Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Gaddis: Carpenter's Gothic

“What writing is all about is what happens on the page between the reader and the page . . . What I want is a collaboration, really, with the reader on the page where the reader is also making an effort, is putting something of himself into it in the way of understanding, in the way of helping to construct the fiction that I am giving him.”
William Gaddis, Albany, April 4, 1990

I determined to read William Gaddis’s Carpenter's Gothicafter reading Ben Marcus’s “Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It” published October, 2005 in Harper’s Magazine. L. had pointed out the article over brunch at the Trident bookstore. The title was catchy and soon I was knee-deep in a literary battle of the minds: Marcus v. Franzen. The debate was new to me. I was a student of the Great Books and somehow missed out on battles of authors struggling to understand the nature of literature as art or artifice or both, or whatever.

Marcus spoke out in his article about the necessity of creating space for writers to work as artists and damn the readership. In other words, he argued that there is no right way to create literature. The problem is, of course, that there is one right way to get published in today’s fast-paced world where writers have to compete with video games and reality TV—write easy-to-read realistic narrative. Marcus says that if writers are reduced to work within a formula that sells, then literature is dead. Great painters—modernists at least—were not expected to please their audience. They innovated.
So too should writers be free to innovate, play with language, expect their readers to use their brain as a muscle. Marcus helpfully points out that the Wernicke's area--the "tufted bundle of flesh" tucked into left temporal lobe of the brain--is responsible for language comprehension. That's the part of the brain that we should grow, quite literally, when we exercise it with a variety textual gymnastics.

How do you feel about James Joyce’s Ulysses?

If you have never read it or hate it, then that proves that it is pretentious drivel that destroys literature by turning off readers who can not decipher the nonsense. On the other hand, if you see it as art—and good art at that—then Marcus says you are on the right track. Allow innovation. Expect readers to work.

Personally I cracked open Ulysses in a tiny cabin in the lush mountains of Transylvania. We had an outhouse. You had to pump water to brush your teeth. L. was writing his book; I was reading Ulysses. No TV or radio. Long mountain walks. (This is pre-ipod.). I had no distractions from the text. I also had no help with it either. I worked at it. I loved it. It drove me mad.

I admit, here today, I never read the last 100 pages. I just couldn’t do it.

Later I read the biography of Nora Bloom, Nora: The Real Life of Molly Bloom, which tells the life of Joyce's wife. I was immersed in it and consequently appreciated Joyce and his times in a clearer light. But still, I didn’t finish it (though I did read Portrait of an Artist with relish and a furrowed brow). I started Ulysses because it was touted as THE classic book to have under your literary belt. I admired it, but I did not finish it. Yet.

Yet, sucker that I am for claims to Great Book-ness, I eventually cleared my reader’s desk for Gaddis’ third novel, which is a measly 262 pages after his earlier tomes. I was surprised after the first several pages to find it strangely unstrange to me. It uses unmediated dialogue, yes. But "experimental"? Perhaps my reading of Jose Saramago’s Blindness strengthened me to face this reading task?

Frankly, my reader’s muscle was more exhausted by Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March. Gaddis’s style in this novel—which is dialogue and more dialogue—read to me almost like pure made for TV drama stagecraft, as if it bypassed my reader’s muscle altogether and hit home—curled up on the living room floor in front of the pulsing TV with canned laughter and all. This, I suppose, is the genius of his work. It allows the reader to use language to hear voices and see his house, seemingly without the author's mediation. It will take more work on my part as a reader to step outside of his house, and see what he is doing with the novel. This will take a lot of interpretive muscle.

Today I will post my initial comments and some quotes. I have already gathered various outside sources to help me gain a better perspective on Gaddis’s other novels and Carpenter’s Gothic in particular. I will post again after I have digested both the novel and the commentaries. If anyone has read CG, or other works by Gaddis, please share your comments with me!

