J R is a novel by
William Gaddis published by
Alfred A. Knopf
Alfred A. Knopf in
It was Gaddis's second novel, published twenty years after his first
The Recognitions and it won the annual U.S. National Book Award
for Fiction .
* 1 Plot synopsis
* 2 Literary analysis
* 3 Miscellany
* 4 See also
* 5 References
* 6 External links
J R tells the story of the eponymous
J R Vansant, an 11-year-old
schoolboy who obscures his identity through payphone calls and postal
money orders in order to parlay penny stock holdings into a fortune on
paper. The novel broadly satirizes what Gaddis called "the American
dream turned inside out". One critic called it "the greatest
satirical novel in American literature." Novelist Louis Auchincloss
thought it "worthy of Swift ."
The writing style of
J R is intended to mimic Gaddis' view of
contemporary society: "a chaos of disconnections, a blizzard of noise"
The novel is told almost entirely in dialogue , and there is
sometimes little indication (other than conversational context) of
which character is speaking. (Gaddis later said he did this in order
to make the reader a collaborator in the process of creating the
characters. ) There are also no chapters, with transitions between
scenes occurring by way of shifts in focalization : for example, a
character who is in a meeting may leave the meeting, get in his car,
and drive off, passing, as he does so, another character, who becomes
the subject of the next scene without any break in the continuity of
the narration (though the novel is written in a discontinuous or
fragmentary tone). The novel is thus broken only into French scenes
(or perhaps "French chapters"). Gaddis later advised the reader not to
put too much effort into figuring out each word but to read the novel
at a normal talking speed; "it was the flow that I wanted," he said,
"for the readers to read and be swept along -- to participate. And
enjoy it. And occasionally chuckle, laugh along the way."
This chaotic writing style may, some critics argue, reflect Gaddis'
preoccupation with entropy and with the 20th century's rejection of
Newtonian physics , the narrative style thus reflecting a quantum and
Heisenbergian world of "waste, flux and chaos." In this world, the
characters who devise complex systems to acquire as much material
wealth as possible are founding their lives on illusion because matter
is impermanent and because, as Gaddis himself wrote in an essay, "the
more complex the message, the greater the chance for error. Entropy
rears as a central preoccupation of our time." In J R, entropy
manifests itself as "a malign and centrifugal force of cosmic
disruption at work scattering everything in heads, homes and work"
One of the epicenters of entropy is a seedy, run-down tenement
apartment on East
96th Street (Manhattan)
96th Street (Manhattan) . The apartment is stacked
floor to ceiling with useless goods
J R has acquired at bargain
prices; a blaring radio, blocked by those boxes, cannot be turned off;
the faucets, always running, threaten to flood the apartment (and
indeed later drown a cat); characters flit in and out on useless
errands; and the clock runs backwards. One critic compares the
craziness of this locale to a
Marx Brothers film and finds it
superior. Gaddis lived in a tenement on E. 96 St. and probably based
the fictional apartment in part on his unpleasant experiences there.
Gaddis' real-life experiences figure in other locales as well. Much
of the novel takes place in a desolate, nightmarish version of
Massapequa, New York
Massapequa, New York and features a ludicrously dysfunctional school
board. Gaddis, who in real life spent many years in Massapequa and had
much of his property seized (using eminent domain ) by the school
board there, said, half in jest, that he "wrote
J R in revenge against
Massapequa." One of the most memorable characters in the novel is
fired by that school board for independent thinking. He is Mr Bast, J
R's music teacher. Bast is a young composer employed casually by the
school. Bast is drawn into assisting
J R and becomes a critical link
for the development of the business empire
J R assembles. When Bast
starts at the school his ambition is to write an opera. As the novel
develops he is increasingly burdened by the business accumulations J R
makes and his musical ambitions are sidelined. Bast's ambitions slide
from opera to symphony, then to sonata and by the end of the novel he
aspires to compose a suite. The responsibilities that come from being
involved with the childish shenanigans of corporate takeovers and
asset stripping has had a corrosive effect on Bast's capacity to
create art. Indeed, the corrosive effect of today's messy, noisy
society on everyone's capacity to create and appreciate art is a major
theme of this novel—and, arguably, of all of Gaddis' novels.
(Gaddis later qualified this by stating that when Bast and his
fellow-artists Eigen and Gibbs abandon their dreams, this is due in
part to their own self-destructive nature; and when, in the last
scenes, Bast begins work on a humble cello piece, it represents a
"real note of hope". )
Gaddis received funding toward completion of the novel from the
Rockefeller Foundation and the
National Endowment for the Arts
National Endowment for the Arts .
Excerpts were originally published in The Dutton Review, Antaeus , and
In 1987, Gaddis wrote a very short (one page as it appeared in the
New York Times) spoof, a sequel to J R, in which
J R has become an
official at the
Office of Management and Budget .
* ^ "National Book Awards – 1976".
National Book Foundation .
(With essay by Chad Post from the Awards 60-year anniversary blog.)
* ^ Gaddis interview reprinted in Paris Review Interviews II
* ^ S. Moore, William Gaddis, p.111
* ^ "Recognizing Gaddis".
The New York Times
The New York Times Magazine. 15 November
* ^ George Stade, New York Times Book Review review of J R,
* ^ Paris Review 1987 interview
* ^ Gaddis interview, op. cit.
* ^ Strehle, Fiction in the Quantum Universe, p.97
* ^ Gaddis, The Rush for Second Place, p. 50
* ^ Stade, op. cit.
* ^ Stade, op.cit.
* ^ 1/2/94 New York Magazine profile
* ^ New York Magazine profile, op. cit.
* ^ J. Lingan,William Gaddis: The Last Protestant
* ^ Gaddis 1987 interview, reprinted in The Paris Review
Interviews, vol. 2
* ^ "Gaddis Annotations – Nonfiction – JR Goes to Washington".