing the boat, as it were. So also there's the saddest summing up of one of the characters, the:
     – Friend who apparently just lost his last refuge from reality, sounds like it's too late for him to be the things he never wanted to be either, he's ...
       Yet it's not just the artists who suffer from this 'Türschluss syndrome': there's a breathless sense of urgency to almost everything in J R, with everyone almost always in a terrible rush (save perhaps the spinster Bast-aunts, who live very much in their own world: tellingly, they even want to get rid of their telephone-line). It's a reflection of the times and culture generally -- and nowhere more so than in the frenzied activity of high finance. Edward Bast stands out here because even as he is (mostly inadvertently) part of it, he effectively goes against the flow -- not so much intentionally as because he can't help it. He does cover for J R at some points -- i.e. he plays the part assigned him --, but neither heart nor conviction are behind it. He's not entirely naïve either -- indeed, he warns J R:
     – No now stop, just stop for a minute ! This whole thing has to stop somewhere don't you understand that ?
       The child of course doesn't; all he can see and embrace is this continuous motion, always wheeling and dealing, his snowballing success validating his approach.
       One things J R does emphasize is playing by the rules: he insists that the letter of the law be followed: "if there's one thing I said it's to keep this here whole thing exactly legal". J R understands that: "why should we want to do something illegal if some law lets us do it anyway". The professionals may complain that the: "damned amateurs don't know the rules come in and ruin the whole damn game for everybody" but in fact J R does know the rules and simply takes them to their natural extremes -- "I didn't invent it I mean this is what you do !" -- taking advantage of the system and doing what the system allows for. Gaddis' obvious point: it's the system that's the problem.
       As J R points out:
I mean why should somebody go steal and break the law to get all they can when there's always some law where you can be legal and get it all anyway ! So I mean I do what you're supposed to and everybody gets ...
       Still, the empire does have its weak spots, and eventually a deputy US marshal shows up with a subpoena, as the SEC has some questions. If not exactly prepared for that, J R at least also understands that he's protected himself (or rather, the rules of the game have) -- from the worst, even if he confuses the terminology a bit:
I mean that's the thing of this here limited reliability you know ? See where these new directors get pissed off at me for this here erotic management only I'm like acting for the corporation doing all this stuff for these here stockholders with this limited reliability it's like the corporation did it itself which you can't go put a corporation in jail, I mean it would be like sticking this bunch of papers in jail see so ...
       J R and Edward are outsiders, and the (corporate) system eventually spits them out as such, but the beast survives.
       The flow of characters and action constantly intersects around J R's scheme(s), but there's much more to the novel than that. It is an incredibly busy novel -- and unflagging. Over its more than seven hundred pages, it can be exhausting.
       At one point Gibbs explains about the (Gaddisesque) book that he is working on:
     – You're writing a book ? she turned sharply, caught her glasses against his dangling hand.
     – Yes, but it's still, it's not finished I'm ...
     – A novel ?
     – Not a, no no it's more of a book about order and disorder more of a sort of a, sort of a social history of mechanization and the arts, the destructive element ...
     – It sounds a little difficult, is it ?
     – Difficult as I can make it.
       Readers may suspect Gaddis had much the same in mind with J R. (He certainly didn't follow J R's own advice: "Yes, simplify Mister Bast. Simplify".) The babble of voices in this polyphonic novel is not so much confusing (though it can often be that, too) as relentlessly propulsive: battering the reader, the narrative never lets up.
       Enormous in almost every respect -- certainly in range and ambition -- J R is also unwieldy, arguably simply too much (of everything). But Gaddis' sharp writing and dialogue, and especially the humor, are among the qualities that again make it more approachable (and enjoyable). A broad, harsh portrait of capitalist America fifty years ago, it has also held up exceptionally well -- also making Gaddis' point about how deep-rooted the system is, how very much America remains defined by it.
       This is not easy reading, and one suspects many readers would find it quite tiresome, but J R is a remarkable work and offers a great deal to those willing to go for the bumpy, long, busy, and loud ride.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 April 2021

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J R: Reviews: William Gaddis: Other books by William Gaddis under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       American author William Gaddis (1922-1998) won two National Book Awards (for J.R. and A Frolic of His Own) and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.

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© 2021 the complete review

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