As promised I have put together a summary of the Comnes article I noted earlier entitled "A Patchwork of Conceits: Perspectives and Perception in Carpenter's Gothic" (Critique, Fall 1988, Vol. 30 Issue 1, p 13, 14 p). If you haven't read the novel yet, this may deter you! I do have one person who has shown some interest in sharing my current obsession with Gaddis. . .
Comnes notes that Gaddis’s reader must abandon the usual external vantage point and engage in an active meaning-making process to manage the narrative. Meaning and coherence are not trademarks of the text, but are imposed upon the text by the active imagination of the reader.
According to Comnes, Gaddis’s first two novels, The Recognitions and JR, offer the dedicated reader the hope of making meaning. “If the reader is willing to confront these unstable narratives, he can re-stitch a raveled plot, uncover an oblique allusion—in short, learn to recover meaning in life by first learning how to recover it in fiction” (16). An idea I will return to later.
Carpenter’s Gothic, titled after the house where it takes place built in that particular architectural style, does not offer such hope. McCandless describes carpenter’s gothic as “a patchwork of conceits, borrowings, deceptions the insides a hodgepodge of good intentions like one last ridiculous effort at something worth doing” (227 – 228). Even after the reader patches together the narrative the overall message appears to be: greed and corruption cannot be overcome and the effort to try and do something worthwhile in our modern world might be plain ridiculous. An elderly neighbor appears in the book raking his leaves, sometimes only a few leaves at a time, and his appearance seems to embody the futility of human efforts.
Comnes argues that the novel convinces the reader through our patchwork reading that the world itself is indeterminate. We do not merely fail to understand our reality; rather we may be fundamentally handicapped by our inability to perceive reality. We pat ourselves on the back for granting that every issue has two sides, but meanwhile miss the point that the two sides are really a whole. (For more on this, see "Buddhist Duality in William Gaddis's Carpenter Gothic" by Robert E. Kohn.)
Carpenter’ Gothic chastises humanity for its stupidity and cultivation of ignorance, especially in the realm of revealed truth and religion. Gaddis also debunks faith in reason by having McCandless sell out in the end. Thus we are left groveling it appears. Yet Comnes argues that Gaddis destroys faith and reason in order to offer an alternative to revealed truth and cynical humanism. The alternative is that meaning is found not in faith or reason, but in the very act of perception.
Gaddis’s use of language forces the reader to “see reality, to comprehend it by taking it in bits and pieces.” The reader learns to make meaning within the text and is then enabled to recover meaning in the world by using the same methods of active attention. “For Gaddis. . .what is required for morality and value is not a dialogue between man and ideology, but between eye and physical event” (24).
Thus Comnes concludes that Gaddis has given the reader the ability to make meaning in a world that is fundamentally indeterminate and contingent. Value, meaning, and purpose are not given. Rather they are made through human effort to accurately see reality and then choose how to act within the given parameters, however imperfect and chaotic they may appear. So there is no hope that our world will ever make sense, but once we are able to truly see this, there is a way to live that is worthwhile.
I also noted an article by Jonathan Franzen called "Mr. Difficult" as helpful in my reading of Gaddis. This may seem strange due to the fact Franzen calls Gaddis "Mr Difficult" by no means to compliment his literary achievement. Franzen sees Gaddis as an example of what is wrong with literature: pretentious difficulty for the sake of the author's status, never mind the poor audience who simple can't follow such craft. Even though Franzen condemns Gaddis' work, I found the article useful as in insight into the literary cantankouseness out there as well as the state of the novel today. In short, read it.