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