Early in Carpenter's Gothic, the third of William Gaddis's five novels, Paul Booth says to his wife, Liz, "trying to put things together, build something like your father did we both know that's what it's about" (p. 18). For Paul, "trying to put things together" means somehow procuring money from an outlandish and absurdly complicated scheme involving everything from a thoroughly corrupt evangelist to mineral rights in Africa. "Trying to put things together" is also a fair description of Gaddis's method of composition and the task he presents to readers. Carpenter's Gothic consists primarily of the unattributed speech of its characters, who are frequently interrupted not only by one another, but also by the background noise of daily life—television, radio, ringing telephones, and the printed word that constantly inundates them in the form of junk mail, newspapers, magazines, and books. The effect is one of unfiltered sound; only occasionally does the third-person narrative voice step in to situate readers in time and place. Interpretation becomes not only a matter of choosing among possible meanings; readers must first sift through what often seems a random onslaught of words.
Carpenter's Gothic proceeds as a series of revelations, which come ever more quickly as the conclusion approaches. But one of the novel's many ironies is that however much of the truth both readers and characters know, there seems to be just as much more that remains elusive. For example, the circumstances of Liz's fate illustrate the multiple layers of truth in the novel. Liz is also a kind of pivot, although an unstable one, on which much of the plot turns. A cloud of uncertainty envelops her at the end of the novel. Other characters seem to have reached incorrect conclusions, yet it is still difficult to say precisely what happens to her. At one point, McCandless, the owner of the house, observes, "There's a very fine line between the truth and what really happens" (p. 130). Given the oblique manner in which the narrator renders events, and the unreliability of the characters' statements, the novel forces readers to consider whether it is possible to ever know what really happens, and whether truth is only another word for consensus.
But the convoluted plot of the novel may be little more than a distraction for readers, just as it is, in a sense, for Liz. Paul is consumed by his role as a media consultant in Reverend Ude's scheme, which Gaddis uses to savage the ambitions and values at the heart of American economic, social, political, and religious life. As Paul says while relating the latest developments in the scheme to Liz, "pray for America pray for Brother Ude all the same God damn thing" (p. 111). If Paul, to some degree, is a specific embodiment of the moral and spiritual bankruptcy on display in the public life depicted in the novel, Liz's fate might suggest the toll this general condition exacts on private life. From the first scene between Liz and Paul, her inability to arrest Paul's incessant monologues detailing the progress of his work leaves her increasingly desperate and isolated. She only manages to throw him off stride by interjecting coarse language when she tells him about a visit to the doctor in support of a specious lawsuit Paul has filed. When Paul remarks on this, Liz says, "I wanted to see if you heard me" (p. 72).
Not only does Paul never hear her, but he also repeatedly chastises Liz for not listening to him. McCandless, perhaps the novel's most perplexing character, arrives to fill the void created by Paul's complete self-absorption. Sometimes he seems to be a parody of the seductive, mysterious stranger with a murky past. But he nevertheless engages Liz's mind and imagination. It becomes difficult to decide whether McCandless is a viable but fleeting alternative to the world Paul imposes on Liz or a sinister figure who preys on a woman feeling trapped. Mechanically assuming the role of the distant landlord on the unexpected appearance of Liz's brother Billy, McCandless says to Liz, "afraid I disturbed you Mrs. Booth" (p. 196). The phrase continues to echo in her head after McCandless leaves, the verb taking on a more ominous tone than McCandless might have intended.
On the telephone with Paul near the end of the novel, Liz seems to experience one last moment of hope: "if we can get a fresh start Paul if we could go away" (p. 232). Is she falling back on the longstanding American ideal of erasing one's history at any moment, no possibilities ever foreclosed? If Liz's life with Paul suggests the destructive force of the American dream, what are we to make of the fact that the novel concludes with Paul apparently making good on its promise, but with Edie, his wife's cherished friend? In defending to her brother Paul's inability to finish any project he starts, Liz says, "as long as something's unfinished you feel alive" (p. 89). Gaddis seems to share with Liz a bit of this sentiment. So intricately orchestrated, his fiction still leaves much for readers to put together.
extremely useful as I work through CG:
Buddhist Duality in William Gaddis's Carptenter's Gothic
by Robert E. Kohn, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, Summer 2004, Vol. 45 Issue 4, p 421, 12p
A Patchwork of Conceits: Perspectives and Perception in Carpenter's Gothic
by Gregory Comnes, Critique, Fall 1988, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p 13, 14 p
by Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker, Sept. 30, 2002