Memorable Passages:

(Note: the dashes and elipses within each quotation are original to the work and do not indicate missing material)

“as long as something’s unfinished you feel alive it’s as though, I mean maybe it’s just being afraid nothing will happen. . .” (89)
“You don’t leave the money to the kids you leave the kids to the money, two or three generations everybody’s crazy.” (98)
“Now Christianity’s an American religion, that’s what he’s talking about isn’t?” (104)
“—Keep an open mind your brains will fall out” (106)
“—No, there’s a meanness. . .
—No no no, no it’s plain stupidity Mrs. Booth. There’s much more stupidity than there is malice in the world. . . “ (118)

“—Or because we didn’t. No. . .his legs fallen wider for her fingertips twisting in a coil of hair —no, they all want to be writers. They think if something happened to them that it’s interesting because it happened to them, hearing about all the money that gets made writing anything cheap, anything sentimental and vulgar whether it’s a book or a song and they can’t wait to sell out.
—Oh. Do you think that? Her hand had come up now to the fork of his leg, opened, as though to weigh what it found there, —because I mean I don’t think so, I don’t think they sell out she said, her voice weighing the idea as though for the first time, —I mean these poor people writing all these bad books and these awful songs, and singing them? I think they’re doing the best they can. . . her hand closing there gently. –That’s what makes it so sad.
—Yes. . . he shifted almost stealthily, trying to rid himself of those trousers –you’re right aren’t you.
—And then when it doesn’t work. . . her grasp closed tighter on the sudden surge, —when they try and it doesn’t work. . .
—Yes that’s the, when they, that’s worse yes. . . his thumb tugging down at a beltloop with the haste he’d drawn the trouserleg on —that’s the, isn’t it that’s the worst yes, failing at something that wasn’t worth doing in the first place that’s the. . .(158 – 159)
“—every time I’d look up, see him out there every time I looked up pretending he’s doing something worth doing look at him, ten dead leaves in his damned dustpan he’s still trying to prove he was put here for some purpose?” (167)
“I mean when you think that those grasshoppers probably all just know the same thing but I mean with all these people, with all these millions and millions of people everyplace that no one knows what anyone else knows?” (168)
“We’ve got the questions and they’ve got the answers” (184)
“The greatest source of anger is fear, the greatest source of hatred is anger and the greatest source of all of it is this mindless revealed religion anywhere you look, Sikhs killing Hindus, Hindus killing Moslems, Druse killing Maronites, Jews killing Arabs, Arabs killing Christians and Christians killing each other maybe that’s they one hope we’ve got.” (185 – 186)
“nice line between the truth and what really happens” (191)
“That’s not what I, I mean it’s like you’ve got this real secret self hidden someplace you don’t want anybody to get near it, you don’t even want them to know about it like you’re afraid if some superior person shows up he’ll wipe you out so you protect it by these inferior types they’re the only ones you’ll let near you because they don’t even know it’s there.” (194)
“—I’ll tell you why yes, because why people lie is, because when people stop lying you know they’ve stopped caring.” (226)
McCandless describing the house:
“—a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions, the inside’s a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing even on this small scale, because it’s stood there, hasn’t it, foolish inventions and all it’s stood here for ninety years. . .” (227 – 228)
“—Have you ever seen the sunrise here? and as though she’d answered she hadn’t, as though she’d answered at all —especially in winter. You’ll see it in winter, it’s moved south where the river’s its widest and it comes up so fast, it’s as if it just wanted to prove the day, get it established so it can loiter through the rest of it, spend the first damned half of your life complicating things in that eagerness to take on everything and straighten all of it out and the second half cleaning up the mess you’ve made of the first, that’s what they won’t understand. Finally realize you can’t leave things better than you found them the best you can do is try not to leave them any worse but they won’t forgive you” (230)
“All the discipline, obedience all the missionary zeal put a gun or a Bible in hands like that and they’re just as deadly” (235)
"—All your gentle, your hands on my breasts on my throat everywhere, all of you filling me till there was nothing else till I was, till I wasn't I didn't exist but I was all that existed just, raised up exalted yes, exalted yes that was the rapture and that sweet gentle, and your hands, your wise hands, meeting the Lord in the clouds all these sad stupid, these poor sad studid people if that's the best they can do? their dumb sentimental hopes you despise like their books and their music and they think is the rapture if that's the best they can do? hanging that gold star in the window if, to prove that he didn't die for nothing? Because I, because I'll never be called Bibbs again. . . He stood there holding the empty cup as though looking for a place to set it down, for some refuge: shewas looking straight at him, and then —I think I loved you when I knew I’d never see you again, she said, looking at him.” (245)

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